The countries of the Caribbean are almost as different and varied as the world itself. United by the common theme of sun, sea and sand, each destination has a separate identity, its own fascinating history, geography, culture and cuisine.
There's a Caribbean island just waiting for everyone, whatever their interests and whatever their budget. Sportsmen, music lovers, diving fanatics, birdwatchers and gourmets will all find Caribbean countries to suit them. And everyone planning to explore this diverse region will find a holiday to suit their pocket.
Frequent scheduled and charter flights serve Caribbean gateway islands from major cities across North America and Europe and increasing numbers of local flights take visitors beyond these gateways to the smaller 'spoke' destinations. Accommodation varies from luxurious resort hotels to small family-run inns and from private villas to camping grounds once again reinforcing the region's diversity in all aspects.
Visitors keen to learn more about the Caribbean should explore beyond the idyllic, palm-lined beaches to discover a wealth of colour and excitement.
The Out Islands of the Bahamas, all 700 of them, are an angler's heaven with giant blue marlin for those who prefer big-game fishing and dozens of other varieties just waiting to jump on the line.
Antigua and St Lucia offer hotels with floodlit tennis courts and professional coaching. Jamaica caters for golfers with championship courses and what could be better for the cricket fan than an afternoon at the Kensington Oval in Barbados watching some exciting fast bowling?
There's a Caribbean for adventurers who can drive across Cuba or trek through the jungle in Surinam (formerly Dutch Guyana). It's even possible to visit Haiti where the new political regime is bringing stability to the country and a welcome for tourists. Music is played everywhere and at any time. Traders put their stereo systems out on the street and in the Dominican Republic even the shoeshine boys strike up a hypnotic rhythm with polish tins and brushes.
The Caribbean is home to almost as many different sounds as islands: merengue, salsa, soca, zouk and, of course, reggae. Fans cross the world to visit the Reggae Sunsplash Festival held every July in Jamaica and the May Jazz Festival in St Lucia attracts an international crowd.
Nothing quite strikes at the heart of Caribbean music and culture like the Trinidad Carnival which easily rivals Rio for explosive colour and exotic costumes. For classical music fans Puerto Rico hosts the Pablo Cassals Festival in June each year in memory of he famous cellist who made the island his home.
And for opera lovers, Barbados is now the place to be in March. The Holders season of open-air performances takes place in the grounds of a magnificent eighteenth century plantation house. Guests arrive early to sip Champagne in the tropical gardens which form the natural stage.
The Caribbean is also a celebration of the natural world both above and below the ocean. For beginners there is nowhere better to learn to dive than the Cayman Islands, a British colony known for its friendly stingrays. Anyone, at any age, with a reasonable degree of fitness can scuba dive. The Bahamas boast the world's third largest barrier reef off the coast of Andros and has some of the best corals and fish. The neighbouring Turks & Caicos Islands and Bonaire, a tiny island in the Dutch Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela, lure more experienced divers with their abandoned wrecks and stunning seascapes.
Thanks to the constant breeze from the gentle trade winds, the Caribbean is the perfect place for activities above the water. Windsurfing is possible almost anywhere. The Dutch island of Aruba hosts the world championships and is the best place to see amazing surfboard stunts.
The British Virgin Islands and St Vincent and the Grenadines attract the yachting crowd with lazy sailing from one tropical idyll to the next. Jumping dolphins often play alongside the boats, steering them towards perfect Robinson Crusoe islands with deserted bays and clear sea.
Those less keen on the water can explore beyond the beaches to discover tropical rainforests and crashing waterfalls. An all-day trek to the boiling lake high in the volcanic mountains of Dominica is an experience not to be missed.
Caribbean birdlife is spectacular. Impossibly tiny hummingbirds are found everywhere and are a complete contrast to the much bigger pelicans which wheel and dive above the water. But perhaps one of the most spectacular sights in the whole region is the evening flight of the scarlet ibis which only takes place in the Caroni swamp in Trinidad. Every evening at the same time hundreds of these blood-red birds fly in formation back to their nesting site.
Whatever a visitor's particular interests everyone can enjoy the eclectic mix of spicy Caribbean cuisine. It has evolved over the years combining French, British, Dutch, Spanish, Creole and Indian influences to produce an endless variety of tasty delicacies. On the 'Spice Island' of Grenada, all types of food and drink are flavoured with the island's nutmeg. Fresh, local produce - fish, fruit, vegetables and spices - is combined to produce sophisticated international cuisine in top class resorts as well as delicacies such as 'blackened dolphin' and 'shark 'n' bake' in local restaurants and beach bars.
Sunshine is another major ingredient in the Caribbean lifestyle and generally speaking the region's climate is near-perfect. It is warm and sunny all year round with only a small variation in temperature between winter and summer. The months of May and June are usually the wettest.
Whichever Caribbean island is chosen for a holiday, the first impression will be how much the people want to have fun. While most of us are at home worrying about work and the bills, they'll be having a party. Everyone's invited.