Most people agree that sunny, sandy island beaches are great for vacations, but the idea of a more permanent vacation (think relocation) makes many would-be beach residents feel priced out of the market. That’s unfortunate because it’s not wholly true. If you go beyond the tourist brochures, you can find a variety of idyllic islands that are a lot more affordable than you may realize, making these gems worth your attention. Think Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico. All of these locales offer islands with turquoise-blue waters and powder-white Caribbean coasts – only you won’t have to spend a fortune to live on them. Here are five Caribbean island destinations that won’t siphon your savings, and three that just might.
1. Ambergris Caye, Belize – The largest island in Belize, English-speaking Ambergris Caye now hosts a thriving community of expats. San Pedro is the only town on the island, which until just a few years ago was a little fishing village that drew adventure travelers interested in scuba diving and deep-sea fishing. Thirty years ago, Ambergris hit the map for divers and fishermen because of the thriving Belize Barrier Reef, a wonder of living coral and marine life. Today, San Pedro is the second-largest town in the Belize District, with more than 15,000 people and surpassed in size only by the former capital Belize City. Ex-pats living on Ambergris Cave spend about $2,000 to $3,000 for living expenses, including rent, and properties can be found for around $175,000. Ambergris Caye has said goodbye to the sleepy little island hideaway it once was, and has ushered in a new era of active communities and convenience. Utilities are reliable on the island, you can buy most necessities for living locally, and there is a burgeoning restaurant and bar scene. If you need to take a shopping trip off the island, water taxis and flights make stopping over to Belize City, or Chetumal, Mexico a breeze.
2. Roatán, Honduras – Located 35 miles off the coast of Honduras, Roatán is a place where English is widely spoken and there is an established expat community, making it an easy place to settle into. Measuring at only 50 square miles, this western Caribbean escape has evolved from a secret diver’s getaway to a livable island community. The terrain is green and hilly, fringed by a reef bursting with sea life. The beaches are quiet and pristine, and development hasn’t taken hold of the island paradise of Roatán; there are no big-name resorts and no high-rise developments. Instead, the island rings of the Caribbean of old, with a slower paced and more relaxed lifestyle. Living on an island can often be more expensive than life on the mainland because almost everything has to be imported. Relative to the rest of the Caribbean, however, Roatán is a great value, with the cost of living for a couple hovering around $2,000 to $2,500 per month including rent. If you’re looking for a laidback island paradise where you can dive, snorkel, or just take in the beach with your feet in the sand and an ice-cold beverage in your hand, Roatán is the place to be.
3. Isla Mujeres, Mexico – While Isla Mejeres is only eight miles from Cancún, this relaxed island is far removed from the hustle and bustle of its touristy neighbor to the west. Before the Cancún boom, Mexicans and a few adventurous foreigners would visit Isla Mujeres for its clear waters and white sand beaches, and for some of the best water sports in the world; visitors could dive for coral, swim with dolphins, and sail on a crystal blue sea. Today, locals and visitors alike still enjoy the same activities, and expats living on the island say it’s very affordable to build a life on Isla Mujeres. A couple can live comfortably on $2,500 per month, including rent, which ranges from $900 to $1,500 for one- or two-bedroom apartments and groceries for a couple typically total around $600 a month.
4. Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic – Just a three-and-a-half hour flight from New York, you can leave the city at lunchtime and be on the beach in the Dominican Republic in time for happy hour. And the beaches around Las Terrenas are some of the most pristine in the Dominican Republic, with the north coast of the island boasting some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. The east coast of the island is home to a golfer’s paradise, as some of the newest designer golf courses in the region call the Dominican Republic home. Thirty years ago, the town of Las Terrenas was a simple fishing village without an electricity supply. The face of the town changed a few years later with an influx of French and Italian expats who loved the town so much they made it home. Their influence is still present today; the original old wooden homes sitting on the beach are now trendy cafés and restaurants that are family-run, serving authentic Italian and French food. Las Terrenas isn’t an all-inclusive resort territory – beach hotels are small and family-run – and because of its strict planning laws it should stay that way. Las Terrenas offers a low-key getaway with all the conveniences of home. The town offers excellent values with its combination of beautiful beaches, a small-town feel, chic style, and relatively affordable property. Despite the fact that Las Terranas is becoming increasingly popular with expats, you can find condos for sale for less than $200,000. A couple can live in this laidback beach town for around $2,000 a month, including rent. Real estate in Las Terrenas also remains affordable, with newer condos, close to shops and a 15-minute walk to the beach, starting at $100,000.
5. Corn Islands, Nicaragua – The Corn Islands are two tiny dots of beach heaven located just 50 miles off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Big Corn is about four square miles and has approximately 6,000 residents, while Little Corn is one-fourth the size of its larger sister in both size and population. The islands are only 10 miles apart, which translates into a 30-minute boat ride between the two. Friendly locals speak English as their official language, and despite their beauty, these somewhat secret islands see very few tourists. With white sandy beaches, palm trees, azure water, and a bustling reef for scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing, the Corn Islands are a mostly undeveloped slice of heaven. On Little Corn, there are no roads; the island has just a three-foot-wide sandy walkway and no vehicles are allowed. Supplies that aren’t locally grown or fished from the waters must be shipped in from the mainland. If this sounds like the location for your dream home, go sooner rather than later. Real estate is starting to surge, but there are still plenty of great deals. On Big Corn, for example, an ocean view, two-bedroom home a two-minute walk to the beach recently listed for $150,000.
Of course, as with so much in life, you have more options if you have more money. Here are three Caribbean islands that fall into the If-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it range.
1. St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands – The U.S. Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, comprised of over 60 islands, most of which are uninhabited. St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix are the most populated and attract the most tourists each year. The most commercialized of the islands (and a regular stopping off point for Caribbean cruise ships), St. Thomas is the island on which most of the population of the U.S. Virgin Island lives. Part of the appeal of this lush tropical island is the mix of paradise and modern comfort. St. Thomas is a marriage of Caribbean culture and American modernization. The 30-square-mile island is home to both mountainous jungles and a clear blue sea scattered with yachts of all sizes. Because of its notoriety, St. Thomas, and in particular the capital of Charlotte Amalie, can get overrun by tourists. While St. Thomas is certainly a nice place to live, the high cost of living makes it less appealing than its Caribbean cousins listed above. For instance, apartments rent for about $2,000 a month and a two-bedroom house in a good neighborhood will run about $225,000.
2. Grand Bahama Island, The Bahamas – When you think Grand Bahama, you immediately think celebrities. Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Connery, Bill Gates, and Tiger Woods all own second homes in the Bahamas. Like other expats who live there, celebrities often think of the Bahamas as a paradise—an upscale group of islands with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. That, coupled with the fact that there’s no foreign language to cope with, crime is relatively low, the Bahamas are friendly to newcomers and the islands are positioned just off the Florida coast make this cluster of islands seem like the perfect relocation destination. And they may be, if your wallet can support the exorbitant cost. Property on the islands isn’t cheap, with medium-size residences in exclusive gated communities with ocean views often costing more than $2 million. The bottom line: Grand Bahama Island has become a haven for beach-lovers and golfers alike, and also is a prime destination for people who enjoy world-class shopping. But living here costs a premium – it’s between 30 percent and 50 percent more expensive than in the U.S.
3. St. Martin, Leeward Islands – Saint Martin is part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea, and comprises two separate countries, divided between its northern French side, also called Saint Martin, and its southern Dutch side, Sint Maarten. The island is home to busy resort beaches, secluded coves, and vibrant restaurants and nightlife. While the azure water of the Caribbean and the white sandy beaches attract throngs of tourists each year, St. Martin also has a steadily growing expat population, despite citizenship restrictions imposed by the European Union. With all that St. Martin has to offer, however, the cost of living is similar to that of Grand Bahama – you’ll pay between 30 percent and 50 percent more for regular living expenses than in the U.S.