Why cruise miles into the Eastern Caribbean for the same outlet-style shopping and crowded beaches that can be found stateside? The traditional jewelry canopies, duty-free shops, cocktail bar chains and hard sells on the waterfront have run their course with some cruisers, and the quest for new perspectives and unique thrills has begun.
Travelers are pushing for more active and enriching port excursions that avoid traditional tourist pursuits and replace them with authentic thrills that are unique to the islands. Whether it's hiking through lush rainforests, touring the homes of native artists or saddling up a dune buggy for a high-adventure ride, cruise passengers are getting better acquainted with the people, culture and terrain of these gorgeous islands during their time ashore.
Below is a sampling of some of the more extraordinary excursions offered by the cruise lines. Activity levels range from mild to intense, so whether you want a leisurely stroll through an authentic village or a heart-pumping hike to reclusive views and endangered species, there is something for every thrill-seeker.
The Tour: Private Kunstenaars and Artistes
Tour the homes of native Kunstenaars (Dutch for "artists"), ranging from Dona Bryhiel, a French transplant who produced impressionist-style murals on the island, to Roland Richardson, often referred to as the Father of Caribbean Impressionism. While this may seem like an art-lover's fantasy, it is also a fantastic way to tour some of the more beautiful quarters within the island while getting personal with the native culture of the area. Bryhiel's home, located on the French side of the island, is a gorgeous estate with nearby shopping and local eats, while Richardson's home by the water provides a meet and greet with the relatives running the museum -- and possibly even the artist himself.
Who Should Go: Anyone who wants to experience St. Maarten's history and culture first-hand is a great candidate for this tour.
Why It's Extraordinary: Many of the estates are in the hands of the artists' relatives. You can hear the stories of the art and the homes from the people who were present during their creation. If the historical perspective on the island's evolution isn't enough, the tour allows an opportunity to talk with locals and find hidden shops, antiques and dining experiences.
The Tour: Extreme Treetop Ropes and Zip-Lining
This trip will give you a bird's-eye view of the St. Maarten forest canopy through an interconnected network of one-wire cable bridges, ladders and zip lines. The challenging course provides an exhilarating rush as you swing from tree stand to tree stand, tiptoe along tightropes and dangle 120 feet above the ground.
Who Should Go: The tour is only for those over the age of 18 in moderate to good physical condition, as some climbing and walking is involved. The trip is great for anyone looking for some thrills, as long as you don't have a fear of heights.
Why It's Extraordinary: This tour is the next step up for zip line fans, offering a two-hour traverse through St. Maarten's treetops. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the heights allow for passengers to come into close contact with wildlife not typically visible to foot traffic and experience a usually dense and dark forest with some space and sunshine.
The Tour: Kayak, Hike and Snorkel
This multi-terrain tour through the St. Thomas Mangrove Refuge and Marine Sanctuary begins with a kayak trip to Cas Cay, continues with a guided hike through a mangrove forest and finishes with time to snorkel in a lagoon. You'll be face-to-face with everything from picturesque waterfalls to scenic outlooks and endangered species.
Who Should Go: Adventure-seekers and wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy the active pursuits in a natural environment. Photographers may dig it, too -- just make sure your camera is waterproof.
Why It's Extraordinary: This tour allows for the exploration of some difficult-to-navigate spots that will get your heart rate up, stimulate your sense of adventure and help you escape from what can be overbearing cruise crowds. It is a great way to interact with the various terrains through the island interior and see unique wildlife like iguanas, mongoose and pelicans. The payoff is well worth the effort as you find yourself swimming in private, natural pools or taking in breathtaking views overlooking the coastal region of the island.
The Tour: BOSS Underwater Adventure
BOSS Underwater Adventure is a fantastic and original way to explore the colored reefs of the Caribbean Islands. Board a 60-foot yacht for a scenic cruise, followed by a guided tour of the ocean reefs on your own underwater motor scooter. There is no dive experience necessary, as the scooters are equipped with fishbowl-style dive helmets individual air tanks. Certified dive masters and instructors lead each small group of participants through the reef.
Who Should Go: Non-divers who want to see underwater life up close and personal should check this one out. You don't even have to know how to swim. While it's fun for families, the minimum age is 10 years, and the minimum height is 4 feet.
Why It's Extraordinary: Not only does BOSS bring the underwater experience to more people than just certified divers, but the idea of a beneath-the-sea motor scooter ride is just plain cool. The dive is easy but expansive, offering a fantastic look at colorful reefs and schools of neon fish, dolphins and, occasionally, sleek reef sharks. Above the waves, the yacht contains a refreshments station, tanning deck and snorkel equipment for post-scooting relaxation and fun.
The Tour: El Yunque Rainforest Tour
Hike in El Yunque Rainforest with a naturalist as your guide. The rainforest is one of the oldest reserves in the West and is home to many species of trees, plants and birds -- including rare and endangered creatures like the Puerto Rico Parrot. On your walk through the forest, you'll learn about the wildlife and view cascading waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
Who Should Go: Active travelers who can handle rugged and steep paths are best suited for this tour. Wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and general adventure-seekers should also sign up.
Why It's Extraordinary: Experience Puerto Rico's most famous natural setting up close. The stunning scenery and plethora of wildlife provide nonstop opportunities for the avid photographer.
The Tour: Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Adventures
This sunset kayak trip to Laguna Grande in Fajardo will bring you to waters that glow -- because they're populated with tiny, bioluminescent organisms. As your paddle disturbs the dinoflagellate, they will put out a fluorescent green glow, essentially illuminating each stroke. Fish that look like shooting stars, rainforest views and a beautiful night skies complete the package.
Who Should Go: While it's certainly romantic, this trip is appealing to anyone looking for an unusual outdoor experience. It's not recommended for people who can't paddle for 90 minutes or who are afraid of the dark.
Why It's Extraordinary: While bioluminescence isn't as rare as you might think, Laguna Grande is a sure thing -- no waiting on seasons or tides.
The Tour: Dune Buggy Safari
Take the island by storm in your own 4X4 dune buggy. You'll bounce across the arid terrain and tour the capitol city of Cockburn, see the Grand Turk Lighthouse and make a stop in North Wells -- home of the endangered pink flamingo.
Who Should Go: This tour is for anyone who wants to get his or her pulse racing while still seeing the island's highlights. You must be 18 to drive, but you can ride along at 6, making this trip perfect for families looking to entertain children or pacify teens with some high-octane adventure.
Why It's Extraordinary: It's sightseeing on steroids! Plus, a large portion of the island is difficult to navigate on foot, so the dune buggy safari allows tourists to get a view of the town and the sights, as well as more off-the-beaten-track destinations.
The Tour: Snuba
Snuba offers the freedom of snorkeling and the exploration of Scuba-diving by switching out traditional snorkels with 30-foot-long air hoses attached to floating tanks. On a Snuba tour, you can descend to the ocean floor and swim among the fish and coral without the hassle of tanks, wetsuits and lengthy training briefings.
Who Should Go: Anyone who is aquatically inclined can enjoy Snuba. It's especially recommended for people who have enjoyed snorkeling and want to try a more Scuba-like experience before investing in certification.
Why It's Extraordinary: Snuba is the perfect way to explore coves and reefs without having to strap on heavy equipment or master its use. It makes ocean exploration more accessible for low to moderate aquatic skill sets, so more people can enjoy underwater exploration. The waters here are flush with sea turtles, stingrays and even schools of curious sharks!
--by Jared Trumpetto, Cruise Critic Contributor
--BOSS Underwater image appears courtesy of BOSS; St. Maarten zipline image appears courtesy of Loterie Farm; St. Thomas kayaking image appear courtesy of Cruise Ship Excursions; Grand Turk Snuba image appears courtesy of Carnival.