Lihle Z. Mtshali
Apr, 23, 2018

More effort should go into the planning of your dream Caribbean vacation than just picking the most Edenesque beach to lounge on, or trying on colorful bikinis.

Travel blogger Francesca Murray tells ESSENCE that she speaks to a lot of would-be Caribbean travelers who are not aware that unless they are traveling to Puerto Rico or one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. citizens require passports to visit all the other destinations in the Caribbean.

“As obvious as it sounds, this is something that slips a lot of people’s minds when they want to go to popular islands like the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica. All of these islands are different countries; they’re not the United States. You will need a passport for entry,” she says.

But once you have your passport handy, the destination possibilities are endless. There are at least 28 island nations and more than 7,000 individual islands in the Caribbean. “People imagine the Caribbean is a bunch of islands where you can just go and have a drink on the beach, and no matter which one you pick at random you’re going to have the same experience,” says Murray. “That is 100% not true.”

When picking an island to visit, she suggests evaluating your language skills first. If you are not bilingual, you don’t speak French, Spanish or Dutch, and it is your first time in the Caribbean, it may be best to choose one of the English speaking islands. That way, you will have a much more enjoyable experience.

Her favorite English-speaking island is an off the beaten track destination called Dominica. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, Dominica is a small island that is known as the nature island because of its waterfalls, rainforests, underwater springs, and offers the best diving and hiking in the region.

“Barbados would be my close second,” says Murray. “It has some of the best food I’ve had in all my travels. Not just in the Caribbean, but everywhere.”

If you are on a budget and are looking for the best airplane ticket deals, you don’t have to book your flights far in advance like you did in the past, Murray says. Airlines sometimes have flash sales that you could take advantage of. Compare ticket prices from different airports. You can get to any of the islands directly from Miami, but it may work out cheaper to fly out from New York.

Not to be a wet blanket, but Murray says it’s important to remember that every region, no matter how beautiful, has its dark side. The Caribbean is no different and has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates. Although experts say violent crime rarely affects tourists, you still want to research the latest safety reports for the island you want to visit before you book that ticket.

While she loves the all-inclusive, not lifting a finger luxury of a hotel stay, Murray says some of the best accommodations she has experienced in the Caribbean have been at guesthouses.

“This is my favorite way of really immersing myself in the local culture,” says Murray. “You have two options; you can either book into an Airbnb apartment, which is usually in an area where ordinary people live or check into a guesthouse.”

“I have sometimes rented a room on a person’s property, and every morning they would what make me breakfast and tell me stories and give me interesting background on the island. She would even drop me off wherever I wanted to go.”

Don’t let your Caribbean vacation be just about the beach and food, immerse yourself in the history and culture.

“People don’t really go to the Caribbean to visit museums, but you can learn so much from museums on the islands,” Murray adds. “I learned more about the history of slavery in the Caribbean than anywhere else I’ve been. You will even see more Black faces on those walls than when you go to an art museum in a big city in the U.S,” says Murray.

If you want to get the best of what the Caribbean has to offer, live among the locals, eat where they eat, and dance where they dance. You could even island hop without breaking the bank, says Murray, as long as you are prepared to step out of your comfort zone and do as the locals do.

“Ask your driver or AirBnB host where they eat and shop or which beach they go to on a Sunday afternoon,” Murray suggests. “Prices in the tourist areas are inflated based on the U.S. dollar, but wherever the locals hang out most likely won’t be very expensive. Take public transportation when it’s practical, try to go to the beach where the locals go and then you won’t have to rent a chair or have to buy drinks just to be there. The food is gonna be cheaper and probably better. That’s the way I travel through the islands most of the time,” she says.

Murray is the author of One Girl One World Guide to Martinique, the world’s first digital English guide to the French-speaking Caribbean island. She provides more travel tips for visiting the Caribbean on her blog One Girl: One World.