- Cruise lines tend to be quite nationalistic about where they promote, and so attract the bulk of their passengers. This is one thing to consider as most seem to therefore have the very vast majority of passengers from their home countries on board. For example, the P&O ship I was on was a definitely about 99% UK passengers. Italian lines like MSC and Costa will be majority Italian, and of course carnival mostly Americans.
- This also means that the entertainment, onboard games and quizzes, talks and the like will all be heavily slanted towards the home country of the ship. So make sure you are prepared for that. It also does though give you an opportunity to be a bit more adventurous. Most US cruisers using local agents or responding to local placed ads will tend to be considering only US cruise lines – forgetting that there are a load of other options that they may actually find a bit more varied or different.
- It also is important to chose carefully based on how formal you like your cruise to be. While all lines, including even the most formal line Cunard, will have a more relaxed schedule of how many Formal, Informal and Casual nights on their Caribbean season those that have a strict dress code will enforce it. So if you are on Cunard or say one of the UK lines like P&O you will be expected to wear formal on those nights and not be allowed into the dining room without it. While other lines may be less strict, for example MSC that friends traveled on more or less the same time found maybe 30% of people wore formal on formal nights and the line did not mind. If you like things very relaxed then chose the more “fun ships” like Ocean Village or those with the more “Freestyle” approaches.
- If you don’t like hoards of kids that come on Caribbean Cruises also chose carefully. Some of the European lines like P&O have “adult only” ships operating in the Caribbean, or select cruises out of school holiday times.
#3: See and use the cruise as a taster for future land based vacations
One of the risks with the rather frantic port-to-port schedule is that the islands can start to blur a bit into each other. So while you get an overall Caribbean experience which is of glorious weather, islands, beaches and the like, it is harder to get the time to really appreciate and island other than get a taste for what could be on offer. So why not approach the cruise with exactly this in mind!
- I recommend is to use a cruise literally as a “sampler platter” where you go with a view to returning for a specific land based trip to one or maybe two of the islands for a week at each. So use the visits to choose an excursion that you think will give you the best sample of the kind of things or activities that you would like for a longer trip. So if you like beaches then do that, if you like walks then do those, if you like activity sports then do those, if you like history do those excursions and so on.
- A cruise where you are visiting islands back-to-back will provide an excellent way to help chose the right and best island to visit at a later stage. I know from cruises to some of the islands we visited I knew I want to go to Barbados again, but Grenada and St Kitts are on the “must go back and spend more time” while I was pleased to see St Lucia and Antigua I don’t feel they are where I want to spend more time. The cruise really helped in that regard.
- On that front, also watch carefully what your cruise line defines as a stop and an island. Some cruise lines include stops at what they call “private islands” which are basically small islands with a beach that they stop at, haul food onto and that is it.
#4: Consider self exploring versus cruise line arranged excursions
- Staying on board while in some ports is probably a much underused option as well to enjoy the ship and facilities like the Spa. The ship is usually very empty and quiet when in port as almost all passengers will get off for some or all the day on an excursion, and even a large amount of the crew will get off to go shopping and have a break from their confined living space on-board. It means the pools; spas and other activities are less crowded and busy.
- You are unlikely to want to stay on board every port as you miss seeing new places, although friends of mine came back from a 16 night Caribbean and Atlantic Crossing with stops in Europe only getting off in one port. They were the exception as they would stay up all night partying and used days to sleep and recover! If you have a hectic “port every day” cruise do build in some days you don’t have something booked as a take it easy and relax day.
- Based on my experiences of cruising, I think there are at least 3 approaches you should consider:
- Start by looking at the excursion booklet sent by the Cruise Line. This will give you a good overview of the sorts of activities that are popular and the range of things that can do done. You get a good feel for if there is a rich history to be explored, if it is an activities area and so on. You also get an idea of the sort of prices tours in that port will cost and the time and distances involved. For the islands these are not that large as most islands are pretty small. Decide the kind of things that appeal.
- Remember there is no rule requiring you to only go on cruise line tours. You should consider options. There is an excellent site called shoretrips.com that was set up by 2 travel agents who spent literally years identifying and validating tours on most of the islands. The tours on their site can be booked and paid for and they meet you at the ship. They argue that you will tend to find their tours will have smaller numbers of people on them (or you can even book some exclusively), will cost less (as the cruise lines take larger margins on tours) and also will have local people with huge local knowledge. People on cruise boards who have used the site have been very complementary. They also offer more tours taking you for longer and more relaxing tours like to beauty spots, beaches and the like.
- Then, which is what I mostly end up doing, is do it yourself. This is a very easy and under appreciated option. The islands are small, used to dealing with tourists who are in and out in a day and the places to go are well known and well documented both online and in brochures. All cruise lines provide free shuttle buses into the town center if the dock is not in the center, but for most of the Caribbean they are.
#5: The USA $ is the one currency all islands accept, making it so much easier
I also like this option as you are then talking to local people and getting more of a feel for the place.
I have a whole podcast and blog posting about Barbados with tips and advice. There are great beaches, and St Lawrence gap is probably the easiest area to go to as has lots of beach area but also a road full of bars, shops and places to eat.The nicer and more up-market resorts are on the west of the island and there are some nice public beaches near Holetown – but you can go to any beach as anyone can use any beach. If you prefer sightseeing go on a tour that includes Harrison’s Caves and goes to the high spot of the island. Bridgetown is worth a stroll through though not worth allocating a lot of time to, but do visit Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s statue – even for the novelty factor as of course Nelson’s Column and statue are in Trafalgar Square in London.
Grenada is a great place. Visiting should be a beach or water day as the sea and beaches here are stunning. The lovely Grand Anse Beach can be reached by water taxis at the dock that charge a few US dollars to take you there. It was about 3 dollars per person. You get a great view of the ships in port as you whiz round them, great views of the island and the beach is great. There are what seem to be concessions on the beach where for a stretch one set of people can rent you chairs and umbrellas (about twenty dollars for 2 people) and offer drinks and food for sale.Chat to the water taxi guys as they will tell you the history of the island (and the coups, American invasion and hurricanes!). After the beach go out the shopping mall at the docks, turn right and then go through the tunnel (built in the 189Os or thereabouts) into the lovely bay area with stunning architecture, bars, fishing boats and such like.
St Lucia is popular island, but I was less impressed. Avoid the day at a Sandals Resort as they are run down and the beaches not that great. It seems the best things to do here are to visit one of the more popular beaches or go on one of the round the island tours.
On St Kitts, there are 2 great things to do.
- If you like activity, go on a bike tour. This lasts the morning (or afternoon) and is quite strenuous as the island is very hill. But you get to see some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine and learn about the sugar trade as well. The tour also takes you up to look at Frigate Bay, across to the sister island of Nevis and to a beach for a swim in the amazing sea.
- The other option is to take the helicopter tour to the now devastated island of Montserrat. The volcano eruption a few years back saw lava flowing at 1OO miles an hour and the whole place was evacuated. You see the submerged airport and other amazing sights. This is always very popular so book early for this one!
- The narrow gauge railway (this covers the island and was used to ferry the cane from the fields to the main sugar refinery near the port) is a popular tour the cruise lines sell hard. Most people say it is not worth the time or money.
Antigua boasts that it has a different beach you can visit every day, so it should also be a beach day. All beaches in the Caribbean are public and so you (in theory) can go to anyone you want. The best in my view is Dickinson Beach. This is about a 15 minute cab ride (about 6 to 8 dollars) and the beach is long, in a large bay with sand that looks and feels like powder. It is quite remarkable and the sea is brilliant. Not as clear as the more southern islands but stunning. There are many small bars that also sell food and places to hire boats, kayaks and other water sports.