Of all the regions in all the world, the Eastern Caribbean offers the most choice for cruising. Nearly every cruise line, major or minor, offers some type of itinerary that either concentrates on the region or at least touches a port or two. Voyages not only depart from the region's major jumping-off points (Miami and Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades) but also other East Coast ports ranging from New York City to Charleston. You can even cruise to or from Europe -- during seasonal repositionings in spring and fall.
Is time an issue? Eastern Caribbean trips range from perfect-weekend, three- or four-night jaunts to 10 nights and beyond. And, finally, travelers can choose cruises that represent all budget ranges, from "cheap cheap cheap" to ultra luxury (and moderate in between).
Technically, cruising's Eastern Caribbean region encompasses the British and American Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the two-nation-one-island St. Maarten and St. Martin. We also include the Bahamas -- which, just as technically is not part of the "Caribbean" -- because stops there are such a major part of so many Eastern Caribbean itineraries.
These days, veteran Caribbean visitors may yawn at the thought of yet another call at an Eastern Caribbean stalwart like St. Thomas, St. Maarten or Nassau for the same reason that this region is a first-rate choice for first-time cruisers. That's because these ports-of-call, which also include San Juan, are among the Caribbean's most tourist developed. There are plenty of well-organized activities, from duty-free shopping to watersports to tours of historic sites -- and, in many cases, a visit to these destinations may not feel all that exotically Caribbean. Don't be fooled, however; an effort to look beyond the obvious will reveal lots of surprises, from desolated beaches to hip restaurants.
Best Time To Go
"High" season in the Eastern Caribbean typically begins in December and runs through April, luring numerous "snowbirds" who want to flee winter in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Some cruise lines offers warm weather cruising to the Caribbean, which is an increasingly family oriented summer destination. And while many cruse lines then deploy ships to other destinations for warmer weather cruising, some stay put, offering year-round itineraries.
The only major difference between winter and summer in the Eastern Caribbean is a slightly warmer clime -- but it's not as searingly hot in summer as you might expect. Another tip for summer and fall travelers: The wamer months are when cruise lines offer the best bargains. We must include a caveat, however: Hurricane season runs from June 1 - November 30 and, particularly in the traditionally oh-so-busy months (for storms) of August, September and October, storms can wreak havoc with your cruise vacation.
Choosing An Itinerary
Choosing an itinerary is pretty easy if you're just shopping for islands in the Eastern Caribbean -- there's little of the exotic here. Most ships visit the mainstream ports -- the U.S. Virgin Islands' St. Thomas, for one. St. Maarten's another. Tortola, the biggest British Virgin Island, is increasingly popular. San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, is not only a daytripping port, it also serves as a jumping-off spot for ship embarkations.
More challenging in planning your cruise is determining your embarkation port and your cruise length; these are only complicated because there are so many options from which to choose.
Short Cruises: If you are planning a short cruise (and season doesn't matter): Carnival and Disney offer a year-round selection. Ships from these lines (which include, respectively, Carnival Fantasy and Fascination and Disney Wonder) limit calls to the Bahamas.
Traditional Eastern Caribbean Itineraries: If ports of call tend toward the predictable, passengers on Eastern Caribbean cruises at least can pick from a wide range of ships that serve the region on its traditional (seven-night) voyages departing from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral (near Orlando). The options abound year-round. These include Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas (Port Canaveral), Carnival Victory (Miami), Celebrity Century (Ft. Lauderdale), Golden Princess (Ft. Lauderdale), and Holland America's Zuiderdam (Ft. Lauderdale).
Trendy Eastern Caribbean Itineraries. In a relatively recent development, cruise lines have been tapping ports along the Eastern Seaboard (Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston and Jacksonville) as home bases for seasonal Caribbean trips. Itineraries range wildly, from seven-night "greatest hits" ports to more unusual trips that take eight, nine, 10 and 11 nights. For these atypical sailings, the added nights are necesary because additional sailing time is needed to reach the more exotic Eastern Caribbean spots.
New York is one city that's really exploded as an embarkation port for Caribbean cruises -- not just during the summer, but also in the winter as well. Among the ships targeting family vacations in warm weather months include Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas and Princess' Caribbean Princess.
Editor's note: Remember that ships sail from three different ports in the New York area, including Manhattan, New Jersey's Cape Liberty and Brooklyn's Red Hook.
On a winter basis, travelers who want to avoid the flight to Florida to board a ship can cruise on Holland America's Noordam among others....
Ports of Call: Hot New Trends
The British Virgin Islands, Tortola in particular, is on an upswing. Once limited to small-ship luxury and adventure operators (with the occasional visit by a big-ship line), Tortola's easy proximity to St. Thomas -- plus a wide range of things to do, including side trips to Virgin Gorda -- has made it a hot new destination.
Another relatively new "face" on some Eastern Caribbean itineraries is the Dominican Republic. The big draw for this port, located near La Romana, is the 7,000-acre (and quite upscale) resort village of Caso de Campo.
Losing luster on the Eastern Caribbean trend-o-meter is, sadly, St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Crime issues -- and the impact on cruise passengers and crew -- have caused most lines to eliminate this otherwise fascinating island from itineraries. Though Disney has announced that they'll return to the island in 2009.
Fabulous for Family Cruising
The islands of the Eastern Caribbean are perfectly suited for families because so many ports have invested in kid-friendly attractions. Some ideal day trips that ships often offer as a shore excursion -- and are just as easy to independently explore -- include:
Nassau, Bahamas: Take a tour of Atlantis Resort's "Dig," a re-created "Atlantis" for budding archeologists.
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.: Head for Coral World, which has an underwater observatory tower; afterward, snorkel and sun at the adjacent Coki Beach.
Tortola: Take the ferry to Virgin Gorda and snorkel and swim among the prehistoric boulders that make up "The Baths."
San Juan: Visit Old San Juan's most historic monuments, particularly the eminently "fun" (you can climb and hike, and the surrounding grounds are perfect for picnicking and Frisbee) El Morro, with original sections that date back to the 16th century.
St. Maarten: For older kids (12-plus), try America's Cup racing aboard Stars & Stripes, Canada II or True North -- it's as hands-on as you want. Younger children will get a kick out of the Butterfly Farm, a tropical garden surrounded by fine wire netting (so the butterflies don't escape) on the St. Martin side of the island.
Offbeat Eastern Caribbean
Few luxury cruise ships offer all-Eastern Caribbean itineraries (the region is a bit too on the beaten track for these folks), and if they do, it's only then during high season. But when they do call in the region, plan on visiting smaller, less trafficked islands, where big ships can't typically go. Windstar, Seabourn, SeaDream, Crystal, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas all offer occasional trips to smaller, more unusual ports.
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief