If you are reading this, it means I am on yet another cruise!
Like more than 11 million people per year, I am visiting the Caribbean islands this time, and, although I wrote this in advance, I will bet I don’t have a coronavirus. While it’s a major concern in cruising Asia, I am not concerned about the outbreak infesting Caribbean cruises this month.
We’re only gone for a week, which is the most common length of Caribbean cruises. If you leave from Florida, like we did, a week gives you enough time to visit three or four ports (one actually may be in the Bahamas or the Florida Keys, not the Caribbean.) There are a lot of different ships to choose from when booking a Caribbean cruise, but most of them visit the same islands. Eastern Caribbean trips often call at St. Thomas, St. Maarten and perhaps San Juan, Puerto Rico. Western cruises commonly visit Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Mexico or ports in Central America.
The distance of the islands from each other and the cost, quality and availability of the harbor and docking facilities play an important part in where ships visit, so that’s why you see all of the different cruise lines visiting the same places.
In other words, book a Caribbean itinerary more because you like the ship and what it has to offer, and not because it visits Cozumel or St. Thomas.
My first purely Caribbean cruise was in 1991, and since then the ships and the crowds in the ports have grown enormously. If you decide to make the trip, you’ll notice that the megaships now often dock in very controlled places set up like a sort of an amusement park catering to North American expectations.
I am not saying this controlled environment is inherently bad; some vacationers want to avoid confronting the aggressive vendors, busy traffic and poverty they see in some port cities. Personally, I like getting away from the manufactured tourist experience to see what the local people eat for lunch, but if you like to spend the afternoon hitting all the duty-free jewelry stores, be my guest!
If you are making the trip to the Western Caribbean, like I am, here are some things to know about the ports:
Jamaica: Montego Bay is a city, and can be hot and crowded. Ocho Rios is quieter. There’s a mega-ship pier at Falmouth, which we are visiting for the first time, that offers one of those theme-park experiences. No matter where you dock, you will see the island is lush and beautiful.
Grand Cayman: There’s no pier, so you’ll be tendered ashore using a smaller boat. Because of the transfer, and the lack of a harbor, windy days can close this port. The small capital, Georgetown, can be overwhelmed on busy days. If you want to wade on a sandbar with dozens of stingrays and thousands of cruise passengers, you can visit the famous Stingray City. I liked it.
Cozumel: The beaches are spectacular but the island itself is covered with scrub. You are likely to dock at a huge shopping center where many passengers are perfectly content to stay. If you go to town, be sure to get something to eat, as there are several great restaurants.
Belize: A long tender ride is required to get ashore. If it’s rough, take your seasickness medicine. There’s not much to see in Belize City, so consider booking a tour through the ship or a private vendor. Cave tubing is fun if you are a good walker.
Mahahual: This town is a taxi ride away from the theme parklike cruise port of Costa Maya, which has a big swimming pool for cruisers and a lot of shopping. Touring Mayan ruins is easy from this port.
Roatan: Your experience may vary! Carnival Corp. brands dock at the sanitized, gated Mahogany Bay, which boasts a chairlift to a lovely beach full of free loungers and waiters selling umbrella drinks. Some other cruise lines dock near the center of the town, where you get a more authentic experience.