On busy days, a Western Caribbean port can look like a shopping mall parking lot on the day after Thanksgiving. Several huge ships can be lined up, disgorging thousands of passengers onto an island's not-so-spacious shores. And while you might be excited about hitting the duty-free stores or soaking up the sun on a white-sand beach, you're probably not too keen on elbowing your way through the crowds once you're there.
What's a claustrophobe to do? Run and hide. I decided my mission would be to figure out how to escape the crowds, even on the most popular of cruises. If the tourists went one way, I'd just have to go the other. I dubbed the project "Operation: Oases of Calm" and vowed to find peace and relaxation on my peak-season Caribbean cruise. The challenge turned out to be more than I bargained for, but I still learned some tricks to finding moments of Zen in the midst of chaos.
On to Plan B -- the Caverns by Jeep and Beach Combo. We would ferry to Playa del Carmen to ride jeeps, explore caverns and enjoy lunch on a private beach. I couldn't imagine how a cavern could be crowded, and a private beach would be perfect for enjoying the sun and sand all by myself.
The tour also did not play out as I imagined. We did ride four people to a jeep, but instead of off-roading in remote jungle regions of Mexico, we cruised down the main highway. Several tour groups converged on the caverns at the same time, meaning long waits and chaotic changing areas. And the private beach? We had it to ourselves, sure, but mostly because we were the only fools to attempt to eat rice and beans in open-sided thatched-roofed palapas in the driving rain.
Yet once again, my plans were thwarted. I'd been told that the half hour cab ride should cost between $20 and $30 each way. Yet the taxi dispatcher at the port told me the cost would be $75 each way -- mostly because the driver would have to wait for me at the beach. Couldn't I just call a cab from the beach when I was ready to leave, I inquired. The answer was no. Clearly, the cab drivers did not want to take me to Rum Point, and I didn't have the cash to get there anyway.
Finding solitude was actually not that tricky. The cab left me off at the Sea Grape section of Seven Mile Beach. Instead of plunking my stuff down on the first available plot of sand, I scanned the beach for a break in the crowds. The area directly north of me seemed more populated than the stretch of sand to the south, so I resolutely marched down the beach (in the direction of the docked ships). Within minutes, I had left the other tourists behind and found a nice shady spot with only one or two people nearby. I blissfully lay on my beach towel, not bothered by any loud conversations, whiny children, or beach walkers accidentally kicking sand on me. In fact, my little patch of beach was so secluded that the older woman who sat down relatively nearby changed into her bathing suit right out in the open!
Even on a 110,000-ton ship, you feel the presence of 3,300 other guests. So I extended my mission to include the three sea days on the itinerary. Could I find quiet, private spaces onboard? You betcha! Surprisingly, this was the easiest part of my challenge.
You can also find some secluded spots indoors. On a rainy, overcast day, I spend a pleasant hour by myself in the Drawing Room, reading a book on a comfy suede-like couch. I'm not sure what the intended purpose of this room is but it's cozy and was empty every time I checked. The Library was also typically empty, probably because of its small selection of books.
The beach area is built on a tiny bit of land between the water and the road. Every inch of beach was filled with lounge chairs, which in turn were filled with sunbathing Carnival guests. Lines for food and drink stretched well past the buffet tables (and this was at 10:30 a.m.!) and an exuberant DJ was constantly making ear-piercingly loud announcements over a P.A. system.
But, hey, I couldn't miss out on Jamaican food and rum punch for long. So after a while, I headed back into the masses to appease my rumbling stomach.
Did I accomplish my mission? Yes and no. I did find "oases of calm" wherever I went, but I didn't succeed in completely getting away from the tourist centers. Based on my experience, here are a few tips for finding your own quiet spots on your next cruise:
But for those who plan in advance, a car rental can be a great option. With your own set of wheels, you can be completely independent and travel to all the off-the-beaten-path destinations your heart desires (and your port time allows). Just be sure to buy a good map in advance and leave plenty of time to get back to the port.
Once you have a plan in mind, be sure you research modes of transportation and the facilities present at your destination. For example, in Grand Cayman, the cabbie told me she could take me to a nearby secluded beach, but there would be no food, bathrooms, or taxi stands there.
And that's the key. You can always find a way to get away from it all -- you just have to work a little harder to make it happen. Perhaps that involves pushing the boundaries of your budget or doing research ahead of time. Or perhaps you can give up your wish for total privacy and extend an invitation to fellow cruise travelers. Traveling with a small group of your own choosing is not nearly as chaotic as a 50-person tour.
--Jamaica photo courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board--Seven Mile Beach photo courtesy of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism