Southern Caribbean cruises typically call on ports that are farther away than most Caribbean itineraries, and thus more remote -- they can bring back that feeling of discovery. There are actually ports with nary a fast food chain in sight and islands where English is barely spoken. You'll find towns that make you feel as though you've walked through the looking glass into a colonial past, with sugar mills and manor houses offering high tea and gourmet repasts.
We've selected some of our favorite places and shore excursions -- journeys that offer varied glimpses of life of these islands. How about a train ride through the region's sugar cane history? Or snorkeling in a sea of Champagne?
Most of the excursions we've chosen are available on major ship itineraries, although they might vary slightly from one cruise line to the next. As always, we encourage you to read up on Southern Caribbean ports, look into the Cruise Critic destination boards, ask questions and determine which excursions are best for you.
Most of us come to Aruba for the beaches, which are extraordinary indeed. Soft, sugary sand nudges the greenest-blue water, and constant trade winds ensure that no one gets too hot. But, Aruba, for its tiny size, has more to offer than just the beach, with its eerie moonscape on the windward side, cacti that tower over cars, several casinos and even a factory that turns aloe plants into lotion. Many ships have a late-night departure, so for this stop we're suggesting two excursions.
Aruba's Natural Wonders
This four-hour tour explores some of the more remote parts of the island, including stops at the Butterfly Farm, the collapsed Natural Bridge, the aloe balm factory and the old gold mill ruins. You'll also visit Eagle Beach, where you can sunbathe and recharge before heading back to the ship for lunch. This tour gives a great overview of the island and still allows time for shopping in Oranjestad or relaxing beachside at Palm Beach or Druif Beach. Be sure to take a camera.
Sunset Catamaran Sail
Anyone who thinks that if you've seen one Caribbean sunset you've seen 'em all has never watched the sun go down in Aruba. The sky seems endless while wisps of clouds turn colors that range from pale yellow to the deepest crimson, with streaks of burgundy and tangerine and eggplant. It looks like all of the "warm" colors in a Crayola box are melting together and then reflecting on the calm turquoise water. This excursion glides past the shoreline and the city of Oranjestad during its 90 minutes on the water. Some of the trips offer a full open bar, some just rum punch, and juices for kids.
No one can mistake this island for any other -- Gros Piton and Petit Piton, sheer volcanic spires rising 2,618 and 2,438 feet above the sea, serve as the iconic landmarks. St. Lucia is an island that cherishes its history and traditions, making efforts to preserve its way of life and to ensure an ecological balance while catering to visitors.
Take a hike to remote Cas en Bas beach, explore the island's sweet chocolate culture (and make your own!), or cruise to the village of Soufriere by catamaran. While Castries -- where the cruise ships dock -- is a fairly large city and the island's business center, the more intriguing parts of St. Lucia encompass its small villages, rainforest, beautiful beaches and stunning resorts.
Soufriere by Land and Sea
This tour takes you on a drive to the town of Soufriere on the south end of the island, where you'll encounter the majestic Pitons. Along the way you stop at the top of Mount Fortune for great views. After a visit in Soufriere, you'll head to Sulphur Springs, "the world's only drive-in volcano." You can actually see the steam rising from the craters as you walk between the sulfur springs. Local lore claims that the fumes are medicinal and will benefit your body and soul (we've as yet been unable to verify this, but we know it's relaxing).
Also nearby is the Diamond Mineral Baths, commissioned by Louis XVI to soothe and restore French soldiers who were defending the West Indies in the late 18th century. The Diamond Mineral Baths Waterfall changes colors during the day, going from green to yellow to black and back again. A buffet lunch of Creole delicacies -- perhaps local rotis (a wrap filled with curried meat and vegetables) or lamb, beef or chicken pepperpot -- is followed by a boat trip back to Castries and the ship, stopping along the way for a swim. (Some of the trips are reverse itinerary, going by boat first). Note: There is one area that requires walking on uneven steps, and most of the stops are not wheelchair accessible.
Still quite British in flavor (or flavour, as they would spell it), Barbados has more than just its British roots and accent in common with Bermuda; Barbados also has pink sand beaches. The port city of Bridgetown -- in fact, the whole Gold Coast -- is big and bustling, modern and sophisticated, but the island itself has its quieter charms, including old plantation houses, rum factories, wind-swept rocky cliffs and beautiful, mountainous terrain. See them all on an island tour, along with some local flavors.
Sunbury Plantation, Scenic Drive and Lunch
To get a comprehensive overview of Barbados -- its history, its commerce, its terrain and its charms -- this five-hour trip takes you on a brisk scenic drive of the island. Stops include Bridgetown, followed by lunch at Sunbury Plantation House, where you'll enjoy a buffet repast featuring Bajan specialties (which always includes "rice and peas," which are actually pigeon peas that look and taste like beans) and local wine in a tranquil, elegant atmosphere.
Tours also include a stop at Earthworks Pottery, where you'll find hand-finished and hand-decorated ceramics, with craftspeople at work. You'll also visit humble Christ Church Parish Church, a beautifully situated place of worship with a graveyard that harbors a secret. There is some walking involved but nothing too strenuous, so this trip is accessible to nearly everyone.
Only small and midsize cruise ships call on St. Barts, making it a unique and wonderful port stop, although cruisers who arrive in St. Maarten can sometimes take a day trip to this little island.
The exclusive, refined atmosphere of St. Barthelemy is evidenced by several hundred villas owned by "the beautiful people" of the world. They shop and dine, and as a result the island -- only 8 square miles -- is filled with incredible restaurants and some of the toniest shops found west of Paris or the Cote D'Azur. St. Barts is, like Guadeloupe and Martinique, a "Department" of France, and as French in attitude, cuisine and laissez-faire as its Mediterranean counterparts like Nice and St.-Tropez. When you're not wining, dining or shopping, consider a private tour.
St. Barts Private Island Tour
You're on an island where independence and privacy is valued above all, so St. Barts is one place where it's worth springing for a private tour by air-conditioned van (consider sharing with another couple). It can be booked aboard your ship or negotiated for at the port of Gustavia. The island is small, so two to three hours will visit all the best bits and still leave time for a gourmet lunch and shopping in chic Gustavia.
One stop that will take your breath away is Col de la Tourmente, a viewpoint near the center of the island and perhaps the only traffic intersection where incoming flights buzz close overhead as they plunge to the island's tiny airstrip. Other sites worth visiting include les Salines, the salt ponds which once provided salt exports throughout the region; Grand Cul de Sac, where posh hotels wrap around a lagoon popular with kiteboarders; and the Colombier lookout point, which reveals a splendid panorama extending to St. Maarten and other neighboring islands.
St. Kitts, along with Nevis, make up a two-island federation that gained independence from the British Empire in 1983 -- still recent enough for them to have retained a distinctly British atmosphere and style. The island's real name is St. Christopher, although aside from being a great trivia tidbit, no one ever calls it that.
Refined and elegant, St. Kitts is a honeymooner's dream destination and appeals to romantics from every corner of the globe. But, there's much to be seen in the countryside, where sugar cane was harvested until relatively recently and today's "cane train" glides around verdant volcanic slopes.
St. Kitts Scenic Rail Tour
The increase in cruise tourism spurred the government to complete the renovation of a century-old narrow gauge railroad and extend its tracks around the island. The original rail was used to carry cane to the mills and then the processed sugar to the capital of Basseterre for export. The journey takes just more than three hours, leaving plenty of time for shopping and exploring the colonial city of Basseterre, with its vibrant open market near the cruise ship dock, "High Street" shops filled with British imports and elegant tea rooms.
The two-level train has air-conditioned seating on the lower level and an open-air observation deck on the upper level; you can switch between them during your journey. The ride takes you back in time to the period when sugar was the currency of kings; it gives a fantastic view of the island, little villages and sugar cane fields, black-sand beaches and the distinctive ruins of sugar mills. Highlights include Brimstone Hill Fortress (the "Gibraltar of the Caribbean") and views out to Nevis, birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. Most tours involve a motor coach ride up the island's west coast and then a ride on the train along St. Kitts' eastern side, giving you a full circumnavigation of the island.
Step off the ship and sniff the air … you'll feel as though you've landed at grandma's kitchen during Christmas with the scent of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon surrounding you. Grenada is the world's spice basket and a beautiful island of plantations, rum distilleries, mountains, forests, waterfalls and soft sand beaches. The port city of St. George's is one of the most beautiful in the world, its steep hillsides wrapping around a small lagoon.
Take some time to walk around the capital, which retains its friendly charm, even with big ships in port. But, allow some time for shore excursion into the rainforests that produce the island's fragrant bounty, as well as some of its scenic highlights.
Seven Sisters Waterfalls and Grand Etang Park Hike
This tour is not for the faint of heart or anyone who has a hard time climbing, hiking or sliding, but the scenery is gorgeous and the scents sublime. It's a fabulous excursion for the fit and adventurous, taking you up to a crater lake and then on a muddy hike down to the bottom of the waterfalls.
Along the way you'll experience the beauty of the rainforest, the scent of ginger and wild nutmeg, and the calls of the many native bird species. After a swim and a drink, you get to hike back up again. The good news is that you'll still have time to visit the town and buy some spices to take home; the bad news is that you'll probably be caked with mud!
Known as the land of "a beach for every day of the year," Antigua is home to some of the most gorgeous beaches in the Caribbean -- no mean feat -- along with elegant, exclusive resorts. But, instead of limiting yourself to a loll in the sun, why not incorporate an activity like kayaking and snorkeling?
After your excursion and a shopping sojourn in the town of St. John's, find a lovely spot -- perhaps in one of those exclusive hotels -- to have British high tea.
Kayak and Snorkeling Adventure
As you glide along the coastline, you'll get a firsthand look at a few of Antigua's stunning beaches and coves. After the one-hour tour in stable two-person kayaks, you board a motorboat to Great Bird Island, a tiny islet just off Antigua's coast and one of the better snorkeling spots in the Caribbean.
Snorkeling equipment, including life vests and instruction, is included, as are refreshments. While you won't see all 365 of Antigua's beaches on this tour, you'll get an idea as to why they are world-renowned.
A mountainous tropical paradise, considered the Caribbean's own Garden of Eden, Dominica has much to offer. It's getting harder and harder to find eco-preserves that are largely untouched and untrampled in the Northern Hemisphere, but Dominica delivers. Its rainforest is dense and splendid, and the island is known for its incredible rainbows. As your ship pulls out of port, watch for the almost-daily display of mist and light that often creates awe-inspiring moments.
Champagne Reef Snorkel Tour
Like many islands in the Caribbean, Dominica is a hotbed of volcanic activity and even includes a boiling lake, reached by an arduous hike up and over the island's central mountain range. Fortunately, most of the geological activity is benign, and accessing these sites does not always involve a thigh-busting challenge.
One great option is this snorkel adventure, which takes you to the edge of a submerged volcano. You'll get a brief orientation at the dive shop, followed by a 15-minute boat ride down the coast to this unusual underwater playground, where bubbles rise from a volcanic vent in the seabed. Some liken this tour to swimming in a glass of Champagne, hence the name (sorry, it's bubbles rising through salt water!), but the ecosystem is also dotted with tropical reef fish and an assortment of corals and sponges.