Beyond the sandy beaches, laidback locals and palm trees, the Caribbean islands are home to a rich and complex history centering on one plant: the sugar cane. Most rum is distilled from molasses, a former waste product from the production of sugar. For more than 350 years, people have traveled across the world for this spirit. From pirates to the British Navy, rum has been a central part of the islands’ history and economy.

In the Caribbean it’s not uncommon for people to stay at the resort the whole time, but just as with other destinations, exploring the island is worth it. I’m always fascinated by the difference between marketed tourism experiences and a self-planned itinerary.

Luck was on my side on my first trip to Jamaica in 2007, when by chance I connected with someone who was deeply rooted in the business side of tourism. Now a dear friend, “Mr. Caribbean” is a leading port developer and resort branding expert who had spent years on the island developing tourism infrastructure. In 2010, I came back to help his company as he was restoring and redeveloping Historic Falmouth. After being glued to his hip for several days – working from the company’s tiny makeshift office in Falmouth and meeting local historical experts – I became immersed in the history of the islands, and it was a turning point in my career.

I became fascinated with this little port town. After all, Falmouth was a central point to the rum and sugar trade of the late 1800s. As the busiest port in the country, the port at times saw more than 30 ships, as they filled up on sugar and rum to ship back to Britain, and of course Falmouth was major hub for the slave trade. As I walked the streets of the town I began to understand what had happened here and how deep-rooted this country’s history was. Of course, I had really only just scratched the surface. It’s moments like this that I understand how illuminating travel can be.

To really know the Caribbean, you have to know the history of rum. And if you can, try to visit some of the distilleries and historic sites while you are there. Almost every major island group produces its own distinct rum style, and the distilleries that make these spirits are worth exploring. Here are a few islands that are both major tourist destinations and important centers of rum production:

Barbados: With over 350 years of history, Mount Gay Distillery is the oldest operating rum producer in the world. Barbados produces light, sweetish rums from both pot and column stills. When you’re there, ask for a bottle of their “Sugar Cane Brandy” – it’s almost impossible to find in the U.S. today, but it’s kept in stock at the distillery.  And while you’re on the island, make sure to also visit Foursquare Distillery. This is a surprisingly green operation with a long history. It’s responsible for R.L. Seale, Doorly’s X.O. and the unique tiki staple Velvet Falernum Liqueur.

Jamaica: Appleton Estate, located in Kingston, has been making rum in Jamaica since 1749 and holds the title of second oldest distillery. Jamaica is well known for its rich, aromatic rums, most of which are produced in pot stills. This historic sugar estate and distillery is responsible for most of the Jamaican rum produced.

Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico is known primarily for light, very dry rums from column stills. The Bacardi Rum Plant and the Serralles Distillery, makers of DonQ Rum, are both located in San Juan so it’s easy to visit both in one day. There’s virtually no sugar cane grown here anymore, but Puerto Rican rum is still some of the most successful in the world – DonQ is the most popular rum on the island itself, though Bacardi’s international popularity makes it well worth a visit for any rum enthusiast.

Dominican Republic: The Brugal Rum Factory, the world’s third-largest producer of rum, is located on the Avenida Luis Ginebra on the outskirts of the city of Puerto Plata. The Dominican Republic is known for its full-bodied, aged rums from column stills.

U.S. Virgin Islands: Cruzan Rum Distillery in St. Croix was the most significant producer in the USVI until 2010, when Diageo also chose St. Croix as the home for its Captain Morgan Rum distillery and announced plans for a visitor center on 22-acre site. The visitor’s center is scheduled to open in spring of this year. The USVI is known primarily for light rums here, mixing rums from column stills, although there are some fine dark and aged sipping rums.

Martinique: This island is the home of rhum agricole (made from fresh sugar cane juice), a highly complex spirit that relies on ready access to the sugar cane fields for its production. Here you’ll find several gorgeous distillery sites well worth a visit, including Rhum J.M., Depaz and St. James Distillery & Rum Museum. The latter, which started producing rum in 1765, is well equipped for visitors and offers history along with your tasting.

Which distilleries have you visited in the Caribbean and which would you recommend? Tweet @mindyjoyce and let me know!