Travel insights from Jenna Buege, associate editor of The Compass
With an average of 11 million cruise passengers visiting each year, the Caribbean is one of the world’s most popular places to embark on a maritime adventure. And as such, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to choosing which cruise liner to explore the region’s bevy of islands, islets, reefs and cays aboard.
But what of the lesser-traveled parts of the West Indies? Can a cruise provide the same access to the hidden gems of everyone’s favorite island getaway? With one-of-a-kind itineraries, unforgettable shore excursions and unparalleled experiences in paradise, all signs point to, “yes.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But with cruising, it’s a little bit of both. Travelers relish all of the fun and entertainment that is unique to the cruise experience but that doesn’t take away from the magic of exploring every port of call.
Nassau, Amber Cove, San Juan…you’re probably familiar with the Caribbean’s most-common spots to drop anchor. However, with their popularity comes big crowds and tourist traps filled with neon T-shirts, endless trinkets and a slew of taxi drivers ready to whisk you away. Instead, steer clear of the run-of-the-mill experience with a visit to an under-the-radar port.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten
For a taste of Europe minus the trip across the pond, check out Philipsburg, St. Maarten. The capital of Sint Maarten, Philipsburg makes up the Dutch side of the island and as such is home to fine cuisine, noteworthy architecture and fabulous shopping. To explore this charming spot, dock at the newly renovated AC Wathey Pier & Port Facility, conveniently located only 20 minutes by foot from the heart of downtown. Royal Caribbean International’s 8-Night Eastern Caribbean Cruise itinerary includes a full day in this charming Caribbean port.
If you’re a big beachgoer, you won’t want to miss a visit to Oranjestad, Aruba, home to Eagle Beach which is said by some to be the best beach in the Caribbean. What’s more, Eagle Beach is far less busy than the ever-popular Palm Beach due to its healthy distance from the area’s busy stretch of resorts. Sharing the same name, drop anchor at the Oranjestad cruise port for easy access to sun and sand. Many of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Caribbean itineraries include Oranjestad. The 14-day Curacao, Aruba and Dominican Republic cruise stops at 10 Caribbean ports and is aboard the updated and luxurious Norwegian Dawn.
Fans of Broadway’s popular musical Hamilton may already be familiar with St. Kitts, the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton himself. However, this sunny island escape is also a great spot for beachgoing and hiking with a series of dormant volcanoes and a lush jungle landscape. For a taste of the action, make your way to Port Zante, also referred to as Basseterre’s cruise port, located on the island’s southwestern coast. Princess Cruises’ 11-Day Southern Caribbean with Barbados itinerary stops at seven ports total, one of which is St. Kitts. Shore excursions on the island range from a rainforest walk to coastal cruise and snorkel to a scenic drive.
Amber Cove, Puerto Plata
For a cruise terminal that acts as a destination in itself, don’t miss Puerto Plata’s Amber Cove. Located on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, this port doubles as a waterpark and is just a jaunt from popular Coconut Cove and Sosua Beach. Amber Cove also serves as a gateway to tons of fun adventures including quick access to the Dominica outback, the waterfalls of Damajagua, a nearby chocolate experience in the town of Altamira and more. Amber Cove is part of Holland America Line’s 10-Day Southern Caribbean Seafarer itinerary, giving cruisers a full day to enjoy this unique port.
Islands of (Exclusive) Fun
A few cruise liners such as MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean have taken the idea of an exclusive port to the next level with service to and from their own private islands in the Caribbean. MSC Cruises’ island, Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, is located in the Bahamas and features multiple white sand beaches, plenty of on-site activities and access to exclusive food trucks and beach bars. However, perhaps most notable is Ocean Cay’s commitment to the environment, as every aspect of the island was designed with sustainability in mind.
Similarly, in Haiti, you’ll find Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s secluded island haven with no shortage of tranquil and adrenaline-inducing activities alike. Thrill-seeking travelers can catch a high on an alpine coaster, conquer the world’s longest zip line over water or ascend the Caribbean’s only iceberg at Arawak Aqua Park. Alternatively, spend the day relaxing on Nellie’s Beach in a private bungalow, Labadoozie (the island’s signature cocktail) in hand.
Jungle landscapes, beach bars, jerk chicken… some things are distinctly Caribbean. Similarly, there are some activities that are best enjoyed in the West Indies.
The Caribbean is an ideal destination for animal adventures. Visitors can take a dip with stingrays at the Cayman Islands’ Stingray City, hang with flamingos at Aruba’s Renaissance Island or walk amongst feathered friends at Curacao’s Ostrich Farm. However, one of the area’s most noteworthy creature features is Exuma’s famous swimming pigs. Nonindigenous to the island, where the pigs came from is anyone’s guess. Some theorize that they were left behind by a group of sailors while others claim that they made their way onshore after surviving a nearby shipwreck. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: these pink pals love to get their hooves wet. Today, Big Major Cay is home to around 20 pigs and piglets who enjoy daily visits and selfies with locals and tourists alike.
Always good for a thrill, the West Indies are famous for their stunning scenery and outdoor offerings. Intrepid travelers won’t want to miss a shore excursion to Hibiscus Eco-Village, the last and only Kalingao Territory in the world, where you can explore the island of Dominica on an exhilarating river tubing tour. Featuring fast rapids and lazier portions, too, guests will enjoy a dreamy backdrop as they float past exotic wildlife and lush vegetation. Nearby, globetrotters can also find Boiling Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site located inside Dominica’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Famous for its unique geological features, the park features a 4,402-foot tall volcano, dramatic slopes and valleys, 50 fumaroles, three freshwater lakes, a series of hot springs and more. Boiling Lake is particularly noteworthy due to its bubbling greyish-blue waters and steamy landscape.
A few islands over, voyagers can explore Harrison’s Cave, one of the Seven Wonders of Barbados. Nearly 50 feet tall and spanning 1.4 miles in length, Harrison’s Cave is an impressive active stream cave system where visitors can marvel at crystallized limestone, flowing streams, waterfalls, deep pools of crystal-clear water and massive speleothems. For another excursion beneath the surface, visit St Maarten’s Sea Trek Helmet Diving, a unique tourist attraction where travelers can explore the wonders of the ocean floor. Sound a little freaky? Don’t fret, you don’t need to be a professional diver to enjoy this escapade thanks to a handy pressurized helmet that keeps water around shoulder height while you explore the underwater marine park.
History and Local Flair
The escapades of Captain Jack Sparrow weren’t completely rooted in fiction; the Caribbean was indeed home to pirates aplenty throughout history. In fact, during the Golden Age of Piracy, famous 17th-century buccaneers like Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Henry Morgan called the islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga home. Today, traces of marauders-past can still be seen at historical sites such as Jamaica’s Port Royal, Dominica’s Portsmouth and Panama’s port town of Portobelo.
For the party of a lifetime, visit the Caribbean in February or March to partake in Carnival, a rambunctious occasion abundant with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and heaps of delicious food. A tradition from the region’s colonial past, Carnival in the Caribbean has a complicated history. However, the modern observance of the holiday acts as a celebration of the region’s diverse peoples and cultures. From the Dominican Republic and Haiti to the Cayman Islands and Martinique, you will find raging Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras celebrations scattered across the islands. However, the most notable gathering is in Trinidad where partygoers parade in the street for two full days, decked out in feathered outfits as they dance to wild beats.
Speaking of delicious food, no trip to the West Indies would be complete without sampling the region’s iconic island cuisine. Seafood dishes in the Caribbean are unbeatable when it comes to freshness and flavor. Try coucou and flying fish in Barbados, crab and callaloo in Trinidad and Tobago and conch fritters in the Bahamas. If fish isn’t your preferred protein, opt for Jamaica’s world-famous jerk chicken instead which offers the perfect balance of sweet and spicy for a unique and unforgettable meal.
Originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The Compass magazine.