Hear the word "Caribbean," and you visualize vast white beaches, slouching palm trees and bright, turquoise waters. But with more than 700 islands, islets and cays, the Caribbean offers more than saturated landscapes and crystalline coastlines. It offers a wide variety of experiences, excursions and cultures that can't be found anywhere else in the world.
The Caribbean is split into three major cruise regions: Western, Eastern and Southern. While some activities overlap in all three regions, each embodies its own personality and offers something unique.
So what separates one Caribbean area from the rest? And which islands are associated with which region? If you're a little fuzzy on your Caribbean cruise destinations, we offer an introduction to the three major regions of the Caribbean and the activities and ambience each has to offer.
The Western Caribbean consists of destinations due south of Florida, as well as ports in Mexico and Central America. You can visit Mexico (Cozumel, Costa Maya, Progreso), Belize, Honduras, Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Cuba.
"Adventure" is the first thing that comes to mind when considering a Western Caribbean cruise. Abundant with water sports, hiking excursions and underwater adventures, the Western Caribbean is a good fit for high-energy cruisers seeking an adrenaline rush or a new cultural experience. The region is also ideal for low-key cocktails on the islands' white-sand beaches.
Aside from water sports, like fishing, clear kayaking and some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean, the Western Caribbean offers well-organized excursions to Mayan ruins, explorations of underwater shipwrecks, and zip-lining adventures through the rainforests of Central America. Other activities include diving with sharks in Belize's Shark Ray Alley, scaling Dunn's River Falls in Jamaica and swimming with stingrays in Stingray City Sandbar on Grand Cayman.
Western Caribbean itineraries depart from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as well as Galveston, New Orleans and other East Coast and Florida ports. Some Florida departures add a stop in Key West, the southernmost tip of Florida, to the lineup. Some cruise lines also supplement itineraries with a quick visit to their private islands, such as Royal Caribbean's Labadee.
The Eastern Caribbean encompasses the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix), British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda), French West Indies (St. Maarten and St. Martin) and the Dominican Republic.
The "no worries" vibe of the Eastern Caribbean attracts laid-back cruisers looking for a low-impact getaway. The region, which is highly westernized, is not quite as culturally different as its Western and Southern counterparts, and offers a wide array of activities, from sightseeing to scuba diving.
The Eastern Caribbean is most notable for its duty-free shopping, which is among the best in the Caribbean, and its pristine sandy shorelines. In addition to the best Caribbean beaches, the region offers spectacular surfing (particularly in Puerto Rico), a bustling nightlife scene and several modern casinos. Another main attraction is Old San Juan, where visitors can tour the city's historic sites or opt for a day of shopping. Like all other Caribbean regions, the Eastern Caribbean offers water sports, like scuba diving and snorkeling, hiking excursions and zip-lining.
Most Eastern Caribbean cruises depart from Florida ports, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Cape Canaveral. Several others, however, sail out of New York, Baltimore and Cape Liberty. While The Bahamas is not considered part of the Caribbean, ports like Nassau and Freeport are often added to Eastern Caribbean itineraries. These islands, which are among the most developed for tourism, also offer a wide variety of water sports, land tours and duty-free shopping. Port stops in Grand Turk (technically in the Atlantic) and Jamaica are also common.
Many other itineraries include stops at the cruise lines' private islands, such as Labadee and CocoCay (Royal Caribbean), Half Moon Cay (Holland America), Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian Cruise Line), Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line) and Princess Cays (Princess Cruises).
The Southern Caribbean includes the French West Indies (Martinique, Guadalupe and St. Barth's), St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Antigua and St. Kitts/Nevis.
Though less traveled by cruise lines than other parts of the Caribbean, the Southern Caribbean is likely the most diverse of all three regions. Known for its exotic scenery and towering volcanoes, the Southern Caribbean flaunts a diverse topography that ranges from lush, tropical rainforests to dry desert landscapes, and is home to some of the most spectacular species of wildlife. Islands here are ideal for vacationers looking to escape mobbed beach scenes and typical tourist attractions. The region offers explorations of the famous Hato Caves, tours of the world's oldest rum distillery and a look into the region's rich British military history.
The Southern Caribbean suits every taste, with everything from low-energy beach days to high-impact rappelling. The array of activities is reflected by the vast landscape of the Southern Caribbean, from the dense rainforests of Dominica to the seaside villages of Barbados; from the beaches of Aruba flecked with bent divi-divi trees to the crystal-clear waters of St. Thomas. Other popular Caribbean cruise activities include swimming, snorkeling, sightseeing and shopping.
Other attractions include the Dutch-influenced Curacao and the French-influenced islands of St. Barth's and Martinique, which all offer dozens of sidewalk cafes, trendy boutiques and gourmet restaurants.
Southern Caribbean itineraries generally exceed one week, and sail roundtrip from San Juan and Barbados. However, other departure ports include Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Galveston and New York. Some Southern Caribbean cruises also stop in the Eastern Caribbean, the Bahamas and Florida ports, such as Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, depending on the homeport.