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Emerald Sakara in Virgin Gorda (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Emerald Sakara (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Why Small Yacht Cruising is a Big Deal: All You Need to Know About a Yacht Cruise to the Caribbean

Emerald Sakara in Virgin Gorda (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Emerald Sakara (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Jorge Oliver

Last updated
Mar 1, 2024

You’ll seldom – if ever – find Prickly Pear Island listed on cruise itineraries to the uber-popular Eastern Caribbean.

Located just off the northern coast of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, this uninhabited 180-acre isle only offers a miniscule wooden pier, a bar/cafe and a pristine beach with a handful of chairs and umbrellas. But what the tiny island lacks in amenities, it makes up by providing the one thing that’s difficult to find in popular Caribbean ports: seclusion. It’s the kind of place that’s typically only accessible via private yacht.

View of Prickly Pear Island in the British Virgin Islands (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Prickly Pear Island (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Yet Prickly Pear Island is one of the destinations featured during the 7-day “Hidden Charms of the Caribbean” sailing on Emerald Cruises newest ship, Emerald Sakara. Fitting, considering that the 5,315-gross-ton, 100-passenger vessel looks more like a yacht than a cruise ship.

Like Emerald, companies including Scenic, Ritz-Carlton, Windstar and SeaDream provide the yacht style of ocean cruising. And not just in the Caribbean; the Mediterranean, the South Pacific and even Polar destinations are also featured in yacht itineraries.

What makes yacht cruising an attractive alternative? Our experience aboard Emerald Sakara revealed the answers to all you need to know about cruising on a yacht to the Caribbean.

First: What Is a Yacht? The Term is Loosely Used by The Cruise Industry

Emerald Sakara docked in Antigua (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Emerald Sakara, the newest yacht from Emerald Cruises (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

With the exception of sister vessels from the same company, no two yacht cruises are the same. Some companies – like Scenic, Emerald or Ritz-Carlton – have ships that sport a decidedly superyacht-like look: long, elegant bows, terraced afts and a sleek layout throughout. During our stop in St. Barts, Emerald Sakara looked just like another super-expensive private yacht in Gustavia (in fact, some of these private vessels looked bigger than Emerald’s ship).

In other cases, the ships will look more like mini cruise ships, as is the case with SeaDream Yacht Club’s flagships SeaDream I and SeaDream II. The same can be said about Windstar Cruises trio of Star Plus Class ships – Star Breeze, Star Legend and Star Pride.

But Windstar’s yacht fleet also includes the masted Wind Class vessels – Wind Star, Wind Surf and Wind Spirit – which have much more in common with classic sailboats than yachts or cruise ships.

It’s also important to note that, while yacht cruises offer glamorous hardware not unlike a private yacht or sailboat, they are still considered cruises and operate as such. The category of the services ranges from premium (as is the case of Emerald Cruises, where not everything is included in your fare), to luxury, where you will have endless Champagne on demand.

Keep in mind that on these cruise line yachts, you’re still with at least 99 other people (although you can get lucky if the ship isn’t full and enjoy a higher than 1:1 staff ratio.) Although you will likely meet more of the crew, it’s likely not the same concierge-level of service that people who charter or own their own yachts usually receive.

Essentially, don’t expect a private experience a la the TV show ‘Below Deck.’

You Get Access to Seldom Visited Destinations

Beach in Esperanza, Vieques Island (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Esperanza pier on the south coast of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Not all destinations on a small yacht cruise will be as exclusive as Prickly Pear Island, where Emerald Sakara’s crew took our experience a step further by setting up a beach BBQ.

But outside of the embarkation and debarkation ports (St. John’s, Antigua and San Juan, Puerto Rico on our itinerary) you won’t visit big Caribbean ports frequented by larger, mainstream cruise ships.

Instead, your itinerary will be filled with places like the chic French island of St. Barts or the natural haven of St. John in the USVI, which feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of neighboring St. Thomas.

You may also see more frequently-visited islands listed on your itinerary, but you’ll likely be away from their main ports. Itineraries might include the island of St. Kitts, but you’ll arrive at a secluded area like Friars Beach and not Port Zante in the capital of Basseterre; or St. Martin, but the French town of Marigot instead of the Dutch superport of Philipsburg.

That being said, yacht cruises do usually follow a set itinerary that has been hand-picked and predetermined by the cruise company, as opposed to a private yacht where the captain will literally take you where you want to go depending on the weather. There will be a certain level of flexibility, however, as your yacht cruise captain may opt to anchor in a different place within the same island in order to avoid rougher seas or uncomfortable swells.

You Effortlessly Bond With Fellow Cruisers

Sailaway party aboard Emerald Sakara (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Passengers mingling in Emerald Sakara's Sky Bar (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Meeting other cruisers during your voyage isn’t all that unusual on any cruise. But on a small yacht cruise, it’s practically inescapable.

By virtue of their small sizes, yacht cruises offer some of the lowest passenger capacities in the industry, comparable (and often lower) to the passenger counts you’ll encounter on river cruises or expedition cruises.

Emerald Sakara and sister ship Emerald Azzurra, for instance, have a maximum capacity of 100 passengers. Other ships like SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I and SeaDream II carry up to 110 cruisers, whereas Ritz-Carlton Evrima can accommodate 298 passengers.

This typically means you’ll easily bond with like-minded cruisers practically upon setting foot on the ship. This interaction is also facilitated by having fewer public spaces than larger ships and having fewer shore excursions to choose from.

We witnessed this on Emerald Sakara, where total strangers soon became inseparable companions within the first couple of days of sailing. Though some passengers still preferred to keep to themselves, it was more commonplace to see large groups of more than six people enjoying dinner together.

The potential downside of this is that smaller ships and yacht cruises can facilitate the development of cliques and passengers with disparate interests may feel left out. But our experience on Sakara didn’t reflect this; though the ship is small, it still allowed enough room for sociable passengers to mingle, while more introverted cruisers could still do their own thing.

You Avoid Crowded Shore Excursions

Guided shore excursion in St. Kitts (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Shore excursions on yacht cruises consist of smaller groups (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Further to the point of having low passenger counts, yacht cruises excel in providing intimate shore excursions. You will often have a few options to choose from, and the most popular excursions will likely be broken up into different groups.

Moreover, your yacht may often be the only cruise ship in port, adding to the exclusive nature of the shoreside tours. Even if the destination has other ships in port, your tour will only consist of your fellow travelers, although you may visit attractions where other tours are present.

On our Emerald Sakara sailing, the shore excursions ranged from basic overviews of the destination to more elaborate and exclusive options, usually for an extra fee (a tour category that the cruise line calls ‘DiscoverMORE’).

The yacht has been sailing in the Caribbean since December 2023, and given that many destinations are off the beaten path, we found the destination expertise of Emerald’s staff was a bit incomplete. This was especially true in islands like Vieques or Culebra, two places that are relatively unexploited for tourism when compared to other neighboring destinations.

The crew provided general tips on what to see and do, usually coupled with the shore excursions offered in the itinerary. But in some cases, it would pay to seek further direction ashore from the islands’ tourism representatives, which were usually at hand upon disembarking the tender from Emerald Sakara.

You Spend More Time in Port

View of Gustavia, St. Barts (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
St. Barts, one of the destinations featured on Emerald Sakara's Caribbean cruise (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

During our Emerald Sakara voyage, we had the opportunity to go on a moonlit kayak excursion in Vieques Island’s bioluminescent bay. This was only possible because our departure time from Vieques was scheduled for 10pm, giving two separate groups ample time to enjoy the island’s most iconic attraction.

Vieques wasn’t the exception. On most stops in our itinerary, we would arrive just before 8am and leave well into the evening. This has a lot to do with the fact that anchoring and tendering to shore is the norm rather than the exception on yacht cruises.

The itineraries will also often feature islands that are relatively close to each other – in some cases as close as 30 nautical miles -- drastically reducing the time it takes to get to the next destination.

Having said that, the constant use of tenders to get ashore is an aspect to consider, as sometimes you may anchor at a considerable distance from port. This was true in some destinations during our Emerald Sakara sailing; in some cases, the full tender ride would take 20 minutes or more. The frequency of tenders, however, was uninterrupted throughout our stay at a destination.

The Bottom Line: Who are Yacht Cruises For?

Emerald Sakara's infinity pool at dusk (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
The infinity pool aboard Emerald Sakara (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Sailing on a yacht can offer a number of benefits not found in other styles of cruising. But these benefits may appeal more to certain types of travelers than others, so it's important to understand what a sailing on a yacht cruise entails, both on board and ashore.

Experienced cruisers who have vast and in-depth knowledge of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean can benefit from enjoying a different side of the region on a yacht cruise itinerary. As previously mentioned, yacht itineraries in the Caribbean will often visit several islands that are seldom or never included on other cruise itineraries.

Similarly, independent-minded travelers who revel in making their own plans when tackling a new destination also stand to benefit from off-the-beaten-path itineraries like Emerald’s Hidden Charms of the Caribbean.

A Caribbean itinerary on a yacht cruise can offer diversity of destinations -- for instance, islands with robust shopping opportunities like St. Barts and nature-friendly destinations like Vieques island or St. John -- but more often than not you will find yourself in places with limited amenities. While you won't call at any destination that's completely devoid of development (even tiny Prickly Pear Island has basic creature comforts), expect most of these islands to be more on the rugged side. For certain types of travelers, this feeds perfectly into the allure of an ideal destination, but they can be challenging for passengers with limited mobility or that otherwise require certain comforts.

Tender ride to Friars Beach, St. Kitts (Photo: Jorge Oliver)
Emerald Sakara uses a tender to access destinations in the Caribbean (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

Further to this point, the use of tenders to access destinations has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it affords additional flexibility to visit destinations for longer periods than docking would allow. There’s also a certain sense of adventure and remoteness attached to boarding a tender to reach lesser-visited islands of the Caribbean.

But when seas are choppy, it can be a chore to board the tiny boats, especially for passengers with limited mobility. The time it takes to go from the yacht to shore and back on the tender can also be a deterrent for some passengers who may prefer quicker access to the destinations.

If you enjoy staying on board in an uncrowded setting more than discovering destinations, there’s also plenty to like on a yacht cruise. The comfort and elegance of the yacht-style ship is alluring for travelers who enjoy kicking back in the comfort of their cabin balcony or by the pool and simply enjoy the tropical views. But by virtue of being small vessels, yacht cruises will also offer limited entertainment and dining venues.

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