On busy days, a Western Caribbean port can look like a shopping mall parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving. Several huge ships can be lined up, disgorging thousands of passengers onto an island's not-so-spacious shores. And while you might be excited about hitting the duty-free stores or soaking up the sun on a white-sand beach, you're probably not too keen on elbowing your way through the crowds once you're there.
When I first zeroed in on a vacation aboard Carnival Freedom to the uber-popular ports of Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios during the peak winter travel season, I wondered afterwards if I wasn't a little crazy. These destinations show up on the traditional Western Caribbean itinerary of every major cruise line, which means that they are some of the most congested ports you can visit by cruise ship. I imagined rowdy crowds spilling out of every Mexican chain restaurant in Cozumel, back-to-back beach towels covering all of Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach and more tourists than water teeming over Jamaica's Dunn's River Falls.
What's a claustrophobe to do? Run and hide. I decided my mission would be to figure out how to escape the crowds, even on the most popular of cruises. If the tourists went one way, I'd just have to go the other. I dubbed the project "Operation: Oases of Calm" and vowed to find peace and relaxation on my peak-season Caribbean cruise. The challenge turned out to be more than I bargained for, but I still learned some tricks to finding moments of Zen in the midst of chaos.
Cozumel Boards: Chat With Other Cruisers About Cozumel!
I decided to stick with the ship's tours in Cozumel. Carnival offered several interesting trips, plus I'd read some horror stories on the Cruise Critic Boards about long lines for taxis and difficulties navigating rental cars out of the downtown area. One excursion seemed particularly suited to my requirements -- the Isla Pasion Jungle Kayak trip. The name says it all -- you kayak to a nearby island and spend the rest of the day on a private beach. Most passengers would opt for the closer public beaches, I reasoned, and those who did choose to visit the tiny island would most certainly take a ferry rather than a kayak. I was correct -- so few people wanted to enjoy this experience that Carnival canceled the tour.
On to Plan B -- the Caverns by Jeep and Beach Combo. We would ferry to Playa del Carmen to ride jeeps, explore caverns and enjoy lunch on a private beach. I couldn't imagine how a cavern could be crowded, and a private beach would be perfect for enjoying the sun and sand all by myself.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much sun to be found. I boarded the ferry from Cozumel to the mainland under overcast, threatening skies. The rocking trip was no "oasis of calm" for my poor stomach, and I was grateful to reach Playa del Carmen's shores, no matter how many people were there.
The tour also did not play out as I imagined. We did ride four people to a jeep, but instead of off-roading in remote jungle regions of Mexico, we cruised down the main highway. Several tour groups converged on the caverns at the same time, meaning long waits and chaotic changing areas. And the private beach? We had it to ourselves, sure, but mostly because we were the only fools to attempt to eat rice and beans in open-sided thatched-roofed palapas in the driving rain.
But there were moments of peace. Our tour leaders smartly divided the group up for our swimming tour of the caverns. The chilly water scared half the participants away, so those of us brave enough to get in the water were treated to semi-private tours under the stalactites. And the beach break really was a private beach, so on a sunny day the area would provide a lovely seaside retreat sans crowds.
I'd guess that every cruise ship passenger not on an organized tour in Grand Cayman either goes shopping or goes to Seven Mile Beach. With these outstanding options so close to the port, why venture farther into the island? So to seek out some peace and quiet, I decided to skip the port area for a more distant beach at Rum Point.
Yet once again, my plans were thwarted. I'd been told that the half hour cab ride should cost between $20 and $30 each way. Yet the taxi dispatcher at the port told me the cost would be $75 each way -- mostly because the driver would have to wait for me at the beach. Couldn't I just call a cab from the beach when I was ready to leave, I inquired. The answer was no. Clearly, the cab drivers did not want to take me to Rum Point, and I didn't have the cash to get there anyway.
Once again, I found myself opting for Plan B. I knew that Seven Mile Beach was beautiful and relaxing, and guessed that some stretch of those seven miles would not be packed with tourists. So I hopped in a cab for a quicker and cheaper ride to the more popular beach.
Finding solitude was actually not that tricky. The cab left me off at the Sea Grape section of Seven Mile Beach. Instead of plunking my stuff down on the first available plot of sand, I scanned the beach for a break in the crowds. The area directly north of me seemed more populated than the stretch of sand to the south, so I resolutely marched down the beach (in the direction of the docked ships). Within minutes, I had left the other tourists behind and found a nice shady spot with only one or two people nearby. I blissfully lay on my beach towel, not bothered by any loud conversations, whiny children, or beach walkers accidentally kicking sand on me. In fact, my little patch of beach was so secluded that the older woman who sat down relatively nearby changed into her bathing suit right out in the open!
Even on a 110,000-ton ship, you feel the presence of 3,300 other guests. So I extended my mission to include the three sea days on the itinerary. Could I find quiet, private spaces onboard? You betcha! Surprisingly, this was the easiest part of my challenge.
I had booked a balcony cabin and enjoyed spending peaceful hours watching the sea go by from the privacy of my little verandah. However, guests who can't afford a balcony don't have to spend their sea days defending a pool-deck lounge chair from over-eager sunbathers, cocktail waiters and pool-game participants. On Carnival Freedom, Deck 3 has outdoor sun decks on either side of the ship (though they don't link up to form a promenade). This quiet outdoor area always has empty lounge chairs, and savvy cruisers come here to sleep, read or otherwise escape the throngs by the pool. For a little more sunlight, I also found the front end of the top deck (away from the waterslide) to be fairly quiet.
You can also find some secluded spots indoors. On a rainy, overcast day, I spend a pleasant hour by myself in the Drawing Room, reading a book on a comfy suede-like couch. I'm not sure what the intended purpose of this room is but it's cozy and was empty every time I checked. The Library was also typically empty, probably because of its small selection of books.
If you're willing to splurge, the spa is a great place to bliss out for an hour ... that is, until they hand you the bill. The spa's whirlpool on the Freedom did overlook the gym, but there was rarely anyone in the tub when I passed by. If nothing else, the spa whirlpool is guaranteed to be adults only and not packed with rowdy Camp Carnival types.
The tours in Ocho Rios, Jamaica sounded better than anything I could do on my own, so I signed up for the Dolphin Cove Ultimate Beach Experience. I was betting that on a private beach I wouldn't be hassled by vendors while I lay out and that the limit on tour participants would keep crowds to a minimum. However, when I arrived, I despaired that my plan to find an out-of-the-way spot would never be realized.
The beach area is built on a tiny bit of land between the water and the road. Every inch of beach was filled with lounge chairs, which in turn were filled with sunbathing Carnival guests. Lines for food and drink stretched well past the buffet tables (and this was at 10:30 a.m.!) and an exuberant DJ was constantly making ear-piercingly loud announcements over a P.A. system.
My only chance to find Zen was to head for the water. I jumped into a glass-bottomed kayak and paddled out into the sheltered cove. The paddling area was rather small, but I quickly realized that the farthest reaches were shared only by one or two snorkelers and occasionally another kayak. The P.A. announcements were barely intelligible and the hubbub of the beach was very far away. I sat in the kayak, trying to spot fish through the glass bottom, and found my oasis of calm.
But, hey, I couldn't miss out on Jamaican food and rum punch for long. So after a while, I headed back into the masses to appease my rumbling stomach.
Did I accomplish my mission? Yes and no. I did find "oases of calm" wherever I went, but I didn't succeed in completely getting away from the tourist centers. Based on my experience, here are a few tips for finding your own quiet spots on your next cruise:
Rent a car: In retrospect, I should have rented a car on Grand Cayman. Budget and Avis offer one-day specials for cruise guests that start at $40. For a reasonable price, I would have had the freedom to go anywhere on the island and stay as long as I wanted. However, my pre-cruise research incorrectly had me thinking cab fare to Rum Point would not be more expensive than a car rental, and I preferred to let someone else chauffeur me rather than attempt driving on the left side of the road. When I found out the real price, it was late enough in the morning that I just wanted to get to a nice beach rather than start researching car rental agencies and filling out paperwork.
But for those who plan in advance, a car rental can be a great option. With your own set of wheels, you can be completely independent and travel to all the off-the-beaten-path destinations your heart desires (and your port time allows). Just be sure to buy a good map in advance and leave plenty of time to get back to the port.
Do your research: Buy a guidebook or read online travel websites before you go, so you have a sense of the main tourist areas and the lesser-traveled spots. Not sure where to start? I found Cruise Critic's port profiles to be quite useful in describing both the must-see and less mainstream options in each of the ports. I also checked the destination boards for recommendations of do-it-yourself tours and found helpful advice of what to do and what not to do. The "offbeat" series of destination articles are written with all you independent travelers in mind -- I was very nearly tempted to try the spa mentioned in the Offbeat Cozumel piece.
Once you have a plan in mind, be sure you research modes of transportation and the facilities present at your destination. For example, in Grand Cayman, the cabbie told me she could take me to a nearby secluded beach, but there would be no food, bathrooms, or taxi stands there.
Factor in the cost of solitude: The biggest lesson I learned is that solitude can be pricey ... but you can find ways to mitigate the expense. For example, I could have made it to Rum Point if I were willing to shell out for the pricey cab fare there and back. Or, if I had been traveling with a group of girlfriends or had thought to invite my dinner table companions to join the fun, we could've split the costs and made the experience cheaper for everyone.
And that's the key. You can always find a way to get away from it all -- you just have to work a little harder to make it happen. Perhaps that involves pushing the boundaries of your budget or doing research ahead of time. Or perhaps you can give up your wish for total privacy and extend an invitation to fellow cruise travelers. Traveling with a small group of your own choosing is not nearly as chaotic as a 50-person tour.
When all else fails, do what I did and take a Zen-like approach to anti-Zen experiences. Find a spot of calm in an otherwise busy destination, or just go ahead and embrace the crowds. It's not always a bad thing to be surrounded by throngs of happy people enjoying their vacations.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
--Jamaica photo courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board
--Seven Mile Beach photo courtesy of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism