1. Turks and Caicos
Courtesy of the Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa
For beach fun, this network of islands -- especially the popular Providenciales (aka Provo) -- is unbeatable. "Grace Bay Beach in Provo spans 12 miles of white sand and generally has calm turquoise water," says Nancy Schretter, founder of FamilyTravelNetwork.com. Plenty of nature activities, lower crime rates than other Caribbean countries, and a variety of family-focused resorts also helped to propel this destination to the top spot. Direct flights that take about three hours or less are available from East Coast cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Sand Sanctuaries Your family can sprawl out in a 1,400-square-foot villa at The Somerset on Grace Bay with a kitchen, laundry area, two bathrooms, and a pullout sofa in the living room for master-bedroom privacy. Kids ages 5 to 12 can make masks and go on treasure hunts. Younger kids can splash around a pool that starts at just a few inches deep. Babysitting services are also available. (Summer rates for one-bedroom garden villas start at $600 per night. Use promo code PARENTS for a 25 percent discount and free breakfast on stays of three nights or more from April 1, 2014 through August 31, 2014; thesomerset.com.) Also on Grace Bay, Ocean Club Resorts offers condo-style suites with a kitchen and laundry area, free loaner baby gear, and babysitting service for a fee. Kids ages 5 and up can earn badges by using the SeaFari wildlife guidebook. (Summer rates start at $299 per night; ocean clubresorts.com.)
Side Trips Take a quick boat ride to Little Water Cay to see mangroves and the big draw -- endangered rock iguanas that will waddle right up to you ($15 per person). If your children are 7 and up, book horseback riding along the beach through Provo Ponies ($75 per person for 60 minutes). On Thursday evenings, head over to Bight Children's Park for a Fish Fry where tourists mingle with locals. Pick up an inexpensive dinner from restaurant vendors, and enjoy it while listening to a local band.
Yeah, mon! One of the largest Caribbean islands, Jamaica made our list because of its affordable, kid-friendly resorts, nonstop flights from many U.S. cities, and family-centered culture. "Jamaica has lots of personality," says Kyle McCarthy, cofounder of Family Travel Forum. "And the resorts on this island in particular offer lots of activities for toddlers and preschoolers."
Sand Sanctuaries Situated on a small, calm cove of beachfront near Ocho Rios, the all-inclusive Franklyn D. Resort gives every family a private nanny to watch the kids during the day. "We've been there four times since my girls, now 8 and 11, were toddlers," says Brian Young, of Chicago. "The rooms aren't fancy and the beach, while nice, isn't as beautiful as it is elsewhere on the island. But having a nanny to take the kids swimming or to the resort's scheduled activities so my wife and I can enjoy kid-free time more than makes up for it." (Spring rates for a one-bedroom suite with a master bedroom for you and beds or cribs in the living area for the kids start at $273 per adult, $30 for kids 6 to 15, and free for children under 6. Summer rates are a bit less; fdrholidays.com.) On a small private beach in Montego Bay, the all-inclusive Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa woos families with an on-site water park (including a splash area for the toddler crowd), nature walks, a club for kids ages 4 and older plus child care for babies and toddlers, and adult classes such as spinning and rum mixology. (Spring rates for a room with two beds start at $359 per night per couple, free for kids 12 and under. Summer rates start at $299 per night per couple; rosehallresort.com.)
Side Trips If you're staying near Ocho Rios, visit Dunn's River Falls, a collection of cascading waterfalls and small lagoons that most kids ages 8 and over should be able to climb with you. (It's okay to bring kids over age 5 because there's a staircase that runs parallel to the falls.) "Book trips through your resort or with a local touring company, since it's not easy to drive around Jamaica and there are unsafe areas," suggests McCarthy.
3. Saint Lucia
It's a happy mix of land and sea. "With calm surf and lots of space to spread out, many of the beaches are great for families, but there's plenty to do out of the water too," says Doug Stallings, Fodor's Caribbean editor. Zero in on Castries, the capital, and the surrounding area, for family-friendly lodging.
Sand Sanctuaries Two kiddie pools, a drop-off club for children ages 4 to 12, babysitting services, and activities ranging from coconut bowling to kite flying (for them) and sunset cruises and tennis lessons (for you) turned the all-inclusive Windjammer Landing Resort in Castries into family nirvana. "The water was so calm -- I don't think that I saw a wave the entire time we were there," says Lisa Elliott, of Indianapolis, who visited with her boys, ages 8 and 11. (Spring rates start at $149 per person in a one-bedroom villa. Summer rates start at $529 per night; windjammer-landing.com.) Another all-inclusive option: St. James's Club Morgan Bay, also in Castries, which offers a drop-off club for kids ages 4 to 11, babysitting services, and four pools, including one with slides and a wading area and another secluded on a hilltop for adults. (Spring and summer rates start at $176 per night per adult and $36 per night per child ages 2 to 11 for a room with two beds, free for younger kids; morganbayresort.com.)
Side Trips About an hour from Castries, in Soufriére, travel through a "drive-in" volcano. (Guided tours from your resort are $80 per person; islandroutes.com. Or drive in your rental car and pay $5 admission per person, $8 if you want to take a mud bath.) "My kids were fascinated with the bubbling mud," says Elliott.