Sure, the economy may be bouncing back, but that doesn't mean we're all feeling flush, primed for a five-star tropical escape. If the swelling stock market hasn't trickled up to your pocketbook quite yet, then a frugal vacation probably still makes sense. But as winter looms on the horizon and travelers line up for a Caribbean trip, sorting through all the island options to locate the best values can be a challenge. ¶ Four destinations rise to the top of the list when it comes to bang for your buck, with modest airfares, bargain hotels and solid dining that won't decimate your wallet -- and won't leave you feeling like a penny-pincher in paradise either. These islands may be off the beaten path or the hotels tucked away from the crowds, but isn't that part of the appeal? Bring on the quiet beaches, the expansive views from atop the hill and the authentic tropical charm.
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
With more than 4.3 million visitors in 2011, the Dominican Republic is the Caribbean's top tourism destination. The country's pursuit of tourist dollars began in the 1970s with the development of European-owned all-inclusive hotels, and for many years the vast majority of visitors were budget-conscious Canadians and Europeans. Today Americans lead the charge, most of them aiming for the shores of Punta Cana and adjoining Bavaro. Here the palm-lined sandscape stretches -- almost unbroken -- for more than 40 miles, with sprawling all-inclusive resorts lining the shore.
What's new: The 822-room Now Larimar Punta Cana is a family-friendly all-inclusive that opened last year (www.nowresorts.com; 1-877-669-9953). The resort is set on a good stretch of beach and has three pools, seven restaurants and live music daily. Through Dec. 22, a rate of $145 per person is available, including taxes and gratuities and a $200 resort credit (ask for the Triple Play promotion).
Tried and true: One of Punta Cana's original resorts, Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort received a top-to-bottom, $330 million makeover in 2011, leaving 11 restaurants, the P.B. Dye golf course and 1.5 miles of beachfront (www.barcelo.com; 1-800-227-2356). Child facilities are strong, but almost a third of the 1991 rooms are in a dedicated adults-only wing. All-inclusive doubles start at $312, through Dec. 20.
Logistics: Air-hotel packages typically offer the best value for those winging to the D.R., but choose your all-inclusive resort carefully. Once it's booked, the style and tone of your vacation will be pretty much set.
Port Antonio, Jamaica
A bohemian aura still pervades lush Port Antonio, the rustic backwater in Jamaica's east end. Admittedly, some of the hotels are frayed at the edges and downtown is dilapidated, but the charismatic area oozes charm and authenticity. It's Jamaica before the mega-hotels and cruise ships. Hideaway beaches like Winifred and Long Bay recall the laid-back Negril of the 1970s. Jerk cooking was born here. Humble shacks line the road at Boston Bay selling chicken, ribs and fish bathed in fiery scotch bonnet peppers and spices and slow-grilled over pimento wood. Bamboo raft journeys, originally used to transport bananas from field to port, provide Port Antonio's irresistibly recumbent signature tourist attraction.
What's new: While the hotel's glory days have long passed, the new beach restaurant at Frenchman's Cove resort, Le Pirate Café, is an appealing retreat for grilled lobster and burgers, overlooking the resplendent cove (1-876-993-7270). The resort charges a beach access fee of $8 per person.
Tried and true: At Goblin Hill Villas, one- and two-bedroom apartment-style units overlook gin-clear San San Bay (www.goblinhillvillas.com; 1-876-925-8108). Doubles are $150 and up and include the services of a cook/housekeeper (all hotel rates are for doubles in low season).
Logistics: Plentiful airline service makes Jamaica perhaps the region's cheapest target, but reaching Port Antonio takes extra effort; the town is a 4-hour drive from Montego Bay or 2 1/2 hours from Kingston. Rent a car for the scenic journey from Island Car Rentals (1-866-978-5335; islandcarrentals.com); rates online start at $33 per day.
Beyond the forts, Puerto Rico
Step off the plane and you can feel Puerto Rico's heat. No, not the tropical heat (though you'll feel that, too). San Juan plunges visitors into the piquant sensuality of a modern Latin culture set against the imposing backdrop of Spanish colonial history. But while the city has plenty of nightlife and dining, the island has long had a love affair with cars, good for exploring the hinterlands. Explore beyond San Juan and you'll find seaside villages, lush rain forests and deserted tawny beaches. Roads are generally good. In the rain forests of El Yunque, hike or frolic in lush waterfalls. At the awesome Arecibo Observatory, scientists have an ear to the heavens, listening for distant signals through a 20-acre satellite dish. In Rincon, on the west coast, playful surfing beaches await.
What's new: Zip lines have sprung up throughout the Caribbean, but the world's highest and second-longest is found at Toro Verde Adventure Park, where La Bestia (the Beast) sends riders at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour along a nearly one-mile traverse (www.toroverdepr.com; 1-787-867-7020).
Tried and true: On the south coast, well away from San Juan's hubbub, is Copamarina Beach Resort, a 106-room family-oriented hotel in the seaside town of Guanica (1-800-468-4553; www.copamarina.com). Rooms start at $145, leaving something in the budget for exploring the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Guanica Biosphere Reserve, next door.
Logistics: Puerto Rico is a driving island, and road rules and insurance issues will be familiar to Americans.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
A busy port for cruise ships and shopping sprees, St. Thomas' historic capital, Charlotte Amalie, boasts an outstanding natural harbor engulfed by muscular mountains, and a Danish history that comes alive in evocative passageways paved with cobblestone. Despite considerable development, natural beauty still makes an appearance, especially as you head to less-busy beaches like Lindquist or Brewers Bay, and day trips by ferry to lovely (but pricey) St. John are easy. Airfares are competitive; discount coupons are common for dining, activities and shops, and pesky surcharges (departure tax, service charges, etc.) are at a minimum. Affordable lodging is found in the hills surrounding Charlotte Amalie, and though you'll be off the beach, the advantage of bunking down here is a concentration of restaurants. The central location is also convenient to shopping, the airport and ferries to neighboring islands.
What's new: Hassel Island is the nearly uninhabited outpost in the middle of St. Thomas Harbor. Now incorporated into the Virgin Islands National Park, rangers serve as guardians for a signal tower, garrison house, old WWII navy barracks and the Creque Marine Railway, the oldest and longest running marine railway in the Western Hemisphere. Explore Hassel's maritime history with Virgin Islands Ecotours, which offers three-hour kayak tours for $99 (www.viecotours.com; 1-877-845-2925).
Tried and true: Bellavista Bed and Breakfast is an immaculate four-room boutique inn with an attentive proprietor who eagerly shares tips on the best of the island (www.bellavista-bnb.com; 1-888-333-3063). With its beautiful harbor panorama, the pool deck is a fine hangout at dawn and dusk, when guests are invited to BYOB. Doubles from $175, including hot breakfast.
Logistics: Public transportation options are slim, so maximize your sightseeing by renting a car for at least part of your stay. You won't need a passport to visit St. Thomas, but leave a little room in your suitcase: The USVI duty-free limit is $1,200 (there's no sales tax); you'll find particularly good buys on jewelry.
San Diego-based freelance writer-photographer David Swanson wrote the "Affordable Caribbean" column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine for 15 years.