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If you think all Caribbean islands are the same, you are mistaken. Some are lush and green, rustic and raw; others are more suburban with large shopping malls, hotel and restaurant chains.
What the islands all have in common is the balmy climate and beautiful clear water that comes in varying shades of green and blue. For the past 18 months, my family has been sailing around the Caribbean and has had the time to discover the essence of the islands. If your tour of the Caribbean only allows one day in each port, here’s how to enjoy four of them — Antigua, St. Martin, St. Lucia and San Juan.
Antigua: It’s All About the Beaches
Who Sails to Antigua? Azamara, Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Norwegian, Oceania Cruises, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea, Star Clippers Viking Cruises and Windstar Cruises
Where Your Ship Docks: There are three spots on the island where your cruise ship may dock: Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay (both in the capital city of St. John’s) and the more remote St. John’s Harbour (Deep Water Harbour).
Beaches to Visit: Antigua is all about the beautiful turquoise water that laps against the rocky outcrops and the powdery white sand that lines the shore. There are so many beaches, it feels as if you could visit a new one each day for a year.
How do you choose which beach to visit? You can visit two or three beaches in one full day, so it’s easy to work beach time into a brief port stay. One of my favorite beaches is Jolly Beach, which looks like a picture postcard. The one-mile stretch of sand is lined with souvenir shacks and colorful sarongs billowing in the gentle breeze. The glassy turquoise waters gently kiss the shore, and there are numerous bars and cafés. Jolly Beach is distinctly Caribbean and will give you a real feel for Antigua. It’s a 20- to 25-minute taxi ride from Heritage and Redcliffe Quays and St. John’s Deep Water Harbor.
Next on the list is Darkwood Beach, a 30-minute taxi ride from the ports. Located only five minutes south of Jolly Harbour, Darkwood Beach is home to Swash Water Park, the perfect place to entertain the kids for a couple of hours while the adults lounge on sun beds under brightly-colored beach umbrellas. Darkwood Beach also offers excellent snorkeling on a small reef close to shore, perfect for beginners. Snorkeling gear is available to rent on the beach for $10 USD. Sip coconut water from fresh coconuts and browse through stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs.
Darkwood Beach Bar is on the beach and sells meals and drinks at reasonable prices. Your order can be delivered to your beach chair. Sun beds and umbrellas are can be rented for $20 for two chairs and that includes drink service. Entry to the waterpark is $30 for adults; $15 for kids 12 and under. Life jackets are provided. The park is open daily from 10am to 6pm.
Finally, head to the east of the island for a view of the wild and windswept beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. Before you settle upon another beach, pay a visit to Devil’s Bridge (40 minutes by taxi from the ports). These rugged limestone cliffs have been worn away by crashing waves for millions of years, forming a bridge within the rocks. The kids will love exploring the craggy rock pools and will get a thrill out of the tiny blow holes created by cracks in the rocks. If the seas are calm, you may even be able to walk across the “bridge” — just be careful!
Note: Many cruise travelers visit Dickenson Bay because it’s just a 15-minute drive north of the cruise docks.
St. Martin/St. Maarten: It’s All About the Water
Who Sails to St. Martin/St. Maarten? Carnival, Costa Cruises, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Norwegian, Oceania Cruises, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Viking Cruises and Windstar Cruises
Where Your Ship Docks: Most mainstream cruise ships dock at the Sint Maarten Cruise Terminal in Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island. Smaller ships and luxury vessels often anchor in Marigot Bay on the French side of the island and tender passengers ashore.
Island Watersports: The island of St. Martin with its partial French heritage and the Dutch side St. Maarten is surrounded by some of the most beautiful water we have seen in the Caribbean. There is no better way to experience it than to take a tour by boat to several points around the island. Travel in style aboard a luxury catamaran or zip from location to location aboard a sleek powerboat.
Snorkel at some of St. Maarten’s most spectacular sites such as Pinel Island and Creole Rock or laze upon Long Beach to watch the gentle ocean swells. You can witness sea turtles in their natural environment and explore vibrant coral reefs. You can also visit a nature reserve only accessible by boat and pass million-dollar “super yachts” owned by the rich and famous.
Stop for lunch at Grand Case, the island’s gourmet capital on the French side and indulge in some of the finest restaurants on the island — or the Caribbean, for that matter. La Villa Restaurant will not disappoint, and is happy to cater to children and those with dietary restrictions. Finally, visit the famous Maho Beach on the Dutch side of the island, and anchor directly under the airport flight path as jets come in for landing right above your head. Boat tours around the island start from about $100 for adults; $75 for children.
Here are more must-see attractions for families in St. Martin.
St Lucia: It’s All About the Lush Interior
Who Sails to St. Lucia? Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Norwegian, Oceania, P&O Cruises, Ponant, Princess Cruises, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Star Clippers, Viking Ocean and Windstar Cruises
Where Your Ship Docks: Ships anchor at two spots in Castries: Pointe Seraphine and La Place Carenage. Either way, your cruise ship will tender you ashore.
The Wild Interior: Well known for its geographical and cultural riches, St. Lucia is a lush and fertile tropical island. With the Atlantic Ocean kissing the east coast and the calm Caribbean Sea caressing the west, visitors to the island will be spoiled by a visit to this Caribbean island, even if it is for just one day. A trip to St. Lucia would not be complete without a visit to the iconic Pitons, a pair of towering mountains rising from the sea and reaching 2,000 feet into the sky. The Pitons are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rise above the sleepy village of Soufriere. As you journey across the island, you will pass islanders working in banana plantations and orchards of papaya, coconut and mango.
Be sure to also pay a visit to Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens in the town of Soufriere. The gardens include a mineral spa where you can relax in the medicinal baths that were originally built for the French troops of King Louis XVI in 1784. There are change rooms conveniently located at the baths but don’t change out of your swimwear until you visit Diamond Falls nearby. This 17-meter waterfall is known as the most colorful in the Caribbean thanks to the mineral-rich water that flows over it. The gardens are open from 10am to 5pm Monday through Saturday; 10am to 3pm on Sunday. Entry is $7 for adults; children under 12 are half-price. The baths are an additional cost of $7/$3.50.
San Juan – It’s All About History and Culture
Who Sails to San Juan? Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Norwegian, Regent, Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea, Viking Ocean and Windstar Cruises
Where Your Ship Docks: San Juan is a major embarkation/debarkation cruise port with two locations: the main cruise terminal is across the street from the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel (Category 4, 25k Marriott points per night) and the Pan American Pier, closer to the airport.
Learn Some History: San Juan, known as the gateway to the Caribbean, is the largest and busiest port in the Caribbean. The main port is conveniently situated close to the famous Old San Juan. Known as a center for arts and culture, Old San Juan is a vibrant and unique city, full of galleries and monuments, rich Spanish colonial architecture and brightly-colored restored buildings. Steeped in history, the seven-block district has a romantic European air, and a photo opportunity can be found at every turn. Complete with forts and cathedrals, wander the cobblestone streets by foot or use the free trolleys. (Here are some more tips for visiting San Juan with a family.)
Take your children to fly a kite at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the most recognized landmark in Puerto Rico. The constant trade winds provide perfect conditions for family fun. Although kites are not available for rent, many local vendors sell them in nearby stalls. Once you’ve finished flying kites, explore the ancient fortress overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and get lost among the intricate tunnels and passageways. Afterward, cool off with a piragua, a frozen treat of shaved ice covered in fruit-flavored syrup.
Entry into the fortress of Castillo San Felipe del Morrow is $7 for adults; kids 15 and under are free. The admission price also includes entry into Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World. Both attractions are open daily from 9am to 5pm, and you should allow 90 minutes to two hours to explore the site.
After you experience the city, escape to the foothills of the El Yunque National Forest if you have time. (This is probably best for cruisers with a pre- or post-cruise stay on the island.) Kids and adults will love riding Paso horses through the countryside, crossing the Mameyes River, descending into valleys and traversing mountains. Tours cater to all levels of riders, and children must be 3 or older to participate. Safety gear is provided, and groups are usually semi-private, with only 10 to 12 riders on each trail ride. Most tours go for two to three hours and cost approximately, $75 for adults; $50 for children 11 and under.
Spending just one day on each island during your cruise doesn’t have to limit your experience. Although each Caribbean island has similar elements, if you chose a cruise ship that stops at any of the above four ports, you can experience the natural beauty and history of the Caribbean — even in a one-day port of call. There are many activities, from the arts to snorkeling, hiking to sailing. Once you arrive, get off the beaten path, speak to island residents and get a real sense for the culture of each island. If you want to make a trip of it, here are the best points hotels in the Caribbean.
Here’s more cruise inspiration:
- Cruise Line Showdown: Comparing Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean for Families
- Which Cruise Brand Is Best for You? A Guide to 16 of the Most Popular Lines
- Dreaming on the Seas: A Review of Disney Cruise Line’s Dream
- Interesting Way to Save Money on a Disney Cruise
- Best Cruise Line Private Islands for Families
- An Overview of Cruise Line Loyalty Programs
Featured image by Erin Carey
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