Nowhere else in the world is more synonymous with cruising than the Caribbean. The dynamics of the Caribbean are truly unique and this is probably why it is the number one cruise destination anywhere – and has been for generations. The Caribbean region consists of hundreds of islands and few large landmasses except for the actual continents of America. This makes it perfect for cruising from one tropical island to another – each one of a kind, but all surrounded by turquoise waters and fine sandy beaches. The climate of the Caribbean is amongst the few in the world that can offer smooth sailing on a year-round basis. Finally the proximity of the Caribbean to the world’s major cruise market – North America – means that ships do not have to travel very far to reach their destination.
The majority of seven-day Western and Eastern Caribbean cruises leave from Miami and nearby Fort Lauderdale (sometimes known as Port Everglades). Some leave from Tampa and Port Canaveral further north. There are also a few Caribbean cruises that embark and disembark at Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans. For seven-day (or less) Southern Caribbean cruises the usual port of embarkation is San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Season – Fact vs. Fiction
Unlike “Hertfordshire, Herefordshire, and Hampshire”, in the Caribbean hurricanes do happen, but this should not be a cause for alarm. Hurricane season runs from August through to November, but all cruise lines still run a full schedule of Caribbean cruises at this time. Modern meteorological advances have made hurricanes and seasonal tropical storms highly predictable and ships have plenty of time to change course and/or alter their itineraries if necessary, thereby avoiding any evidence of bad weather. A bonus of cruising at this time is that rates tend to be less.
Caribbean Cruise Choices
With cruising being more popular than it has ever been the number of cruise ships circuiting the Caribbean has reached an all-time high. The great news for the consumer is that a variety of cruises of all price ranges are available – different lines are designed to attract different parts of the market – from budget to ultra-deluxe. Prospective passengers can also choose from some of the largest cruise liners that have ever been built. Several of the latest cruise liners are over 100,000 tons, much bigger than anything that sailed the Atlantic in the heyday of ocean liner travel.
In addition to these modern behemoths, there are mid-sized ships from 40,000 to 70,000 tons; not too long ago these would have been considered giants. Small ships from 15,000 to 40,000 tons – this was the size of the average ocean liner just a few decades ago. Finally, there are intimate yacht-like ships of less than 15,000 tons, some of these with sails as an alternative to engine power.
Once the line and the ship have been chosen, the next major decision is to decide on an itinerary. The itinerary guidelines mentioned below are only a rough guide, all possible combinations of ports cannot be mentioned here, and many cruises – especially those longer than a week will transverse several areas of the Caribbean. However, the great majority of Caribbean cruise itineraries fall into the following four categories:
A Western Caribbean cruise is a great introduction to the Caribbean. The itineraries vary but normally consist of a day at sea at each end of the cruise, and perhaps one in the middle, and stops often include Grand Cayman, Jamaica (Montego Bay or Ocho Rios) and Cozumel, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This is the classic Western Caribbean itinerary. Stops in Belize and on the island of Roatan in Honduras are also becoming more popular, as is Key West, FL. For cruises that only have two days at sea, an additional stop somewhere in the Bahamas or in Haiti will be made. These stops are often at the cruise line’s ‘private island’ – a beach area reserved exclusively for passengers of the line, and offering a wide range of water sports or simply the chance to relax. Most of the major cruise lines now have these ‘private islands.’
The Western Caribbean cruise offers more variety of ports of call than other cruises, and the waters in this region are typically even more tranquil than other parts of the Caribbean.
The traditional seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise spends the first full day at sea en route to the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Of these the most popular is St. Thomas. Virtually all Eastern Caribbean cruises call at this island paradise – particularly well known for great shopping. Often an optional tour to the island of St. John is offered as an alternative to St. Thomas. Other islands visited could be one or two of several including Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Tortola, The Dominican Republic, and St. Croix. If three islands are visited in the Eastern Caribbean then there is a day at sea on the voyage back to Florida. If only two Eastern Caribbean islands are visited then a stop in the Bahamas (once again often at a private island) is scheduled.
Lush tropical islands and beautiful, the aquamarine ocean is the universal image of the Caribbean. An Eastern Caribbean cruise will always provide this idyll.
The Southern Caribbean offers a wide variety of cruising opportunities; the cruise lines market these with a variety of titles including Southern Caribbean, Deep Caribbean, South-Western Caribbean, and the South-Eastern Caribbean. Basically the parameters for cruising the Southern Caribbean includes all of the islands on a latitude south of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica and the landmasses of countries south of Belize, including Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela.
There is a huge choice of island ports available and these include – among many more – St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad, Curacao, Aruba, the San Blas Islands just off Panama, and Isla Margarita off Venezuela. Caribbean ports of call that are on the mainland of Central or South America include Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal (some cruises venture up the canal to Gatun Lake and then turn around again). Stops at Cartagena Columbia and La Guaira, (the port of Caracas) Venezuela enable Southern Caribbean cruise passengers to get a brief taste of South America.
Nearly all seven-day Southern Caribbean cruises now leave from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The longer cruises of 10 and 11 days or more usually leave from Florida and across the Northern Caribbean and visit some ports there before reaching the south. Many seven-day Southern Caribbean cruises will visit just the Leeward Islands of the Southeastern Caribbean, while others will concentrate on the mainland and islands of the Southwestern Caribbean.
A Southern Caribbean cruise is ideal for travelers who particularly like to visit places with a totally different lifestyle than their own. The Latin flavor of South America can, with a blend of many other cultures, be experienced on a Southern Caribbean cruise.
Two, Three, Four and Five Day Caribbean
The Southern of less than a week is becoming increasingly popular, and a wider range of such cruises is now available. This is a great chance for first-time passengers to get an idea of their appetite for cruising without committing too much time or financial resources. Of course, most neophytes enjoy their cruise so much that they take a longer trip the next time around. Alternatively, a short cruise is great for committed cruisers who don’t have much time but need to satisfy their urge to sail the seas again.
The traditional destinations for these short cruises out of Florida have been Nassau and Freeport, or more recently one of the cruise line’s private islands. Other four-day cruises will visit Key West, Fl. and Cozumel, Grand Cayman or Jamaica. A number of three, four and five-day cruises also go to Southern Caribbean islands out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. There are also shorter cruises now available out of Gulf of Mexico ports such as Tampa and Galveston. These usually call at Cozumel or other points on the Yucatan Peninsula and possibly Key West.
With vacation time at a premium, the shorter cruises are a great way of ensuring maximum relaxation over a limited period of time.
Wherever you sail in the Caribbean there will always be a tempting array of shore excursions offered. For the active cruiser scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, or parasailing are just three of the options available at some of the ports. For wildlife lovers its possible to visit with the stingrays on Grand Cayman, or take a jungle canal trip near Limon, Costa Rica and see crocodiles, iguanas, bats, and other exotic creatures. The ruins at Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula, or climbing up Dunns River Falls in Jamaica are also popular excursion destinations for cruise ship passengers. Not to be forgotten are shopping trips with local experts in St. Thomas, or a trip to Marigot on the French side of St. Maarten to enjoy the great view from the fort. However, for many, a cab ride to the nearest beach, a towel, sunscreen, and a good paperback is all that is necessary – every Caribbean port of call can offer this.
Whichever itinerary is chosen or no matter what length of time no other vacation can offer such a stress-free atmosphere as a cruise ship sailing the Caribbean. The calming ocean breezes, the laid-back tropical lifestyle of the ports of call, and the outstanding onboard service help passengers unwind in no time at all – providing a vacation experience that is just about as close to perfection as possible.