Proximity to the U.S. Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe makes the chain of Caribbean islands that border the Atlantic Ocean the closest, and therefore the most popular, to visit.
However, there are several islands, both big and small, ripe for a port call in the Western Caribbean. It’s an ideal region to explore by sea whether simply cruising in the area or passing through to the Panama Canal en route to the Pacific Ocean.
Here are 7 Favorite Islands to Visit in the Western Caribbean:
1. Navy Island, Jamaica.
It might look small, but it’s mighty in movie star fame. This 64-acre island located off Port Antonio was once owned by actor Errol Flynn, whose star rose during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rumor says Flynn won the island during a rum-soaked card game. The actor used Navy Island as his private hedonistic hideout for elaborate parties with celebrity guests. Today, flora and fauna have taken over, but there are still ruins from the heydays. Swim or snorkel over from the 32-slip Errol Flynn Marina. The small beaches on the northside are usually deserted. www.visitjamaica.com
2. Little Cayman, Cayman Islands.
Sixty miles away from its big sibling, Great Cayman, there’s no marina on this 10-mile-long by 1-mile-wide island. Anchoring is a no-no, but there are government-owned mooring balls free to use located north and south off the western island of the island. Nature, rather than soup-to-nuts of amenities, rules here. Visit the quaint Little Cayman Museum, in Blossom Village, to learn the history, nautically tied culture, and flora and fauna of the island. The Bloody Bay Marina Park is the place to go for snorkeling, while scuba divers will enjoy the spectacular coral-crusted vertical Bloody Bay Wall. There are a handful of dive shops that rent equipment. www.visitcaymanislands.com
3. Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
The Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico meet at this 1.6-square-mile island located 8 miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Tourism development over the last three decades has turned this sleepy settlement into a full-service spot to stay, dine and shop, albeit it is less touristy than Cancun across on the mainland. Sportfishing is big here, especially sailfish season from late December through May, with several tournaments. Charter boats are available. For sailors, the biannual Regata al Sol will depart from the Pensacola Yacht Club, in Florida, to Isla Mujeres in May 2024. visitmexico.com
4. Placencia Caye, Belize.
Palm-lined beaches, with a popular resort community, is a good way to describe this town at the southern tip of the Placencia Peninsula. A stone’s throw across the bay is the private island, Placencia Caye. It’s a mostly quiet nature-filled spot except for the small three-star hotel to the north. To the south end of the Caye is the Placencia Yacht Club. It’s open to the public. There’s a small marina here, with a nice outdoor area with hammocks and picnic tables, and a bar and restaurant. The latter serves an eclectic mix of snack foods like chips and salsa and chicken wings, along with entrees such as classic and carbonara spaghetti. https://www.placencia.com, www.placencia-yacht-club.com
5. Roatan, Honduras.
This largest of the country’s Bay Islands is a long (48 miles) skinny (5 miles at its widest) stretch of land off the mainland’s northern coast. There’s a half-dozen-plus marinas. Onshore, check out Mayan ruins that date back to 1000 BC, explore the island’s mangrove tunnels by guided wood dory, and sample baleadas, a meat, beans, and cheese-filled thick tortilla, at local restaurants. Offshore, the Roatan Barrier Reef is part of the second-largest barrier reef in the world. It’s filled with fish, coral, and critters like dolphins, sea turtles, and manatees, perfect to see by snorkeling or scuba diving. roatantourismbureau.com
6. Little Corn Island, Nicaragua.
Situated 50 miles offshore, this 1.5-square-mile island is a find although it’s three times smaller than its sibling Big Corn Island some 30 minutes away by boat. The must-do’s here are beaching it, snorkeling the coral reefs, inshore and offshore sportfishing, and eating in the quaint local restaurants. Seafood like lobster, burgers, and barbeque, as well as tacos, are on nearly every menu. Look out for local specialties like Rondon, a fish-based stew thick with root vegetables, and Pan de Coco or coconut bread. There are a couple of bungalow-style hotels for those who’d like to stay ashore. littlecornisland.net
7. Isla Bastimentos, Panama.
One of the largest islands off the country’s Caribbean coast, it’s the mix of beach, reef, and jungle that makes this 24-square-mile-isle a trifecta to visit. Red Frog Beach is one of the prettiest, named for the namesake red frogs that live in the adjacent forest. IGY’s Red Frog Marina is nearby, which makes it easy to visit the island. Polo Beach, to the north, is rimmed by a coral reef where the water is usually calm and perfect for snorkeling. Much of the island is designated as part of the Bastimentos Island National Park, where one of the cutest residents are three-toed sloths. www.tourismpanama.com