Hurricane season begins June 1. For many families summer vacation begins soon after, many filled with dream-like visits to beautiful tropical islands.
Prime hurricane breeding time comes in August and September. During these months there are countless news reports of tropical systems forming, damaging and dissipating around the Caribbean islands, with the area most commonly affected called the hurricane belt.
There are, however, options for that tropical island vacation you have dreamed about. The people of the islands have a saying: “June – too soon; July – stand by; August – look out you must; September – remember; October – all over.” So, the first option is to take that vacation early in the summer.
The second option – visit the islands south of the hurricane belt. Though these islands can be impacted by a hurricane, the chances are much slimmer. These are the Caribbean islands that are the safest to visit during hurricane season.
- The ABC Islands – Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao
Unlike many islands of the Caribbean, Aruba is relatively arid with an average year-round temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit and a flat, cactus-strewn geography. Tradewinds from the Atlantic keep the temperature constant, a big draw for tourists. Aruba is known for world-class wind surfing, kite surfing, snorkeling and diving. If it’s leisure you desire, relax on one of the many beaches on the southern coast. Landlubbers may prefer to hike the rugged interior of the island or explore Arikok National Park, the Indian caves or the many unusual rock formations on Aruba’s windward coast.
Though hurricanes are not common in Aruba and the island has not been directly impacted in over 100 years, three hurricanes have come close in the past ten years. In 2007, Category 1 Hurricane Felix came within 40 miles, bringing with it minimal damage and flooding in low-lying areas. In 2005, Category 3 Hurricane Emily came within 100 miles of the island, also with minimal damage. Back in 2004, Category 4 Hurricane Ivan came within 80 miles of the island, causing substantial damage and flooding throughout the island.
Like Aruba, Bonaire enjoys year-round temperatures of 82 degrees and twelve hours of sunlight all year. The island has a few sandy beaches but the main tourist draw is the water activities. Reefs are easily accessible from shore for scuba diving and snorkeling. Other popular activities include kite surfing, windsurfing, and fishing. Bonaire’s tourism board has recently added rock climbing, rappelling, and kayaking to the popular activities on the island. Several eco operators offer tours around the island for nature lovers. One of Bonaire’s logos is “Diver’s Paradise” and it also touts itself as one of the most eco and conservation conscious islands in the Caribbean.
Bonaire’s last brush with a hurricane came in 2008 from Tropical Storm Omar which caused damage to the beaches. Prior to Omar, Category 2 Hurricane Felix traveled within 43 miles of the island. Note that Felix was still a Category 2 here but had intensified to a Category 3 by the time it passed by Aruba 80 miles to the west. Bonaire has been impacted directly once in the last century, by Tropical Storm Cesar in 1996.
Of the three ABC Islands, all of which have been governed and influenced by the Dutch since the 1600s, Curacao probably shows the most Dutch influence. The capital city, Willemstad, is one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Caribbean. Willemstad boasts world-class dining, shopping, historic architecture and attractions such as Fort Amsterdam. For beach and water-lovers, Curacao offers white sandy beaches and some of the best diving in the world. You can also take an ATV or cycling tour, horseback riding, or explore Christoffel National Park. Curacao was selected by Bing as a Top 10 travel destination and by Sherman’s Travel as the #2 Caribbean island.
Like Bonaire, Curacao’s closest call with a large storm was Category 2 Hurricane Felix which traveled within 50 miles of the island. Also like Bonaire, Tropical Storm Cesar traveled over the island, but Curacao has not been directly impacted by a hurricane in over 100 years.
- Isla de Margarita and Isla la Tortuga (and surrounding islands)
These two Venezualan islands are not yet well-known among Caribbean tourists; however, they are seeing an increase year after year because of their beautiful scenery and duty-free shopping. Margarita has at least 50 beaches along 106 miles of coastline. It also offers tourists an active night life. Margarita can be reached by ferry or plane from the Venezuelan mainland. Tortuga lies west of Margarita and is largely uninhabited except for a few small fishing camps. The island is accessible by water plane or boat, and tourists can camp right on the beach. If camping runs to the primitive side of accommodations for you, there is one hotel on the island. The main draw for islands is the beautiful sunsets and miles of virgin beaches. Several smaller islands in the vicinity are also accessible by boat from Isla de Margarita. Isla Coche and Isla Cubagua offer world-class kite surfing and wind surfing conditions. Isla Coche has a population of 7,000 and a hostel for kite surfers. Los Testigos is known for hikes through the sand dunes where hikers reach the lighthouse and magnificent views. La Blanquilla, about 60 miles north of Margarita, has a small village and Coast Guard station. The island offers the intrepid tourist stunning beaches and some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. Los Aves is uninhabited and has no lighthouse or Coast Guard station. The boat ride to the island offers fantastic deep-sea fishing and once at the island, the reefs provide some of the world’s best snorkeling opportunities.
The Venezuelan islands were directly impacted by TS Alma in 1974. The storm was indirectly responsible for 47 deaths on Isla de Margarita when it caused a plane crash. TS Alma travelled almost directly west at latitude 10 degrees N. Isla de Margarita is located at 11 degrees N. The 1988 TS Joan brought moderate winds and rainfall to the islands. It made its first landfall on Grenada and continued west passing about 120 miles north of the islands. TS Bret followed Alma’s path in 1993, again impacting the Venezuelan islands. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan passed approximately 120 miles north of Isla de Margarita. It caused high winds, heavy rainfall and high surf with beach closings on the islands. Then in 2007, Hurricane Felix followed a similar route taking it over Grenada and passing about 120 miles to the north. Though Felix was still a tropical storm when it passed the Venezuelan islands, it caused heavy rain and high surf.
- Trinidad and Tobago
The two islands that make up Trinidiad and Tobago lie just south of the hurricane belt. The tourism board of the country touts the islands as “The True Caribbean” and if a variety of activities is what makes your vacation, these two islands may be the perfect destination. Trinidad, the larger of the two islands at just over 1800 square miles, offers adventures in the water, on the mountains, on the wetlands and in caves. The island has two mountain ranges, one to the north and one to the south, which are separated by the central wetlands. The northern mountains are covered in rainforest and criss-crossed with many hiking trails for all levels and an abundance of natural wonders to discover. From waterfalls to rivers to caves (and the wildlife, of course), the rainforest trails are favorites among hikers. Tobago also offers rainforest hikes in the world’s oldest protected rainforest (protected since 1776), as well as bird and wildlife watching with over 115 species of birds and over 6000 species of plants and animals on the island’s 116 square miles. Like all other Caribbean islands, Trinidad and Tobago have active tourism in fishing, boating, beach-going, and water sports.
Trinidad and Tobago are rarely affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. The last direct hit came in 1963 from Hurricane Flora which passed over Tobago. Prior to Flora, Trinidad was hit in 1933 by a hurricane which passed through early in the year (June) in a very active hurricane season. Category 3 Hurricane Ivan hit Grenada, 90 miles north of Tobago, in 2004 and caused some damage to Tobago. In 2007, TS Felix made landfall in Grenada as well, causing mudslides and heavy rainfall in Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago has been hit by several tropical storms, including TS Arthur in 1990 and TS Joyce in 2000, while Trinidad has been hit even less, the last times from TS Bret in 1993 and TS Fran in 1990.
With many relatively hurricane-safe islands in the southern Caribbean, that tropical island vacation remains within reach during the summer months. Taking the trip early and understanding that no island is completely immune to a tropical system’s power will take the stress out of hurricane season and make a beautiful and memorable vacation, no matter which island you ultimately choose to visit.