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Exclusive | Best of the Caribbean (diving, beaching, dining and more)

Exclusive | Best of the Caribbean (diving, beaching, dining and more)

When you only want the best, hit these hot islands that offer the very finest diving, shopping, beach time, secluded escapes, dining, nightlife and spas.

Best islands for scuba diving
Bonaire
Considered the best diving in the Netherlands Antilles, warm waters and enticing restaurants add to Bonaire's allure. It's one of the destinations favored by Undersea Expeditions, leaders of gay and lesbian diving adventures (www.underseax.com).

Aruba
The sheltered southwestern shores of gay-welcoming Aruba boast a large number of spectacular sites, such as the wreck of the Pedernales.

Curaçao
Curaçao has lots of healthy coral and some wrecks, many accessible from the island's beaches. Highlights include the Mushroom Forest and Alice in Wonderland.

Virgin Gorda
One of the approximately 40 British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda is slow-paced and laidback. Offshore, the Dog Islands offer thrilling diving opportunities.

Best beaches
Puerto Rico
Condado Beach is a bustling stretch of sand, a short cab ride from Old San Juan. Tiny, queer-friendly Vieques's Esperanza beach opens onto a glorious bay and is a favorite hangout among guests of the area's many gay-friendly inns.

St. Maarten
Sun worshipers flock to Cupecoy Beach on the Dutch side of one of the Caribbean's favorite gay retreats. Cupecoy is the gay beach, usually jammed with nude, toned bodies. Made up of three white beaches nestled beneath caves, rock formations and cliffs, clothing is optional toward the northwest end of the beach.

St. Croix
On quiet St. Croix, the pristine beach just south of the town of Frederiksted lies within walking distance of the gay-oriented Sand Castle on the Beach resort.

St. Barts
This island, known for attracting jetsetters, fashionistas and other fabulous creatures, couldn't be gay-friendlier, even if there's not exactly a defined gay scene per se. Same-sexers are pretty much welcome everywhere, including 1,000-foot Saline Beach -- where nudity is permitted.

Best islands for romantic escapes
Vieques
Offering a peaceful and secluded counterpoint to busy San Juan, the small island of Vieques has gradually become one of the most gay-popular retreats in the Caribbean. The 21-by-5-mile island is a land of golden beaches and sheltered bays, perfect for two- to three-day escapes.

Saba
Mountainous Saba is one of the Caribbean's most unusual little gems. Rising dramatically from the ocean, the island has no beaches, no casinos and few resorts, but the volcanic island's hard-to-beat diving and well-maintained hiking trails make it a dream destination for active travelers.

Aruba
Beyond the Disney-perfect streets of Oranjestad, the main town and capital of the 70-square-mile island, there waits an island paradise with white-sand beaches, unwaveringly sunny skies and cooling trade winds.

Curaçao
Sexy, sophisticated Curaçao has a cosmopolitan outlook rare for a tiny Caribbean island. Add to that the urbane pleasures of Willemstad, its natural beauty and some fun gay nightlife and it's a winning combination.

Best islands for dining
St. Barts
St. Barts, Caribbean darling of the gay elite, is irresistible to sophisticated travelers. It may well provide the perfect Caribbean escape, offering up the best of its proud French heritage, including a wealth of gourmet dining opportunities.

St. Maarten
Dining is one of St. M's greatest pleasures; the French side alone has more than 300 restaurants crammed into 20 square miles. Grand Case is St. Maarten's "restaurant row," with dining at every price level, from elegant eateries to lolos, beachside pavilions where locals dish up inexpensive home-cooked specialties.

Puerto Rico
The island¿s comida criolla cuisine offers a tasty blend of Spanish, African, Taíno and American influences. From roadside stands offering up stuffed yucca alcapurria to upscale rooms in San Juan, Puerto Rico makes an ideal dining destination.

Curaçao
Curaçao's restaurants range from swanky continental to down-home local, in-town sophisticated to beachside mellow. French and Italian are favorites here, though European cuisines tend to have a touch of Caribbean flair, from ocean-fresh fish to the tang of local spice.

Best islands for gay nightlife
Puerto Rico
San Juan is one of the gayest spots in the Caribbean. Many gay clubs have moved to the new arts and culture district of Santurce, but don't miss Krash Klub, still in the Condado and still the main gay club in town.

Curaçao
Curaçao's nightlife starts late and lasts till the wee hours. With a dizzying schedule of nightly hot spots, it's best to grab the weekly K-Pasa (www.k-pasa.com) entertainment guide for the latest events schedule. If you want a totally gay bar, head to Lyrics (Waterfort Arches, Punda; look for the rainbow flag), the only one on the island.

St. Barts
Despite not having any gay bars, the laissez faire crowd of jetsetters and affluent fashionistas make a beautiful backdrop for nightlife on this chic isle. Options for nightlife include piano bars at many of the higher-end hotels, or, best of all, sitting and having a drink in Gustavia harbor or beachside at a hotel restaurant/bar after the sun goes down.

St. Croix
The bar at the Palms at Pelican Cove (formerly the Cormorant) is a good place to encounter local gay and lesbian residents. The Beach Side Café in gay and lesbian-adored resort Sand Castle on the Beach in Frederiksted is also a place to mingle with like-minded visitors to the island.

Best islands for shopping
US Virgin Islands
The higher duty-free limit for U.S. citizens shopping in the U.S. Virgin Islands (compared to most other Caribbean ports of call) makes this a top stop for shoppers.

St. Maarten
The Dutch side of the island doesn't add duty to sales, making shopping a great deal. Designer labels, electronics and leather are all available in generous quantities. Philipsburg, the Dutch side's capital, is the prime spree destination. Unfortunately hordes of arriving cruise-ship passengers seem to be onto this fact, too, and it can get chaotic. French fashions and perfumes are top of the shopping list on the French side.

Dominican Republic
Stock up on Dominican amber, semiprecious larimar and JFK-reminiscent rocking chairs at stalls and malls in Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata and at other spots along the north coast.

St. Barts
St. Barts' two main villages boast a far-better-than-average island shopping experience. Gustavia, the main island port, is one of the most picturesque in the Caribbean. St. Jean is the other shopping section, decidedly more low-key than Gustavia, but full of wonderful craft, art and fashion stores.

Best island spas
Dominican Republic
The elegant Aquarea Spa and Wellness Center at Sivory Punta Cana (Punta Cana; 011-809-552-0500; www.sivorypuntacana.com; from $266) is a holistic urban retreat, part of a sumptuous 55-suite resort with a private beach, a 10,000-bottle wine cellar and French, Mediterranean and Asian restaurants.

Martinique
The second-largest island in the French Caribbean, volcanic Martinique is home to 50-suite Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa (Quartier Cap Est; 011-5-96-54-8080; www.capest.com; from $450), the island's luxury leader, with two tiny beaches (perfect for early morning yoga), a Guerlain spa, and a pair of inventive restaurants.

Aruba
The 478-room Westin Aruba Spa and Casino (Irausquin Boulevard, Palm Beach; 877-822-2222; www.westin.com/aruba; from $189), the island's largest resort, is an oasis of relaxation just moments from the historical capital of Oranjestad.

Curaçao
Ultra-hip Hotel Kura Hulanda Spa and Casino (Langestraat 8, Willemstad; 011-599-9-434-7700; www.kurahulanda.com; from $159) has a delicious spa, one of the Leading Spas of the World, complete with Eco Pond Pool.

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