So you're off to The Caribbean! Great! But where exactly?

With hundreds of islands in nearly three million square kilometres of the Caribbean Sea, charting these waters can be difficult – even if you've navigated them before.

Generally, The Caribbean means plenty of sunshine, stunning scenery, warm water, exotic beaches, great food, and an attitude best described by Jamaica's mantra, no problem, mon! Geographically, however, The Caribbean is not as easy to define.

Covering a vast area from the toe of Florida to the forehead of South America, the Caribbean Islands vary in scope from the lush, jungle-green slopes of Tortola, part of the British Virgin Islands, to the flat, beach-lined shores of Grand Cayman. They're all very different. What further complicates this, is that some cruise lines are including Mexican ports of call, like Calica and Cozumel as part of their Caribbean itineraries.

Confused? Don't be. It all makes sense as soon as you start putting it into some kind of order.

The nucleus of the region, sometimes known as the West Indies, consists of two main groups, the Greater Antilles to the north and the Lesser Antilles to the east.

Though arguably not a real part of the Greater Antilles, the 700 islands of The Bahamas, 80 kilometres off the coast of Florida, mark the start of The Caribbean . With a semitropical climate and undulating pine forests, they offer a gentle introduction to the region for first time adventurers.

Southwards, Cuba is the largest island in the Greater Antilles. Though politically not always recognized as being a part of The Caribbean , the pristine white sands and clear turquoise waters of beaches like Varadero on the north coast attract hordes of tourists each year.

Nestled below Cuba, but still a part of the Greater Antilles, Britain's three Cayman Islands are an excellent destination for families. Clean and safe, there is an accent on water sports such as diving and snorkelling, relaxation and good food.

Jamaica, to the east, the third largest island in The Caribbean, is one of the most popular destinations in the region. With a more lively emphasis on music and dance - the fun aspect of the area - Jamaica typifies what The Caribbean is all about: colour, excitement and beauty.

The second main group of islands, the Lesser Antilles, to the east and the south, are divided into two groups. The Leeward Islands extend from Puerto Rico to Guadaloupe, including the northern British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands. The southern group, the Windward Islands, stretch from Dominica down to Saint Vincent.

St Martin, a starting-off point for the Leeward Islands, is best known for its hundreds of duty-free shops, boutiques and 36 fabulous beaches - great for those bent on a shopping spree. For those more interested in wildlife and nature, the lush national park on St John, the pride of the US Virgin Islands may be more appropriate. Or for those with fame and riches in mind, the exclusive garden isle of St Barts is not far.

Also an integral part of the Leeward Islands, Antigua is known for its hundreds of beaches, at least one for each day of the year, and coves and harbours. Barbuda nearby is a wildlife haven for deer and exotic birds.

Dominica and her misty volcanic mountain range is a dramatic introduction to the Windward Islands. Martinique close by, the opposite perhaps to the gentler Bahamas, is probably more suitable for the adventurous. For those not so experienced, there is always Barbados - a reflection of years of British rule. Here, cricket and afternoon tea are national sports!

And finally, trailing in a blaze of colour, St Vincent and The Grenadines are famous for still more breathtaking beaches, waterfalls, nature trails and friendly people.

But then every island in The Caribbean offers an exotic experience of sorts, each in its own different way. The only thing you need is time – to see it all!

Photos: Barbados Tourism Authority

at the cruise in the Caribbean in the cruise archives