On a 10-night Southern Caribbean sailing, we cruised from Miami to the ports of Grand Cayman, the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and Key West. The following images are just a few highlights of what we saw there, under the sun.
Photos: Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor
Stingray City in Grand Cayman
Somewhat of a rite of passage, Stingray City beckons first-time visitors to wade out onto a gently sloping sandbar to meet the island's friendly underwater locals. Sure, it's touristy, but the stingrays have congregated here for generations -- initially to feed off fishermen's chum -- and a visit here is often seen as a bucket-list experience for many.
The Chickens of Calico Jacks
If you're looking to spend a lazy day on Seven Mile Beach, in Grand Cayman, consistently ranked one of the top beaches in the Caribbean, Calico Jacks is a laidback place to drink, munch and unwind. (If you want to connect, free Wi-Fi lets you share a few photos of your toes in the sand.) Many shuttles go here, dropping at an area of the beach known as Seagrape. Just beware of the chickens that roam under the picnic tables -- if you turn away from your food for a second, the flock will descend.
Pulling into Aruba
Sailing into the island of Aruba is a fine sight. On our sailing, VIPs (loyalty members and suite passengers) were treated to a party on the ship's helipad.
Sipping a Pink Iguana at Iguana Joe's
If running off the ship for a cold, local rum drink makes us a tourist, that's fine in our book if it's for a Pink Iguana. Iguana Joe's, located right across the cruise terminal in downtown Oranjestad, has been going for more than 30 years and entices with great people-watching views, a tasty menu and friendly service. There's tons of dangerous drink options on the menu, but the one named after a rosy reptile includes frozen strawberries, pineapple, rum and coconut cream.
Catching Sunset at Eagle Beach
If you are in Aruba for a longer call (blissfully, ours was from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.), head to Eagle Beach just before sunset. A few dollars for the cab fare will buy you some gorgeous views, and you'll watch everyone who shelled out for a popular sunset cruise sail by. We much prefer our own celebration, with a pristine beach that's crowded during the day, nearly to ourselves.
Bon bini (welcome) to Curacao! Papiamento is the local dialect of the ABC Islands and along with this giant sign declaring the name of the island, you'll also notice the word "dushi" nearby, which means sweet, nice or good.
Curacao is well liked by cruisers, and its iconic waterfront -- known as the Handelskade, in Dutch -- immediately impresses with its pastel colors and floating bridge that leads into a historic downtown.
Waterfront Market in Willemstad
Before you even cross Queen Emma Bridge -- the famous floating bridge that swings back and forth throughout the day to accommodate boat traffic -- in Curacao's capital, you'll notice a row of souvenir stalls. Handicrafts in the Caribbean can be tricky, and range from tacky and imported to lovingly handmade. Look around before you buy.
The Floating Fish Market
Willemstad is big on markets. There are many around town, but its most famous is its floating market, offloading fresher-than-fresh fish and fruit from Venezuela, which is closer to Curacao than Aruba (just about 50 miles).
The Salt Flats of Bonaire
Bonaire, the middle island of the ABC Islands, isn't as frequently visited, but has a lot to offer. Take a taxi tour or rent a golf cart and just about 20 minutes outside of downtown Kralendijk, where you're docked, you will see its salt flats rise up on the horizon. The palette here ranges from blinding white and bubblegum pink to the aquamarines of the ocean to your right.
Near the salt flats, and protected by the Pekelmeer Sanctuary, you might spot a flamingo. They typically move in flocks, but seeing them is difficult; because Bonaire is one of only four places in the world where these exotic birds breed, visitors are barred from getting any closer than the road. Gotomeer, in Washington Slagbaai National Park in the north, is another good place to look.
Sailing a Siamese Junk Boat in the Caribbean
You might have gone snorkeling, but have you ever gone on a traditional Siamese junk? Also known as a samur, which means forever in Thai, the boat is used for sailing and snorkeling excursions to Klein Bonaire, a tiny uninhabited island off the coast of where you're docked. The captain onboard will teach you all about the rich marine life of Bonaire and the storied history of the boat and how he came to captain it.
Food Trucks & Lion Fish
What could be better than a fresh fish sandwich and a sweeping island view? Bonaire has a burgeoning food truck scene that provides both. Pictured here is the Cactus Blue truck, just past the airport heading south. Another crowd favorite is Kite City, which moves, but has been known to stop around Te Amo Beach. Lion fish are an invasive species in the area, so eat them with gusto.
Driving down Bonaire's one road, you will come to the Slave Huts. A stark contrast to the easygoing island life and tropical drinks that most envision when they think of the Caribbean, these huts are an important reminder that slavery touched Bonaire, as it did many places. Your guide or taxi driver might give you a little context, but for a way more in-depth look at the history of Bonaire (including 7,000 years of history in the surrounding islands), head to the Terramar Museum on Kaya Isla Riba, right by the cruise terminal.
Long Live the Conch Republic
Back in the U.S., you'll be greeted by the eccentric locals of Key West. The phrase "Conch Republic" refers to a tongue-in-cheek secession from the rest of the country -- and it might feel that way as you walk or bike around town.
Trail Hemingway with a Trolley
If you're not up for walking around Key West in the stifling humidity, take a trolley tour -- there's many all around town. Author Ernest Hemingway is one of Key West's most famous past residents, and you will have a chance to visit his home (and the descendants of his six-toed cats) as well as a few of the bars he would frequent. Best known among them is Sloppy Joe's.
The Fanciest Walgreens is in Key West
Don't pass up the chance to check out the Walgreens -- yes, the pharmacy chain -- on main thoroughfare Duval Street. It's housed inside The Strand, a still-stunning theater facade, and a fun neon pink sign welcomes you to the location complete with a palm tree.
Catch a Reptile
By that we mean a photo. There's plenty of picturesque wildlife to be seen all around the Southern Caribbean, but be on the lookout for lizards. From whiptail lizards in Aruba to this chill iguana we found in a residential area of Key West, they are everywhere and make fun reminders of all our little vacation discoveries.
Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard. Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase. But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you might find there's something here you didn't already know.