The Caribbean is most people's idea of tropical holiday heaven – powder-fine beaches, swaying coconut palms and gently lapping turquoise waters with rum cocktails on tap. But there are thousands of islands in this little corner of the world, each with their own individual characters and merits.
And while most satisfy the desert island fantasy in one form or another, there's much more to enjoy than exotic beaches. If you're wondering which island will match your personal picture of paradise, here's the lowdown on the region's gems.
Best Caribbean island for…
Culture and heritage – Cuba
Cuba's sultry capital Havana has become something of travel icon for its time-worn skyline and one-off cultural mix. There's never been a more pressing time to visit as it prepares for the influx of American tourists for the first time in more than half a century. Its stuck-in-time streets and UNESCO-listed old quarter, classic cars and salsa, Cuban cocktails and cigars make for a unique travel experience, and its history is visible at every turn.
As well as delving into Spanish colonial history, tourists can follow the Cuban revolutionary trail from the Che and Fidel bedecked buildings of Havana's Revolutionary Square to the war memorials of Santa Clara. Visitors eager to sample the country's legendary music scene can find its heart in the dance halls of Santiago de Cuba, though famous acts like Buena Vista Social Club and Los Van Van do regular shows in Havana.
Beaches – Antigua and Barbuda
Pink sand, platinum sand, even black sand if you're willing to look hard enough: the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda has shores indented by paradise beach after paradise beach. In fact, 365 beaches – one for every day of the year – has become something of a tagline for the islands. If you happen to love beaches the islands' are bigger, better and more varied than virtually any other major Caribbean island.
Favourites include Half Moon Bay, Darkwood beach and Rendezvous Bay where you can enjoy the creamy fine sand and opalescent water just as nature intended. Although Antigua is a popular tourist destination, its coastline is mercifully undeveloped so you can easily seek out an unspoilt beach. Go off-grid on Antigua's sister isle of Barbuda and pad along pristine pink sands with nothing but nature for company.
Nature – Dominica or St Lucia
Known as "the nature isle", Dominica's deep valleys and sloping hills are shrouded in virgin forest rushing with freshwater, that offers a haven for exotic birds, flowers and butterflies. For hikers in search of sublime views and nature lovers in general, this is the unspoilt tropics in microcosm where you can cool off in the azure ocean at the end of a long wild trek. The island opened the Caribbean's first long-distance walking route – the Waitukubuli Trail – in 2011.
A little farther north, verdant St Lucia is famed for its natural attractions that include its world heritage-listed twin volcanic peaks – the Pitons – and a "drive-through" volcano complete with bubbling sulphurous cauldrons. Its geological marvels and tropical rainforested interior make it one of the Caribbean's most picturesque lands where you can follow nature trails into the forest or soar across the canopy on high wires.
Tres chic – St Barts
The former French Caribbean isle has all the style and taste of Paris in the exotic surrounds of the Caribbean – what's not to like? Well it might not be ideal if yachties and designer shops aren't your thing, and it's kind of pricey. However, with gourmet cuisine, chic interiors and manicured platinum beaches it's heaven for Francophiles and high flyers.
Fun for everyone – Barbados
The atmosphere is warm both literally and figuratively in rum and fun-filled Barbados. For families and travelling friends in particular the island offers lazy days and lively nights, lots of easy-to-arrange activities and a party atmosphere. Beyond the countless white sand beaches, you can take a catamaran trip to feed the turtles, board a submarine for an underwater voyage or explore the island's coral heart at Harrison's Cave.
Spend your nights liming, dancing and drinking with locals – at the renowned Friday night fish fry at Oistins village in the south or at upbeat Harbour Lights in Bridgetown. Though Barbados is thoroughly commercialised, it's also possible to get off the beaten track on a free National Trust guided hike or a foray to the eastern surfer town of Bathsheba, for instance.
Music and roots – Jamaica
The home of Bob Marley is a vital Caribbean spot especially if you like reggae and spicy food. The relaxed attitude and local "riddims" are contagious, making it an ideal island to de-stress. But the land of "All Right" is also the "land of wood and water" with lush mountains, inland waterfalls and waterways. It's definitely worth looking beyond the laid-back beach bars to the Maroon villages and coffee plantations of the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains – a world heritage site famous for its Blue Mountain Coffee.
Head into Kingston for a heavy dose of roots and a stop at the Bob Marley Museum. Elsewhere you can discover the island's remarkable natural beauty, rafting along sleepy tree-lined waterways or exploring seven levels of cascades and springs at YS Falls.
Soul food – Nevis
Exotic fruit and veg flourish in Nevis' rich soils, and the island has built a reputation for excellent local cuisine. Unfussy authentic fare utilizing local ingredients such as coconut, mango, lobster and plantain is served from road-side cafes and seafront shacks, often requiring you to get your paws dirty.
Travelling across the island you'll discover rum shacks aplenty, gourmet hot pepper sauces and home-made chutneys. Experimental gourmands can tuck into everything from curried bush meat to local goat water soup, but you can't beat a plate of fried fish, conch fritters and johnny cake dumplings to refuel at midday.
Luxury fly and flop – Gran Cayman
If a personal butler and a luxury suite with endless blue-and-white vistas sounds like your idea of the perfect Caribbean getaway then a trip to the largest of the Cayman Islands will not disappoint. Exclusive resorts and beach clubs back onto the dazzling sands of Seven Mile beach where the well-heeled are served cocktails to their sunloungers, and the biggest decision is whether or not to take a dip in the infinity pool or the calm crystalline sea.
Mother of carnivals – Trinidad
To get lost in the biggest street party on earth, head to Trinidad around its annual carnival to see mind-blowing costume parades, steel pan band battles and masquerade competitions. Buy a band costume and be swept up in the party atmosphere. Join the body painting and mud-slinging in the streets at the pre-dawn J'ouvert and dance until sundown to the local sounds of soca and calypso.
Bragging rights – Haiti
Intrepid types who like a challenge and prefer the road less travelled should take their tourist dollar to Haiti. The beleaguered nation possesses natural beauty and fascinating hybrid culture in spades. African influences have held on here like nowhere else in the Caribbean, perhaps partly because Hispaniola (the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic) was the first Caribbean isle to kick out the colonial sugar barons and embrace self-determination.
Below the radar – Grenada
A favourite Caribbean island of those in-the-know, lush green Grenada has managed to slip below the radar thus far. It's perfect for travellers who crave untrammelled places where you can head away from civilization and into nature. Nutmeg cultivation led to it being named the spice isle, but it is also clad in wild waterfall-haunted forests, crisscrossed with rivers and streams, long wide sandy beaches and thriving offshore reefs offering world-class diving and an underwater sculpture park. Though there aren't any direct flights from the UK, the island is just a short hop from nearby St Lucia.
Find your personal paradise in the Caribbean
So, whether you're looking for local culinary wizardry, an achingly chic retreat, world-class diving, wild micro-adventures, classic Caribbean rhythms or a cultural kick – there's an island in the Caribbean that's ideal for you.