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.
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.
You get a lot of value for your money. "Competition keeps airfare and resort rates down, so many families end up saving $500 or more by coming here," says McCarthy. Stick with the La Romana or Punta Cana areas, which have family-friendly beaches.
Sand Sanctuaries The all-inclusive Club Med Punta Cana offers drop-off children's programs for babies to teens, a circus school, tennis instruction, music lessons with Dominican-inspired instruments, cooking classes, and an art studio. While the kids are busy, you can fly on the trapeze, learn to windsurf, or hang out on the wide white-sand beach. (Spring rates for a room with two beds start at $147 per night per adult, $74 per child ages 4 to 12, free for younger kids. Summer rates start at $123 per night per adult, $62 per child ages 4 to 12; clubmed.us.) The newly renovated, all-inclusive Grand Palladium Bàvaro Suites Resort & Spa, in Punta Cana, has the largest club in the Caribbean for kids ages 1 to 12, babysitting, meet-and-greets from Raggs (of PBS fame), and plenty for you to do such as beach volleyball, sailing, or water aerobics. (Late-spring and early-summer rates start at $135 per adult, $68 per kids ages 3 to 12 for a room with two beds, free for younger kids; palladiumhotelgroup.com.)
Side Trips Book a tour from your resort to the historic capital of Santo Domingo -- it'll take about two-and-a-half hours each way, so it's best for older kids. Punta Cana Tours offers a trip that stops at The Three Eyes National Park (with underground caves and lagoons) and a lighthouse, Faro a Col?n ($92 per adult, $52 per child under age 12; puntacanatours.com). Next: San Francisco, New York City, and San Antonio
If you don't have passports and you want to spare the expense of getting them (nearly $500 for two adults and two children), Puerto Rico is a great option. "Your kids can be immersed in the unique culture," says Schretter. Fly into San Juan and stay there or in the northeastern part of the island, or split your stay between both.
Sand Sanctuaries Located on Condado Beach, the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino offers a large oceanfront pool with a slide, a toddler pool, spa treatments, and babysitting. (Spring and summer rates start at $169 per night for a room with two beds; marriott.com.) Or stay at Las Casitas Village -- even though it's a Waldorf Astoria Resort, it's not terribly expensive considering it boasts an expansive family water park with a kids' pool, several slides, and a lazy river; a supervised camp for children ages 4 to 12; and babysitting services. You'll also be able to take a short ferry ride to Palomino Island, a private oasis for resort guests. All rooms are villas with a kitchen, so you can easily store snacks and cook some of your own meals. Plus, you'll be able to hang out in the bedroom while the kids go to sleep on the pullout in the living area. (Spring rates start at $299 per night for a one-bedroom villa. Summer rates start at $269 per night; lascasitasvillage.com.)
Side Trips "Two must-sees are the historic forts in Old San Juan and the El Yunque rain forest," says Schretter. Take public transportation or a shuttle, if your resort has one, to Castillo San Cristóbal, a huge stone fortress built in 1783; kids ages 5 and up will be able to earn a badge if they take the ranger-led tour ($3; nps.gov/saju). At El Yunque, in Eastern Puerto Rico, your family will be able to walk on any of the 13 trails (including several stroller-friendly paved ones) to spot parrots, tree frogs, and lots of unusual flowers.
This financial hub offers a pristine beach, a low crime rate, and modern roads so you can explore on your own.
Sand Sanctuaries Stay on Seven-Mile Beach, particularly to the north, or in the more secluded area of Rum Point, where the water is so shallow that kids can walk out 25 feet. "Most of the lodgings on the island are condos," says Stallings. To find one, he suggests going to wimco.com. One-bedroom beachfront rentals in the spring and summer start at $1,400 per week.
Side Trips Visit Cayman Turtle Farm, where kids can gently pick up turtles from the touch tanks or swim with them in the turtle lagoon. Its free-flight aviary was designed by consultants from Disney's Animal Kingdom ($45 for adults, $25 for kids 5 to 12, free for younger kids).
Just 55 miles off the Florida coast, the Bahamas are an easy trip with kids, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, managing editor of MiniTime, a family-travel website.
Sand Sanctuaries In Nassau on Paradise Island, Atlantis resort is home to a supervised club for kids ages 3 to 12 featuring cooking lessons, a stage, a walk-in dollhouse, and a Lego construction room. The resort also offers a water park (with a pirate ship for the under-6 set), dolphin encounters, and babysitting. (Rates start at $199 per night. Book between March 1 and 31 for travel between May 1 and July 31 at atlantis.com/parents to get a free rock-climbing session and 2-for-1 pricing at the kids' club.) On Grand Bahama Island, stay at the beachfront Grand Lucayan in Freeport. A camp for kids ages 3 to 12 and a nursery for younger ones give you free time to hit the golf course or spa. (Spring and summer rates for a room with two beds start at $135 per night; grandlucayan.com.)
Side Trips In Nassau, take the 60-minute Graycliff Chocolatier Factory Tour, where families make some treats ($50 for adults, $35 for kids under 11; graycliff.com).
The island with strong British roots is one of the most versatile in the Caribbean. "There are resorts for all budgets and while the beaches are tremendous for families, the nature preserves in the middle of the island are intriguing," says Ryan Ver Berkmoes, coordinating author of Lonely Planet's Caribbean Guide.
Sand Sanctuaries On the South Coast just five minutes from the capital of Bridgetown, The Hilton Barbados Resort offers a great seafront location with calm waters, a drop-off club for kids ages 4 to 12, and a children's pool. (Spring rates for a room with two beds start at $299 per night. Summer rates start at $179 per night; hiltoncaribbean.com.) If you want a little more room, consider the Bougainvillea Beach Resort, which offers one-bedroom suites with a master bedroom and a sofa bed in the living room for the kids. A drop-off club for kids ages 3 to 12, three pools, and babysitting are among the perks. (Spring rates for a deluxe one-bedroom suite start at $318 per night. Summer rates start at $281 per night. Use the code PARENTSSAVE20% to receive the discount for stays of five nights or more; bougainvillearesort.com.)
Side Trips See peacocks, parrots, and green monkeys at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve ($12 for adults, $6 for kids 3 to 12, free for younger kids; barbados.org/reserve) across the road from Farley Hill National Park. Another must-do: Harrison's Cave. Board a tram that takes you underground past streams and waterfalls ($25 for adults, $13 for kids 12 and under), or kids 5 to 12 can go on a Junior Explorers tour with nature packs ($10; harrisonscave.com).
Sure, Mexico is not technically part of the Caribbean, but the Riviera Maya does border the Caribbean Sea. "This area, which is less crowded than other parts of the country, has lovely beaches and lots of family-friendly resorts," suggests Eileen Ogintz, founder of TakingTheKids.com.
Sand Sanctuaries The all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya has a drop-off club for kids 4 to 12 and babysitting services. A family play area for younger ones in partnership with HIT Entertainment (think: Angelina Ballerina, Thomas & Friends, and Bob the Builder) opened a few months ago. (Spring and summer rates start at $200 per night per adult for rooms with two beds, free for kids under 12; hrhrivieramaya.com.) For a lower-key adventure, try the all-inclusive Azul Beach Hotel, which offers free canopy beach beds (perfect for a toddler who needs to nap while older kids are still playing in the sand), a drop-off club that features pi?ata-making and other crafts for kids ages 4 to 12, and family Spanish lessons. (Rates start at $252 per night per adult, $120 per child ages 3 to 12, free for younger kids. Use code AZULPARENTS when booking from March 1, 2014 to June 30, 2014 for stays between May 1 and September 30 to receive a 40 percent discount on any Azul Hotel; karismahotels.com.)
Side Trips Check out Xcaret, a Disney-esque water-themed eco park. Kids can watch live shows (such as Mexican rodeos and Mayan ball games), walk through a butterfly pavilion, and take a guided nature tour ($89 for adults, $45 for kids 5 to 11, free for younger kids; xcaret.com).
The other Caribbean destination on our list that doesn't require a passport, the U.S. Virgin Islands are a great mix of the foreign and the familiar. "St. Thomas is easier to fly into and less expensive, but St. John and St. Croix offer more local culture," says McCarthy. "Since there is easy, inexpensive ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John, and boats to St. Croix, which is about 40 miles away, choose the resort you want to stay at and go island hopping."
Sand Sanctuaries The recently renovated Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort in St. Thomas wows kids with a splash zone, an oceanfront pool, and a club for ages 3 to 12 with pirate-lore storytelling. Babysitting is available. (Spring and summer rates start at $224 per night with the "Family Island Adventure" package, which includes a room with two beds plus a $200 credit in the Adventure Center for swimming with the turtles, paddleboarding, yoga, kayak tours, or other activities; frenchmansreefmarriott.com). On the neighboring island, the newly renovated Westin St. John Resort & Villas has a great location, a drop-off club for kids 3 to 12, family activities such as coconut bowling and hermit-crab racing, and free kayak rentals and snorkeling gear. (Spring rates start at $439 per night for a room with two beds. Summer rates start at $369 per night; westinresortstjohn.com.)
Side Trips In St. Thomas visit Coral World Ocean Park, where kids can feed the stingrays, watch a sea-lion show, and for an extra fee get an up-close encounter ($19 per adult, $10 for kids 12 and under for regular admission; $86 per adult, $77 per child for admission plus the sea-lion encounter and coral world; coralworldvi.com). On St. John, don't miss the Cinnamon Bay area of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park; it has a level, paved nature trail, a beautiful beach with lots of fish to see, picnic tables, and restrooms.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Parents magazine. This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.