There's much more to this region stretching from south Florida to South America than sun, sand and surf. No other destination presents so many choices of cruise itineraries and lengths, with anything from a two-night getaway to an extended voyage sailing from ports from New York to Central America. In fact, it is so vast and diverse that it really constitutes three separate areas, traditionally defined as Eastern Caribbean/The Bahamas, Western Caribbean and Southern Caribbean.
A typical weeklong cruise allows vacationers to sample these varied cultures, history and peoples at four or five different ports. Each port call opens the door to a new slice of paradise, where you might discover traces of France or Britain or the Netherlands or Spain woven into the distinctive pace and style of the regions many individual nations.
Although a year-round cruise destination the strong appeal of the Caribbean and The Bahamas for family cruise vacations make school holiday periods among the busiest times of year. Those looking for the best values in a cruise to the Caribbean and The Bahamas should check sailing dates in January, late spring or September through early December.
Eastern Caribbean/The Bahamas
The most popular cruising grounds in the world lie from the Bahamas just off the South Florida coast and the islands defining the border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Legendary playgrounds of royalty and celebrities; places rich in historic importance and cultural traditions; world-class shops, entertainment and recreational opportunities; and exotic natural wonderlands make Eastern Caribbean and Bahamas cruises appealing to vacationers of virtually every age and interest.
Ships ranging from yacht-like luxury vessels to the largest floating resorts sail to the Bahamas and Eastern Caribbean year-round from the popular Florida ports of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and seasonally from eastern U.S. ports as far north as New York.
Ports of Call
The region provides an almost endless variety of ports for cruise ships to visit, including exclusive private islands in some cases, but among the most popular ports of call are:
Nassau, The Bahamas -
Nassau and Freeport are the primary ports of call in The Bahamas, but several cruise lines also visit their own private islands in this chain. Popular shore attractions in the Bahamas include:
Nassau, in particular, is famous as a shopper's paradise offering everything from designer fashions and jewelry at duty-free prices to locally produced arts and crafts.
Beaches and Water Sports -
Incredibly clear waters and soft sand make The Bahamas a great place to spend a day at the beach or take a snorkeling or diving excursion.
Some of the best golf courses in the Caribbean region are featured in golf excursions available on cruises calling at Nassau.
Nightlife and Casinos -
Cruisers can enjoy nightlife running the gamut from party boats to spectacular live shows and world-class casinos during their Bahamas port calls.
San Juan, Puerto Rico -
Cruise ships dock within easy walking distance of the heart of San Juan. From there, cruise vacationers can enjoy a wide range of shore activities, including:
Natural Wonders -
From tropical rain forests and rugged mountains to spectacular beaches, the island of Puerto Rico provides a rich variety of places to see and visit.
Sporting Fun -
Shore excursions available to cruise travelers include golf at one of the island's many outstanding courses, mountain biking or hiking, deep-sea fishing, river kayaking and nearly every kind of water sports activity imaginable.
History and Culture -
A tour of San Juan, the second oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, will satisfy history lovers with visits to historic sites and museums throughout the city. Those with a taste for the arts and music will want to be sure to visit San Juan's art galleries and many entertainment venues.
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands -
With one of the most scenic harbors in the Caribbean, Charlotte Amalie is a perennial favorite among cruise vacationers. Here and on the nearby islands of St. John and St. Croix, travelers can enjoy a selection of shore experiences that includes:
Charlotte Amalie is a "must visit" port for shoppers, with one of the biggest selections of duty-free stores in the Caribbean, even including a shopping mall adjacent to the cruise ship pier.
Nature Adventures -
Most of the island of St. John comprises a vast national forest, making it an ideal environment for hiking, kayaking or touring by land or water. There's plenty to see and do underwater, too, on snorkeling and Scuba diving expeditions.
Day at the Beach -
St. Thomas is home to the world-renowned beach at Magen's Bay, widely touted as one of the most beautiful stretches of white sand in the world.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten -
This island has two identities and two distinct personalities. The half of the island where most cruise ships call at Philipsburg is Dutch and goes by the name St. Maarten; the other half, only by a short cab ride away, is decidedly French and carries the name St. Martin. Among the shore excursions available for cruise visitors are:
Some of the most popular shore excursions here aren't on shore; they're on sailboats. Cruise visitors can take a leisurely sightseeing/beach trip around the island on a catamaran or, for more thrills, take a ride on a genuine America's Cup racing yacht.
Caribbean Riviera -
Tours of the island include the town of Marigot on the French (St. Martin) side of the island. The cafes and shops along the beach and streets of this very French town give it the ambiance of the French Riviera.
Underwater Delights -
The clear waters and shallow water reefs around the island and nearby deserted islets make snorkeling and scuba diving excursions a popular choice for cruise vacationers visiting St. Maarten.
Combining some of the Caribbean's most vibrant cultures, natural wonders on land and in the sea, the rich historical treasures of the Mayan Empire, and legendary resort areas, the Western Caribbean ranks as one of the world's great vacation spots and offers extraordinary variety as a cruise destination.
Cruise ships depart for Western Caribbean sailings year-round from all the major Florida ports, including Tampa, as well as New Orleans, Mobile, Houston and Galveston on America's Gulf Coast, and Cancun, Mexico.
Ports of Call
Key West -
The southernmost point of land in the United States, the "Conch Republic" of Key West also has a stellar history as the favorite haunt of artists, celebrities, presidents and literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway. It's easy to spend a day in Key West just soaking in the ambiance, but there are lots of other things to enjoy, including:
Famous Places -
Cruise visitors can easily spend a day touring the island's famous places, including the homes of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, Harry Truman's "Little White House" and the legendary Sloppy Joe's Tavern.
Shoppers can find anything from funky crafts to fine arts, along with specialties like Key Lime treats along Duval Street and its tributaries.
Its location makes Key West a perfect starting point for a day of fishing in the Gulf Stream, where anglers have an opportunity to hook a really big catch.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica -
The most popular of the cruise ports on the Caribbean's second largest island serves as an entry point to many of Jamaica's most famous and appealing attractions. Favorite shore excursions for cruise vacationers calling here include:
Natural Wonders -
Most visitors to Ocho Rios includes spectacular Dunn's River Falls, and a chance to climb up the waterfall, in their itinerary. Natural wonders abound in Jamaica, and a cruise visit offers ample opportunities to sample them.
Arts and Artists -
From reggae music to fine art, the cultural heritage and life of Jamaica ranks among the richest anywhere. Many cruises offer shore excursions that focus on the arts, usually including visits to museums, galleries such as Harmony Hall and tours of Noel Coward's beautiful retreat, Firefly.
Sport and Adventure -
Active vacationers can go river rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, golfing or any from an almost endless selection of active pursuits during a day at Ocho Rios.
George Town, Grand Cayman -
Long famous among divers and once a favorite haunt of pirates, the Cayman Islands have become one of the most popular ports of call on Western Caribbean itineraries. Among the reasons are the many distinctive experiences available here, including:
Swimming with Stingrays -
Few cruise visitors miss the chance to visit the famous Stingray City and swim and snorkel among these strange and fierce looking creatures, who are actually quite docile and even friendly.
Diving Adventures -
Scuba divers rate the spectacular coral reefs and clear waters teeming with marine life in the Cayman Islands among the world's best spots, and most cruises that call here offer excursions for certified divers.
Turtles and Tours -
For those who don't want to go in the water, Grand Cayman Island is home to the world's first sea turtle farm, the spectacular limestone and coral formations known as Hell and the popular Seven Mile Beach. There's also golf, bicycling and horseback riding.
Vacationers seeking a unique experience apart from the crowds will find their dream vacation on a cruise in the Southern Caribbean. Defined by a string of lovely small islands from Antigua south to Trinidad and the northeastern coast of South America, this region also enjoys the Caribbean's sunniest climate.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, ranks as the most popular departure point for Southern Caribbean itineraries, but some ships sail from other islands, such as Barbados. Most cruises from San Juan include stops at Eastern Caribbean islands, such as St. Thomas, before sailing down to the Southern Caribbean.
Ports of Call
Ports of call in the lower reaches of the Caribbean Sea also include:
Castries, St. Lucia -
Recognizable for the twin peaks of the Pitons rising from its shoreline, this island offers visitors a scenic wonderland and a sportsman's paradise. Among the favorite things for cruise vacationers who call here to do are:
Scenic Tours -
Island tours take visitors to mountainous areas, lush rain forests, banana plantations, volcanic craters, fine beaches and beautiful waterfalls on this remarkably diverse tropical island.
Active Adventures -
A port call at St. Lucia can include a day of horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking or other active adventures in the island's spectacularly rugged terrain.
Golfers will find several outstanding courses on St. Lucia available to them through programs offered on a cruise. Georgetown, Barbados - Very British Barbados lies at the eastern edge of the Caribbean. The quiet civility of the people matches the softly rolling landscape of this historic island. Among the most popular Barbados excursions for cruise passengers are:
Rum Factory Tours -
Barbados is widely known for its rum, and tours of the local factories that produce this popular liquor and essential ingredient for Pina Coladas are a notable attraction for many visitors.
Whether by 4X4, bicycle, horse or kayak, visitors can explore the countryside of Barbados off the beaten path on excursions offered by most cruise ships visiting the island.
Flowers Galore -
The combination of tropical climate and British tradition make Barbados a garden spot. Among the top attractions for flower lovers are The Flower Forest with its varied gardens on 50 acres of land and Orchid World, which features dozens of exotic varieties of this tropical beauty.
Willemstad, Curacao -
The primary island of the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao has an unmistakable Dutch heritage. In fact, the first impression cruise vacationers visiting the island's capital of Willemstad have is the Dutch style architecture of this picturesque city. During a port call at Curacao, cruisers can enjoy a variety of shore experiences, such as:
City Tour -
The compact size and appealing ambiance of the Old City make it well-suited to a leisurely walk to see its architectural highlights, historical sites and, of course, shops and markets. For those who want to rest their feet, trolley train tours provide an easy alternative.
Sea Life -
A visit to Curacao's vast underwater park provides opportunities for snorkeling and diving and up-close encounters with the sea life there. The park also features an excellent Seaquarium housing hundreds of varieties of marine species found in the waters around the island.
Ostrich Farm -
Those looking for something completely different can take a tour to Curacao's Ostrich Farm to see and learn more about these unusual flightless birds. Most tours also include the nearby Curacao Herb Gardens.