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The West Indies were first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 whilst he was searching for an alternative and shorter route to reach India. Columbus thought he had succeeded in finding a shorter route, hence the name "West Indies". The name "Caribbean" is derived from the Carib Indians who occupied most of region, shown in the atlas above, during the first European contact in the fifteenth Century. The name "Antilles" is derived from the Spanish term "Antillas" and the Spanish were the first European nation to settle and dominate the region shown on the right of the diagram.
The West Indies consists of more than 7,000 isles and stretches in a long arc (which is more than 2,500 miles long) from Venezuela in the south to Cuba in the Greater Antilles just below Florida in the northwest of the diagram. The Lesser Antilles chain encloses the Caribbean Sea to the east which defines the boundary of the region. In the south lies the Leeward Antilles including the Dutch isles of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. This area is often referred to as the major part the "Netherlands Antilles" (which has now been disbanded in 2010). The Bahamas to the north are not technically part of the West Indies, but are shown on the Caribbean map due to their close proximity and relationship.
Many of the isles are volcanic, especially most of those located in the Leeward and Windward chains. The most active in recent times is the Montserrat Volcano called the Soufriere Hills volcano. Other active volcanoes include the Sulphur Springs in Saint Lucia which is the only "drive in" volcano in the world; located close by to the famous twin peaks of the Pitons.
Famous nowadays for being the most popular cruise destination in the world; the region is home to the largest fleet of cruise ships to be found anywhere. The main departure cruise ports are Miami in Florida, San Juan in Puerto Rico and Bridgetown in Barbados. The most visited cruise ports include Castries in Saint Lucia, Willemstad in Curacao, Philipsburg in Sint Maarten and Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas (with more cruise ships stopping here than anywhere else in the West Indies Antilles).
The region is blessed with some of the most spectacular natural wonders to be found anywhere from the uniquely beautiful rock formations of the Baths on Virgin Gorda to the amazing views over Nelson's Dockyard afforded from Shirley Heights in Antigua. Some of the world's most famous beaches are to be found locally including Trunk Bay on the isle of Saint John, Cane Garden Bay on Tortola, Marigot Bay (the backdrop for the movie Doctor Doolittle); and very scary Maho Beach which is situated literally at the end of the runway on the Princess Juliana Airport on Sint Maarten.
Sailing is, of course, the Caribbean's jewel in the crown with hundreds of thousands of visiting yachts every year together with locally based bareboat fleets. Popular with the sailing group are the United States and British Virgin Islands which boast some wonderful smaller isles including Sandy Spit and Cooper. The other popular destination is the Grenadines with tiny unspoilt gems such as Jamesby and Petit Tabac (where scenes from "The Curse of the Black Pearl" and other movies where shot); both located in the incredibly beautiful Tobago Cays. None of these can be visited by the casual traveller staying on a package holiday; they all need some degree of determination to reach and, of course, a boat.
Package vacations have always been popular during the winter months and within the larger islands there are some areas worth considering; especially the West Coast of Barbados which has some lovely hotels including the world famous Sandy Lane. Other tourist developments are to be found at Jolly Beach in Antigua, Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.