Following the recent hurricanes, bookings for cruises in the Caribbean have dipped. Sam Ballard boards P&O Cruises’ Azura in Barbados and finds a region that is positively booming, and one that is still incomparable to any other cruise destination on Earth
The Caribbean is open for business. Haven’t you heard? The world’s most popular cruise destination has held the top spot in passengers’ hearts ever since holidays by water have been popular, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon. The region – roughly split between the Eastern and Western Caribbean – is a collection of 7,000 paradise islands, most of which have fascinating colonial histories, as well as some of the most pristine (and deserted) beaches you are ever likely to see. It doesn’t hurt that many of the islands are a stone’s throw away from the United States, the world’s biggest cruise market, either.
However, following overblown reports about the nature of the hurricanes that affected the region last summer (Carnival Corporation said that only five islands out of 47 that they visit were affected) – there has been a dip in passenger numbers. We were invited to see the region for ourselves by P&O, on board Azura.
Our two-week cruise sees us start in Barbados and call at Antigua, St Kitts, the Dominican Republic, Guadalupe, St Lucia, Martinique, Grenada and St Vincent. It’s a tough ouvaob but someone has to do it.
Azura, which was launched in 2010, is capable of holding about 3,500 passengers and offers guests a host of home-from-home comforts while on board. Gala meals are designed by Marco Pierre White, there’s a wine bar (The Glass House) where the bottles are chosen by TV wine expert Olly Smith and a sports bar where Premier League football is shown around the clock – select games are also shown on SeaScreen, the ship’s big outdoor screen. Entertainment is distinctly British, too, with ballroom dancers offering lessons in the atrium, Opportunity Knocks veterans delighting audiences and the theatre company performing nostalgic musicals such as Dusty (Springfield), music of the sixties in My Generation and Walk Like a Man (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons).
Our Caribbean adventure begins in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. After touching down in our chartered flight, a fleet of buses pick us up right off the scorching tarmac. Our suitcases are sent directly to our cabin, meaning there’s no need for a nervous wait around the luggage carousel. Instead, we’re whisked away to begin our holiday.
Bridgetown itself is bursting with brightly coloured houses and crumbling colonial buildings. We walk into town and enjoy a local Banks beer to cool down by the marina. We’re just out of the Caribbean’s traditional hurricane season (which runs roughly from June to November) but there isn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s our first port of call and it’s easy to see why the Caribbean is so popular: everyone is smiling (why wouldn’t they be?), the sun is shining and the beer is cold. If this is what Caribbean cruising is all about then we’re well on board.
Things only get better from there. We lounge on a deserted beach in Antigua and watch locals taking their horses into the sea to cool down. In St Kitts we take an excursion and board the iconic St Kitts Scenic Railway around the island. The old line was built 100 years ago to transport sugar cane, but now takes tourists on a tour of the lush lands around Mount Liamuiga (which used to be called Mount Misery). We pass by school yards full of kids who wave frantically as the open-sided train slowly passes through villages and small towns – not to mention over some precarious bridges. It’s a great way to see the country – with a rum punch in hand.
Early on in the cruise we book places in the Retreat (deck 16, forward) – the ship’s VIP lounge area – to guarantee us a bit of luxury on the four sea days, as well as any other lazy moments we might have. Sitting just above the ship’s massive gym and spa, it’s a great spot and really shows off the versatility of P&O’s product.
The food on board is also a real treat. From the beautiful Oriental dining room – which is full of dark wood and brilliant service – to Atul Koccher’s Sindhu (£20pp) where we eat gourmet samosas and a rich beef tenderloin curry. Eric Lanlard’s afternoon tea (£15pp) is another indulgence – from the more traditional sandwiches and cakes to the wacky edible perfume.
In Guadeloupe and Martinique – which both remain part of France – we drink in jardin bars surrounded by locals and, in the latter, jump on a ferry to check out a beach on the other side of the cove. While on board a flying fish skids past.
We tour St Lucia with our own guide who takes us to the Caribbean’s only “drive-in volcano” where we bathe in mud and mineral water at the Sulphur Springs. We’re promised that we’ll feel 10 years younger after going in and, while to feel the full effect may take a few more tries, it’s true that we leave feeling suitably pampered. We pick up some spiced rum from a roadside shop that we’re also told has healing properties. It seems like the St Lucians do medicine in their own very unique way.
In Grenada, we learn about the country’s Marxist revolution in the late 1970s and US invasion in 1983. Fort George – which towers above the cruise terminal – still has bullet holes in its fortifications and a plaque dedicated to the prime minister and senior members of the cabinet who were executed.
From there we look around the House of Chocolate and learn about a sweeter side of Grenada’s history. The country is one of the few in the world that uses its own ingredients all the way from “bean to bar”. Our guide even brags that Grenada’s cocoa beans are so good that they’re used to sweeten the chocolate from other countries. We walk away with a bar of Jouvay ginger chocolate.
In the afternoon, we go out with EcoDive, a local dive school, to snorkel around the world’s first underwater sculpture park. The pieces – most of which were created by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor – are incredible. There are rings of children holding hands, a writer at his desk and even a statue of Christ. The sculptures have become artificial reefs and have now taken on a life of their own as they morph with the marine world. It’s like being in our very own episode of Blue Planet. Although we’re glad that we chose to swim in the safe cove and not go out to see sharks like the group before us…
As our time in the Caribbean draws to an end, it is hard to draw parallels to what it offers as a cruise destination. Nowhere else on Earth can realistically compete. We have sailed from paradise island to paradise island all of which offer dozens of pristine beaches (as well as beach bars), not to mention fascinating colonial history and natural wonders, from hikes through rainforests to mountain climbing.
And there’s a good deal of sun, too.
From what we’ve seen there has truly never been a better time to send your clients on that paradise holiday to the Caribbean.