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Traveller's Guide: Family Caribbean - from rainforests and reefs to beaches and boat trips

These islands provide the perfect winter-sun escape for all ages

The Caribbean is a favourite holiday playground for families, and while the region boasts outstanding stretches of sand from Barbados to Cancun in Mexico, it's not all about the beach. There are rainforests and reefs to explore, zip-lines to ride, and historic forts and sugar mills to investigate.

There's similar variety when it comes to your choice of destination and holiday type, with direct flights from the UK to islands across the region and your pick of exclusive hotels, villas, guesthouses and homestays.

All-inclusive packages have fast become a favourite with British families keen to keep tabs on their spending. The UK's market leader is First Choice (0871 200 4455; firstchoice.co.uk), the all-inclusive sister company of Thomson. There are also dedicated all-inclusive resorts in the region, such as Beaches (08000 22 32 33; beachesresorts.co.uk), Dreams (001 866 237 3267; dreamsresorts.com) and Club Med (08453 670 670; clubmed.co.uk).

For breadth of choice, consult Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com) and Kuoni (0844 488 0343; kuoni.co.uk). Luxury travel companies include Elegant Resorts (01244 897505; elegantresorts.co.uk) and ITC Classics (01244 355550; itcclassics.co.uk). And there are specialists, such as Caribtours (020 3131 0174; caribtours.co.uk) and Complete Caribbean (01423 531031; www.completecaribbean.co.uk).

Self-catering is a viable option, with a good selection available from operators including CV Villas (020 7563 7999; cvvillas.com) and HomeAway (homeaway.co.uk), which also lists apartments. Try the Bed & Breakfast Directory (bnb-directory.com) for guesthouses.

If the thought of flying long haul with little ones makes your nerves jangle, choose a destination with a direct flight. Direct services from the UK operate to Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago. Be warned that "direct" doesn't always mean "non-stop"; flights to Grenada, for example, stop in Saint Lucia. Check out British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), Caribbean Airlines (0845 362 4225; caribbean-airlines.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), Thomas Cook Airlines (0844 879 8880; flythomascook.com) and Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com).

Fares rocket in the school holidays, as does accommodation in the peak season of December to mid-April. But there are decent deals around already for 2014 school breaks. Hayes & Jarvis (01293 735831; hayesandjarvis.co.uk) has an all-inclusive week at The Verandah Resort & Spa on Antigua during Easter, from 6 April, for £1,199pp, with flights from Gatwick on Virgin Atlantic. In May half-term, Prestige Caribbean (020 8994 2244; prestigecaribbean.com) has a week's all-inclusive at Windjammer Landing Resort in Saint Lucia for £5,859 for two adults and two children in a two-bedroom villa with private pool, including BA flights from Gatwick.

Natural highs

Nature tantalises the senses in the Caribbean – from the heady scent of the frangipani in the humid air, to the luminescent residents of the coral reefs. Geodyssey (020 7281 7788; geodyssey.co.uk) is one operator offering families a close-up look at the region's wild side, arranging tailor-made tours to Cuba or Trinidad and Tobago. A two-week "Nature Explorer" tour based on the latter two islands costs from £1,845pp with time spotting hummingbirds, scarlet ibis, iguanas and sapphire-winged butterflies. Guides, accommodation, and most meals included; flights extra.

You could make nature just one of the components of a holiday – wildlife activities are offered by many hotels as part of their kids'-club programmes, as well as by tourist boards.

The Kids 'r' VIPs initiative run by St Kitts Tourism Authority (stkittstourism.kn) has a sea turtle monitoring project, where five- to 15-year olds can accompany conservationists on night patrols to see nesting leatherbacks.

Castaway islands

If you crave the Robinson Crusoe experience, you'll be dependent on inter-island carriers, which will add both time and cost to your holiday.

So, first, find your international hub, then look for a quiet island within easy reach. For example, pretty Carriacou and Petit Martinique are within reach of Grenada via ferry (ospreylines.com). Antigua is also close to its little sister, Barbuda, making this tiny island – 14 by 11 miles, population 1,600 – an easy 90-minute ride by catamaran (001 268 560 7989; barbudaexpress.com; adults EC$260/ £59; children aged two-six EC$120/£27; aged seven-12 EC$200/£45).

Once on Barbuda, go further still to find North Beach Barbuda (001 268 721 3314; barbudanorthbeach.com). This cluster of five beach-front cottages will suit families who like an authentic castaway experience – no Wi-Fi, kids' club or spa here. Owner and host Reuben James prides himself on the rather special offering of 12 miles of pink sands and a coral reef to explore, as well as fresh seafood feasts for dinner. Rates start at US$200 (£122) per person per night, full board, with transfers. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly non-stop to Antigua from Gatwick; returns from £550.

Set sail

Sailing is one of the pricier choices of holiday in the Caribbean, yet popular with active families. Sunsail (0844 417 1935; sunsail.co.uk) offers independent, skippered and flotilla options at its six bases in the region. Before you set off, you can learn the ropes at the sailing school at Nonsuch Bay Resort (001 268 562 8000; nonsuchbayresort.com), on Antigua.

One of the best deals this season is with The Adventure Company (0808 271 4892; adventurecompany.co.uk), which has launched a nine-day sailing package including the February and Easter school holidays. A skippered, eight-berth vessel has been opened up to individual bookings, solving the prohibitive cost of chartering a yacht. Guests can hop around several of the British Virgin Islands. Highlights include a trip to Norman Island – said to be the inspiration for Treasure Island – and the chance to swim with turtles at Dead Man's Bay. The price starts at £1,912 per adult, £1,721 per child, including indirect flights from Gatwick, transfers, half-board, excursions and a skipper.

Adventure playground

The Caribbean isn't all about fly-and-flop holidays, it's a place for adventure too. Explore (0845 291 4541; explore.co.uk) and KE Adventure Travel (01768 773966; keadventure.com) offer families a thrilling mix of rainforest hikes, white-water rafting and even volcano-watching.

Or try the "Cuban Biking Adventure" (pictured right) from Exodus (0845 869 2014; exodus.co.uk), a new nine-day guided cycling holiday for active families with older children. It mixes five days of cycling, with time to explore towns and countryside and visit attractions such as the Bay of Pigs museum. The trip begins in Cienfuegos, passes through the Topes de Collantes National Park and calls at Trinidad and finally Havana. Accommodation is in a mix of hotels with pools and casas particulares – homestays – for a flavour of local life. The trip starts at £1,549pp, including Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick, B&B accommodation and some other meals. Departures 10 and 17 April, 22 May and 24 July.

Spoilt for choice

Money no object? Then book into one of the newly opened two-bedroom beach houses on the private island of Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos chain, an isle you'll share with residents including Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Eva Longoria.

The latest wood-clad, shingle-roofed houses in the dunes – where you'll find a touch of New England – provide uninterrupted views of the turquoise sea from their private pools.

How much? Brace yourself: a week here costs £31,580 for a family of four through Bailey Robinson (01488 689700; baileyrobinson.com), including return flights from Heathrow via Miami with BA/American Airlines, transfers, B&B accommodation, butler service and daily yoga and pilates classes. One to bookmark for when the lottery numbers come up.

Sir Richard Branson designed Necker Island with his own family in mind, so the private isle is geared up to welcome children, albeit at a price.

Rather than booking out the entire place, there's the option of taking a room during one of the entry-level "Family Fun Celebration Weeks", taking place next year on 18 and 25 October.

A seven-night stay on the island costs £8,375 per adult, based on two sharing a double room in the newly re-opened Great House, with children charged at £2,550 each. All meals, drinks, watersports and boat transfers included, international flights extra.

Helping hands

If the idea of indulging the family in a luxury holiday in the developing world leaves you feeling ill at ease, Hands Up Holidays (020 7193 1062; handsupholidays.com) has a solution.

On Barbados, it lays on five-star accommodation and access to treats such as a 4x4 safari and a snorkelling cruise, while also including the chance to participate in something more meaningful.

The "voluntourism" component of this deal includes helping out at a dog shelter, caring for old horses at a stable, or keeping sea turtle nests free from predators.

A week including three days' volunteering, in a one-bedroom suite at Tamarind with breakfast, istarts at £2,500 per adult and £1,750 per child. This include BA flights from Gatwick, car hire and activities.