Staying on a Caribbean island isn't all about rum punches and the perfect beach. Hit the right spots and you'll find entire worlds beneath the waves, where both dilettante snorkelers and experienced scuba freaks can explore intricate coral reefs and atmospheric shipwrecks. We have chosen four islands that offer the best combination of aquatic adventure and dining satisfaction, with idyllic accommodations as well. The restaurants are relaxed places that serve simple island cooking--just what you'll crave after a hard day's dive.
Where to stay The 59 British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.) have marvelous names: who could resist West Dog or Prickly Pear, Fallen Jerusalem or Dead Chest? By comparison, Tortola, the largest, sounds almost prosaic. Still, it makes a great home base for underwater adventurers--especially the American-run, 17th-century Sugar Mill hotel. This hillside inn has 21 cottagelike rooms that look out over the waves or into lush gardens, including one for vegetables.
Where to dive Diving in the B.V.I. happens in a big way, since an underwater shelf extends across the entire 35 miles of the chain and provides all manner of aquatic vistas, as well as excellent wrecks and snorkel-accessible caves. What's more, it takes just a half hour or less by boat to travel between any two B.V.I. dive sites. The most spectacular is off Salt Island, where the RMS Rhone, a 310-foot steamer, foundered in 1867. She is generally agreed to be the Caribbean's best shipwreck, and since her rudder is only 15 feet down, she can be viewed even by snorkel. For scuba diving, try Alice in Wonderland, named for its giant mushroom-shaped corals, or the treacherous waters around Anegada, which have sunk more than 300 ships.
Where to eat Don't miss The Sugar Mill's Carrot Bay neighbor, Mrs. Scatliffe's, famous around these parts for coconut chicken, which Mrs. Scatliffe herself cooks to order. You might opt for The Apple Restaurant, which serves the finest rotis (stuffed flat breads) for miles. Or you could try Bomba's Surfside Shack, where the home cooking is less a reason to visit than the infamous full-moon party: a "jump-up" (in which you jump up to dance) that rivals the most raucous festivities on any other Caribbean island.
The Sugar Mill hotel, Apple Bay; 284-495-4355 or 800-462-8834; $155 per night for two. Mrs. Scatliffe's Bar and Restaurant, Carrot Bay; 284-495-4556. The Apple Restaurant, Apple Bay; 284-495-4437. Bomba's Surfside Shack, Northshore Rd., Cappoon's Bay; 284-495-4148.
Where to stay The little resort of Anse Chastenet hugs a tropical hillside on St. Lucia's exquisitely green south coast. The spacious terra-cotta-tiled rooms feature artwork in burlap and carved wood, scarlet madras fabrics and wooden beams underneath sloping eaves that reveal an amazing Caribbean vista: the almost comically conical twin peaks of the Pitons. In one of Anse Chastenet's guest rooms, a tree grows right through the bathroom; in another, a shower with a wall entirely missing is a great place to watch the sunset. Down at sea level, there are also rooms that open straight onto the private gray-sand beach.
Where to dive Anse Chastenet's own dive center is famous for both quality of instruction (you can get certified here in five days) and quality of dive sites. Underwater landscapes are aptly described by names like Fairyland, Pinnacles, Coral Gardens and Turtle Reef. Less accomplished reef peepers can float mere yards out to sea to snorkel a magnificent designated marine reserve.
Where to eat For the feeding frenzy that strikes after a long dive, Trou au Diable on the hotel's beach serves up rotis filled with Creole curry. A water taxi brings you to Bang Between the Pitons, a Jamaican-style jerk pit run by Lord Glenconner, Mustique's eccentric founder; calling ahead is essential since hours are erratic. Or explore the mini-metropolis of Soufriere, where you can shop for local honey and Bois Bandé, a syrupy liqueur that St. Lucians swear works better than Viagra.
Anse Chastenet Hotel and Trou au Diable, Soufriere; 758-459-7000; hotel $180 per night for two. Bang Between the Pitons, Soufriere; 758-459-7864.