It's a travel-dollar dilemma: the bad economic news makes you crave a Caribbean escape, yet it also makes you afraid to spend the cash—causing your beach fantasies to vanish like a sandcastle at high tide. There is, however, a closer-to-home option. The "American Caribbean"—the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—has white-sand beaches better than many of those in the British and French West Indies. So grab your sunscreen and cruise, fly, or drive—yes, drive—to these exotic corners of the American Caribbean.
Florida Keys: Trailing off the state like a jade necklace, the palm-thatched, sand-frosted Florida Keys run 113 miles into the Gulf of Florida. Head down U.S. Highway 1 to mile marker 50 on Marathon Key, where you'll find Sombrero Beach: a free, spacious stretch of white sand. Before the road ends at Key West, be sure to stop for a dip at beautiful Bahia Honda State Park (305-872-3210). Feeling adventurous? Go another 70 miles by boat to Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park (305-242-7700). The island is dominated by the ruins of Fort Jefferson, a Civil War fort that once held the Lincoln-assassination conspirators. The west side is pillowed with white beaches sloping into chest-deep lagoons. Sunny Days Catamarans (800-236-7937; $135) offers a two-hour passage each way.
Puerto Rico: We can thank the U.S. Navy for Puerto Rico: the island was ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Navy's blockade of San Juan ended the Spanish-American War. Up until 2003 the Navy used the cactus-studded hills and pristine beaches of 21-mile-long Vieques Island for target practice. Today the former range—nearly 70 percent of the island—has been reborn as the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (787-741-2138); it's a 75-minute ferry ride from the mainland. To stage your own amphibious assault, drive east on Highway 997 to where a string of scalloped bays begins. Playa Caracas has palm-shaded palapas, but the gem is secluded Orchid Beach, as far east as you can go. Spend an evening on nearby Bio Bay, an inlet with the world's highest concentration of phosphorescent creatures. Blue Caribe Kayaks (787-741-2522) runs nightly kayak tours for $33. It's like paddling through the Milky Way.
U.S. Virgin Islands: Just east of Puerto Rico the holy trinity of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. Skip the cruise-ship bustle of St. Thomas and take a 20-minute ferry ride to Cruz Bay on St. John. Your destination: Virgin Islands National Park (340-776-6201). If you don't want to deal with curvy roads—and driving on the left—catch a taxi for $12. Hawksnest, the closest beach, is often surprisingly empty despite its silky sand, but don't miss Trunk Bay—a postcard vision of sky-blue shallows lapping a honey-colored shore. There's a snorkel trail offshore, but get up early: it's the best way to avoid the cruise-ship crowds from St. Thomas.
Jad Davenport is a contributing editor with Islands magazine.