More than in any other cruise region, the Western Caribbean's fairly recent -- and phenomenal -- growth can be attributed in part to the development of homeport cruising. That concept, which began to gain momentum after September 11, 2001, expanded cruising's reach beyond the traditional homeports of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale into other coastal American cities. As a result, places like Galveston, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa have become year-round departure points. And because the Western Caribbean is the natural destination for these locales, the region has gained not only first-timers but also folks for whom easy access to these ports means they'll return time and again.
Of course, the Western Caribbean has long been a magnet for travelers interested in a unique blend of sun and surf, the history of ancient civilizations, and eco-oriented adventures. No question, this region has them all.
Choosing an Itinerary
The Western Caribbean consists of islands south and west of the U.S. mainland, such as Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Jamaica, and destinations that belong to Mexico's Mexican Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula, such as Costa Maya, Playa del Carmen and Progreso. These are staples on many ships' four-, five- and seven-night itineraries and offer a great sampler package for first timers. Key West, on Florida's southernmost tip, is another increasingly popular stop -- particularly for cruises that originate from the East Coast ports of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.
But there's increasing interest in alternative trips to the Western Caribbean and we'll give you two immediate reasons. One is that more and more, younger travelers (families, singles, the simply adventurous) who are newly intrigued by cruise travel are seeking a more off-the-beaten-track travel experience. So too are folks who, by dint of residential proximity to one of the burgeoning homeports along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, are making the trip over and over again -- and in the process looking for new discoveries.
In either case, the newly minted Exotic Western Caribbean encompasses ports better known as eco tourism destinations than sand-and-surf playgrounds. In this case, look for itineraries that include ports such as Belize's Belize City and Honduras' island of Roatan, among others.
Virtually every big ship cruise line from North American companies to those based in Europe offers seasonal, if not year-round, trips to the Western Caribbean. Among them, Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the big powerhouses; these two lines dominate all year long. It's an ideal spot for a getaway any time of the year with temperatures that seldom vary from highs in the 80's to lows in the 70's -- not to mention humidity that pretty much stays in the 70 percent range throughout the year.
On a seasonal basis -- the high season of course being the period between the Christmas holidays through spring break -- you'll find every other line! Aimed primarily at North American travelers are cruise ships from the fleets of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), Princess, Celebrity and Holland America. Attracting an international, European traveler are ships from P&O, Costa, MSC Cruises and more. Windstar maintains a seasonal ship in the waters of Central America.
While the industry's luxury segment parses out its Western Caribbean forays less often, you will find occasional options. Cunard visits the region a few times each year with luxury/big ship hybrid Queen Mary 2, as does Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea, Seabourn, Hapag-Lloyd's Europa, Crystal and Oceania. Often, these lines will blend Western Caribbean stops with longer Panama Canal or South America itineraries.
Where You'll Go
Here we'll crystallize the major 10 or so ports that comprise the Western Caribbean; click on links provided to read our full port profiles on each port of call.
Costa Maya, Mexico
Costa Maya is the newest port in the Western Caribbean. Located on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, it feels more like a private island created from scratch expressly for cruisers.
Costa Maya is what you'd expect if, say, Disney World decided to create its own private island in Mexico: a man-made tourism village with bars, restaurants, shops and pools at the ready. Beyond that? What's interesting is that in developing an entire destination out of scratch in a place whose only settlement was the nearby village of Majahual, 80 residents strong, the folks who created Costa Maya had to build everything. They worked with Coca-Cola to install water sanitation systems (and, yes, it is safe to drink water within the Costa Maya confines). They built brick-paved roads and concrete cottages for the employees who pretty much all come from elsewhere and needed housing.
Roatan is the largest of Honduras' Bay Islands. Almost 40 miles long and just 2.5 miles at its widest point, the remote island boasts white sand beaches, pristine bays and spectacular coral reefs. The island is a true melting pot. Its 40,000 people are a mix of Spanish, British, Paya Indian and African, the result of a stormy history that includes conquistadors, pirates and slave traders. For tourists, Roatan's charm is its barrier reef system -- the second largest in the world! -- and its appeal for diving and snorkeling.
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
A mere 10 years ago, Playa del Carmen was referred to as a sleepy little village. It's certainly not that any longer! Across the waterway from Cozumel (which is accessible by ferry), this mainland town has been transformed into a full-fledged tourist destination complete with luxury resorts, dozens of fantastic restaurants, and enough clubs and live music venues to keep night owls occupied for weeks. But its main appeal is its proximity to many important historical and ecological landmarks, including several stunning collections of Mayan ruins, two eco-archeological parks and thousands of cenotes -- the systems of hidden caves and natural springs which ancient Mayans regarded as doorways to the spiritual world.
On a call at Cozumel, don't miss the great Mayan walled city of Tulum. Once a major center of maritime commerce, the sixty-acre site features stone carvings, archways and architecture with "sundials" that light up during the solstices. Tulum's main castle sits on a limestone cliff overlooking the Caribbean. The sweeping views alone are worth the two-hour trek (via ferry to Plaza del Carmen, and then by motorcoach).
Belize City, Belize
Belize's 185-mile barrier reef is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and the scuba diving is world class. But, even if you're not a certified diver, you can simply swim, or try snorkeling (cruise ships offer supervised excursions for beginners of all ages). One of the most popular snorkeling spots along the reef is Shark Ray Alley, where you share the water with nonplussed southern stingrays and nurse sharks (or rather, they share the water with you).
George Town, Grand Cayman
Once your ship docks at Grand Cayman's capital, George Town, it may be tempting to simply veg out under the casuarina tress along the white sands of Seven Mile Beach. A more adventurous option involves a boat trip to the famous Stingray City Sandbar. As you snorkel in shallow water, tour operators provide buckets of chopped up squid for you to feed to the huge stingrays. The rays will eat from your hand, and are quite polite as long as you don't step on their tails. Save time for a quick run to the Tortuga Rum Factory on South Church Street. Admittedly, this is a prime tourist haunt where you'll be elbow to elbow with fellow cruise passengers. But, the factory's rum cakes are notoriously good. Even if you don't have a sweet tooth, you'll love at least one of its many permutations (flavors range from coffee to key lime). The cakes come in mini sizes for under 10 bucks, and make great gifts. Trust us, once you get home, you'll wish you'd bought more.
Key West, Florida
There's a lot of history packed into this tiny island (2 by 4 miles) first claimed for Spain by Ponce de Leon in the early 16th century. Make sure to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and the "Little White House," where Harry Truman relaxed. Key West's Mel Fisher Maritime Museum houses millions of dollars worth of treasure salvaged from a Spanish Galleon. At sunset, tradition requires heading over to Malloy Dock, to see it come alive in a celebration of jugglers, musicians and street performers as the sun goes down.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Known as "MoBay" to the locals, Montego Bay is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, such as Doctor's Cave Beach. But bucolic beaches can wait when there's a ghost story to be told. Take an excursion to the 6,000-acre Rose Hall plantation. The plantation's Great House, built in 1760, is said to be haunted by the ghost of its former mistress, Annie Palmer. It seems that Palmer's mistreatment of slaves (and the unfortunate end met by several of her husbands) earned her the moniker "The White Witch." Cursed by a slave, she still roams the halls of the great house -- or so it is said.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Dunn's River Falls is the adventure in Ocho Rios. Hike 600 ft. surrounded by lush foliage as the falls come crashing down onto a sandy beach. Instead of the traditional motorcoach ride to the falls, consider a shore excursion that arrives at the falls via sea kayak. You'll hug the coastline, and the lagoons and tropical vegetation along the way are spectacular. Another option is a bike trek to the Falls, which leaves you off atop Murphy Hill (and will certainly burn off all those calories from the rum cakes).
The Mayan city of Chitzen Itza is a short two hours from Progreso. With its intricate temples, the famous pyramid of Kulkulcan, a sacred ball court and astronomical observatory, it is certainly worth the trip to one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Americas. A closer option (90 minutes away) is the Mayan site of Uxmal, which also offers an impressive array of pyramids and plazas. Another important Mayan ceremonial center, Dzibilchaltun, is but 15 minutes away. If the ruins intrigue you, look for the face of the living Maya. Chances are, you'll need to look no further than the face of your tour guide. The descendants of the Maya still thrive here, having preserved their language and many of the ancient ways.
Where Will You Board?
Beyond the traditional ports of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades and Port Canaveral, the Western Caribbean's most popular homeports include:
Galveston, about 1.5 hours from Houston, is the port for the major Texas city (ironically, Houston has its own port though attracts a few ships). Galveston is a charming Victorian resort town situated on a barrier island just two miles off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. The waterfront town has most definitely returned to its former Victorian glory. There are several neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places that are hard to resist when it comes to sightseeing, but put the Strand District, where you'll find plenty of shops and restaurants amid Victorian iron-front buildings, and the East End District, where you'll spot exquisite gems like Bishop's Palace, on the top of your list.
Tucked inside Tampa Bay on Florida's west coast, the city's red-hot waterfront is jam-packed with sights, sounds and surf. As well, it's not far from other sightseeing worthy cities, such as the century-old St. Petersburg, which boast some of Florida's best beaches.
No longer "closed for business" in the wake of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina, which struck in August of 2005, New Orleans has reawakened with a bang. The Louisiana Superdome, the Aquarium of the Americas and the Brennan dynasty's Commander's Palace Restaurant are among the major tourist magnets that have reopened.
Indeed, when visiting the city's downtown district it is almost hard to tell the storm had struck at all. In the French Quarter, Bourbon Street revelries at full blast, the antique shops and art galleries of Royal Street offer wares both touristic and collection-worthy, and the Friday lunchers pack Galatoire's.
--Updated by Editor Carolyn Spencer Brown