by Lee Foster
As a cruise region, the Caribbean has no equal, and there are good reasons for this popularity.
The weather is dependably sunny and warm year around. In mid-winter, especially, the sun and warmth is a welcome antidote to the weather further north. No resident of the Caribbean could possibly understand the concept of “wind chill factor.” The primary cruise season in the Caribbean is October-May. Some ships leave the Caribbean in May, traverse the Panama Canal, and sail in Alaska June-August, returning in September. The Caribbean can experience storms and hurricanes in late summer-early autumn, but modern cruise ships benefit from high-tech weather prediction services and can hold their positions at sea during a storm or outmaneuver a storm.
Other cruise regions, such as Alaska and the Baltic, present only short summer cruise seasons. The Mediterranean and South Pacific could be said to compete with the Caribbean when it comes to sun and warmth, but they require a much longer air flight to get there.
Proximity of the Caribbean is a major virtue. Most cruises sail out of Miami/Fort Lauderdale, which has easy air access from throughout North America. Travelers on the east coast can even drive to Florida. Some Caribbean cruises depart from other eastern or southern cities, such as Tampa or New Orleans, and still others begin deep in the Caribbean itself, especially from San Juan, Puerto Rico, or St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
The Caribbean is an immensely interesting area to cruise because there are so many different islands to visit, each with its particular European historic overlay on a basically black African heritage. The great sea powers–the Dutch, Spanish, English, and French–each left their New World imprint on many Caribbean islands. With each subsequent cruise, it is possible to sample a new itinerary of islands.
To help you choose a Caribbean cruise wisely, let’s consider some overview thoughts applicable to all cruises, some comments on the major players dominating the cruise world in the Caribbean, and then some of the diverse island destinations you might want to consider.
A cruise price includes your basic costs for accommodations, food, and entertainment. Alcoholic drinks, tips (about $10-$15/day), Internet access, and escorted shore excursions are the extra costs to contemplate.
Choosing the right Caribbean cruise for you is a little like planning for dinner at a buffet restaurant. There are so many choices. You can’t expect to consume them all at one sitting. A knowledgeable travel agent will be helpful because the variables in a cruise are complicated. Most cruises are sold through travel agents.
Here are some of the basic questions you might wish to ask.
How long do you want to go? It is possible to do short cruises for 3-4 days out of Miami or other locations. This is a good way to get started or to maximize your time if your vacation is short. The most typical cruise itineraries will last a week and will depart from Miami. A 10-day to two-week cruise will allow you to see additional islands.
On what kind of ship do you want to cruise? Most travelers will be cruising on one of the newer ships of the major players, such as Carnival and Princess, which will be discussed shortly. The newer ships are large, often carrying 3,000 passengers, and afford a range of choices, especially in dining and entertainment, that may surprise you. If you haven’t cruised in recent years, you will be amazed at how the industry has been transformed by these new mega-ships. However, there are also smaller, boutique-style ships. Typical of these would be the Windstar ships, which have the romance of sails, carry only 128 passengers, and can get you to smaller islands.
Are there specific islands that you might want to visit? If you’ve looked into the geography of the Caribbean or have special interests, the itinerary and ports of call of the cruise ship could be a major aspect of your cruise decision. If scuba diving is your passion, Bonaire would be a terrific island to visit. If Dutch colonial architecture intrigues you, the lovely port of Willemstad in Curacao will be memorable. Birders will delight in the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, where 430 species of birds have been recorded. There is even an “American” Caribbean to explore, the Virgin Islands. A stop in St. Thomas can allow you a day trip to one of the loveliest U.S. National Parks, which is on the island of St. John, boasting some of the most gorgeous beaches on the planet.
Do you fit into a special group? For example, all of the major cruise lines now have good programs for kids on cruise ships. As one might expect, Disney puts primary emphasis into kids and families on its cruises. If you’re single, or gay, or a golfer, or a big band fan, or a food and wine enthusiast, or whatever, there will be theme cruises from various companies that might fit your interests and affinities.
Among the dominant players in the world of Caribbean cruising are Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean. Who owns which ship is not as interesting to a consumer as what brands are out there that are totally dependable. There are boutique players, such as Windstar, and there are marginal players, which can be chancy. Some passengers choosing the marginal players have actually been stranded when the cruise company went bankrupt. It was not a pretty sight.
The major players all imitate each other in their classic itineraries. Only these major players have the survivability that has become a main factor in the cruise scene. They need to attract enough passengers to generate sufficient capital, which will allow them to build the next generation of new ships. If a cruise company can’t do this, it is ultimately doomed. This is their problem, not your problem, if you stick with the major players. Just relax and enjoy your cruise.
You could spend a lifetime cruising the Caribbean and only begin to appreciate the huge diversity of the region. The basic story of the many Caribbean islands is a major black African contribution topped off with a European veneer. Cruise ships are an excellent way to visit several islands, taking advantage of the various shore excursion options.
Columbus was the first European traveler to these parts, when he docked his ship Santa Maria at Haiti in 1492. Later, he died in disgrace, seven years before Balboa discovered from a mountain in Panama that there is indeed a Pacific Ocean and a route to the East Indies. The name Caribbean is derived from the Carib Indians who populated some islands. It could not be said that the sailors on Columbus’ ships experienced a pleasure cruise.
Just to tease you, here is a small sample of the island destinations (and mainland ports) you might consider:
Barbados will appeal to any traveler who enjoys British civility, an egalitarian model that works, and a green isle now more focused on eco-tourism than sugar cane production. Barbadians, who call themselves Bajans, are among the most educated peoples in the Caribbean.
Caracas is a window on South America. This modern gateway capital, a south Caribbean destination, rests high in the steep hills away from its non-descript port, La Guaira. The city was positioned away from the coast, as early as 1567, partly to spare it from the depredation of marauding pirates. Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, is the political saint worshipped here.
Curacao is Holland with sun. Of all the European countries that penetrated the Caribbean, the Dutch were perhaps most appreciative of sun. Sections of the Curacao capital, Willemstad, look like a slice of Amsterdam or perhaps a provincial Dutch city, maybe Blokzijl, but on one of the rare sunny days each summer in the Netherlands.
In Grenada nutmeg is a magic dust. Spices are a joy in the Caribbean, and Grenada is the main spice island. An inexpensive basket of spices is a fitting and welcome gift from Grenada. The reed baskets come in little six-packs that make attractive gifts. Ironically, spices from the East Indies were an original impetus for discovering the West Indies of the Caribbean.
Martinique is, yes, a “department” of France, and the euro flourishes here alongside the almighty dollar. Martinique benefits from the French cultural flair, the lycee legacy, which can be seen around the world from Vietnam to Tahiti.
In Puerto Rico, when you gaze out from the El Morro fort, you will learn how the defenders could shoot red hot cannon balls skidding along the water surface to inflame any attacking wood ships of the era. You become aware of the huge Spanish presence in the New World. Sending fleets of silver-bearing treasure ships back to the King in Spain was the annual drama that energized the Spanish-colonial effort.
The list could go on and on. There are many, many interesting islands (and mainland destinations) to visit during the time your cruise ship is in port. You can explore on your own, at $0 expense, or purchase a “shore excursion.”
Sometimes the shore excursion is a very good buy because it organizes the logistics for you. For example, when a ship stops in Limon, Costa Rica, only an efficient shore excursion package can get you in one day into the Costa Rican mountains and allow you to take a tropical rain forest canopy tour. The tour is called the Rainforest Aerial Tram, a kind of “ski lift” vehicle traversing the top of the rain forest.
Cruising the Caribbean is one of the most popular travel options on the planet. Millions sample a Caribbean cruise and then return again and again. And when you ask why, people will say–the area is so warm, the sun is so inviting, the new cruise ships are so alluring, and the diverse island destinations are so beguiling. Sometimes they even say, “The price was so good, I couldn’t afford to stay home.”