We've all been there -- gazing blankly out the window at a cold, gray winter day and mentally transporting ourselves onto a sunny beach in the Caribbean, complete with fruity tropical drink of choice -- even if we haven't really been there. These days, there's plenty of visual fodder to fuel those daydreams: images from magazines and movies of soft white beaches, lush rain forests, colorful cottages and impossibly clear blue seas -- portraying paradise, you might say.
Looking very much forward to my own virgin venture to the Southern Caribbean this winter, I assumed my experience would live up to the high expectations of my daydreams. The big conundrum: Which island to choose? In the end I chose a selection by opting to cruise. But in making such a choice, I encountered another challenge: My Caribbean fantasies mostly featured me, myself and I (okay, and maybe a traveling companion too) -- not me and several thousand fellow cruisers, all descending in a teeming horde upon crowded beaches, restaurants and duty-free shops. I wanted to experience the islands -- their native residents and cultures -- themselves, not feel like I was being shuttled from one made-for-tourists attraction to another.
My solution was to book a Southern Caribbean cruise -- specifically, six nights aboard easyCruise's 170-passenger easyCruiseOne. Beyond the appeal of sailing on a smaller vessel, the ship's itinerary offered special options not as available to big-ship cruisers, such as late nights in port that would allow us to sample the local nightlife.
Of the three cruise regions of the Caribbean, what the cruise industry dubs "Southern" is by far the least visited. That's mostly because of its relative distance from the U.S.; while the Eastern and Western regions are conveniently accessible from a number of homeports on both the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S., the Southern Caribbean is generally too far to make homeport cruising a viable option unless you're willing to sail for longer than a week. NCL and Celebrity offer a few 10- to 12-night sailings from the New York area, but for the most part you'll have to fly to Florida, San Juan or even further south to pick up your cruise.
I winced a little when I booked the rather pricey airfare to Barbados, where I would board easyCruiseOne (rumor has it the line is looking at assigning the ship next winter to a more convenient and economical homeport), but I was betting that the extra time and expense would be worth it. And I was right, though I was also in for a few surprises -- both good and bad -- along the way.
The Road Less Traveled
If my goal was to see the Caribbean without the crowds, I succeeded. In many ports, easyCruiseOne was the only cruise ship in town -- and with just 100 or so passengers onboard (the ship wasn't filled to capacity), we weren't a big enough bunch to overwhelm even the smallest islands on our itinerary. My traveling companion and I had the peaceful gardens of Barbados' Orchid World all to ourselves one afternoon, while the next evening found us on a deserted black sand beach in St. Vincent as the sun began to go down. The most magical moment of the week came in Martinique at the Gorges de la Falaise, when we hiked down into a river gorge and spent a few minutes alone under a small waterfall.
The peaceful sightseeing wasn't the only benefit of sailing a less popular itinerary; the relative lack of cruise traffic on the islands we visited also meant that locals weren't swarming the cruise terminal, offering to braid our hair or sell us ticky-tacky souvenirs as soon as we stepped off the ship. Sure, we got offered a few cab rides, and one Grenadian gave us a pretty good sales pitch for a nutmeg necklace (we passed) -- but that's nothing compared to what we would've encountered in some of the heavily touristed ports of the Eastern or Western Caribbean, such as Cozumel or Ocho Rios. For the most part we felt like welcome visitors -- not walking wallets.
Not All Created Equal
Before I left for the cruise, I wondered briefly whether the ports would start to run together in my mind by the end of the week -- surely islands that were located just a few dozen miles apart couldn't be all that different from each other. However, I was pleasantly surprised. For one thing, the land itself looked different from one island to the next; we saw everything from flat farm fields in Barbados to the dramatic peaks of St. Lucia's Twin Pitons. Volcanic activity on St. Vincent and Martinique has formed black sand beaches on those islands, while nearby Bequia and Mustique (both part of the Grenadines) have golden or even pristine white stretches of sand.
Even more striking were the differences in the level of development among the islands. In Martinique, an island clearly accustomed to visitors, a marked blue path guided us conveniently straight from the cruise terminal into downtown Fort-de-France -- which felt downright luxurious compared to the day before, when we were dodging cars, locals and stray dogs on sidewalk-less streets in Kingstown, St. Vincent. Fort-de-France and St. Lucia's Castries, especially, felt like "real" cities, complete with high-rise buildings and bustling crowds. ("Didn't we go on vacation to get away from rush hour?" I whispered to my companion one afternoon as our van idled in traffic on the outskirts of Castries.) But there were a few sleepy towns on our itinerary too -- places like Bequia's tiny Port Elizabeth, which consisted of a few waterfront restaurants, shops and docks.
We loved the variety, and the thrill of not knowing quite what to expect each time we pulled into port.
I went into my cruise wanting to experience "Caribbean culture" -- which I soon discovered is a bit of a nebulous concept. Much like the U.S., the Caribbean is a region where various cultures have met and mingled, creating a rich stew of European, North American, African and Native American influences. On some of the islands we visited, the European flavors were particularly strong; Martinique showed its French flair in both its architecture and cuisine, while Anglican churches and the "fish and chips" option on many local menus spoke of Barbados' British heritage. (Barbados even has a district in the north of the island that's nicknamed Scotland for its rolling green hills.) I was a bit sorry to see that America's golden arches had made their way to Martinique, but native dishes still reign supreme in the West Indian restaurants of Grenada and the casual seafood joints of Bequia and St. Vincent.
One thing, I noticed, did seem to span across all the Caribbean nations we visited: "island time." This is not the place to come if you're in a hurry. It took us a full half-hour to check into our pre-cruise hotel in Barbados, the taxis never failed to take the scenic route (though, to be fair, that was often what we were hoping for), and restaurant servers ranged in speed from slow to glacial. I occasionally found myself checking my watch or tapping my foot, but then I'd remind myself, "You're on vacation!" and equilibrium was restored.
Livin' la Vida Local
For our first few days in port, we mostly relied on cabs to get around the islands -- efficient, but expensive. Out the windows of our taxis we'd often spot brightly colored vans hurtling the opposite way along rural roads, bearing fanciful monikers like "Hot Wax" or "Baby Diamond." After consulting our guidebook and chatting with fellow easyCruisers, we discovered that these vans serve as the public bus system for many of the islands -- and decided we'd have to check it out for ourselves.
Our decision paid off on more than one occasion. We may not have had as much freedom of movement on the vans as we would've in a taxi or rental car, but they were an easy way to get from one town or city to another -- and they were dirt-cheap! (We paid a just dollar or two for rides that would've cost us $15 or more in a cab.) But even better, riding in the vans let us experience a little slice of local culture. We took one lively ride in St. Lucia with a bunch of schoolchildren, who, when the time came, eagerly helped us convey a message from our seats in the back of the van up to the driver: "STOP!"
Note: The vans often don't leave until they're full, so you could face a bit of a wait (likely without air-conditioning) before you get on the road. Also, be sure to check when the last van runs to your destination so that you don't get stranded.
Hindsight Is 20/20
Alas, the course of a vacation does not always run smooth, and ours was no exception. Looking back, there were a few things I wish I'd known before the cruise. One shocker was that Caribbean beaches are not all the same -- and that they don't all look like they do in postcards. They come in all colors, from white to golden to black, and the sand isn't necessarily any softer than it is anywhere else in the world. (Though I was a little disappointed in the beaches, I will admit that the color of the water lived up to all my expectations!)
I was also unprepared for the utter shutdown of restaurants, shops and attractions that occurs on Sundays throughout the islands. We spent several hours wandering around Barbados' two largest towns in search of meals the Sunday we were in port, and found nothing open except one lonely KFC. (We did eventually find a lunch spot in Holetown, a major resort area of the island.) If you're in port on a Sunday, it's probably worth taking a ship-sponsored excursion -- or planning to make that day a beach day.
Finally, it never hurts to remind yourself of the obvious -- that it even rains in paradise (how do you think all those pretty flowers and banana trees grow?). I got a little chilly in my tank top and shorts the day it poured rain in Grenada, and wished I'd thought to bring an extra layer or two -- preferably something waterproof.
Did You Know?
Flying fish, the national dish of Barbados, don't actually fly; rather, they propel themselves out of the water and spread their large pectoral fins, enabling them to skim along the surface for up to 100 yards.
Nutmeg trees take about seven years to mature enough to bear fruit, which is why Grenada's famous nutmeg crop hasn't fully recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
St. Lucia boasts the world's only drive-in volcano -- allowing you to drive up to get a close look at (and a big whiff of) more than 20 bubbling sulfur pools.
--By Sarah Schlichter, Associate Editor for Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.