Cruising the Caribbean: which cruise to pick?


BY PAUL MARSHMAN ON Mar 16, 2018


If you took a poll of the world’s top cruise destinations, the Caribbean would likely rank right at the top of the list. There are good reasons cruising the Caribbean is so popular. It’s close to home for North Americans (at least, those on the east side); the weather is warm and sunny; and there are a lot of affordable cruises to choose from. And despite last fall’s hurricanes, most of the Caribbean ports have recovered and are back in business this winter.

The problem is, there’s such a wealth of cruises on offer that cruising the Caribbean can be a bit of a puzzle. The region has a lot of different parts, and each cruise concentrates on a different area. Which should you choose? If you haven’t done a Caribbean cruise before, it can be tough to pick.

To help clear the picture, I’ve created out a little primer: you could call it the Travelling Boomer’s guide to cruising the Caribbean. Here it is, divided into the major categories the cruise companies use.

The Bahamas
This is what I like to call the beginner’s cruise — a small sample of what cruising the Caribbean is like. The Bahamas are not far from Florida ports like Miami and Port Canaveral, so you can easily combine them with a Florida holiday. These are generally three- or four-night cruises, visiting ports like Nassau, Grand Bahama and Freeport, plus a stop at the private islands the cruise lines use, like Coco Cay and Great Stirrup Cay.

There’s not an awful lot to do in the Bahamas besides hit the beach, shop at the straw markets or try your luck at the Atlantis Resort’s casino. But they make a nice, short getaway if you haven’t got a lot of time to spare, and a nice introduction to cruising if you’re new to the pastime. There are even cruises with an open bar — enjoy. Note: You can sometimes find Bahamas cruises from places as far north as Baltimore, so you don’t need to go to Florida; however, your cruise will be a couple of days longer.

The Eastern Caribbean
To me, this is the heart of the Caribbean. It’s a big area, stretching from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British) in the north to  Barbados and Martinique in the south. There are dozens of islands, each with a slightly different character, so there’s a lot to choose from when you book one of these cruises. My recent cruise visited Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Thomas and St. Kitts, but other cruises stop in places like St. Maarten/Martin and the Turks and Caicos.

You can find Eastern Caribbean cruises that leave from the Florida ports, or from Manhattan, Port Liberty in New Jersey, or Puerto Rico (which is still struggling to recover from the storms). So you can plan your trip almost any way you like. But whichever you choose, you’ll get a pretty good look at the region, from the million-dollar condos of Barbados to the Twin Piton mountains of St. Lucia to the beautiful Magens Bay on Saint Thomas. And of course, there’s lots to do, whether you like shopping, mountain climbing, zip-lining or just lying on the beach.

The Western Caribbean
These cruises are a bit of an odd man out, because while they sail the Caribbean Sea, they don’t go to many Caribbean islands. An average itinerary might include Mexican ports like the Mayan Riviera and the diving mecca of Cozumel, as  well as bits of Central America like Roatan, in Honduras, and Belize. You might also get an island or two, such as the  Cayman Islands and Montego Bay, Jamaica. In any case, you get a lot of variety, from the Mayan ruins of Tulum to the reefs of Cozumel to the jungles of Belize – and of course, the beaches.

Another feature of Western Caribbean cruises is that many of them leave from Galveston, Texas or New Orleans — which gives you a great excuse to spend a few days in one of North America’s most fun and atmospheric cities. However, you can also find some that set sail from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, if you don’t want to travel that far; these might stop off in Key West along the way — another place that’s back up and running after the hurricane.

The Southern Caribbean
This is the Caribbean with a whole other flavour – and a Dutch accent. The main attractions in the southern  Caribbean are the “ABC” islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, once commonly known as the Netherlands Antilles. When you cruise into Willemstad, Curaçao, or Oranjestad, in Aruba, with their pastel-coloured, Dutch-style buildings, you’ll think you’re somewhere in Holland. Cruises visit Bonaire these days, too, for some snorkelling and a look at giant flocks of flamingos.

On these islands you’ll find European-style coffee houses, along with the casinos that draw many thousands of visitors. You’ll also find nice beaches, some rocky terrain to explore, and little sightseeing submarines that take you down to the ocean floor. These islands are a long way south, so the cruises tend to be fairly long, from nine to 12 days; those that leave from Puerto Rico are a bit shorter. And many of them stop at other Caribbean islands along the way, from St. Kitts and St. Thomas to Antigua. They’re a nice change of pace if you’ve already seen the major Caribbean ports.

Cuba
Not long ago, cruising to Cuba was almost impossible. But since the easing of the U.S. embargo, most of the major cruise lines have added the island to their itineraries; in fact, it’s become the new exotic port of call. Cuban cruises are not a  great revelation for Canadians, who’ve been visiting Cuba for decades. But for many Americans, they’re a welcome first chance to see this forbidden territory. With the Trump administration’s new restriction, however, U.S. citizens have to have an excuse for going there, like an educational tour — check with your cruise line.

All that said, most of the “Cuban” cruises on offer spend little time in Cuba – often just a day in Havana on a trip including places like Key West, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. However, some do spend two days in the city, and you can find some seven- and eight-day cruises that visits Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Holland America and some other lines also include Cuba in long cruises to other parts of the Caribbean. If you haven’t seen Cuba, these cruises may be a nice sampler — but for me, there are better ways to see it.

That’s my guide to cruising the Caribbean. There’s lots more to know, of course, but if you haven’t cruised the region extensively, I hope this helps you make sense of all the ads you see. If you want more in-depth information, check out Cruise Critic website or consult a travel agent who specializes in cruising. Happy cruising.

Photo of Oranjestad, Aruba courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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