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.
Where to stay Pine Cay is an 800-acre private island in the British-owned Turks and Caicos, just southeast of the Bahamas. Filled with dunes, palmettos and the pines that give the island its name, it is a supremely relaxing place; the sand looks like snow and the horizon has no limit. At the sybaritic 12-room Meridian Club, cell phones are banned, TV is unheard of and children under 12 are not welcome. After a dip in the freshwater pool, you can either imitate The Meridian Club's logo, the sand dollar, which spends its life just lying around, or you can grab your underwater gear and go.
Where to dive and eat What do people do for excitement on Pine Cay? Dive and eat, eat and dive. You can search for fish in the 75-degree ocean or you can find a seat at The Meridian Club's restaurant. Breakfast might include a lobster omelet with red snapper and grits; dinner might start with conch tempura with baby greens, followed by grilled beef tenderloin with a tuber torta. As for lunch, have the kitchen pack you a castaway picnic for a trip to the deserted island nearby.
The Meridian Club; call RMI Marketing at 800-331-9154; $500 per night for two.
Where to stay Most of Tobago's tourists congregate near the pretty but crowded Store Bay Beach at Crown Point on the southwestern tip. A better idea is to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle and head northeast toward the fishing village of Charlotteville, stopping at the laid-back Blue Waters Inn, which sits on an all-but-empty white-sand beach.
Where to dive The inn has a dive shop on the premises and a prime perch over one of the best sites in the Caribbean, Speyside. These waters attract huge manta rays (divers call them Tobago Taxis) and support an impressive 70 species of coral, including an enormous brain coral: 12 by 20 feet and still growing.
Where to eat Tobago is a compact island, so there's no need to miss out on a messy seafood platter at Esme's Crab and Dumplings, a shack beside Store Bay. But the best lunch in Tobago is in the capital, Scarborough, at Alison Sardinha's Blue Crab Restaurant, where wonderful local dishes crowd each table: kachouri (split peas ground with cumin, turmeric and hot peppers); cook-up (a sort of island risotto); rolled, stuffed flying fish; the ubiquitous callaloo (a spicy marsh-green soup-stew); coocoo (fritters of cornmeal, coconut, carrots and okra); and, if you're lucky, suckling pig--"roasted," Mrs. Alison says, "till the meat goes cheoooow!"
Blue Waters Inn, Batteaux Bay, Speyside; 868-660-4341; $95 per night for two. Esme's Crab and Dumplings, Store Bay; no telephone. Blue Crab Restaurant, corner of Robinson St. and Main, Scarborough; 868-639-2737.