Editor's note: Carnival Miracle is no longer sailing this itinerary, though Carnival still offers seven-night Western Caribbean cruises on other ships.
I booked my Western Caribbean cruise -- a seven-night voyage onboard Carnival Miracle calling in Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel and Belize -- mostly to see what all the hype was about (and also to soak up some sunshine).
The Western Caribbean is enjoying enormous popularity. Credit one factor to the cruise industry's embrace of U.S. homeporting: the Western Caribbean is simply the only possible seven-day cruise option from now key year-round port cities that line the Gulf of Mexico -- such as Tampa, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston.
Also, it's quite a staple for Florida east coast departures -- particularly for ships like mine that alternate Eastern and Western Caribbean voyages every week. And though the Caribbean in general is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world, the Western Caribbean in particular beckons travelers with its water sports and archaeological wonders (not to mention great duty-free shopping).
And while much of the region was exactly what I expected -- down to locals in crowded streets asking "Would you like your hair braided, sweetie?" -- I learned quite a few things, as well.
Why Go Western?
Western and Eastern Caribbean cruises are both very popular (Southern Caribbean itineraries typically require either longer trips or expensive flights to San Juan), which led me to wonder: What's the difference between Eastern and Western? At first glimpse, the two regionally disparate itineraries share many similarities -- lots of shopping and water sports.
I have noticed, however, that Western Caribbean voyages often include a bit more time at sea (because the islands are further apart than those in, say, the Eastern Caribbean), which gives cruisers time to relax onboard -- and that's a big plus for me. This might also be a draw for families with children who get tuckered out after too many days sightseeing in port.
Also, Western Caribbean ports offer a greater variety of activities; in addition to beach bumming and shopping, you can hike through rainforests or explore ancient Mayan ruins.
Escaping the Crowds
On that same note, with thousands upon thousands of cruisers visiting Western Caribbean ports each day, I was worried that beaches and towns would be over-crowded. And indeed, there were a few points, particularly in Cozumel's San Miguel, that I slipped into a claustrophobic state -- in San Miguel, folks would simply stop walking to struggle with maps, larger-than-life tote bags and unruly kids, or to gawk at overpriced wooden marionettes being sold on the street.
How can you escape the craziness? For me, it was finding someplace off the beaten path for a nice, quiet lunch. Ask locals for suggestions -- just be sure to avoid "seedy" parts of town. Consult our port profiles for more information on where and where not to go, and also check out our article on staying safe in port.
Something for Everyone
I met more first-time cruisers on this trip than on any other cruise I've taken. Though not all of the ports here are as tourist-developed as Eastern Caribbean stalwarts (like St. Thomas and St. Maarten), plenty are (like the always-crowded Cozumel) -- making this region a first-rate choice for first-timers.
At the risk of sounding trite, the real appeal of the Western Caribbean -- for first-time visitors and veterans alike -- is that there really is something for everyone: ruins and museums for history buffs, world-class diving and snorkeling for water lovers, open-air markets for shopaholics, serene beaches for workaholics escaping city life, etc.
I was able to do something completely different in each port: In Grand Cayman, I took a whirlwind city tour -- a tourist's delight, if you will; Costa Maya was my day for culture, with an excursion to the barely excavated ruins at Chacchoben; I lost several hours in Cozumel perusing the shops (and enjoying authentic chile rellenos); and during my day in Belize, I took a boat ride out to Goff's Caye (a tiny island 12 miles off shore) and snorkeled along the second largest barrier reef in the world. And speaking of Belize....
If you are considering a Western Caribbean cruise, I highly recommend picking an itinerary with a stop in Belize -- and splurging on an excursion (because even though the Tourism Village has lots of cute shops and restaurants, and the downtown area exudes some colonial charm, Belize is truly a jumping-off point for active excursions and historical attractions).
The shore tours being offered by cruise lines calling in Belize are some of the most unique and, well, just plain cool I've ever seen. Passengers on Carnival's Lost World Canopy Tour get strapped into harnesses and glide on zip lines through the Belizean rainforest, then rappel to the ground.
Also offered by majors like Carnival and Royal Caribbean is Cave Tubing; travelers basically meander through an underground cave system with only an inner tube and a miner-style headlamp. I watched the promo for this excursion on my in-cabin television every day -- I cannot wait to visit for the second time and give it a whirl!
Call me geographically challenged, but the biggest "aha" moment of the whole cruise was realizing that there's no such thing as an all-Mexican-port cruise. Cozumel and Costa Maya, along the Yucatan Peninsula, are actually considered part of the Western Caribbean (while ports on Mexico's western coast -- like Acapulco and Cabo San Lucas -- are considered part of the Mexican Riviera). I hadn't been to Mexico since a spring break trip with college friends (and to be fair, saw very little of "real" Mexico while I was there), and so was excited to have both Cozumel and Costa Maya on my first Western Caribbean itinerary.
Tropical Paradise Ashore -- and Onboard
I was pleasantly surprised by how often local attitudes and flavors made their way onboard. There was a Caribbean night in the dining room, with a really tasty jerk pork dish on the menu, and Carnival Miracle's calypso band was exceptionally colorful and talented (I suppose performing calypso on an actual Caribbean cruise is much more satisfying than doing so on a fall-foliage cruise to Canada).
Be sure to participate in some of the destination-themed activities onboard. The night we set sail from Cozumel, Carnival threw a late-night pool party that carried on the fun of the day. Guests were encouraged to wear their bathrobes up to the lido deck (Random? Very. Fun? Absolutely!) and drink frosty blue margaritas under the stars. Thank goodness for the captain, our designated driver ... just one more thing to love about cruising.
Did You Know?
Belize is the only country in Central America without a coastline on the North Pacific Ocean -- which is probably why it has more in common with Caribbean islands than neighbors Honduras and Cuba. Belize also has a higher concentration of Mayan sites than any other country in Central America.
Jacques Cousteau helped put Cozumel (now one of the most popular ports in the Western Caribbean) on the tourism map in the early 60's, when he declared the island "one of the most beautiful scuba diving areas in the world" in a documentary.
One of the biggest draws here is the fabulous weather -- temperatures seldom vary from highs in the 80's and lows in the 70's, with humidity hovering at the 70 percent level just about all year. (However, hurricane season lasts from June 1 through November 30.)
--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor