Which islands to visit? What kind of ship to choose? Douglas Ward, author of the Insight Guide to Caribbean Cruises (£17.99; www.insightguides.com), rounds up who goes where and what’s on offer to help you decide what suits you best
So meteoric has been the growth of cruising that ships are now as varied as hotels and resorts on land, catering for travelers of every age, taste, and budget. Some ships are like floating country houses, with substantial libraries, wood-paneled bars, elegant lounges and intimate restaurants; others are big, glitzy ocean-going resorts, with state-of-the-art spas, sparkly nightclubs, themed restaurants and spectacular show lounges.
You can learn the ropes and sleep beneath the stars on a sailing ship, or pretend you are a millionaire for a week or two on an intimate luxury yacht. And the good news is that ships of all types spend all or part of the year exploring the Caribbean, which is the true heartland of the cruise business – as you will soon realize if you stroll along the Miami harbor-front and see the skyscraper-high ships lined up at the piers.
Why choose the Caribbean?
The Caribbean islands are synonymous with sun and fun; even the occasional shower seems little more than a burst of liquid sunshine. With soft-as-talc beaches, hospitable people, a laid-back lifestyle and wonderful shopping, the calypso islands are the places to chill out, soak up the sun, swim, snorkel and forget the pressures of everyday life.
But they offer far more than that: you’ll also find lavish plantations, gorgeous scenery, a rich history, varied local cuisine and plenty of things to do – from undersea exploration in a submarine to enjoying a world-class round of golf, discovering the secrets of a rainforest, learning how rum is made or going on a deep-sea fishing expedition.
Some people prefer to stay longer on one particular island and get under its skin, but many travelers find this restricting, and that is where cruising comes into its own.
A typical seven-night cruise from Miami or Fort Lauderdale will visit four islands – and seven day itineraries can be combined with island stays or with a different cruise to create a 14-night ‘back to back’ cruise offering a real insight into the region, and a chance to sample the unique personalities of many different islands. This makes for a good introduction if you’re planning a holiday on land at a later date but are unsure which island you would prefer.
Many big-ship lines also own or lease private islands or sections of beach where visitors can play Robinson Crusoe, enjoy a barbecue and take part in a variety of water sports.
Floating resort or private yacht?
In the 1980s the cruise lines designed a generation of big ships as ‘floating resorts’, with a range of facilities from vast casinos to multiple restaurants and health spas, akin to those of the all-inclusive resorts ashore. While this concept has continued to grow, to the extent that Caribbean regulars, ironically, may not even go ashore during their week’s cruise, so distracted are they by the ship, it isn’t the only style of cruising available in this region. There are small, luxurious ships that call at the harbours favoured by the yachting set – Virgin Gorda, St-Barths and St-Martin’s Marigot Bay; while mid-sized ships, on which the emphasis is on the destinations as much as what’s on board, may roam the southern Caribbean, skimming the coast of South America or venturing down to the Amazon.
Some ships operate under sail. Some are aimed at older passengers wanting a quiet life on board, while others target the party set.
Life on board a big ship
The leviathans are more like miniature cities than traditional cruise ships. With – literally – acres of space on board, they offer around-the-clock action and plenty of nightlife. Pulsating discos vie for attention with intimate piano bars. You can prepare for dinner with a visit to a champagne bar, and round it off with coffee at a cappuccino cafe and a spectacular show. You can opt for a casual meal in a pizza parlor or enjoy an evening pint at an English-style pub.
During the day you can swim, jog, visit the golf driving range, work out in the gym with a personal trainer, or have a game of deck tennis or basketball on a full-scale court. If you prefer, indulge yourself at a health spa with a massage or wallow in a thalassotherapy bath. Enthusiastic shoppers will be pleased to know that the outlets on board sell everything from sunblock to designer gowns.
Best of all – if you’re traveling with children – these ships offer extensive facilities for kids, with all-day supervision and activities geared to different age groups, so you can let your hair down secure in the knowledge that your children are happy and safely occupied. The big ships have a wide range of accommodation, from small, inside (windowless) single cabins to spacious suites with jacuzzis and roomy balconies. Cabins, whatever their size, are furnished to a high standard and each will have an ensuite bathroom (with a shower in the lower-grade accommodation, and shower plus bathtub in higher grades) and a color TV.
Meals, by and large, are of three- to four-star restaurant standard rather than haute cuisine but the food is varied, and, as a rule, it is nicely presented and plentiful. Those so inclined can eat and drink all day, starting with early-bird coffee at 6 am and ending with a midnight snack at a 24-hour cafe. Many modern ships have made room for specialty restaurants where – usually for a surcharge of between US$10 and US$35 – passengers can celebrate a special occasion, indulge their gourmet tastes, sample recipes prepared by a celebrity chef or simply take a break from the main dining rooms and try something different.
For more on choosing a Caribbean cruise, invest in Insight Guides Caribbean Cruises (£17.99; www.insightguides.com). This article is taken from Insight Guides Caribbean Cruises and is used with permission. Copyright (c) Apa Publications (UK) Ltd.