The West Indies, also known as the Caribbean, has long been a popular travel destination and one of the most desired places to visit in the world because of its proximity to the U.S. mainland, relaxed atmosphere and sunny tropical beaches. But deciding where to travel within the West Indies can be a daunting task – there are so many factors to consider. We have put together a collection of information about the most popular and intriguing destinations in this district along with remarks from regular West Indies travelers.
Where Are the West Indies?
These tropical islands, located in the Americas, separate the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The West Indies begin right below the tip of Florida and stretch south to just north of Venezuela. Because of the barrier that is formed, the beaches and ocean are very calm and are considered some of the most beautiful in the world. However, each division of the West Indies – the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas – has its own distinct culture and feel.
A Bit of West Indies History
According to contributor Dr. Brett Ferdinand, “the West Indies received their name when Christopher Columbus was in search of the Indies (meaning all of south and east Asia). Before finding the Indies, he stumbled upon a portion of the Bahamas (many historians believe) and deemed it the Indies by mistake. After realizing the error, Spain renamed the area the West Indies to avoid confusion.”
“One reason that discussions about the West Indies can become confusing is that they incorporate over 7,000 islands,” says Dr. Ferdinand. “These 7,000 islands are then divided into three categories – the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas – and then each island has its own name.” As if this is not confusing enough, you may have heard of the British West Indies, the Danish West Indies, or the French West Indies. These names refer to the fact that these European nations at one time controlled large portions of the area. The nations’ control often changed from island to island. A few are still run by European countries; however, most are now independently governed.
There are several options available for travel to the West Indies. Popular options include West Indies cruises, resorts, and private travel. A variety of airlines fly to the Caribbean area, usually landing on larger islands that have airports. Additionally, you can charter smaller airplanes to take groups of 6-20 people.
West Indies visitor Doug Melvin of Boise Idaho reminds new travelers to “always travel with your passport to the West Indies, and be sure to check with the specific country you are visiting for rules and regulations about customs and passports.”
During the planning process of your vacation, you can choose to either stay at a West Indies resort, in a private rental, or a hotel. Generally resorts offer many amenities including spas, restaurants, and nightlife and are located in the more popular tourist areas. You can find hotels on most islands, which gives you more options if you want to stay in several different locations or wish to stay on a more secluded island. Another popular option is to find a house or cottage available for weekly rentals. Darrin Gleeman enjoys this option: “When I stay with my family in the Bahamas, we love to rent a house on one of the smaller islands. This allows my family to interact with natives and with other vacationers. I like to get a real understanding of the culture.”
West Indies Cruises
Another popular West Indies travel option includes cruises, especially as a honeymoon travel option. If you visit websites of the many cruise lines, you will find a large variety of options for Caribbean cruises. The great thing about this option is that you get to visit many different locations. A typical cruise has between 3-7 excursions. During each of these stops, cruisers can walk around various islands, go on guided tours, or enjoy beaches and snorkeling.
Additionally, cruises are generally all-inclusive (some additional costs may be applied for alcohol and souvenirs). A cruise ship has a dining area with great meals and snacks along with tons of entertainment options during the day and at night. Cruises are also a great way to meet and socialize with other travelers.
Privately chartered cruises are another option. If you don’t want to be locked into a specific itinerary, you can charter a smaller boat and a captain to sail or motor around the Caribbean. You may have to fly to the West Indies initially, or you may even be able to start at more convenient U.S. coastal port.
West Indies Highlights
Of course the beaches, sailing, and snorkeling are popular reasons for visiting the West Indies, but what many travelers overlook are the cultural aspects of traveling to a Caribbean island. West Indies art along with a unique style of furniture attract many collectors.
West Indies Art
Art in the West Indies tends to be characterized by its bright colors. Interestingly, much of the subject matter portrayed is of the often-bleak everyday life of the natives. This creates an unusual juxtaposition of “happy” colors used to illustrate difficult situations. Additionally, some art captures West Indies architecture, which is so distinctive.
Much of popular art in collections hails from Haiti. Haitian art is celebrated ironically because of the lack of art history training available on the island. Darrin Gleeman asserts that this makes Haitian artwork “void of the preconceptions of what art should be, so the pieces tend to be very unique”.
West Indies Furniture
Antique Danish West Indian furniture dating from the 1750s-1870s and antique replications tend to be most popular with collectors. Collector Anthony Pierpont describes the Danish West Indian pieces in his collection as “distinctive, stylish and classical with bold, largely proportioned decorative carvings.”
This type of furniture was and still is made primarily from Mahogany and tropical hardwoods as the hot, humid climate of the islands discourages the use of soft woods. The continuous flow of West African slaves into the West Indies made for the incorporation of traditional African decorative motifs in furniture making, including animals and flowers, popular in the 1800s.