After a handful of preview cruises to nowhere or to Labadee (Royal Caribbean's private beach in Haiti), Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is sailing on its first "regular" seven-night cruise this week. While destination bigwigs will welcome the ship on its maiden calls to St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Nassau with ceremonies and commemorative plaques, passengers on Oasis of the Seas -- and ships in port alongside it -- may not be so happy about the crowds on islands already somewhat over-congested with cruise vessels.
While we won't really know the impact of Oasis of the Seas on these ports until high season begins in earnest (during the holidays), we will offer one preemptive piece of advice. If in-port congestion is a drag, head out of town. Here are some tips for escaping your fellow cruisers -- and feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.
Hop a ferry from Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie to the neighboring island of St. John (where the larger cruise ships can't dock). Once there, rent a jeep (advance reservations are strongly suggested) and drive across the island to remote and wild Coral Bay, where you'll find a handful of restaurants, a couple of boutiques and a bunch of fairly undiscovered beaches. The mountaintop vistas you'll see along the 45-minute drive from Cruz Bay are worth the price of admission.
You won't find gift shops, rowdy bars or Jet Ski rentals at Water Island's Honeymoon Beach and that's the appeal. This beach hideaway, located on the fourth Virgin Island (and a quick five-minute water shuttle ride from Crown Bay, where Oasis is docked) is a half-mile stretch of sand that's lined with coconut palms. The water shuttle leaves from Crown Bay Marina ($5 each way) several times a day for Water Island. Pack your own picnic (Gourmet Gallery, also located near the Crown Bay facility, has a great selection of foodstuffs).
Head away from downtown to find quality art galleries and antiques stores for shopping in a less crowded setting. You'll need to rent a car, but it's worth it (plus, you don't have to lug around your purchases all day). Top choices include Mango Tango (located on Route 38 in the Al Cohen Plaza, as well as in Yacht Haven Grande) for original art and teakwood furnishings; The Color of Joy (Red Hook's American Yacht Harbor) for works by a range of artists, including batiks, etchings, Haitian artwork, sculptures, ceramics and jewelry; and Kilnworks Pottery & Art Gallery (Smith Bay), for ceramics and lizard-themed art.
Take a ferry to the isle of Anguilla. To do this, you'll need to take a safari cab to St. Martin (the French side of the island) and from there, catch a ferry for a 25-minute ride to Anguilla. You'll need your passport for this trip, so don't forget to stash it in your day pack. The peaceful British-affiliated island is known for its gorgeous white sand beaches and phenomenal gourmet restaurants. Enjoy tranquil waters and bustling barbecue shacks in Shoal Bay, or relax over a waterfront lunch at Trattoria Tramonto.
Find yourself a secluded beach and stay there! One recommendation is Cupecoy Beach, which has caves and rock cliffs -- not to mention lots of private nooks and crannies. Snorkelers may prefer Dawn Beach.
Trade duty-free shopping on the Dutch side of the island (complete with hordes of tourists) for boutique shopping in Marigot on the French side of the island. Once you've busted your budget on designer wares and museum-quality crafts, settle down in a wonderful bistro or cafe to refuel. Just remember -- the buys here are not duty free, so factor that in before you hand over your credit card.
While most of the cruisers head out to swim with dolphins or ogle the aquariums at the Atlantis Resort, spend your day exploring downtown. Wander about the Ardastra Gardens, where you'll see pink flamingos, honey bears and peacocks. Watch the changing of the guard at the bubblegum-pink Government House, then take in the views (or explore the dungeons) from Fort Charlotte.
For a beach day without the crowds, aim for South Ocean Beach near Adelaide Village. Bring your own towels. You'll enjoy the view of swaying palm trees as you dip your toes in the fine white sand.
Nothing says peaceful like the home of monks, so consider a tour of The Cloister, a 14th-century cloister built in France by Augustinian monks and reassembled stone by stone in the Bahamas. You can wander about the hillside location and take in the views of the harbor.
Where are your favorite hideaways in busy Caribbean ports? Tell us about them here!
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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