It's time to pack your bags for a Caribbean cruise. Or at least start booking one for winter.
As the threat of hurricanes slowly subsides and temperatures begin to drop up North and in Europe, the Caribbean cruise season kicks into high gear. There are dozens of islands to visit and many cruise lines to choose from. The season continues through April and then many ships reposition to northern Europe and Alaska.
Money, of course, is always an object and fares vary wildly, depending on the time and length of the cruise, the size of the ship (bigger tends to be cheaper), your cabin selection and whether you're a repeat cruiser who is often offered discounts. One thing is for sure, the deep discounts seen in recent years have mostly dried up.
But where to go, that's another big question. Several veteran Tampa Bay Times cruisers share their favorite destinations, all served by several cruise lines. Once you dock, you'll have to decide whether you want to strike out on your own (cheapest), hire a local guide (mid-price) or book through the cruise line (most expensive), where you'll be covered if something goes wrong. On many Caribbean islands, it's easy to spend a day at the beach on your own.
Grab the sunscreen and bon voyage!
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
What I like about this port: A new traveler to the Southern Caribbean might be surprised at the landscape. There isn't the lush, tropical flora we are accustomed to in places such as the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. It's quite arid here and there are plenty of cactus plants throughout the island to remind you. It's 20 miles long so it's easy to explore in a typical daylong stop.
Recommended activity: Our group split up here with two taking a catamaran snorkeling trip to the Antilla shipwreck, which included a festive rum punch drink on the return to the ship, and me on a guided tour around the island with stops at the California Lighthouse and the Alto Vista Chapel, built by Spanish missionaries. (Both trips were booked through Princess.) Make sure you have some cash to buy a coconut drink at the lighthouse. Linger in the chapel if you have time. It's lovely and scenic at the same time.
Ship: Grand Princess
Traveler's tip: Book early for the snorkeling trip so you can take the half-day excursion that leaves in the morning. The sun gets wicked hot in the afternoon. Don't forget to slather your back with sunscreen since you're face down in the water.
Janet K. Keeler
Port: Old San Juan
What I like about this port: History oozes from just about every nook and cranny in this city, roughly seven square blocks, founded in 1521. Once protected by three forts and a massive stone wall, most of which remains, the city is full of parks, plazas and sculptures that seem to appear each time you turn a corner. Boutique inns and restaurants are plentiful.
Recommended activity: Because our cruise left from Old San Juan, we flew in a day early to explore the Old Town. It is easy to walk to most of the historic sites in the city, including Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo de San Cristóbal, the two main forts, along with Cathedral de San Juan, the second-oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. A promenade from the tip of the peninsula near El Morro to the downtown lets visitors walk along San Juan Bay outside the protective wall. Your trek can end with a relaxing meal at a taqueria or at the Casa Don Q to sample a few types of rum.
Ship: Celebrity Millennium
Traveler's tip: Comfortable shoes are a must on the cobblestone streets. Walking north from the bay to the Atlantic Ocean seems an ideal stroll — for a mountain goat. Make the climb a couple of times before getting on your ship and you'll lose a few pounds before the cruise.
What I like about this port: The beauty, the beasts and the beaches. How often can you stand on a narrow strip of land and see the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other? The island's economy, which once depended on sugarcane, now relies on tourism. The island is dotted with public beaches and most come equipped with a rustic beachfront bar and a shop where you can rent lounge chairs and equipment for water sports. If you want waves, head to the Atlantic side (there is one secluded beach where drivers won't leave tourists alone because of the dangerous undertow) or stick to the Caribbean for calmer seas. Along the way you'll likely see a green vervet monkey or two. Residents say there are as many monkeys as people on the island.
Recommended activity: It's a bit of a cab ride, but head to Cockleshell Bay at the southern tip of the island. You will find everything you will need for a day at the beach and you won't have to fight the crowds closer to the port. Plus you'll get a nice view of the more exclusive sister island Nevis. It looks close, but don't try to make the swim.
Ship: Celebrity Millennium
Traveler's tip: While at the beach, watch your drinks. After years of surviving on fermented sugarcane, the monkeys have developed a taste for alcohol and, despite efforts to stop them, they still have a habit of grabbing unattended drinks.
What I like about this port: On most islands, there are one or two can't-miss, must-do excursions. On St. Lucia, the island itself is the draw. Once past the crowded streets of Castries, you will find unspoiled, small fishing villages such as Anse la Raye and Canaries, waterfalls, volcanic peaks, a drive-in volcano (the last minor eruption was about 1700) and banana fields. You can stop at Marigot Bay, which novelist James Michener called "the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean." Farther south you'll find the twin Pitons, steep volcanic plugs that are the island's signature landmark. At 2,619 feet, Gros Piton is 158 feet taller than Petit Piton.
Recommended activity: Go with a southern island tour. We've done both the northern and southern tours with Cosol Tours. We've traveled with the company's owner and one of his drivers, but all his drivers seem friendly, professional and eager to share the stories of their island. Along the way you'll get homemade island coconut cookies, bananas right off the tree, fresh johnnycakes, coconut cakes, banana ketchup and fish cakes. If you're lucky, you'll get hot-out-of-the-stone-oven bread and fresh cheese at the end. Each van is stocked with rum punch, local beer, water and soda.
Ships: Norwegian Pearl and Celebrity Millennium. (Some cruise lines have opted to drop St. Lucia for Dominica. If you can find both on one itinerary, jump on it.)
Traveler's tip: Be sure to have plenty of room on your camera's memory card.
Port: St. Georges
What I like about this port: Comparing two trips to Grenada about 20 years apart showed that although the attractions remain, there has been much change on the Island of Spice — some good, some bad. The dirt road that used to lead to Annandale Falls and Grand Etang Lake and National Park in the rain forest is now paved (good). The three older women selling handmade trinkets on the path to the falls have been replaced by a mass of souvenir shops (bad). But the island is still a beautiful, lush oasis. Waterfalls are everywhere and they get more stunning as you get farther from the now-paved track. The beaches, topped by Grand Anse Beach, are beautiful gateways to top-notch snorkeling and diving.
Recommended activity: Hire a driver and head to Annandale Falls to get some pictures, then ask your driver to suggest a not-so-crowded beach with good snorkeling. He'll wait for you and take you back to the ship.
Ships: Celebrity Millennium and Dolphin SeaBreeze
Traveler's tip: There is a reason it is called the Island of Spice. Bring a few samples home.
What I like about this port: Because Roseau gets less cruise ship traffic than many Caribbean ports, it doesn't have the influx of tourists and consequently it's less developed. I like this because the city feels open, safe, less commercial and accessible and friendly. Dominica is nicknamed "the Nature Island" because of its preserved natural environment, and is a haven for people interested in outdoor activities, from hiking to whale watching to fishing to snorkeling and scuba diving.
Recommended activity: There are many, including stellar hiking to Middleham Falls and snorkeling Champagne Reef. We were also impressed with the local food. There are multiple restaurants and you have access to good eats pretty much around the clock. From the restaurants serving local Creole fish and vegetable dishes, to the vendors selling tropical sweets along the street, tasting your way through the city is a fabulous experience. Be sure to sample some of the flavored "bush rums" and local Kubuli beer along the way.
Ship: We didn't take a ship, but Princess, Holland America and Carnival are among the lines that stop here.
Traveler's tip: The local taxis — they call them taxi buses — are clean, friendly, cheap and easy to ride. Use them to go south along the coast. They are air-conditioned and hassle free.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Port: Road Town
What I like about this port: A relaxed, friendly and colorful market just steps from the ship; easy walk to town; easy access to taxi rides; and numerous ferries to nearby islands including Virgin Gorda. No need to take the cruise ship's excursions to any of the lovely beaches on the actual island of Tortola. Just hail a taxi, of which there are plenty. The easiest beaches to get to are on the northwest side, including restaurant-laden Cane Garden Bay, quiet Long Bay farther west, or any of the smaller bays in between. Sea grapes and palm trees offer shade while crystal-clear calm waters invite excellent snorkeling. No tendering required.
Recommended activity: Head to the northwest side of the island for the best beaches. Enjoy all the vistas during the hilly ride. Or take a ferry (which we did through a ship excursion) to the Virgin Gorda Baths.
Ship: Norwegian Pearl
Traveler's tip: The trade winds keep the air cooler sometimes. It was never cold, but for the duration of our excursion to Virgin Gorda the sun never came out. It was nice to have a coverup . . . and a book for the relaxing beaches. Also, at Virgin Gorda, the food is limited so bring your own snacks.
What I like about this port: Very stripped down and simple with a tiny street market and a few restaurants. N2 the Blue is a dive shop and one of the best outfits I have ever been with. Trips are limited to six divers. Most cruise ship dive excursions are expensive and crowded. N2 the Blue (n2theblue.com) offers a variety of dives in a more intimate setting (less expensive too). The diving was fantastic with warm, clear waters and healthy reefs. Friends on the Pearl also raved about the excursion to snorkel on Buck Island. Some chose to take a tour of Christiansted. You can rent a golf cart to get there. It is much more charming. No tendering required.
Recommended activity: Diving. I know a lot of places recommend this but I found St. Croix to be among the best. Even St. John and anything around Key West paled in comparison.
Ship: Norwegian Pearl
Traveler's tip: If you have a snorkel and mask you like, bring it. Forget the fins though — they take up too much room. Bringing your own means you can stop a any beach and get a glimpse under the sea.
What I like about this port: Curacao is the largest of the ABC islands — Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao — and definitely has a European feeling, despite its Caribbean location. Its origins are Dutch and that's the official language, though you'll get along just fine speaking English or Spanish. It's different here than other Caribbean ports of call because the primary attractions are historic sites and nature parks, rather than snorkeling and diving.
Recommended activity: There are plenty of excursions, but you can explore the main city on foot easily. A 15-minute walk from the "mega-dock" through a shopping mall full of designer shops gets you to the famous Queen Emma pontoon bridge to the historic Punda District. After you duck in and out of the local shops — lots of pretty linens — and visit the market, pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe facing the water for coffee or something colder (or stronger). Peruse the floating produce market where growers pull up to the docks with their boats laden with fresh fruit and vegetables. Lots of fun and inexpensive souvenirs, too.
Ship: Grand Princess
Traveler's tip: Head for the floating market as soon as you can get off the boat. As the day wears on, the sellers head for home, some even boating back to Venezuela, about 40 miles south. Also, pick up a bottle of the electric blue liqueur, Curacao, to bring home.
Janet K. Keeler
Port: Princess Cays
What I like about this port: Seems like every cruise line that plies the Caribbean has a private hideaway in the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean has CocoCay and Disney has Castaway Cay. They are all pretty as well as pretty similar. Princess Cays was the first stop on our Southern Caribbean swing so it really got the party started. Brilliant blue water and wide, white sand beach. There's no landside dock, so you take a tender to the island. This gives you a lovely view of the ship from the beach. If you're into hair braiding, you can get it done here and look suitably touristy for the rest of the cruise.
Recommended activity: The only tours and equipment rentals are ship-sponsored but you can still bask in the sun and swim for free. We opted for the glass-bottom boat cruise that glided over pristine coral reefs and gave us a view of some of the critters. It's an hour, which left plenty of time to hang out and sip a tropical cocktail.
Ship: Grand Princess
Traveler's tip: If you're going to laze on the beach, get off the ship as soon as you can so you can snag a primo beach spot . . . and maybe some shade.
Janet K. Keeler
Port: San Miguel
What I like about this port: The underwater scene is vibrant and bustling. If you enjoy seeing colorful fish in their natural environment, and appreciate impossibly azure water with remarkable visibility, this is the island for you. You can book a snorkeling excursion through the ship or take a cab to a local beach, many of which have restaurants. After your underwater adventure, indulge in delicious Mexican fare and a frosty margarita while drying off. (It's really hot down here, so it won't take long.) Once back at the pier, where your ship awaits, shop for souvenirs. (Who doesn't want a sombrero or maracas?)
Recommended activity: Snorkeling. On past cruises to Cozumel I've booked excursions through the ship, to Columbia and Palancar reefs (great snorkeling), and taken cabs to Chankanaab National Park (good snorkeling; there's an admission charge). In August, my cost-conscious twins and I took a taxi from International Pier to the Money Bar Beach Club at Dzul Ha Reef ($8 each way). We claimed three chairs when we got there and our waiter set up a table (with umbrella) for us. The Money Bar offers a variety of packages that include a combination of food, drinks, massages and guided snorkel tours (there's a scuba-snorkel place on site), but we opted to snorkel on our own and buy food and drinks when we were done. The snorkeling was impressive — we saw a wide range of fish and lots and lots of them — as were the burrito, the tacos and the chips and salsa.
Ship: most recently, Carnival Paradise
Traveler's tip: Bring a credit card or two, but also bring some cash. Not all shops like to, or will, take credit cards (I missed out on a silver anklet), and cash gives you a little more bargaining power. As far as I know, cabbies don't take plastic.