Stunning sunsets, lush landscapes and welcoming locals are all well and good, but if you're like most cruisers to the Caribbean, what you find most appealing about the region is its beaches. We can relate: the sail-away party has barely heated up before we start fantasizing about winding down on some idyllic breeze-blown shore and relaxing sunny side up on bone-white sands. If you're sailing a Western Caribbean itinerary, you're in luck because this corner of the Caribbean offers a beach for every type of bum.
From Montego Bay to Mexico, here are our eight "shore" bets for the best Western Caribbean beaches.
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For Families: West Bay Beach (Roatan, Honduras)
It's the rare family that won't find beach bliss on this walkable white-sand strand. Busy enough to be interesting, yet never too crowded for comfort, West Bay's broad swath offers changing facilities, shallow water and snorkeling right off the beach (ideal for little waders) and standup paddle-boarding, kayaking and parasailing for teenagers and grown-ups. A string of bars and restaurants punctuates the palm-fringed shore, so parents can satisfy cranky kids' appetites while they slake their own with una cerveza o dos (a beer or two). Allow 45 minutes to travel to West Bay from the Mahogany Bay cruise terminal.
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For Families: Doctor's Cave (Montego Bay, Jamaica)
Of the three strands that border MoBay's "Hip Strip," Gloucester Avenue, it's Doctor's Cave that gets our vote for being most family-friendly. Pony up $6 for a day membership to this venerable private "bathing club" (under-12s are half price), and you and your brood can enjoy a wide sweep of manicured sand and calm, reputedly healing Caribbean waters fed by underground streams. There are changing rooms with showers; lifeguards; and beach umbrellas, chairs and floats for rent. Cravings are satisfied by a seaside food court that serves patties, jerk and kid-friendly chicken fingers. Doctor's Cave is a 15-minute drive north from the Montego Bay cruise terminal.
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For Peace & Quiet: Smith's Cove (Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands)
Seven Mile Beach gets all the attention, but for a more laid-back local scene, head to Smith's Cove. Also known as Smith Barcadere, this chill-out spot on South Sound is only a 10-minute drive from SMB (and a five-minute ride south from the cruise terminal) but it feels a world apart. At Smith's Cove, tiny twin beaches offer warm waters, great snorkeling and absolutely no "scene." Beyond restrooms and a few tables, there are no amenities and very little shade, so bring your own refreshments and sunblock. Your company is likely to consist of in-the-know expats, hotel employees on their day off and a flock of beach-loving chickens.
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For Peace & Quiet: Bamboo Beach Club -- FKA Reggae Beach (Ocho Rios, Jamaica)
Beach-lovers are shoulder-to-shoulder on the shores that front Ochi's hotels, but venture 10 minutes' drive east from the pier (toward Oracabessa), and you'll discover a serene spot untrammeled by the sun-seeking hordes. The Bamboo Beach Club, formerly known as Reggae Beach, is a local secret and a popular party venue in the evenings. In the day, however, you'll likely share the quarter-mile strand (which has a beach bar and grill, changing facilities and ample shade) with only a handful of savvy sunbathers. A $10 entry fee deters vendors, so you can enjoy the sun sans stress. Bamboo Beach is a 15-minute ride northeast from the Ocho Rios cruise terminal.
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For Foodies & Partiers: Rum Point (Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands)
Often combined on shore excursions with a trip to Stingray City, Rum Point offers a small kid-friendly beach shaded by casuarina trees and studded with sorbet-colored picnic tables. But the big draw here is the Wreck Bar, which dominates the sand and is celebrated as the place where the mudslide -- that famous vodka- and Kahlua-based cocktail -- was invented in the '70s. Today the bar serves up as many as 400 of the frosty concoctions a day, and the tropical tipple is a must for any self-respecting Caribbean cocktail quaffer. If you're not on an excursion, keep in mind that it takes 45 minutes to reach Rum Point from the Georgetown cruise terminal; watch your mudslide intake -- and the clock -- to make it back to the ship on time.
Photo: Jo Ann Snover/Shutterstock.com
For Foodies & Partiers: Playa del Carmen (Mexico)
It's all about ceviche and cervezas on the sands of Playa's main strip, where a string of lively bars and restaurants threaten to undo all the effort you put into getting that beach-worthy bod. Settle into a chaise in front of any of the restaurants there, and you'll not only enjoy a front-row view of the colorful characters parading the busy strip (thong sightings are common), but also a seemingly endless array of Mexican and American dishes delivered right to your seat. Still hungry? Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), with its own array of restaurants, is two blocks from the sand. Downtown Playa del Carmen is about 20 minutes north, by car, from the Calica cruise terminal.
For Active Types: Dunn's River (Ocho Rios, Jamaica)
Dunn's River Falls is arguably Jamaica's most popular attraction, and almost everyone who's been to Ochi has either climbed (or at least watched other people climb) the famous waterfall. But ascending the 600-foot-high cascade isn't your only active option there. Sure, visit to climb the falls, but make sure you spend some time on the often-overlooked beach at their base (featured in "Dr. No"), where water sports operators offer snorkeling, Jet Ski rentals, kayaking and glass-bottom boat rides. Dunn's River is a quick seven-minute ride from the cruise terminal in Ocho Rios.
Photo: CO Leong/Shutterstock.com
For Active Types: Mr. Sancho's (Cozumel, Mexico)
To spend your time simply lazing on the sand at this beach club between the Wyndham and Allegro resorts would be missing the point. And the all-inclusive packages there can cost upward of $55 -- a waste of money, at that. Mr. Sancho's offers Jet Ski and banana boat rentals, horseback riding, ATV tours and an inflatable water park for the kids. Then reward your exertions with an ocean-view massage or a nap in a palapa-shaded swinging bed. Mr. Sancho's is about 15 minutes from the cruise pier.
Free. Money. Are there two more beautiful words in the English language? While money doesn't grow on trees, increasingly it can be found somewhere else -- on the high seas. Call it an incentive, call it a bonus; whatever you want to call it, onboard credit lets you spend more freely with less guilt. You've paid your cruise fare, and now you can splurge on those enticing extras -- Swedish massage, specialty restaurant, an excursion to snorkel among shipwrecks -- without busting your budget. Not many need convincing as to why onboard credit -- money automatically deposited into your onboard account-- rocks, but finding out exactly how to get it and where you can spend it is a bit trickier. We found eight ways to hit the OBC jackpot and offer even more suggestions on how to burn through it, although you probably have your own ideas already.