Ah, so you’re on the hunt for Caribbean islands close to Florida? We can see why! You’re about to embark on a journey through a region of the planet that’s basically fodder 101 for travel brochure designers. It’s charmed everyone from sea pirates to honeymooners in its time, and we daresay you’re next.
Islands such as Grand Bahama and Jamaica you might already know of. They’re in the mix here, touting their sizzling jerk shacks and turquoise seas. Others are a bit more off radar, such as the Elbow Cays and the secret boating mecca of Bimini.
Whatever you’re after from Caribbean islands close to Florida, we’re confident you’ll find it in our selection. It runs through seven places that are sure to tug at the heart strings and get you reaching for the sunscreen and passport ASAP. Anchors up! Let’s go…
Bimini is the name for the westernmost portion of the Bahamas, which means they’re (and we say they’re because there are three isles in the chain) among the closest of all to the Sunshine State. In fact, the first coral cays of the district are a mere 50 nautical miles from the coast of Florida, making them a doozy of a daytrip option for anyone with access to a yacht.
Talking of yachts, this trio of islands is the self-proclaimed sport fishing capital of the world. It’s a haven for anglers looking to do battle with great big marlins and rare yellowtail snappers alike. Plus, there are sections of nearby coral reef that are known to host some of the most prolific populations of shark in the Caribbean. Daring visitors come to dive under and encounter them in the wild!
The main town here is Alice Town. It gets plaudits for its laid-back Caribbean style and pretty harbor. The whole thing is fronted by a pink-sand beach, too, so you’re never too far from a hit of tropical R&R.
Another of the jewels in the crown of the Bahamas is the perfect dogleg of an island that is Exuma. It’s actually a district that’s made up of umpteen separate islands; some count 365, in fact; one for each day of the year. Most visitors aim straight for the largest of the group: 37-mile-long Great Exuma.
At just over an hour’s flight from the Sunshine State, it’s eminently accessible for jetters out of the USA. And it’s a stunner. Powdery, cloud-white beaches string up its main shoreline, occasionally interrupted by a charming fishing town with fish fry shacks. Fragmenting off the side are any number of smaller coral isles, like Pig Island, where you can dive in the azure Caribbean in the company of friendly piglets. What more could you ask for?
What’s really awesome about hopping over Exuma way from Florida is that it’s a gateway to that 360+ island chain we mentioned above. Boat charters are the way to do it, so you can whiz between deserted beaches and hidden tufts of coral reef at your own pace.
Keen politicos will know that Cuba’s proximity to the shores of Florida has been both a blessing and a curse for the folks of the stars and stripes over the decades. On the one hand, it lead to the tense standoffs of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasions of the early 60s. On the other, its meant easy access to one of the most enthralling rocks in the whole Caribbean chain.
A recent thawing of relations between the erstwhile enemy states means Cuba is now accessible on a whole host of commercial flights out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Some go to the moody coffee and tobacco hub of Santiago in the south. Others aim for the glowing sands of Varadero, Cuba’s prime resort area.
We say that no trip to this land of smoking cigars the size of your forearm could possibly be complete without at least a short jaunt through Havana. Rum-soaked and vintage to the T, it’s a town of gritty jazz joints and Cadillac-bumping streets; a great place to feel the beating pulse of the country.
Jamaica is 526 miles as the crow flies from Miami. That’s not a short distance by any stretch but it does make it one of the more accessible members of the Caribbean archipelago for natives of the Sunshine State. Just compare the distance to the whopping 1,500 miles you’d need to go to get to Grenada or St Lucia.
It just so happens that 9/10 travel experts will tell you that Jamaica is also one of the real bucket-list draws of the region. Steeped in rich Rastafari culture, home to reggae music, jerk chicken, and steel-drum jazz, it’s a unique spot that’s really unlike any other island nation around.
These days, there are direct flights from Florida, Orlando, and Tampa to the isle that gave the world Bob Marley and the Wailers. They take a shade under two hours and usually get you to the main tourism airport of Montego Bay, a steppingstone to the famous sand strips and resorts of the northern coast.
Grand Bahama, Bahamas
Despite the name, Grand Bahama isn’t actually the largest of the Bahamas. Crucially, though, it is the northernmost in the group, and that brings it within a whisker of the Floridian coastline. A whisker to the tune of 56 nautical miles, no less! That’s so close that there are even regular public ferry routes that take as little as three hours from Fort Lauderdale. We’d still plump for a private yacht if we had the option, though.
What awaits on the other side? How does a fascinating island that’s wrapped up in tales of Spanish conquest and English colonialism sound? How about a land engulfed by mangrove swamps and rainforests, threaded by idyllic bays, and dotted with five-star hotels? Yea, thought so…
The highlights of Grand Bahama for us would be the old settlement of West End, once a smuggling hotspot for prohibition-era booze runners, and the incredible Lucayan National Park, where gurgling wetlands give way to some of the largest underground rivers and cave systems in the world.
Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands
There are two sides to the Cayman Islands. There’s the yacht-flaunting, mansion-touting, jet-setter side. Then there’s the down-to-earth local side. Cayman Brac, the easternmost and northernmost of the whole chain, is most certainly of the latter sort.
It strings through the heart of the western Caribbean Sea 140 miles south of Cuba and 380 miles south of the tip of Florida. It’s engulfed from top to toe in mangroves and jungles, with protected areas such as the National Trust Parrot Reserve offering glimpses of multi-colored birds as it goes.
For beaches, skip East End. That’s a world of craggy coast rocks and sea caves. The southwest coast is better. It’s got the very same quartz-soft sand as Grand Cayman, only with just a fraction of the cruise shipping crowd.
Elbow Cays, Bahamas
The last mention of the Bahamas on this list of Caribbean islands close to Florida goes to the Elbow Cays; the wild, untouched, Robinson Crusoe-worthy Elbow Cays. Studding a wide reef shelf at the very western extremity of the Caribbean Sea, these wisps of white sand and coral stone might only be 63 miles from the Florida Keys but they are just about as untouched as the region gets.
The area has been many things in its long life. Spanish conquistadors plotted charts as they made headway into the New World that showed they’d pit-stopped on the Elbows. Drug smugglers have used the isles as part of trafficking routes out of South America. More recently, they’ve become famed scuba destinations, known for H2O visibility of 30 meters or more.
(One caveat: Don’t confuse this string of islands with their namesake Bahamian cay, Elbow Cay. That’s one of the highlights of the Bahamas’s holidaying scene, with community-led resorts and gorgeous beaches near Marsh Harbor. You can go there if you like. It’s lovely. But it’s not quite as close to Florida as the above.)
Caribbean islands close to Florida – our conclusion
The Caribbean islands close to Florida that we’ve selected above start less than 50 nautical miles from the shores of the Sunshine State. Some of them are even accessible on public ferry boats from major cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Others are a bit further away, but we’re still talking under two hours’ flight time from commercial hubs like Tampa and Orlando airport.
Together, they offer a whole medley of different sorts of places. There are remote cays beset by pristine coral gardens for the scuba and sailing aficionados (Elbow Cays, Bimini). There are R&R hubs with honeymoon hotels (Grand Bahama, Jamaica). And there are quiet beach escapes with sand and seas to die for (Cayman Brac, Exuma).