You've got just 10 hours in a Caribbean port -- what's the best way to spend your day? You could hit the beach, shop till you drop, take an excursion to tour the island, or go snorkeling or hiking or find other active pursuits. The catch is, while you might return to some of the destinations on your cruise itinerary, you might never again set foot on others. No pressure, right?
If you're like us, you spend days pouring over your shore excursion booklet or cruise line Web site, trying to figure out the absolute best way to maximize your time in port. Independent travelers might go straight to private tour guides (and the invaluable Roll Call forums to find friendly folks to share the minivan), but many travelers -- especially first-time cruisers -- prefer to rely on ship-sponsored shore tours. And while it's great that the excursion choices seem endless, it doesn't make the decision-making process any easier.
To help you out, we've created a cheat sheet highlighting the key attractions of each destination and sample shore tours that include them for 30 ports in the Caribbean. You can't go wrong with these signature activities -- but if they're not your cup of tea (or rum punch), just click on over to our port guides for more ideas.
While the Caribbean is most well-known for sun and sand, there's lots of history on offer as well. In St. John's, Antigua, the historical highlights are Nelson's Dockyard and Shirley Heights, both of which are remnants of the island's British military past. Each can be visited as a separate excursion, oftentimes combined with a beach stop or lunch, and both are typically included in any full bus tour of the island.
One of the best ways to see Aruba is with a tour that hits island highlights and offers some beach time. Along the way, you'll visit rock formations, lighthouses and some of the less touristy towns.
If ATV-ing and golfing aren't really your pace, a popular alternative in Barbados is a tour of the Mount Gay Rum distillery. Mount Gay claims its rum -- produced since 1703 -- is the oldest brand in existence. On a tour of the facility, you'll learn how the rum is made and enjoy a tasting. You can also sample local "Bajan" cuisine, an Africa-Caribbean-West-Indian-European mash up, at the on-site restaurant.
For high-flying views of Belize's rainforest, zip-lining is a must, and for those who enjoy swimming in ancient, darkened caverns, cave-tubing will be right up your alley. If you're feeling extra adventurous, book a tour that combines the two for an active day in port.
You're likely to catch a glimpse of sea turtles, barracuda and rays if you head to Bonaire Marine Park's pristine waters for snorkeling or scuba diving. Get out on the water by catamaran, then dive in; it's tough to beat the variety of marine life that surrounds this Southern Caribbean island.
Costa Maya is a laid-back tourism village carved out of Yucatan jungle featuring bars, restaurants, shops and pools. And while there are worthwhile side-trips, like a visit to the mysterious Mayan ruins at Chacchoben, most passengers opt to spend a carefree day sipping three-foot tubes of banana daiquiri, munching on chips and salsa, and swimming in the pools (the associated beach isn't suitable for swimming). For beach bums looking to escape the faux-village, there's a real one; the quirky fishing town of Mahahual, with its beachside shops and restaurants, is just a five-minute cab ride away.
A highlight of any Cozumel port of call is a visit to Tulum, the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. Situated atop ocean-front cliffs, Tulum offers fascinating history and gorgeous scenery. Most excursions to Tulum are half- or full-day trips, as close to two hours is usually spent on site and it does take a bit over an hour each way to get there.
With so much located near the port of Curacao, you can squeeze a number of activities into a single day with a combination excursion. Take a scenic island tour to visit the famous Hato Caves with their underground grottos and waterfalls, and the Curacao Museum to see art and artifacts. Continue on to Chobolobo, a country estate where the island's namesake Curacao liqueur is distilled (and try a sample of the blue drink). Tours end in town, where you can opt for a snack, shopping or a drink accompanied by live music at an open-air bar.
The Southern Caribbean island of Dominica is a nature-fanatic's paradise -- it's home to 172 types of birds, 12 major waterfalls and mountains that rise to 5,000 feet -- and the best way to explore it is to embark on an active excursion. Try one that combines hiking through the rainforest to the twin Trafalgar Falls with a relaxing beach visit finished with a few glasses of rum punch.
Most passenger visiting Falmouth bee-line for the better-known Mo-Bay or Ocho Rios, but the Caribbean's newest port has its own intriguing attractions. The most popular is the Good Hope Great House, an immaculately preserved home on a former sugar plantation owned by John Tharp, who once controlled much of Falmouth's prime waterfront. Just 15 minutes from the dock, in the lush interior, the plantation dates to the 1700's and sits on 2,000 rolling acres. In addition to estate tours and gourmet lunch and tea offerings within the historic home, the property hosts a slew of activities that range from horse and buggy tours, dune buggy safaris and river-tubing along the Martha Brae River (it cuts through the property) to zip-line tours through the jungle canopy and ATV rides.
See Freeport by sea and by air with a para-sailing excursion, which will offer sweeping views of pristine beaches and their surrounding areas, as well as the clear blue waters and marine life below.
The undeniable top attraction in Grand Cayman -- and maybe the most popular "shore excursion" in the world -- is Stingray City, a legendary sandbar where rays once came to eat leftover bits jettisoned by fishermen, and now wait to slurp squid from the hands of bikini-clad tourists. Visitors have the unusual opportunity to hop in the shallow water with the habituated creatures, feel their velvety skin and pose for photos. Guides accompany you. Many excursions pair the stingray experience with a beach stop.
You can get around Grand Turk in half a day by bike, but on a bike and snorkel tour, you'll be able to cool off in the island's turquoise waters after working up a sweat visiting historical buildings, salt flats and the National Park.
If you're visiting the "Spice Island," you'll likely want to see a spice plantation. Grenada is also known for its beautiful Grand Etang National Park, based around the crater lake of an extinct volcano. A "Best of Grenada" comb tour will take you to both, as well as Fort Frederick and Annandale Falls. If you're feeling more adventurous, skip the spices and head to Grand Etang for the Seven Sisters Waterfalls hike, where you'll get a chance to swim in natural pools.
Possibly the best things to do in Martinique are shop for French luxury goods and hit the beach, but you don't need an excursion to do that. For a little shore tour adventure, try a 4x4 safari. The half-day tour takes you along inland roads to Saint Joseph and through rivers and rainforest. Some tours end with a visit to a rum distillery or a swim in a picturesque river.
Montego Bay offers the same water sports, beach breaks and dolphin encounters as does Ocho Rios. For something a little more Jamaican, take a tour to the Appleton Estate, which produces some of the world's finest rums. You'll sip rum punch as you learn about the distilling process and tour the aging home. Finish up with a hearty local lunch.
If you're in need of retail therapy, Nassau is a great place to get some relief and give your wallet a workout. Shopping tours will take you to the famous straw market for deals on everything from purses to jewelry, and to a number of local shops to pick up cigars, rum cakes and other local treats.
One of the biggest highlights of visiting Ocho Rios, Jamaica is climbing up Dunn's River Falls, a 600-foot waterfall that flows into a pool by the beach. You can combine a climb up the falls with a number of other activities, including a dolphin swim, beach time, snorkeling and scenic cruise.
Playa del Carmen
Shore excursions to Tulum are popular from Playa del Carmen, but you can get there from Cancun as well. Your best bet here is to take in some of the area's diverse wildlife. Our favorite option is a snorkel and swim with sea turtles. The half-day excursion can also be extended with a sail onboard a catamaran.
If you want to visit Mayan ruins, but you don't want to be accompanied by the 1.2 million visitors per year that make it to Chichen Itza, the Dzibilchaltun Mayan Ruins near Progreso are a great option. Show up on the Spring Equinox and you'll see the Temple of the Seven Dolls perfectly doubling as a solar calendar. And don't miss taking a dip in the cenote (deep natural sinkhole) on site.
No cruise visit to Roatan, a tropical jungle island, would be complete without time spent on the beach and an introduction to the local wildlife. To get both, seek out any excursion that includes Gumbalimba Preservation Park with its free-roaming monkeys, free-flying birds and sandy beach. Even better, combine Gumbalimba with Tabyana Beach -- generally considered the nicest stretch of sand on the island.
One of San Juan's most stunning nearby natural attractions is the 28,000-thousand-acre El Yunque Rainforest, with its myriad waterfalls, scenic views and hiking trails. Excursions to El Yunque are either for the sedate traveler with most of the time spent on the bus or the more active traveler with an hour or more spent on the trails trekking to waterfalls.
St Barth's is arguably the best place in the Caribbean for duty-free designer goods and haute couture straight from France, and you can easily visit the stores strung out all along the harborfront. When your credit card is maxed out, opt for a sailing tour to further feel like a celebrity or socialite. A catamaran will whisk you away to a secluded bay for swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing. Just give a nod to the other yachts you pass and act like you own the place.
Buck Island Reef is officially a national monument, and the 40,000 acres of land and sea lie just off the north shore of St. Croix. A typical shore excursion features a 45-minute bus ride across the island, followed by a 40-minute scenic powerboat cruise out to the reef. You can snorkel among the coral and sealife in the so-called Marine Garden for an hour, or just enjoy the views (and the rum punch included on the way back).
For an escape from the crowds, cruisers can hop a ferry from St. Kitts to the less-traveled island of Nevis. While on the island you can opt to take a historical drive, lunch at a beachside restaurant, snorkel the Caribbean waters or, better yet, combine all three.
On any cruise heading to St. Lucia you'll hear talk of the famous Pitons. The island's two volcanic plugs are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and many would say a visit here is not complete without at least catching a glimpse for them. The best way to see the Pitons is from the water on a scenic cruise to the town of Soufriere. There, the adventure-minded might consider a zip-line excursion or snorkel tour to round out the visit.
Independent-minded travelers probably will head for St. Maarten's famous shopping areas and casinos. But for something a little more exciting than throwing money away, sign up for the America's Cup 12-Metre Regatta. On this excursion, you'll actually race onboard a winning yacht and serve as part of the crew. The two-hour boat ride features refreshments and a rum punch party to celebrate. Although you don't need any sailing experience, this is a strenuous activity and not simply a relaxing sailaway.
As the fashionable French sister on the conjoined island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Martin's draw is its shopping opportunities. Take a bus, boat or cab to Marigot, where visitors flock to chic boutiques touting upscale French fashion imports and duty-free perfume, crystal and jewelry. And don't miss the stunning architecture and interior design of Le West Indies Shopping Mall. It features bars, restaurants, a spa and 23 luxury designer shops in a three-level masterpiece. Make a wardrobe change and head to Marigot's daily Waterfront Market, encompassing a craft market, souvenir stalls and, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, a Caribbean food fair.
St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin islands is equally famous for its beaches and shopping. Luckily, you can manage to combine both in the same tour. Start with a scenic drive that stops at Drake's Seat for panoramic photo ops before heading out to Magens Bay for a few hours of fun in the sun. Afterward, you'll head back to Charlotte Amalie for some duty-free shopping.
One of Tortola's premier snorkeling spots is in the waters off Norman Island, a legendary pirate haunt and the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Join a snorkel guide to explore the Caves and view colorful coral formations, exotic fish and abundant marine life.
--By the Cruise Critic Staff