You need to choose the right itinerary though, steering clear of the crowds, the duty free outlets and the tat shops, for an authentic experience of forts and living history, pirates, pristine beaches, magnificent snorkelling, and the most charming and laid-back welcome from friendly locals.
Welcomed into the open arms of Star Pride's charming crew in Barbados, we immediately relaxed into the sociable, unpretentious rhythm of a Windstar cruise, the perfect match for the islands we were visiting.
First stop, Bequia, one of my favourites. At the boardwalk jetty a group of three ukelele players lazed with their feet up, playing reggae songs in a desultory fashion before breaking off to exchange gossip with passers-by. A walkway along the seafront, followed by a short but steep climb over the promontory, brings you to Princess Margaret Bay, a long and nearly deserted sweep of white sand.
In Saint Lucia's capital Castries, the busy buzzy streets have an initial appeal, although members of our party looking to explore away from the centre were regularly warned 'don't go up there'. We retreated to the peaceful seafront haven of the Calabash Cove - $25 for access to the lovely beach and facilities.
The next day in Guadeloupe's outpost Les Saintes we were at anchor between the islands. A little piece of France in paradise, the bustling main street offers shopping and plenty of food and drink - touristy but not too much so. The locals drift along the street on their daily shop, then follow the delicious smells to the local boulangerie. Hire an electric car to tour the island, or even electric bicycles, which will give you just the boost you need to whizz up to the fort, or over the ridge to the east-facing beaches.
As we sailed that evening, dinner al fresco at Candles for succulent steaks and chops, with a gentle sea breeze and island lights twinkling in the distance beneath an impressive canopy of stars, rounded the day off nicely.
St Kitts presents an expanse of gentle slopes down to the Caribbean, from which a mountainous outcrop of verdant peaks and gullies climbs skywards wreathed with cloud. On the Atlantic side the black sand and fierce lava rocks tell tales of ancient volcanic eruptions. We visited the extraordinary Brimstone Hill fortress and tried to picture the lives of those red-coated soldiers uprooted from their cloudy British home…
Back on board, Windstar's signature deck barbecue charms us all. Great food is provided, after which the crew start the line dancing, encouraging guests to join in before moving on to 'Gangnam Style', and a rather extraordinary rendition of 'YMCA'. The evening becomes an impromptu disco, conga and singalong. Leave your cynicism at home for this one - it's all about letting your hair down and joining in.
In St Maarten and Virgin Gorda, the sad tale of livelihoods ruined by the 2017 hurricane lives on, as these little islands hasten to rebuild sufficient tourist infrastructure to entice back the visitors on which their prosperity depends.
Westwards to Puerto Rico, and then south to Colombia, we had the opportunity to explore the magical walled cities of San Juan, Santo Domingo and Cartagena, where we learned much about the 'wicked pirate Francis Drake', an interesting perspective from these Spanish fortifications.
Our trip reinforced what we already knew: for the best Caribbean itineraries, choose a small ship. Windstar was perfect, and other great options include SeaDream, Silversea, Seabourn and Star Clippers.