Welcome to the Bahamas

I have always had mixed feelings about cruising the Caribbean. I feared it would be my worst travel nightmare -- ports crammed with ships and mobs of passengers hitting the islands like an invading army. But I decided it was time to give the Caribbean a chance. After all, it's the world's most popular cruise destination. And, really, who could resist white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and rum punch in the middle of December? To give myself a better chance for success, I opted for a longer cruise than the standard seven-day circuit, which gave me the opportunity to see a combination of major cruise ports and places that are less frequently visited.

My 11-night cruise aboard Costa Mediterranea called on Nassau and Freeport, Bahamas; Samana, Dominican Republic; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; Antigua; Guadeloupe; and Saint Maarten, with one outbound sea day and two on the return. It made for a nice mix. Britain, France, the Netherlands and the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic were all represented, so each stop had a distinctly different feel.

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Here's what I thought of the Caribbean islands -- and why my first Caribbean cruise won't likely be my last.

Nassau, Bahamas

Nassau, Bahamas

First Impressions

"Boy, there are a lot of cruise ships here!" The place looked like a parking lot for leviathans. But I will admit, things are pretty well organized once you hit the dock. You're funneled into an onshore area with transportation providers, craft kiosks and "licensed hair-braiders." (Who knew you needed a license for that?) This is the only port where the cruise line left a letter in our cabin, suggesting we not wander too far on our own, and warning us to beware of theft. There was a good contingent of police on the easily walkable main street. You couldn't miss them in their spiffy white uniforms, complete with a towering white helmet -- which made for an excellent photo op.

Unless you're shopping for duty-free jewelry or straw-market goods, taking a ferry or taxi to the nearby Atlantis resort is a good option. In this Vegas-style megaplex, you'll find a vast aquarium, water park and beaches. The price of entry isn't cheap, but my husband lobbied hard and I gave in. In the end, I had a blast.

Favorite Moment

Looking down the nearly vertical, 60-foot Leap of Faith slide at Atlantis -- and then going down it anyway, screaming my lungs out as I hurtled down the faux-Mayan pyramid and through a clear acrylic tunnel surrounded by live sharks. Or maybe I should say the best moment was when I plunged into the water at the end and knew I'd survived!

Worth a Return Visit?

Not likely. My husband would definitely go back to hang out at Atlantis, but for me, it's "been there, done that, move on." There are too many other places out there to see before I'd return there.

Samana, Dominican Republic

Samana, Dominican Republic

First Impressions

"This place is deserted!" Samana is a major destination for whale-watching in mid-January through March but, since we called there in December, it was like a tourism ghost town. A few souvenir shops were open, as well as some restaurants and bars. Their proprietors hovered along the street waiting to pounce on any visitor who passed their way, as did the art and souvenir vendors in a shoreside park. Although locals were friendly, the bargaining was fierce. I felt like folks were desperate for enough cash to make it through to high season.

I'm glad we opted for an eco-tour shore excursion, which shuttled us by boat to Los Haitises National Park, where we visited a bird sanctuary, caves with pictographs and petroglyphs by the ancient Taino people and cruised through a mangrove forest. Getting out into nature seems like the best bet there, and our cruise offered a lot of shore tour options to do just that. Because this is a tender port, tours that whisk you away directly from the boat are particularly nice.

Favorite Moment

Walking through one of the huge caverns at Los Haitises National Park, and thinking about the extinct Taino people who had created the wall paintings and walked in this same cave hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of years ago.

Worth a Return Visit?

Yes, I'd happily return during whale-watching season to further explore the natural surroundings.

Road Town, Tortola

Road Town, Tortola

First Impressions

"Chickens are a lot cuter than pigeons!" Yes, when you're anchored out on a ship, you'll notice gazillion-dollar houses scattered in the green hills rising up from Tortola's harbor. But when you set foot on land, one of the first things you'll see are the magnificently plumed chickens that strut around like they own the place. My husband nearly got run over chasing a hen and her brood of cheeping chicks through a parking lot for the perfect photo.

Road Town is a busy place. You can walk down Main Street (set in a block from the main waterfront road), past little houses painted even brighter than the local roosters. Many are converted into shops, galleries or restaurants. It makes for a pleasant stroll. If you cut over to the main road, it will lead you to the less-attractive modern town. On the plus side, we found a particularly good assortment of rum in the supermarket there, including Arundel, made by the same family for more than 200 years. Unfortunately, most museums, the post office and other spots close down at 3 p.m., making the supermarket -- with its longer hours -- one of Road Town's top attractions during an afternoon cruise ship call.

Favorite Moment

When the crewmember manning the ship's x-ray machine didn't notice the bottle of rum in our backpack. But also our whirlwind visit to the Governor's House Museum, where we arrived a few minutes before closing. The modest villa is a little slice of Britain, and a real window on Tortola's colonial history. It's easy to imagine the various royals who've visited having tea on the veranda and gazing out on their Virgin Islands domain.

Worth a Return Visit?

Maybe, but if I had another afternoon arrival, I'd opt to do a shore excursion instead of going into town since so many things close early.

St. John's, Antigua

St. John's, Antigua

First Impressions

"Where the heck am I?" Our ship was docked at the industrial Deep-Water Port, about 10 minutes outside of St. John's. Most ships dock in town at Heritage Quay or Redcliffe Quay, where you can easily explore the capital city of St. John's on foot.

I realized I needed a strategy to get to various points of interest on the island. I was going to Stingray City on a shore excursion, but also wanted to visit the major historic attraction Nelson's Dockyard and see St. John's -- and all were in opposite directions. I ended up asking our van driver if he could find someone to take my husband and me from Stingray City to Nelson's Dockyard, so we wouldn't have to waste 45 minutes doubling back to the ship. Bingo! A little bargaining and it all worked out. (Remember, you can usually bail out of a shore excursion if you don't want to go directly back to the ship. Just make sure you discuss it with the tour leader or ship's representative accompanying the tour, so they don't think you've gone missing or gotten lost.)

Favorite Moment

Having friendly, curious stingrays brush against my legs with their "wings" while I waded in the 4-foot deep lagoon at Stingray City. Nearly everybody squeals, "Ohhh!" the first time it happens with a mix of fear and delight. Once you're used to it, it's totally cool. They're just checking you out. I also got to feed squid to a couple of rays. Their mouths are on the bottom, and when you dangle the squid, they suck it up like a vacuum cleaner. You just have to be careful to tuck your thumb inside your fist, or it can go the way of the squid!

Worth a Return Visit?

Yes, to relax on the beach and do a little celebrity stalking. Oprah, Eric Clapton, Timothy Dalton, Giorgio Armani and Mr. Rich-and-Famous, Robin Leach, all have houses there -- and so does the rich and infamous ex-Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.

Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe

Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe

First Impressions

"I'm in France!" Guadeloupe is far more French than I'd expected. Sure, the colors in port town Pointe-a-Pitre are Caribbean, but the language, customs and ambiance are surprisingly Gallic. Some of the older buildings evoke formerly French New Orleans, with their lacy iron balconies. In the square with the Spice Market, a fountain looks like it could have been kidnapped from a Belle Epoque-era Paris park. Menus have a formule, an optional prix fixe meal that includes a starter, main and dessert for a discounted tab, just like you'd find back in the motherland. The currency is the euro, and the local supermarket carries French chocolate bars and my favorite brand of French jam. Magnifique!

I also quickly realized that I'd get to visit only a fraction of Guadeloupe, since it's composed of two large islands and several smaller ones. There's plenty to see, and you really need to commit to one of the major islands. I chose to stay on Grande-Terre, where the cruise terminal is located. In addition to Pointe-a-Pitre (you can visit it on foot straight from the terminal), there are also beach towns, fishing villages and markets to explore.

Favorite Moment

Standing on Grande-Terre's easternmost tip, at the end of a narrow peninsula, where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet. Pointe des Chateaux is elevated and gives you views of beaches in either direction. To the south, the gentler Caribbean laps at the shore. To the north, Atlantic waves bash onto the beaches or rocks. It's a gorgeous panoramic setting -- like you're at the end of the earth. Well, the end of the earth, with a few souvenir vendors and coconut sorbet-sellers.

Worth a Return Visit?

Yes, to explore the other main island of Basse-Terre, with its active volcano, tropical forests and La Reserve Cousteau, an underwater wonderland for snorkelers and divers.

Philipsburg, St. Maarten

Philipsburg, St. Maarten

First Impressions

"Get me out of this traffic!" Dutch Saint Maarten and French Saint Martin share one island, and the two main towns -- Philipsburg and Marigot -- seem to also share equally horrendous traffic jams. We rented a car at the port and headed out on a clockwise loop of the island, only to get mired in a series of back-ups. It might have been particularly bad because of extra visitors doing their duty-free Christmas shopping. Yuck!

On the less-populated northern part of the island, things improved, with little beach towns and sweeping views. But when we stopped at a beach-shack restaurant, we were accosted by a time-share salesman who was touting for a local resort. Because we lost so much time in traffic, we didn't visit the two most popular tourist spots, Airport Beach, where planes fly low over sunbathers, and Orient Beach, a nudist hangout. Fortunately, we made it back to the ship in time -- unlike some fellow passengers, for whom the ship waited for more than an hour. Their excuse? "We were stuck in traffic!"

Favorite Moment

Standing with one foot in France and the other in the Netherlands, at the bar of Captain Oliver's Restaurant in Oyster Pond. Even my well-traveled Facebook friends had a hard time when I asked if they could guess where I was when straddling this border.

Worth a Return Visit?

It's doubtful, but if I did return, I'd probably just walk over to the Philipsburg town beach and spend the day drinking dollar beers.

Freeport, Bahamas

Freeport, Bahamas

First Impressions

"The taxi drivers are holding us hostage." The port might be free, but the taxis certainly aren't. And there's nothing much at the port, aside from a few restaurants, shops and souvenir-sellers. It takes about half an hour to get to Port Lucaya, where there's a resort-lined beach and a large shopping-bar-restaurant complex. Both are pleasant for strolling. But I'm glad we spent the bulk of our day on a shore excursion that took us kayaking and snorkeling in a national park.

Favorite Moment

Snorkeling around the deserted little island of Peterson Cay, then relaxing afterwards on its white-sand beach. There were plenty of tropical fish, and the setting was blissful perfection. It made for a wonderful final day.

Worth a Return Visit?

Probably. I'd go back for another nature-oriented tour, or even to repeat the great one I did.

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