Looking for a different island to explore on a Caribbean cruise? You’re not alone.
The proliferation of cruise ships criss-crossing the Caribbean has created traffic jams in classic stops like as St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Mexico’s Cozumel, whose ports are beginning to resemble theme parks.
That`s leading cruise lines to look further afield, to less-known ports. Even though some of these alternatives are starting to get popular as well, they still retain a flavor of the Caribbean of old.
Here are ones to check out the next time you ship out:
1) VIBRANT ST. VINCENT
St. Vincent, the main island of the Grenadines, has remained a difficult to reach and relatively unchanged enclave in the Caribbean. That’s partly due to the fact that it never had an airport that could accommodate jets. This is a good time to check it out because big changes may be on the way with the promised opening of the much-delayed Argyle International Airport.
Cruise passengers will find the port city Kingstown a throwback to the colonial Caribbean, with quaint buildings whose stores that are not yet geared for tourist shoppers and whose restaurants offer simple fare. For eco-tourists, though, the island is rich with attractions including lush rain forests and healthy coral reefs. Rock climbers can make it all the way to the rim of La Soufriere, the volcano that tips the northern end of the island.
Who visits: AIDACruises, Holland America Line, Saga Cruises, Star Clippers, P&O Cruises
2) ROAMING AND DIVING ON ROATAN ISLAND
A wide range of cruise lines now include Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, in their itineraries in the western Caribbean. That’s a far cry from a decade or so ago, when the dock at Coxen Hole was a rickety freight pier and most of the tourists who visited were scuba divers planning to spend a few days on a live-aboard dive boat.
The modern Mahogany Bay Cruise Center has changed all that, although it’s vital to get beyond the tourist zone to really get the feel of the island. The big dock is part of a shopping mall- like complex whose stores and zip line make the port look very much like any number of other tourist stops in the Caribbean.
All the ships offer a beach day at Tabyana Beach, which has beautiful sand but because so many cruise passengers are using it becomes as crowded and busy as the pool deck on the ship. An alternative is to arrange with a taxi driver to take you to more peaceful West End Bay and pick you up later in the day (although be sure you negotiate and agree on the price before getting in the cab). The island is mountainous but the main focus of interest on a visit here is the crystal clear water and easy snorkeling.
As a scuba diver, I hunt out a shuttle to one of the dive shops that take certified divers to some of the most colorful reefs any where.
Who visits: Many lines that do western Caribbean itineraries make stops in Roatan
3) VOLCANIC VIRGIN GORDA
The whole island is a rural retreat for yachters amid the profusion of British Virgin Islands, but a main attraction for nearly everyone who comes is the picture-book perfect beach known as The Baths. Many of the huge volcanic boulders scattered along the coast are stacked atop each other, creating caves and grottoes in the surf of the pristine white sand beach. Snorkelling is amazing as well because the coast has never been fished, so a profusion of large, brilliantly colored fish inhabit the coral reefs very close to shore.
You’ll be happy you brought a waterproof camera. People love to climb on the rocks but be warned: they can be slippery. Another major hazard is the sun, which reflects off all the rock and white sand with devastating power to burn skin not protected with copious amounts of sun lotion.
Who visits: Azamara Club Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Sea Dream Yacht Club, Silversea Cruises, Star Clippers, Windstar Cruises, Yachts of Seabourn.
4) GRACIOUS GUADELOUPE
While Martinque has become a must-do French island in the Caribbean, its butterfly-shaped neighbour Guadeloupe has escaped the superhighway building and beach crowding that development brings. The port city of Pointe-a-Pitre makes for a colourful walk with its outdoor produce and flower markets in the middle of town, with enough French fashion shops to make just getting off the ship an eye-filling experience.
A great adventure is to get out on the costal roads to explore the two contrasting halves of the island: Grand Terre and the unspoiled southern zone, Basse Terre whose Parc National is dominated by a still active volcano. Because of the prevailing winds most all the rain falls on one slope, creating a lush rain forest, while the other side is a complete contrast: dry and desert-like.
Who visits: Costa Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Sea Dream Yacht Club, Star Clippers, Windstar Cruises, Yachts of Seabourn
5) TANNING ON GRAND TURK
The first time I ever visited the Turks and Caicos, 20 years ago, the desk clerk at Miami’s airport asked me “where in the world is Providenciales?” The Turks’ capital city and its 40 neighboring sand bars were islands known mostly to scuba divers and people looking for a beach where no one would bother them.
How that’s changed since Carnival Corp. invested in a huge new port complex, complete with retail shops, beach and a recreation area and pool. The attractions on the island beyond the port are still sparse, but a visit here gives you a look at the old days in the Caribbean, complete with goats and donkeys on the road. If you’re in to sunning on a seemingly endless stretch of white sand and snorkeling or scuba diving, this the place for you.
Who visits: Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Fred Olsen Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, P&O, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea Cruises
6) STILL NATURAL DOMINICA
This island of Dominica is an example of “if you build it they will come.” For years this island that has virtually no beaches but is known for its beautifully lush mountains, rainforests and waterfalls was not on the main cruising routes because it had only one tiny dock far from the main town.
It’s gained fame by being a setting for scenes in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean films and from visitors who bring back fabulous photos they’ve taken of unspoiled nature and stories of swimming in hot springs and breathing some of the cleanest air in the world.
There was so much interest from cruise lines wanting to visit that Dominica built a new cruise terminal at the edge of the colonial city of Roseau that’s capable of handling some of the biggest ships sailing in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the fenced in make-believe village that includes diamond stores, t-shirt shops and chain restaurants clashes completely with the real castaway Caribbean city of Roseau, whose narrow streets, castaway bars and moss-covered churches make for interesting sightseeing.
Those who fancy a bit of a hike can just head to the edge of town to a lush national park and botanical gardens.
Taxi drivers will be happy to become tour guides to give you a guided drive around the island, much of it on valley roads lined with trees and vines. One thing you’re unlikely to see is a sandy beach, because most of the coast line is a sheer drop into the sea. You might want to carry an umbrella, because it rains pretty much every day, and even if it’s not raining, the spray from waterfalls causes the trees to drip water much of the time.
It’s definitely a unique stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit.
Who visits: Nearly all cruise lines have added Roseau to their roster of places to visit on eastern Caribbean itineraries.