Once you have decided to take a cruise, your next choice usually is the cruise line or destination. Depending on which you pick, one could determine the other, as some cruise lines don’t sail to specific locations.
However, it seems nearly every cruise line sails to the Caribbean, so you have quite a decision to make. But first, you need to narrow down where in the Caribbean you want to visit. It is broken into three regions, eastern, western and southern.
The western Caribbean features the ports of the Yucatan Peninsula on Mexico’s east coast: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Costa Maya. It also includes the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. The eastern Caribbean highlights are Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. A southern Caribbean cruise usually visits the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) but also could call on the West Indies (Martinique and Saint Martin) or even Trinidad and Tobago.
And now comes the choice of cruise line. You’re bound to find one that fits you and your traveling party’s tastes, whether it’s Princess Cruise Line, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival or Silversea. And you’re also bound to find a great deal if you work with a AAA Travel agent.
GRAND CAYMAN, SIR TURTLE AND HELL
In Grand Cayman, you can take a duck boat tour of the local sites of George Town. It includes a brief trip through the water to see the coral and a fish-feeding frenzy via cameras mounted under the duck boat.
Located north of George Town, past Seven Mile Beach, Hell features black limestone deposits, but it’s the post office and gift shop which draws visitors with souvenirs with the town’s name. The gift shop will even stamp your passport with a Hell seal.
You also can get a unique passport imprint from officials at the port if you ask. Sir Turtle, with a peg leg and holding a sword, is the Cayman Islands’ Department of Tourism’s official logo. He also appears on the Department of Immigration’s passport stamp.
There are plenty of other options for excursions on Grand Cayman, including viewing the sea life close-up in a variety of ways. You can go diving at the Cayman Wall with divemasters, swim with dolphins, pet stingrays, hold starfish or observe the creatures from the safety of a submarine or glass-bottom boat.
ANCIENT HISTORY ON THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
In Costa Maya, on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the port area has been enhanced and, along with upgrades to the shops and restaurants, now includes an aviary featuring birds of the Caribbean, a Mayan spa, a snorkeling bay and a demonstration on the history of chocolate.
Much farther from the port, and centuries older, is Kohunlich, a large site of Mayan ruins. Located more than two hours from the port, these ruins are known for the Temple of the Masks. Built in approximately 500 A.D., this pyramidlike structure features stucco masks portraying the Mayan sun god, Kinich Ahau.
Just a short journey up the coast from Costa Maya and across the strait from Playa del Carmen is the island and municipality of Cozumel. Here you will find San Gervasio, a Mayan archeological site. With some ruins dating back more than 1,000 years, the area was thought to be abandoned by the 17th century. You can continue your history lesson at Discover Mexico Park, with its museum showcasing a variety of Mexican art, both historical and regional, and gardens with dioramas of Mexico’s landmarks and pyramids.
Other excursion options include the Tulum ruins and Xcaret Park, a self-described eco-archaeological theme park with natural, historical and cultural attractions. You also could go river tubing at Xel-Ha Park, zip line at Xplor Park or snorkel in some of Playa del Carmen’s cenotes, natural wells cut out of fragile limestone.
THE UNSPOILED VIRGIN ISLANDS
The U.S. Virgin Islands, located in the vast crescent chain of the Eastern Caribbean, are made up of many small cays and islets, but it is St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix that are most often visited.
St. Thomas boasts one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, and visitors can enjoy stunning views from 1,500 feet above sea level. Charlotte Amalie, the island capital, bustles with activity, with duty-free shoppers looking for bargains and dining opportunities. The U.S. Virgin Islands have some of the most famous white-sand beaches in the West Indies, so naturally, Magens Bay is a perfect escape for beach lovers.
Southwest of St. Thomas is the charming Danish-influenced island of St. Croix. The historic towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted offer quaint shops, lovely pastel buildings and refreshing cultural diversity. Pristine St. John has been referred to as “the Virgin Islands’ most virgin” isle as two-thirds of the island is a national park. Romantic and quiet, there are few distractions from its natural allure, and the laid-back pace is perfect for enjoying the island’s world-renowned beaches such as Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Salt Pond Bay.
Northeast of the U.S. Virgin Islands lie the 50-plus British Virgin Islands, 16 of which are inhabited. Because these islands are somewhat remote, one can still find an empty beach, undiscovered reef and bountiful fishing.
Tortola, the hub of the BVI, has mountain peaks covered with tropical green plant life dotted with wildflowers of every striking color. Virgin Gorda, the second most popular island in the BVI, is famous for the Baths, a massive tumble of boulders and amazing caves, which provide an exceptional place to swim and snorkel.
While your decision might be harder to make now on which portion of the Caribbean to visit, you will be on vacation, and that was the right decision.
Spenser Barnes is a freelance writer based in California.