The north, even for an island as small as Barbados, is almost totally bereft of visitors, wild and reputedly edgy. The spectacular east is tropical, with rocky seashores and botanical gardens.

I stayed a piña colada’s throw away from the deserted, windswept, white-sand beaches of the south coast. By day I travelled the island on one of the countless ‘reggae buses’. For a flat fare of B$1.50 (about 40p) you can travel fifty yards up the sugar-cane lined road or jump off at the final stop on the other side of the island. Either way, there’s no better or quicker method for immersing yourself in Bajan life.

The bass reverberates through the minibus as emcees freestyle on the always full-blast radio, interspersed by the occasional island chat show and worldwide Caribbean hits from familiar acts such as Rihanna and Sean Paul.

Rihanna hails from St Michael, and such is the national pride in the local girl-done-good that everyone, from schoolgirls to Rastas, can be heard singing: ‘Under my umbrella, ella, ella …’ Jump off at Garrison Savannah and spend a few hours at the horse racing.

The Grand Stand, where the keenest members of the Barbados Turf Club hang out, is great fun and worth the entrance fee.
Alternatively, visitors canplonk themselves down, without charge, close to Georgian buildings at the edge of the racetrack and place a
bet at one of the adjacent pari-mutuel windows (otherwise known as bookies in a wooden shed). Make sure you help yourself to a Banks (the beer of Barbados), or a coconut – its head sliced off and straw at the ready.

The manners, friendliness and customs of the 1950s seem to be alive and well in this tiny corner of the world: a local barely ever asses by without saying hello: “Good morning, Mrs Maxwell!” “And to you, Mr Brown.” This wholesome vibe extends to the local eateries where cheap, hefty portions of home cooking are served up. Expect such delights as macaroni pie, roasted breadfruit and flying fish sandwiches – all washed down with a gill of Mount Gay rum.

Some of these run-down but much-loved shacks are beachside, and you can munch your food while watching young men play cricket on the beach. Finding your own deserted, impossibly picture postcard beach on Barbados isn’t difficult. Just wander from the tourist beaches and walk around to the next palm-fringed bay.

With flight and room-only packages available for less than £400 you can spend your days lazing on these dream beaches, away from the crowds. Or explore the bustling capital Bridgetown, or the wonderfully decaying Speightstown, care of the reggae bus. The highlight of my trip was spotting a black, funnelling waterspout out at sea.

As I watched the meteorological phenomenon joining ocean with cloud, Mrs Maxwell took her shopping home, Sean Kingston sang Beautiful Girls and the fireflies prepared for their evening light show above the fields of sugar cane.

Barbados isn’t the only place in the Caribbean offering something other than the five-star luxury experience. The key rule in affordable Caribbean travel is to avoid the high season between mid-December and mid-April; November is also often best avoided if the rain is likely to bother you. Flight and room-only deals might leave you worrying about the cost of three meals
a day, but the advantage is instead of being chained to your hotel morning, noon and night, you’re free to explore.

Aficionados will tell you that if you’re willing to go it alone on the island, instead of buying into the all-inclusive-I-could-be-anywhere-on-Earth package, then a rewarding and affordable experience awaits. Your biggest expense will be the long-haul flight from the UK.

Some thrifty travellers take advantage of bargain basement flight prices to Cancun in Mexico and then fly in and out of Havana. Or you could buy a cheap flight and hotel deal and escape into the countryside.

There is, perhaps, nowhere else quite like Cuba. It might seem like an obvious suggestion, but if you’re thinking of travelling there, then do it soon while Castro and friends are still in power; Cuba will be a shadow of its former self when the pink Cadillacs, 20-foot Che Guevara posters and the honest, lived-in vibe of Havana have gone.

Cuba’s second city Santiago de Cuba and the glorious colonial masterpiece of Trinidad are must-see towns that are best visited by doing home-stays with local families (known as casas particulares).

You usually get an immaculately clean bedroom and superb fresh breakfast for a handful of dollars. And what’s more, if you can speak any Spanish, then you can get right to the heart of the real Cuba through the company of your almost-certainly friendly hosts.

Dominican Republic
The region’s least expensive destination – once you’re on the ground – is Haiti. However, with widespread social unrest still a serious problem, for now you’re probably best advised, as the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office says, against all but essential travel
to this part of Hispaniola.

Instead, concentrate your efforts on the eastern part of the island, and the tourist savvy Dominican Republic. Package tourists have been coming here in droves for donkey’s years.

Those who take time to explore the island will discover an intoxicating world of exotic wildlife, friendly baseball playing locals, soaring mountain peaks and cheap overnight stays. Hitching a lift on a ‘public car’ will get you around for next to nothing, plus there’s no easier way to meet the locals.

Snap up a cheap package deal and split your stay between your allocated hotel and on ‘the outside’ exploring the delights on offer.

Highlights include the 500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site of Santo Domingo, and the highest mountain in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte, which towers to more than 10,000 feet.

If you’re keen to partake in the keeping-it-real vibe, look no further than Jamaica. Like the rest of the Caribbean – with the obvious exception of Haiti – Jamaica caters to the rich, well-heeled and newlyweds. But it’s the kind of place you can set up camp for a few weeks and tour on a budget.

Don’t miss rough and ready Kingston or the natural wonders in Cockpit Country. A few days on a secluded beach for a handful of Jamaican dollars is a must.