Larger ships, "homeporting" (with cruises originating in drive-to cities like Galveston, Mobile and Norfolk) and short cruise options of five days or less have helped make cruising more accessible than ever to a growing number of vacationers. But these trends have also made it more difficult to find that idyllic getaway that many of us crave. Western and Eastern Caribbean itineraries, the mainstay of the seven-night turnaround, are great trips, but they call in ports that are often overcrowded and so geared towards the North American tourist trade that it's hard to believe that you've traveled to a foreign country.
A Southern Caribbean itinerary, on the other hand, which calls on ports that are further away and thus more remote, can bring back that feeling of discovery. There are actually island destinations where there is no KFC or McDonald's in sight, and islands where English is barely spoken. There are islands and towns that make you feel as though you've walked through the looking glass into a colonial past, with sugar mills and manor houses offering high tea and gourmet repasts.
Some southern Caribbean ports are booming, bustling centers of commerce while others are entries to lush, verdant rain forests. There are islands that are enclaves for the rich and famous, and islands that look more like the Arizona desert -- complete with towering Saguaro cacti -- and islands where you can smell the nutmeg and cinnamon as soon as you pull into port.
Southern Caribbean islands are further away and less easily accessed than those in the Eastern or Western Caribbean, which means that if you sail from the U.S. you will need a longer vacation period. Or, if you're willing to fly to San Juan, (Puerto Rico), Aruba or Barbados, you can take a southern Caribbean cruise from as few as four days to seven days or more.
We've selected some of our favorite places and some of our favorite excursions, with the goal of presenting those that offer varied glimpses of the life of these islands. Most of the excursions we've selected are available on major ship itineraries, although they might vary slightly from cruise line to cruise line. And as always, we encourage you to read up on these ports, look into the Cruise Critic destination boards, ask questions and determine which excursions are best for you.
Most people go to Aruba for the casinos or the beaches, which are extraordinary indeed. Soft sugary sand nudges the greenest-blue water, and the constant trade winds ensure that no one gets too hot. But Aruba, for its tiny size, has more to offer than just the beach, with its eerie moonscape of a windward side, cacti that tower over cars, and even a factory that turns aloe plants into lotion. And the sunsets in Aruba are unbelievably gorgeous. Many ships have a very late-night departure, so for this stop we're suggesting two excursions.
Aruba's Natural Wonders
Tour the island, including stops at the Natural Bridge, the Butterfly Farm, the Aloe Balm factory and the old gold mill ruins. This tour gives a great overview of the island and still allows time for shopping in Oranjestad or relaxing beachside at Palm Beach or Druif Beach. Be sure to take a camera.
Who Should Go: Anyone with an interest in the unique landscape of this windblown island; photography buffs and nature-lovers; kids (who will love the Butterfly Farm and lava-scape around the Natural Bridge).
Why It's Extraordinary: The difference between the north coast with its otherworldly moonscape and the golden beaches is stunning.
Sunset Catamaran Sail
Anyone who thinks that if you've seen one Caribbean sunset you've seen 'em all has never seen the sun go down in Aruba. Nothing in the world compares. The sky seems endless while wisps of clouds turn colors that range from pale yellow to the deepest crimson, with streaks of burgundy and tangerine and eggplant. It looks like all of the "warm" colors in a Crayola box are melting together, and then reflecting on the calm turquoise water. This excursion glides past the shoreline and the city of Oranjestad during its hour and a half on the water. Some of the trips offer a full open bar, some just rum punch, and juices for kids.
Who Should Go: Romantics, Aruba first-timers, families, nature-lovers, photographers.
Why It's Extraordinary: It will make you wonder why you take sunset for granted.
No one can mistake this island for any other; the two landmark Pitons, rising 2,600 feet above the sea, make sure of that. St. Lucia is an island that cherishes its history and traditions, making efforts to preserve its way of life and to ensure an ecological balance while catering to tourists. And while Castries, where the cruise ships dock, is a fairly large city and the business center of the island, the more intriguing parts of St. Lucia encompass its small villages, rain forest, beautiful beaches, and stunning resorts.
Soufriere by Land And Sea
This tour takes you on a drive to the town of Soufriere on the south side of the island, where the Pitons are visible. Along the way you stop at the top of Mount Fortune for great views (bring your camera). After a visit in Soufriere, you'll head to Sulphur Springs, the world's only drive-in volcano. You can actually see the steam rising from the craters as you walk between the sulfur springs. Local lore claims that the fumes are medicinal, and will benefit your body and soul (we've as yet been unable to verify this, but we've certainly heard that it's relaxing). Also nearby is the Diamond Mineral Baths, commissioned by Louis XVI to soothe and restore French soldiers who were defending the West Indies in the late 18th Century. There too is the incredible Diamond Mineral Baths Waterfall, which changes colors during the day, going from green to yellow to black and back again. A buffet lunch of Creole delicacies -- perhaps local rotis (a wrap filled with curried meat and vegetables) or lamb, beef or chicken pepperpot -- is followed by a boat trip back to Castries and the ship, stopping along the way for a swim. (Some of the trips are reverse itinerary, going by boat first).
Who Should Go: Anyone can take this trip. There's enough for kids to do with all of the stops, and the diversity of the natural landscape makes for a wonderful day. Photographers, history buffs, nature lovers, romantics, seniors and first-timers will love this excursion. (Note: There is one area that requires walking on uneven steps, and most of the stops are not wheelchair accessible).
Why It's Extraordinary: A drive-in volcano? A waterfall that changes colors? A fabulous catamaran-snorkeling trip? What can be more extraordinary than that?
Still quite British in flavor (or flavour, as they would spell it), Barbados has more than just its British roots and accent in common with Bermuda; Barbados also has pink sand beaches. The port city of Bridgetown -- in fact, the whole Gold Coast -- is big and bustling, modern and sophisticated, but the island itself has its quieter charms, including old plantation houses, rum factories, windswept rocky cliffs and beautiful, mountainous terrain.
A Taste of Barbados and Island Tour
To get a comprehensive overview of Barbados in a short time -- its history, its commerce, its terrain and its charms -- this trip takes you on a scenic drive of the island, with stops at The Rum Factory (it's actually called The Rum Factory!), Heritage Park and Sudbury Plantation House, where you'll enjoy a four-course luncheon featuring Bajan specialties (which always includes "rice and peas," which are actually beans) and local wine in a tranquil, elegant atmosphere. Some tours also include stops at Medford Mahogany Creations where you can see craftsmen carve and polish wood and burls for export to exclusive shops and designer showrooms.
Who Should Go: There is some walking involved but nothing too strenuous, so this trip is accessible to nearly everyone. Young children might get restless; otherwise, it's great for history buffs, first-timers, couples, seniors, photographers, foodies and those who want to see how rum is distilled.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's the one tour that offers a comprehensive view of island life and commerce; a Bajan lunch in a plantation house is a special bonus allowing visitors a taste of the colonial atmosphere and of the island's cuisine. The trip still leaves time to get to St. Lawrence Gap, (a short bus or cab ride from your drop-off point, just south of Bridgetown's center), the island's center of nightlife, pubs, craft stores and boutiques, for some funky fun and shopping.
The very refined atmosphere of St. Barthelemy is evidenced by the villas owned by "the beautiful people" of the world -- in other words, what we would call "the rich and famous." They don't just hole up in their magnificent residences, though. They shop and dine, and as a result the island, only eight square miles, is filled with incredible restaurants and the toniest shops found outside of Paris or the Cote D'Azur. St. Barth's is, like Guadeloupe and Martinique, a "Department" of France, and as French in attitude, cuisine and laissez-faire as its Mediterranean counterparts like Nice and Cannes.
Few cruise ships call here, making it a unique and wonderful port stop, although cruisers who arrive in St. Maarten can sometimes take a day trip to this little island.
St. Barth's By Horseback
Here's a unique twist for North Americans wanting to experience a horseback ride through the hills and "outback" of this lovely island: You ride English style, on flat saddles without horns and with stirrups much higher than Western style! Not only that, the horses are smaller than the usual trail horse, a breed called Paso Fino, and cannot take riders over 200 pounds. There are some steep hills, so you'll be required to dismount and walk alongside your horse for a few minutes.
Who Should Go: Adventurous types, active seniors, photographers, nature-lovers.
Why It's Extraordinary: Quite apart from distancing you from the chi-chi restaurants and haute couture boutiques in the town of Gustavia, the tour allows you a glimpse of St. Barth's 400+ species of flowers and takes you into the hills where some of the island's most secluded villas are located. Who knows what famous person you might glimpse through the oleander or bougainvillea? Also, who can resist learning to ride English-style on a Paso Fino?
St. Kitts is just a nickname; the island's real name is St. Christopher (although aside from being a great trivia tidbit, no one ever calls it that). It, along with Nevis, is one isle of a two-island federation. Both islands gained their independence from the British Empire in 1983, still recent enough to have retained a distinctly British atmosphere and style.
Most of the island's income still comes from the production of sugar cane, and while it does have gorgeous beaches (some with black sand), the truest measure of St. Kitts comes from its stately old plantation houses and sugar mill ruins, which set the tone for romance and adventure and provide a backdrop that makes you feel as though you have stepped into an island version of a Thomas Hardy novel. Refined and elegant, St. Kitts is a honeymooner's dream destination, and appeals to romantics from every corner of the globe.
St. Kitts Scenic Rail Tour
The increase in cruise tourism spurred the government to complete the renovation of this century-old narrow gauge railroad and extend its tracks around the island. The original rail was used to carry cane to the mills and then the completed sugar to the capital of Basseterre for export. The trip takes just over three hours, leaving plenty of time for shopping and exploring the colonial city of Basseterre, with its vibrant open market near the cruise ship dock, "High Street" shops filled with British imports, and elegant tea rooms. The two-level train has air-conditioned seating on the lower level and an open-air observation deck on the upper level; you can switch between them during your journey.
Who Should Go: This trip is ideal for nearly everyone, but might bore active teens. Nature lovers, history buffs, romantics, seniors and first-timers will especially enjoy it.
Why It's Extraordinary: It takes you back in time to when sugar was the currency of kings; it gives a fantastic view of the island, little villages and sugar cane fields, black-sand beaches and the distinctive ruins of sugar mills, Brimstone Hill Fortress (the "Gibraltar of the Caribbean,"), and views out to Nevis, birthplace of Alexander Hamilton.
Step off the ship and sniff the air ... you'll feel as though you're in your grandma's kitchen at Christmas time with the scent of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon surrounding you. Grenada is the world's spice basket, a beautiful island of plantations, rum distilleries, mountains, forests, waterfalls and soft sand beaches. The port city of St. George's was nearly decimated by multiple hurricanes in 2004, and more recently by Hurricane Emily, but the islanders were determined to rebuild quickly -- and so they have. The lush vegetation has also regrown, and while the damage is still visible in spots, the determination of the Grenadians to persevere is visible throughout the island. Beyond a tour, we also recommend that you take some time to walk around the town of St. George's, which, despite the recent weather blows, retains its friendly charm. Most of the shops and restaurants are not the same-old, same-old that you see in other ports; it's a unique and interesting little city.
Seven Sisters Waterfalls and Grand Etang Park Hike
This tour is not for the faint of heart, the prissy, or anyone who has a hard time climbing, hiking or sliding. It's a fabulous excursion for the fit and adventurous, taking you up to a crater lake and then on a muddy hike down to the bottom of the waterfalls. Along the way you experience the beauty of the rainforest, the scent of ginger and wild nutmeg, and the calls of the many native bird species. After a swim and a drink, you get to hike back up again. The good news is that you'll still have time to visit the town and buy some spices to take home; the bad news is that you'll probably be caked with mud!
Who Should Go: Healthy, active, adventurous types who aren't afraid of getting dirty. Nature-lovers, kids over 8 years old, couples, eco-conscious voyagers.
Why It's Extraordinary: The scenery is gorgeous, the scents sublime, the activity refreshing. Take time out to smell the nutmeg; you'll be back in the crowded buffet line soon enough.
Known as the land of "a beach for every day of the year," this island is home to some of the most elegant, exclusive resorts in the world. And why not? It also boasts some of the most gorgeous beaches in the Caribbean, no mean feat. After your excursion and a shopping sojourn in St. John's, find a lovely spot -- perhaps in one of those exclusive hotels -- to have a British High Tea.
Kayak and Snorkeling Adventure
As you glide along the coastline, you'll get a first-hand look at the stunning island beaches and coves. After the one-hour tour in stable two-person kayaks, you board a motorboat to Bird Island, a small rock formation just off Antigua's coast, reputed to be one of the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean. Snorkeling equipment, including life-vests and instruction, is included, as are refreshments.
Who Should Go: Healthy, active adults and kids (check to see if there's a minimum age level) who relish the idea of physical activity and snorkeling at a reef known for its colorful aquatic life.
Why It's Extraordinary: You get exercise before your snorkeling adventure, and while you won't see all 365 of Antigua's beaches, you'll get an idea as to why they are world-renowned.
This mountainous tropical paradise, considered the Caribbean's own Garden of Eden, has much to offer. Its rain forest is splendiferous. In fact, the island is known for its incredible rainbows; the daily rain and mist create some awe-inspiring moments as your ship pulls out of port.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram
This is a pretty easy -- but stunning -- excursion for every level. Although it requires walking along some uneven surfaces, the distances aren't great, and once in the tram, the views are breathtaking. Only those who are terrified of heights should avoid this trip; for everyone else, the scenery and the peacefulness of the slow-moving tram trip is a constant delight, showcasing the eco-preserve of Dominica's rain forest and its hundreds of species of birds and flowers. Raincoats or waterproof windbreakers are recommended.
Who Should Go: Nature-lovers, photography buffs, families, seniors, first-timers.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's getting harder and harder to find regions like this in the Northern Hemisphere, eco-preserves that are largely untouched and untrampled. For that reason alone, this excursion can be priceless, and we hope that Dominica's rain forest remains this pristine forever.
--By San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
Photo of waterfall appears courtesy of the Dominica Tourist Office.