Best Caribbean cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore
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Ah, the Caribbean — land of endless sun, sand and sea. But the region is so much more than this intoxicating siren song. With 700 islands, islets and cays and a heady variety of cultures, it offers as many experiences and activities as flowers in a tropical garden.
A Caribbean cruise is a great way to dip your toes into these bathtub-warm waters, especially for first-time cruisers interested in short three- or four-night cruises. Standard itineraries typically range from five to 15 nights, depending on the destinations. A cruise is also the best way to island hop and sample multiple destinations on one trip (bucket list, anyone?).
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But with so many choices, it’s best to be prepared so you make the most of your time aboard and ashore. Here are some insider tips to guide you.
Prepare yourself for the tropical climate
Despite a tropical climate all year round, the Caribbean does have slight seasonal changes. The best time to cruise to the Caribbean is during the drier, cooler months of November to May, when the temperatures are in the comfortable 70s and low 80s.
From May through October, highs can reach the 90s, though those famous trade winds blow all year round. Scattered downpours — known locally as “liquid sunshine” — are common during the wetter months of July to November, but they pass quickly.
When the heat is intense, make sure to stay well hydrated. If you’re particularly sensitive to heat, choose Caribbean cruise excursions that avoid it such as an air-conditioned bus tour, an indoor shopping foray or experiences in the water.
Beware of hurricane season
Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June through November, with the majority of storms occurring in August and September. If you’re concerned about cancellations, skipped ports or rough weather, avoid the peak hurricane months. On the flip side, you can often score some discounted pricing, which is common at this time of year.
While hurricane prediction is not an exact science, modern storm tracking usually allows ships to re-route to avoid bad weather. You may still run into rougher-than-usual waters, but it’s rare for a cruise to be canceled entirely.
In the process of dodging a storm, however, your cruise may skip some port calls. You’ll need to be flexible about unexpected itinerary changes. When that happens, cruise lines sometimes compensate passengers with complimentary or discounted services on board.
If you do book a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season, consider buying travel insurance in case a storm disrupts your trip. If you book any shore excursions with a third party, make sure the company offers a refund if your ship misses the port.
Finally, if you want to avoid hurricanes altogether, look at cruises that sail to the southernmost islands outside the “hurricane belt.” They include Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago.
Make sure you bring reef-safe sunscreen
The Caribbean sun is intense. The closer you get to the equator, the greater your UV radiation exposure will be, even in December and January. During the summer months of June and July, your skin can burn in as little as 10 minutes. Be sure to pack plenty of reef-safe sunscreen and reapply it liberally, especially after swimming.
Studies have shown that ingredients found in some sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, can harm coral reefs, especially in popular tourism areas such as the Caribbean. To help protect the delicate reefs while you’re in the water, avoid products with those chemicals. Instead, use sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are considered safe around coral reefs.
Choose the right Caribbean region for your cruise
The Caribbean is divided into three main cruise regions: Eastern, Western and Southern. While all three have some similar features, each group of islands has its own characteristics.
The Western Caribbean consists of Grand Cayman and Jamaica, as well as ports in Mexico (Cozumel, Costa Maya) and Central America (Belize City, Roatan). This Caribbean cruise region is ideal for those who want to visit fewer ports and are especially interested in Mayan culture and diving.
The Eastern Caribbean encompasses the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix), the British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda), St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Guadeloupe. It’s great for shopping enthusiasts and beach connoisseurs.
The Southern Caribbean includes Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad. Less visited than the more-accessible northerly regions, the Southern Caribbean is for those who can take longer cruises and want to experience new ports of call.
Pick a ship with lots of pools and alfresco restaurants
Enjoying the tropical climate, especially during the harsh North American winter, is what a Caribbean cruise is all about. To increase your opportunities of doing that on board, choose a cruise ship with multiple pools and alfresco eateries to maximize your time outdoors. More options may help you find an empty poolside lounge and avoid waiting for an outdoor meal.
Book a balcony cabin for private time under the sun
Sometimes you just want to enjoy the tropical sun in private. In that case, there’s nothing like sitting on your own balcony, away from the ship’s poolside crowds and packed outdoor lounge areas. It’s also magical for watching the sun slip into the horizon with nobody else around.
Find an intimate beach
Pocket beaches and intimate coves are among the prized secrets of the Caribbean. While most passengers beeline for the popular show-off strands, seek out a less-visited stretch of sand for a more intimate experience. Ask a local for a recommendation and take a taxi or ride-hailing service there. Who knows — you may even have a gorgeous little spot all to yourself.
Get out in nature
Yes, you’ll want to bask on a beautiful beach, fringed with swaying palms and Windex-blue waters. But don’t forgo the Caribbean’s other natural attractions: jungle-swathed volcanoes and lush rainforests, gushing waterfalls and mangrove reserves, bioluminescent bays and rugged deserts with sand dunes.
You can hike along a wooded trail deep in the rainforest. Visit a botanical garden or nature preserve, teeming with exotic plants and flowers. Climb a volcanic mountain. Watch whales or birds. Bathe in a gushing cascade. Kayak in a lagoon. Explore a cave laced with stalactites and stalagmites. Go ATV off-roading or ziplining high above the forest canopy. Or take the ocean plunge with watersports from snorkeling and diving to sailing and jet skiing.
Delve into island culture and heritage
When you’re ready to skip the beach and the Crayola-colored landscape, consider some cultural enrichment. The islands boast fascinating plantation great houses, forts, museums and historic neighborhoods, which include 16 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites spread across nine islands. Many are the legacy of the colonial powers that once ruled these parts.
For insights into the area’s colonial past, visit centuries-old plantation houses on Barbados and Jamaica or the massive stone fortresses at La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Brimstone Hill on St. Kitts. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan or colonial Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, the oldest city in the New World. Admire the 17th-century Dutch architecture of Willemstad, Curacao. You can even check out the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton in a Georgian house on tiny Nevis.
Meanwhile, excellent museums in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad display contemporary art by local artists.
Eat and drink local
There’s no greater entree into the culture than food. Caribbean cuisine is a tantalizing, multifaceted stew of the many peoples and traditions that have shaped the region: indigenous, West African, Spanish, French, British, Dutch and East Indian.
The result is a mouthwatering gastronomy bursting with flavor as intense as the tropical sun. Tempt your taste buds with mouth-searing hot sauces, aromatic marinades and fiery spice rubs. Or sample a cornucopia of exotic tropical ingredients — ackee, breadfruit, carambola, Caribbean yams, cassava, guava, pigeon peas and plantain — in restaurants, food shacks and colorful markets on every island.
During port visits, be sure to taste the local dishes, such as ubiquitous dried and salted cod in everything from Jamaican ackee and saltfish to Barbadian codfish cakes to cod fritters, called accras de morue in the French West Indies and bacalaitos in Puerto Rico. Try jerk chicken in Jamaica, conch fritters in the Bahamas and rice and peas flavored with unsweetened coconut milk most anywhere.
Sample Creole specialties in the French islands, such as boudin noir (blood sausage) and crabes farcis (stuffed crabs). Tuck into chicken or goat curry, India’s popular contribution to menus regionwide, and feast on Caribbean spiny lobster, freshly grilled seaside.
Wash down your meals with the Caribbean’s quintessential drink: rum. Or better still, go rum tasting in distilleries with their own signature brands in the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico and St. Maarten.
Go during a festival
West Indians know how to party, and they let loose at festivals throughout the year that showcase their vibrant traditions and culture. Almost every island hosts an annual event to celebrate its heritage with music, dance, food or sailing, often in the form of an exuberant pre-Lent carnival. Consider yourself lucky if you can plan your visit to coincide with one of these lively events.
Here are some of the most important fetes:
- Trinidad and Tobago Carnival: The oldest, biggest and boldest carnival in the Caribbean with elaborate floats and costumes. Two days before Ash Wednesday.
- Cayman Pirate Week, Cayman Islands: A family-friendly event with parades, fireworks, street dances and costume contests. In November.
- Antigua Sailing Week: One of the world’s most prestigious yacht racing events. In April.
- Bahamas’ Junkanoo, Nassau: A carnival-type celebration with parades and costumed revelers. Between Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and New Year’s Eve. In addition to the main event after Christmas, the festival is also celebrated on Independence Day (July 10), every Saturday in August and with other small holidays throughout the year.
- Crop Over Festival, Barbados: A celebration of the end of the sugarcane harvest with parties, parades, live music, street vendors and food trucks. July to August.
- St. Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival: A showcase for jazz, R&B and calypso music, plus dance, theater and art by local and international artists, along with daytime Carnival-style street parties. In May.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
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Featured image by David Sacks/Getty Images.
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