The Caribbean is not Little Europe. Over time it’s been shaped by Indigenous groups, colonizers, generations of islanders, and millions of annual visitors. There’s nowhere else on Earth like the Caribbean and nowhere else in the Caribbean like any given island.
But archipelagos with names like the Netherlands Antilles, French West Indies, and Spanish Virgin Islands are bound to invite comparison to the countries they take their names from. And while the Caribbean may not be Little Europe, much of that je ne sais quois that draws visitors to cities like Paris and Amsterdam courses through the Caribbean, too.
If a European escape is just not possible, consider these Caribbean destinations for an alternate taste of France, Spain, Netherlands, or the UK — plus some extra island heat.
1. St. Barts
St. Barts is like Saint-Tropez, only instead of old Hollywood starlets it’s today’s celebs chartering the yachts. Like in the French Riviera, beaches and designer boutiques are two of the island’s biggest draws, with shoppers flocking to Gustavia, the capital, for the latest luxury labels. Haute cuisine is also on the menu in Gustavia: Stick around for Bonito’s French-Latin seafood creations and dedicated ceviche menu. Later, when you’re ready to party like the southern French elite, head to Nikki Beach to rub elbows with A-listers.
2. Willemstad, Curaçao
Curaçao is part of the Dutch Caribbean. Willemstad’s waterfront is a constant, colorful reminder of this: In the Punda neighborhood, on one side of the Queen Emma Bridge, the capital’s historic Handelskade is lined with nearly neon Dutch colonials. Together with landmarks like the 17th-century Fort Amsterdam and Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, which was founded by Sephardic Jewish immigrants from the Netherlands and Iberian Peninsula in the late 1600s, the Handelskade helped earn the city center its UNESCO inscription.
After sightseeing, tap into the island’s bar and cafe culture to channel Amsterdam. Several establishments are modeled after brown cafes, the Dutch equivalent of British pubs. Try Cafe Old Dutch Curacao or Cafe de Tijd for the ambience. Then, when it’s time to soak up all that jenever, or Dutch gin, end the night with a warm, crunchy-gooey order of bitterballen.
Set foot in Bridgetown and you’ll instantly recognize the island’s British influence in its Georgian, Victorian, and Jacobean architecture. Another clue: Barbados’s obsession with horse racing.
Races occur from January to April, May to August, and October to December. Garrison Savannah is the historic horse-racing venue, dating all the way back to 1845, a whole three decades before Kentucky’s famous Churchill Downs was established. Plan your trip around the island’s biggest annual sporting event, the Sandy Lane Gold Cup, which takes places in late February or early March. Just remember: In Barbados spectators sip rum, not gin.
If what you really mean when you say you’re dying to visit Paris is that you’d kill for a baguette from a Parisian boulangerie, Martinique may hit the spot. Chez Surena, the island’s oldest bakery, has been serving up baguettes, brioche, and other French breadstuffs in the capital for over 100 years. In Trois-Ilets, La Guérande’s display case tempts with colorful macarons, pyramids of bonbons, and perfectly flaky croissants. Nearby, travelers can see the sugar plantation-turned-museum where Napoléon Bonaparte’s first wife, Joséphine, was born.
Francophiles can also visit the Schoelcher Library, which was built in France in the late 19th century and shipped to Martinique in installments, and Le Cabret, a village on the northwest coast where French painter Paul Gauguin lived for several months. Dive deeper into the post-impressionist’s time on Martinique at the Paul Gauguin Interpretation Center.
5. Trinidad and Cienfuegos, Cuba
Old Havana is the obvious choice for Spanish colonials in Cuba. But another destination known for its colonial architecture has been called one of the best-preserved cities in the Americas: Trinidad, Cuba. Roughly half Havana’s size, and home to a fraction of its population, Trinidad is equally full of historic sites, which were collectively inscribed by UNESCO in 1988. To learn more, visit the Colonial Architecture Museum while in Trinidad.
Though Cuba’s history begins with Spanish conquests, another Cuban city has a distinctly French flair. This is because Cienfuegos was founded by French emigrants in the early 1800s. Neoclassical architecture is the big giveaway there, with grand, elegant colonnades dominating the cityscape. Landmarks like Ferrer Palace, City Hall, and San Lorenzo School earned the Cienfuegos’s city center its own UNESCO nod in 2005, acknowledging both its French-inspired architecture and urban planning. The city’s effortlessly glamorous attitude is pretty French, too.
6. Grand Cayman
The Cayman islands are a British Overseas Territory. Nowhere is this more evident than the pub scene on Grand Cayman, the largest island. The Kings Head prides itself on being a traditional British Victorian pub, complete with grub and Guinness. It also hosts viewing parties for the Six Nations Rugby tournament every year. Fidel Murphy’s Irish Pub a few minutes south plates up a proper full English breakfast, as well as mains like bangers and mash, cottage pie, and fish and chips. The island even has a Victorian tea room with some seriously tasty scones.
7. St. Martin and Sint Maarten
One perk of Europe travel is the ease of movement between countries. If you want to see France and the Netherlands on one vacation, though, you’re going to lose at least a half-day in travel. St. Martin and Sint Maarten make it easier to double down on European culture in a single trip: They share the same island.
St. Martin, an overseas French collectivity, occupies the northern 60 percent of the island whereas Sint Maarten, a Dutch territory, takes up the rest. Many travelers opt to stay on the Dutch side, a quiet yet popular port with lots of shopping opportunities, but eat on the French half. Bistrot Caraibes, La Villa Restaurant, and L’Auberge Gourmande are big names in fine dining while Le Sous Marin gets rave reviews for its casual, affordable, northern French fare.
For dessert? Some say Cafe Atlantico makes the best croissants. You be the judge.
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