Hearing the words, “The Caribbean,” can conjure to mind palm trees swaying peacefully in a gentle breeze, endless stretches of white sand beaches and the perfect refreshing drink in hand. But did you know that each island in the Caribbean has its own distinct culture and history? These differences could make or break your next vacation if it doesn’t live up to your expectations. So, while you might think your decision boils down to a coinflip for Eastern versus Western Caribbean, that’s simply not the case! Here are the best parts of both regions to help you plan your next unforgettable vacation to the islands.
For travelers searching for long walks on the beach, head to the Western Caribbean. Costa Maya and Cozumel, both in Mexico, are known for their romantic settings with stretches of white sand beaches, perfect for strolling along the shore.
In the Eastern Caribbean, islands that make up the Bahamas dot the water, providing private escapes for those seeking peaceful solitude. Many sandbars are a perfect base for avid snorkelers ready to catch a glimpse of the Spotted Drum or Green Moray Eel Want more action? Opt for Grand Turk, filled with plenty of water sports, including kayaking, boat rentals and more.
Caribbean cuisine is unique to each island and it’s always a flavorful experience worth a taste. Head to Grand Cayman for a delicious fusion of fresh seafood prepared in traditional Jamaican and British styles, left over from the island’s history of colonialism. Cracked conch is one of the most popular dishes unique to Grand Cayman, and features fried conch on a bed of fennel, all drizzled in a light tartar sauce. For a sweet treat, order cassava cake, made from the cassava root, coconut milk and cinnamon.
In the Eastern Caribbean, Puerto Rican meals will be the star of your journey. Once you’ve dined in Puerto Rico, you’ll understand why it’s referred to as the Caribbean’s gastronomic capital. Whether you venture to smaller towns on the island or stay within San Juan, you can find restaurants boasting the popular cocina criolla—creole cooking. European colonists combined their traditionally simple recipes with the local ingredients available on the island, creating a mouth-watering cuisine that has spread around the world. Almost every cocina criolla main dish starts with a sofrito base, consisting of a purée of cilantro, garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes (it makes us hungry just thinking about it!). Sofrito can serve as a sauce or soup for the meal. And, whether your meal features seafood, pork or beef, you’ll be served arroz con gandules—rice with pigeon peas (and pork) as a side. Arroz con gandules is known as the national dish of Puerto Rico and pairs with practically everything.
Sightseers will have plenty to gaze upon when traveling anywhere in the Caribbean. George Town is always a popular draw for visitors to the Western Caribbean’s Cayman Islands. The town boasts a variety of stores in bustling Camana Bay—and many stores offer tax-free incentives for shoppers. Located in what was once the Old Courts Building in the 1800s, the Cayman Islands National Museum tells the history of George Town and serves to preserve the culture of Grand Cayman.
On St. Maarten in the Eastern Caribbean, shoppers should head to Front Street, where duty-free china, electronics and jewelry vendors are ready to show their wares. Antigua boasts the Antigua Naval Dockyard and Related Archaeological Sites, a UNESCO heritage site devoted to the preservation of the Georgian-style structures for the British navy. The ruins of Fort James are also located on Antigua, making the island a cultural treasure-trove for any history buff.
Active travelers will have a difficult time deciding who wins the Eastern versus Western Caribbean debate. In the Western Caribbean, the allure of the Great Maya Reef’s clear waters will draw in snorkelers of all skill levels (make sure to wear a biodegradable sunscreen when snorkeling. It can help protect the reef and prevent the beautiful creatures, including colorful angelfish and banded butterflyfish, from losing their home). Additionally, the Mayan temples and ruins in and around Playa del Carmen are such a significant part of the region’s culture, it’s been nicknamed the Mayan Riviera.
In the east, Puerto Rico’s salsa music and dancing will keep you out until the morning light. Prefer the outdoors? El Yunque National Forest is always worth a hike to get in touch with nature. Guided tours are available if you want to learn more about this precious area—the only tropical rainforest in the United States. It’s also a scenic place to work off the cocina criolla you may have binged on earlier in the day.
The ultimate choice in the Eastern versus Western Caribbean debate is where to stay. We recommend a cruise. After all, with gourmet meals, sumptuous beds and impeccable service, a cruise makes the best choice for travel to each distinct island. On a Celebrity Cruises voyage, you can travel to one region or to every Caribbean region mentioned in this article. Contact one of our expert travel specialists today to learn more about which Celebrity Cruises itinerary matches your vacation needs the best.