Planning a Caribbean holiday? Don't leave home without reading about these hot spots.
Are you kidding? The Caribbean is one of the top destinations for sun, sea and sand. Set in a 2735km arc running between Florida and South America, the islands separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea.
There are around 60 islands and bays in all, some large and populous, others just dozy blips, and that's excluding the Bahamas, which number about 3000 reefs and sandbars.
The Caribbean has the archetypal half-moon strands of talc-soft, blindingly white sand backed by a fringe of coconut palms and lapped by wavelets flopping lazily out of gin-clear shallows. You can choose from walking beaches, magnificent strips of ankle-deep sand that glitter with phosphorescence at night; people-spotting beaches; sporting beaches and secluded beaches where you can imagine yourself washed up on a desert island.
So where's the best sand?
The softest, finest sand tends to be on the low-lying groups such as the Bahamas and the Leeward Islands, but the mountainous islands have their places too, with secluded coves between forested headlands.
Where does it come from?
It's fish we have to thank, parrot-fish particularly. They bite the coral, crunch it up and spit out the stony residue as grains of sand. Wave action also breaks down dead reef into small particles. The sand is white because the corals build a sub-skeleton of limestone. Although most Caribbean islands are originally volcanic, over the millennia they have been "capped" by reef as the sea rises and falls around them. The area's pink beaches are created by shells that are ground down by the waves.
Beaches have been known to disappear. The winter swells sometimes cause the sand to filter away, though it usually shuffles back in calmer weather. Hurricanes can damage the reef down to 60m below the surface, but the beaches will usually be back to normal after a few months.
Can I get my kit off?
Nudity, including going topless, is frowned on and is illegal on most islands, apart from the French islands, where being topless is accepted. There are some unofficial areas for complete nudity. On English-speaking islands you can usually get away with it if you are in a secluded area. The Superclub hotels in Jamaica provide areas for nudists.
Who owns them?
Most island beaches are public up to the high-water mark so, in theory, you can use any beach. But there may be no access across land, so you might have to swim or jet-ski in.
Only a few islands have public facilities on the beaches, but if there is nowhere to change, hotels sometimes have a room where you can do so. Lifeguards patrol only the most popular beaches, and not on every island.
Anything to watch out for?
Apart from sunburn, there are a few hazards. Sandflies may plague you late in the day. Many beaches are backed by the tall manchioneal tree which has poisonous sap, so don't shelter under them in the rain because the run-off can cause blisters. Columbus called their small green fruit the "apples of death" (the name of the tree comes from the Spanish for apple, manzanilla). Be careful sheltering under palms as people have been killed by falling coconuts.
Any famous beaches?
Columbus' landfall in 1492 is disputed, but the consensus is that after struggling with the weed of the Sargasso Sea and a crew in near mutiny in the Bahamas, he landed at Long Bay on the island of San Salvador. Another theory places his landing in the Turks and Caicos Islands. On his fourth voyage, Columbus spent a year marooned in Jamaica when his ships sank off St Ann's Bay.
The pirate Jack Rackham, a man apparently with a penchant for calico underwear, was run to ground in 1720 by the Royal Navy while cavorting with his henchmen on Negril Beach in Jamaica. Now it is famous as Jamaica's longest (8km) and coolest beach resort. In Dr No, Ursula Andress appeared from the waves on a beach near Ocho Rios in Jamaica. Ian Fleming wrote some of the Bond novels in his house not far from here.
What about beach bars?
The British Virgin Islands have more beach bars a square metre than any other part of the Caribbean. They are crowded and lively at night when yachties pour ashore. Try the Cooper Island Beach Club, Gertrude's in White Bay on Jost van Dyke (except when cruise ships are in) and Billy Bones on Norman Island. Offshore is the Willy T, a moored ship and rumbustious floating bar known for its "body shots" (salt on the lips, lemon between the legs and tequila in the belly button) and communal shots off a water ski.
In Grenada, the Aquarium is set on a small strip of sand on the tapering south-west peninsula, ideal for a lazy day out. And in Nevis, try Sunshine's Bar, a ramshackle red, gold and green shed facing the sunset from palm-backed Pinney's Beach.
Bomba's, on Payne's Bay in Barbados, is also a rustic affair rumbling with reggae. You can get great food on the sand in Barbados from Mullins Beach Bar (near Speightstown).
On Anguilla, the Dune Preserve boats built into the sand dunes are among the coolest bars. If you are lucky, Bankie Banx, the bar's ice-cool owner, will play his wistful guitar music.
With all the tropical fruit, cocktails are a staple. Many were invented here - Pina Colada (Puerto Rico), Daiquiri (Cuba), the Bahama Mama and Painkiller (almost a national drink in the British Virgin Islands). The traditional rum punch (rum, sugar, lime and a juice) is drunk everywhere but is universally obliterated by sticky, red Grenadine syrup.
The Caribbean is hardly known for its food but you can expect to eat well in St Barts and Anguilla. In St Barts, the tiny Eden Rock hotel has a delightful beachside bistro called the Sand Bar. The Lafayette Club in Anse de Grand Cul-de-Sac has been known to stage fashion shows with lunch.
For more local fare you can get the best barbecued Anguillian crayfish and lobster at the Palm Grove, a shed on the windswept Junks Hole Beach.
Hey, let's have a party!
If there's one thing that unites the West Indies, it's dancing. Nearly each island has its own rhythm: soca (Trinidad), zouk (Martinique, Guadeloupe), reggae (Jamaica), salsa (Cuba, Puerto Rico) and merengue (Dominican Republic). The Virgin Islands are good for dancing on the beach. On tiny Jost van Dyke you might hear the eponymous Foxy playing, but this bar and the six others on Great Bay are most famous for the New Year Party, which brings thousands on yachts. Bomba's Surfside Shack on Tortola is built of driftwood (Bomba is one of the only people who benefits from hurricanes) and has interesting drinks additives in the rum punch at his Full Moon parties. Barbados is another party island, particularly on the south coast.
And a book for the beach?
The funniest book to come out of the Caribbean tourist industry is Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival, which describes the nightmare life of a Caribbean hotel manager. It was published nearly 40 years ago, yet is as killingly true as ever and it's hard to look your hotel manager straight in the eye after reading it.
Jamaica's Anthony Winkler has written some hilarious views of that island - The Lunatic, The Great Yacht Race and The Painted Canoe are the best. Most recently, One People by Guy Kennaway tells of the wonderful, side-splitting illogicality of Jamaican village life.
The most romantic beaches
Anse la Roche, Carriacou, Grenada: Finding the beach is a veritable treasure hunt. Follow the path from a gnarled tree leaning over the road north out of Bogles, turn left by the boulders down to a clearing with a dried pond and a ruin, head down the hill from a rock which usually has a conch shell on it. A perfect, usually deserted stretch of sand, tucked away from the crowds.
Frenchman's Cove, Port Antonio, Jamaica: Simply the most delightful setting. A river meanders down to a small cove between crab-claw headlands, each overhung with fantastic greenery.
Crane Beach, Barbados: In the south-east of Barbados, beyond the airport, are several coves cut into the limestone cliffs, with extraordinarily blue sea and sumptuous sand, some with a screen of palms. Crane Beach is topped by the classical pillars of a hotel, but Bottom Beach, Harrismith Beach and Foul Bay (named for its reputation as an anchorage rather than anything else) are more natural and often deserted.
Sandy Spit, Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands: This sandbar is so low-lying it threatens to disappear at high tide. It's the archetypal tropical island with nothing but a few palm trees. Visitors arrive by yacht, slither overboard and swim to shore. Unfortunately there's no guarantee you'll be alone.
Top 10 beaches
1. Pinney's Beach, Nevis
A delightful, 4km strand of light brown or "golden" sand, backed along its length by a tangle of tall palms. It is mostly undeveloped, with just a few bars, and is a great place to walk.
2. Grace Bay, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands
A 19km stretch of blindingly white sand set against a surreal blue sea. It is gradually becoming more built up, but there are still miles of sand to walk on, so soft you may find yourself stumbling to get through it.
3. White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
Mounded white sand in a quiet corner of this comatose island. There are a couple of bars (avoid them when cruise ships are due) and a tiny hotel hidden in the trees.
4. Coco Point, Barbuda
On an island that has supreme sand, this is a wonderful curved strand. There are just two unfeasibly expensive hotels, superb snorkelling offshore and miles of sand to walk along.
5. Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau, the Grenadines
The perfect crescent-shaped, palm-backed beach on this tiny, dozy Grenadine island. A hotel is hidden in the sandy palm-garden, but the bay is perfect if you are cruising the islands on a yacht.
6. Shoal Bay East, Anguilla
"Shoal" means reef, and this beach has good snorkelling offshore. The sand is also superb. There are a couple of bars where you can get a beer and fried chicken or fish.
7. Pink Beach, Harbour Island, Eleuthera, Bahamas
One of hundreds of beaches around the Bahamas, Pink Beach is distinguished by its particularly delicate shade and has more than 4km of lovely sand to explore. With most development hidden away and huge waves crashing in off the Atlantic, you will feel you are walking to the ends of the Earth.
8. Stocking Island, Exumas, Bahamas
Stocking Island is a short boat ride from Georgetown on Great Exuma, across the turquoise bay. Excellent strips of sand surround the island.
9. Grande Anse des Salines, Martinique
Right in the south, this is the finest beach on this French island, a half-moon curve backed almost along its entire length by palm trees and with views across to St Lucia.
10. The west coast, Barbados
Calm and sedate, protected from the Atlantic swells by the island itself, the west coast of Barbados is a series of coves and strands separated by cliffs. It is almost completely developed now, but is still one of the prettiest strips of sand in the Caribbean.