The eastern reaches of the Caribbean are a unique blend of melding cultures and tropical waters, as well as territories that remain a part of the United States. Eastern Caribbean shore excursions are also a blend of familiar beach days and more unique and adventurous sights and activities. It's a part of the world with a surprising amount of history if you wish to unlock it, but miles of sand stretch before you if you'd rather not think about anything at all.
Before the sun melts all your cares away (including the ability to make decisions), we mapped out some of the best Eastern Caribbean cruise excursions so you can sprinkle your next sailing with the right amount of exploration and relaxation.
City Highlights with El Yunque
Cruisers step into historic Old San Juan when they step off their cruise ship, but having a guide to provide context enriches the sights (ancient fortresses awash in a sea of colorful kites), sounds (folk music and reggaeton pouring out from local cars and bars) and smells (the savory garlic and buttery plantains of a traditional mofongo).
Free trolleys and a walkable Old City make the capital of Puerto Rico easy to explore independently, but reaching the rainforest of El Yunque requires a 45-minute drive. Cruise shore excursions that offer a city tour with a visit to El Yunque will make the most of your day in port. Juxtapose the vibrant waterfront community of San Juan's La Perla with cascading waterfalls in just a few short hours.
Cruisers less inclined to see a tropical rainforest and more interested in Puerto Rico's famous rum can pair a city tour with a trip to Casa Bacardi, the brand's flagship distillery dating from 1958. Visiting Bacardi on a tour typically includes a souvenir cup, a welcome drink and transportation, which is about a 20-minute drive from the cruise port. One perk to the packaged tour is many operators include a stop at popular Condado Beach, which offers great shopping and scenery.
The distillery is a scenic place to relax and sip one of its many mojitos, so if you want more of an in-depth experience there, be sure to book a tour focused solely on Casa Bacardi. If you can, book an excursion that features a mixology class so you can bring your mint-muddling skills back home.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
Zipline Adventure at Rockland Estate
A fun all-day destination for the whole family, Rainforest Adventures is an eco-park located on the historic Rockland Estate in Dutch St. Maarten. Tour options and shore excursions vary depending on what combination of activities is right for you and your group (double-check all height and weight requirements), but the park's crown jewel is its Flying Dutchman, a seated ride on the steepest zipline in the world. (The momentary vertigo is well worth it for the sprawling views that can be seen from various platforms around the departure point.)
Also on offer is Sentry Hill, a multifaceted zipline course; a dry inner tube activity called the Schooner Ride; and the Sky Explorer, which is the scenic lift that brings you to each activity (and can be booked individually as a tame ride).
There's a small museum as you enter, housed in a restored 18th-century plantation house, dedicated to Emilio Wilson; he was the son of a slave who worked the same grounds. We like that the park sneaks in some local history before the adrenaline hits.
Plane Watch at Maho Beach
Perhaps some of the most famous images of the island are that of its short and scenic airport landing strip. Book a cruise shore excursion that heads to the French side of the island, St. Martin, for a visit to Maho Beach. Here, visitors from all over the world congregate over sand, surf and a cold one at the Sunset Bar to watch planes fly in just overhead. Your guide should have the best advice on where to safely stand and the airline schedules so you can time your stop with one of Maho's infamous landings.
Once you've had your fill of jumbo jets, many excursions will make the most of a visit to St. Martin with a short tour through Marigot, the French capital, a stop for shopping and a break at the renowned Orient Beach. If floating in the water and only breaking for cocktails is your idea of a perfect day, many cruise lines offer shore excursions that take place on a boat docked just off Maho Beach.
Pirates of the Caribbean were once real -- alive and well and sailing around what's considered the modern-day U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John). Despite the closure of Charlotte Amalie's historic Blackbeard's Castle following Hurricane Irma, there are plenty of shore excursions available to give you a taste of the pirates' life in St. Thomas.
Book a "buccaneer cruise" on a schooner outfitted to look like a pirate ship -- just know the experience will be more campy than historically accurate. The kids will delight in snorkeling, swimming and a possible "treasure hunt" ashore, while the adults can withstand all of the threats to "walk the plank" with plenty of rum punch.
Determined to work in something educational? No matter your tour, plan a visit to the Pirates Treasure Shipwreck Museum, located a short walk from the Havensight cruise terminal. Here, exhibits are fun and interactive, but based on historical fact and scientific findings of actual recovered artifacts from the golden age of pirates.
Nearby St. John is part of the U.S. National Park System; about 60 percent of the island constitutes the Virgin Islands National Park. An excursion here is just a short ferry ride away, and those traveling on their own and looking to spend time at a relaxed pace can head to the Red Hook ferry terminal in St. Thomas, a 20-minute ride from the cruise terminal.
But those booking an organized shore tour have a few choices. Most options focus on the water, offering the opportunity to head to the charming town of Cruz Bay on a private boat before spending the afternoon swimming and snorkeling on St. John's most famous beach, Trunk Bay (home to an underwater snorkel trail).
Other excursions focus on the island's famous hiking trails and scenic overlooks, or spend a few hours simply riding around St. John and soaking in the views from an open-air vehicle. No matter your method of seeing the island, it's not to be missed -- especially for repeat visitors to St. Thomas who are looking for something new.
Located in the southeast area of the Turks & Caicos island chain, Grand Turk is a popular Eastern Caribbean cruise port for its easygoing beach bum vibe, not to mention the largest Margaritaville in the Caribbean. While there is some history to uncover here -- Cockburn Town is the capital of the T&C, Columbus reportedly made landfall here and it served as the landing site of astronaut John Glenn in 1962 -- the true thing to do is get out on the water.
Snorkel, dive and snuba trips abound, whether through your cruise line or a third-party provider. A variety of coral and marine life can be found just minutes from shore, thanks to many sites where depths suddenly drop from about 40 feet into the thousands. For those hesitant to don any fins, glass-bottom boat rides give a glimpse of what vibrant life dwells just beneath the surface.
Board St. Kitts' beloved railway and you'll get a nice overview of the island from the comfort of a double-decker railcar (the top level is open-air). As you rumble past goats munching on grass surrounding abandoned sugar plantations, sip complimentary drinks and listen to your conductor point out places of interest. Interestingly, the railroad was first developed to deliver sugarcane from fields all around the island to its capital of Basseterre (where your ship is docked).
A scenic drive completes the journey on this relaxed excursion, which brings cruisers on a full 30-mile circumnavigation of scenic St. Kitts.
Brimstone Hill, Romney Manor & Caribelle
Those looking to scratch the surface of culture and history on St. Kitts -- with a little shopping -- will feel satisfied with a shore excursion that visits at least two of the island's top sites. What might be billed as a highlights tour will bring you to Brimstone Hill, a 300-year-old fortress set on a 40-acre hill. Even if you have no interest in the island's military history, you'll appreciate the spectacular views that allow you to see many neighboring islands on a clear day.
Continue on to Romney Manor, a former sugar plantation once owned by Thomas Jefferson's great-grandfather and home to a few acres of marvelous gardens. Here, you'll also find the Caribelle Batik Studio, where local artisans will demonstrate the fabric-dying technique known as batik. Of course, there is a store incorporated so visitors can purchase everything from shirts and bags to fabric necklaces featuring the gorgeous designs.
Cruise to Nevis
If you've already explored St. Kitts, or simply want to revel in some spectacular views, book a shore excursion to Nevis. The now-famous birthplace of Alexander Hamilton is a lovely day trip, but the 45-minute boat ride itself is also worth the time. Along the way, see vistas of neighboring islands as well as the gorgeous coastline of St. Kitts.
Upon arrival in Nevis, your tour will vary depending on the operator, but you can expect an overview of its capital Charleston, a visit to the hot springs and/or botanical gardens, and a stop at the island's acclaimed Pinney's Beach.
Amber Cove, a private island in the Dominican Republic, can be quite idyllic if you decide to book a cabana away from the bustle of the pools and water slides. But if you want to see something else entirely, Puerto Plata is a nearby city that will liven up your port call with plenty of shore excursion opportunities.
Visit San Felipe Fortress and a historic Victorian district, as well as a modern-day organic chocolate factory and a rum museum. You will spend the day with your senses occupied, seeing and tasting local Dominican specialties. (Don't forget about the coffee and cigars!) Lunch is typically included and comes with a live music and dance performance.
The 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua
Just about 25 minutes from Amber Cove there are 27 waterfalls tucked into the hills of the DR's Northern Corridor; you can see about a dozen of them on a shore excursion to Damajagua. It's a lesser-known natural wonder that includes caverns and lush landscapes.
Beyond admiring the waterfalls, some tours also let you jump and swim among them. More active types will want to look for a tour that lets you hike from one to the other.