Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas
Family Features: 11 swimming areas staffed by lifeguards -- including two for kids only; a theater that shows three recently released movies daily at no charge and offers popcorn; 35 restaurants, most with kids' menus; 23 nonsmoking floors.
Parents' Perks: 30,000-square-foot Mandara spa with unique water-therapy treatments; fitness center with a cardio theater; candlelit French restaurant for adults and children 6 and up.
* A 97-acre waterscape with 250 species of marine life, including humongous sharks, barracudas, and stingrays, that -- behind Plexiglas -- swim above, around, and under guests as they walk the grounds and dine at on-site restaurants.
* The widest range of water-ride intensity in our survey, from a lazy-river ride to a high-adrenaline Leap of Faith slide.
* Re-creates the legend of Atlantis with The Dig, an underground maze that simulates the ruined Lost Continent, complete with royal treasure, phantasmagorical flying machines, and hieroglyphics, as well as live eels, lobsters, and piranhas.
* The resort also offers Family Yoga on the beach, and the physically challenging and mentally stimulating Atlantis Kidisthenics fitness program for ages 6-10.
* Other highlights are the Earth and Fire pottery studio, where families paint their own creations to take home, and Marina Village, a Bahamian marketplace featuring 21 shops, five restaurants, and live entertainment, including dance troupes, music, puppets, and magic shows.
Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort & Spa, Providenciales, Turks, and Caicos Islands
Family Features: Pirate-themed Sesame Street Treasure Caravan; 12 miles of white sand beach; pools staffed by lifeguards; Pirate's Island Waterpark featuring two waterslides; Crayola Art Camps.
Parents' Perks: Sunrise yoga; body scrubs with Blue Mountain coffee beans; single-parent-friendly months with receptions.
* Resembles a French village with Parisian-style architecture, cuisine, and ambience.
* Allows kids to interact with Sesame Street characters through on-property activities like character breakfasts.
* Works closely with the One World Foundation to teach kids'-club staff how to relate to and welcome autistic children.
* Taking full advantage of the island's reputation as a top diving location, Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort & Spa recently added a Bubble Makers program that teaches young would-be divers basic underwater-breathing skills. Using scuba apparatus, kids ages 7 and 8 become familiar with the equipment in a pool while hunting for underwater toys at a depth of 6 feet.
* A more advanced version, called Seal Team, is available for 9- and 10-year-olds, and a five-day National Geographic scuba program teaches children 10 and up ocean diving as well as how to identify fish and reefs.
* Children 5 and under play in a dedicated space separate from those for ages 6 to 12 at the beaches. And in an effort to mix education and fun, the resort offers a Beach Science program, designed for kids 4 to 7, which encourages budding scientists to dig for sharks' teeth and launch rockets on the sand.
Family Vacations: Atlantis Paradise Island
Almond Beach Village, St. Peter, Barbados
Family Features: Swim-up movies (you can watch flicks while floating in the pool); junior chef classes; 77 pairs of connecting rooms; free shuttle to Bridgetown to shop for local arts and crafts; shaded playground.
Parents' Perks: Island safari tours; privileges at the adults-only sister property Almond Beach Club; traditional English afternoon tea.
* All-inclusive, mile-long white-sand beach and a village atmosphere with guest rooms sprinkled among eateries and activity centers.
* Schedules family-oriented activities such as Hobie Cat sailing, aqua-cycling, kayaking, limbo and Calypso dance lessons, nature walks, and a Bajan barbecue picnic.
* Various kids' clubs for 2- to 12-year-olds
* To incorporate the culture of Barbados into the family experience, the resort offers Calypso dancing and limbo on the pool deck, arts and crafts using natural elements found around the property, and even a Taste of Barbados program where kids can sample nut cakes and other local sweets.
Westin and Sheraton at Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort, Grand Bahama
Family Features: Four swimming pools, all staffed by lifeguards; new shaded playground; full-size "heavenly" or "sweet sleeper" cribs; Camp Lucaya Kids Club; babysitting service.
Parents' Perks: Beachside massages; the only resort in the world with tennis courts that have surfaces mimicking each of the Grand Slam courts; 14 restaurants, 25,000 square-foot spa and fitness center.
* A 35-minute flight from Miami, making it a good choice for families whose children haven't mastered long air travel.
* Young guests receive a welcome bag at check-in with a Kids Club hat and plastic cup, which can be refilled for free at any resort restaurant.
* Off-property activities such as dolphin encounters, eco-tours, and sailing.
* In winter, young guests learn about Junkanoo, a local celebration commemorating early historical figure John Canoe with a parade.
Four Seasons Resort Nevis
Family Features: Child-size bathrobes; milk and cookies upon arrival, plus a plush turtle toy and a turtle treat made by the resort's pastry chef; free-form infinity pool for families; babyproofing kits upon request; 17 family suites; DVD player in all rooms.
Parents' Perks: Chilled towels and fruit at the state-of-the-art fitness facilities; full-service spa with special couples' treatments; golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II; beachfront restaurant with West Indian cuisine.
* The Four Seasons Nevis has an enviable spot in the West Indies, with no neighboring hotels to compete for its wide stretch of Pinney's Beach. Arrive at this former coconut plantation via a 25-minute private hotel boat from St. Kitts's airport or direct air service from San Juan.
* Children participating in the Resort's Sea Turtle Education and Adoption program receive an adoption certificate for an endangered sea turtle.
* Has a playground equipped with a pint-size general store; in addition, the facility housing the Kids for All Seasons children's program boasts a mock pirate ship, a jungle area with a tropical tree house, and stuffed monkeys hanging from a tree.
* Offers a smiley-face fruit plate and Kermit's Grilled Fresh Fish of the Day with vegetables and rice on its children's menu.
* The concierge can arrange for a Monkey Excursion, where families can explore the tropical rainforest with a local naturalist in search of wild green monkeys.
* The Kids for All Seasons facility is strategically placed in the middle of the resort, so whether parents are at the spa, dining, or at the pool or beach, they're only steps away from their children. Activities include cake baking, croquet, sea turtle watch, beach walks, and a supervised lizard hunt, often followed by story time in the shade of a palm tree.
Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Family Features: Half-mile of private beach; shaded playground; two laundry rooms.
Parents' Perks: Adults-only pool featuring a swim-up beverage bar; fitness center; romantic rafting trips by appointment.
* Boasts a multimillion-dollar renovation of all its public areas and restaurants.
* Includes 173 connecting rooms ideal for large families, among the highest in our top-10 list, and 26 family suites.
* Situated 15 minutes from the Montego Bay airport, eliminating the long airport transfers for which Jamaica is famous.
* KidSpree Vacation Club serves children ages 6 months to 17 years and is broken down into four age groups. The nannies, who are required to have CPR and first-aid instruction, play with and care for the infants and toddlers in a dedicated space, while 4- to 12-year-olds spend most of their time outside in tennis clinics, playing games at the beach, learning to reggae dance, and immersing themselves in the island culture.
Beaches Negril Resort & Spa, Negril, Jamaica
Family Features: Four pools staffed by lifeguards; pajama parties and sandcastle-building; restaurant with Japanese cuisine prepared tableside, Crayola Art Camps.
Parents' Perks: For guests in two-bedroom suites, butler service to arrange private dinners and custom activities; couples' spa services such as "Scrub-a-Dub-Dub: Two in the Tub"; adult beach volleyball.
* Has the Beaches' Caribbean Adventure with Sesame Street program, featuring live shows and activities with the characters.
* Caters to the growing trend of wedding and honeymoon groups bringing children by offering FamilyMoon packages with discounts, free group portraits, and T-shirts.
* Cools kids off with a Pirate's Island water park that has a 204-foot spiraling slide, a splash deck, and a 392-foot lazy-river ride.
* Up-to-date video-game room and themed activities.
* The Kids Camp for ages 12 and under works the cultural rhythm of Jamaica into its supervised activities: Dance class with Zoe focuses on calypso or reggae, while Elmo tells local stories and legends.
* A kids' coordinator greets arriving guests with Big Bird cookies and a drink; in addition, a list of activities is given to families and posted throughout the property.
Club Med Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
Family Features: Three swimming pools staffed by lifeguards; bottle warmers, baby bathtubs, and strollers available for loan at no cost; mini refrigerator in all guest rooms; lounge for teenagers.
Parents' Perks: Club Med gym and fitness classes on site; hot stone massage; snorkeling excursions.
* Known for its Circus School, where kids as young as 4 learn to swing from a flying trapeze (while safely tethered to a harness and over a safety net) and attempt such other feats as juggling and acrobatics, which they perform for parents later in the week.
* Kids explore cultures through music and mask-making via its Putumayo World Playground Adventure program.
* Has a desirable beach location less than 10 minutes from the airport.
* In addition to the Circus School, the kids' program for 2- to 13-year-olds incorporates a Mini Gym, a new Hip Hop Kidz dance program, puppet shows, arts and crafts, and sports, like soccer, basketball, softball, and archery.
* Kids are given a choice of three activities every hour, so they're always doing something they like.
Club Med Caravelle, Guadeloupe
Family Features: Rooms that sleep up to six; ramps throughout property for strollers; arcade; evening group babysitting for children ages 4 months and up.
Parents' Perks: Detox massages; cooking classes and demonstrations featuring local dishes; catamaran trip to Petite-Terre (a tiny island offering pristine water for snorkeling).
* Uses specially designed equipment to help 3- to 7-year-olds learn tennis through its Petit Tennis program, which focuses on hand-eye coordination and teamwork.
* Has a longer-than-average beach, at 1,500 feet; one of the facilities for the children's program is located on the coconut-tree-lined beach.
* Offers renovated guest rooms
* Along with the fun activities -- Circus School, sailing instruction, Petit Tennis, windsurfing, and hip-hop -- that are standard with the chain's children's program for 2- to 13-year-olds, Club Med Caravelle allows families to introduce their kids to authentic French island culture.
* To make North Americans feel more at home, the resort recently hired additional English-speaking staff and has American favorites like pizza and pasta on the menu.
Breezes Curacao Resort, Willemstad, Netherlands Antilles
Family Features: Beachside playground; arcade; refrigerators upon request; junior suites with microwaves; two nonsmoking restaurants; kids' menus at all restaurants, including half-portion salads.
Parents' Perks: Free scuba introductory course; dance contests; trapeze lessons.
* Is the largest resort on the island, with a 1,500-foot beach, skating rink, and 30-foot rock-climbing wall.
* Offers two lighted tennis courts for night play and scheduled free lessons from pros.
* Boasts a range of dining options, such as a beachside grill and SuperKids Snackbar.
* A wide array of activities -- from treasure hunts and arts and crafts to sandcastle-building and a circus workshop -- is scheduled for kids ages 2 to 12, while younger ones are cared for in a nursery setting.
* On Mondays, kids learn about local culture through storytelling, dancing, and language instruction.
* There's plenty to do nearby as well. Families can take a free 15-minute shuttle ride to the charming and colorful town of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
* The children's program incorporates visits to the Curacao Sea Aquarium, where kids encounter turtles, dolphins, and sea lions and learn about sharks and other marine life in an interactive setting.
Rio Mar Beach Resort
11. Westin St. John Resort & Villas, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
12. The Fairmont Southampton
13. Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort & Spa, Puerto Rico
14. The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, Jamaica
15. Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort, St. Lucia
16. Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay
17. Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Country Club, Puerto Rico
18. Westin Casuarina Resort & Spa, Grand Cayman
19. Caneel Bay, St. John
20. Hilton Tobago Golf and Spa Resort
Rio Mar Beach Resort
Choosing an Island
There are more than 30 islands in the Caribbean. How do you decide which one is best for your family? To get started, ask yourself the following five questions:
1. What kinds of flights can I get from my local airport? From New York City or Miami, you can often book nonstop service to almost any island; from other cities, however, your choices are limited. The destinations that tend to have the most direct service: Aruba; Barbados; Grand Cayman; Montego Bay, Jamaica; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Punta Cana; St. Martin; and St. Thomas. If you're bringing small children, you may also want to consider the length of the flight; for instance, traveling nonstop from New York City to Barbados takes more than 4 1/2 hours, while the flight to Nassau is just about 3 hours and the flight to Bermuda takes 2 hours.
2. How hot do you like it? Most islands average around 85 degrees year-round; however, Bermuda and, to a lesser extent, the Bahamas cool off in winter.
This might suit your family just fine, especially if you have grandparents along or your children are very sensitive to high temperatures. Keep in mind that hurricane season typically runs from June 1 to November 30, but patterns vary widely from year to year and island to island.
3. What kinds of activities does your family prefer? Some islands, such as Grand Cayman, Bonaire, and Turks & Caicos, are known for their great snorkeling and diving sites because of their clear waters, while mountainous islands like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and St. Lucia offer beautiful scenic hikes. If you're a big beach fan, note that some islands, such as Aruba and the Dominican Republic, offer miles and miles of sand, while other islands have much shorter, cove-type beaches.
4. What is the official language? English is the official language in 19 Caribbean islands; the remainder speak Spanish, French, or Dutch. Your kids can practice their Spanish in Puerto Rico and French in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Martin.
5. What kind of ambience are you looking for? Eleuthera (in the Bahamas) and St. Kitts feature plenty of privacy, for example, while Nassau (the Bahamas) and Grand Cayman can be hopping with fun-seeking visitors.
Rio Mar Beach Resort
If the recent strong hurricanes and the American teen missing in Aruba have you wondering whether your family will be safe on vacation, obtain details about the following before booking your trip.
* WEATHER Hurricane season typically runs June 1 to November 30, but patterns vary widely from year to year. No island is immune. Ask your travel agent for detailed information pertaining to your destination.
* KIDS' CAMP COUNSELORS AND BABYSITTING STAFF Ask whether the resort checks the criminal background of potential counselors and sitters and requires that they have experience working with kids. Before you drop off your child at camp, make sure there are at least two counselors present at all times, even if there are only two or three campers. Ideally, aim for a ratio of at least one counselor to four toddlers and one counselor to eight older children.
* LIFEGUARDS A surprisingly high number of Caribbean resorts don't employ lifeguards, often citing legal reasons. If the resort you like doesn't have lifeguards, inquire whether the children's program has additional staff to supervise kids when they engage in water activities.
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