Cruise destination focus: the Caribbean

Caribbean

With its calm seas, clear skies and beautiful beaches – not to mention culture and cuisine – it’s paradise


In 2016, 8.6milllion people took a cruise to the Caribbean – 35 per cent of the total market, making it the most popular cruise destination in the world. The Mediterranean may reign supreme when it comes to Brits, but the Caribbean is the bread-and-butter of the cruise industry worldwide. This is where the theme-park-at-sea megaships, homeported in Florida, head to provide holidays where sun, relaxation and family fun rule.

Think of paradise and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean can’t be far off what you imagine.

The best time to visit is between mid-December and April when the weather is at its best. That is: hot, sunny and relatively dry, although the sea breeze stops the mercury from rising too high. The hottest weather is found in the south, such as in Trinidad and Tobago (an average temperature of 31C in January), while it’s much cooler in the very north, such as in Havana (21C).

Of course, prices are higher during this peak season, but you can cruise outside of it. After April, the weather gets hotter, more humid and wetter, but the islands are much quieter. Hurricane season officially runs between June 1 and November 30, but the high-risk period is usually mid-August to early-October.

There are more than 700 islands, islets, reefs and cays in the region, and how you experience it depends very much on the operator. Not only do the likes of Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Line sail there, but so too do smaller ship operators, such as Viking Cruises (which sails out of Miami and Puerto Rico), Star Clippers and Seabourn. These smaller ships also tend to offer the more interesting itineraries, calling as lesser known ports – not that the headline acts, such as Cozumel and Grand Cayman, are anything to be sniffed at.

Cruise itineraries are generally divided by eastern, southern, and western options. To the east, cruises call at the likes of the Virgin Islands (St Thomas, St John and St Croix), the British Virgin Islands (Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Tortola), Puerto Rico and Grand Turk. St Barts, Antigua, Anguilla and Dominica are often called at by the smaller ships.

To the west, ships visit Cozumel and make stops in Honduras, Belize, Grand Cayman and Jamaica. In the southern Caribbean, you’ll find Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St Lucia, Barbados, Grenada and the Grenadines.

In the Bahamas (although not technically part of the Caribbean, but often a stop on the way), you’ll find many of the biggest cruise lines’ private islands: Castaway Cay (Disney Cruise Line), Half Moon Cay (Holland America Line), Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian Cruise Line), Princess Cays (Princess Cruises), CocoCay (Royal Caribbean). On Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, you’ll find Labadee (also Royal Caribbean).

The opening up of Cuba to cruise ships from America has also changed the dynamic of these itineraries, many of which will now call at Havana, and other Cuba ports, before heading south to Belize City and Cozumel.

The Caribbean is often sold as a destination to be enjoyed from the sun-lounger, but there is unique and diverse culture at every turn. “The Caribbean’s rich history is reflected in the architecture – plantations, great houses, forts perched on hillsides, volcanoes and dense rainforest,” says Carol Hay of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. “Anyone cruising across the Caribbean will have the opportunity to experience a plethora of cultures, exotic spicy foods; tropical juices; wildlife and marine life; authentic craft, performing arts, literary festivals; sailing regattas; deep-sea fishing; trekking on winding trails; or an afternoon of laughter infused cricket with the locals!”

The region is remarkably diverse, says Hay. “We have English, Dutch, Spanish and French speaking islands and countries,” she says. “This is fused with our African, Asian and European cultures, which impact heavily on our local dialect, cuisine, rum and of course pulsating carnivals and festivals across the region.”

The calmness of the waters allows for a range of activities. “Guests can also make use of the watersports we offer as the beaches are warm and gently shelving and the ship will moor off-shore,” says Fay McCormack, general manager Star Clippers UK.

“Star-gazing at night in unpolluted skies is another plus: guests can go up on the decks under the sails. In the morning, you can see the dramatic sunrise, then go dolphin watching from the bows of the ship.”

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