Cruising the caribbean: part two: Tips for Travellers

Barbados Travel Blog

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So based on my experiences, what are my tips for travellers considering a Caribbean Cruise?

 

(1)   CHECK OUT MY TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS “FIRST TIME CRUISER” PODCAST

I also have a podcast and blog entry for “first time cruisers” based on the 5 cruises that I have done to date and things that I learnt from others before I went – and of course from my experiences. I updated some of the content and tips as I went on my Caribbean Cruise with 2 first-timers and so that was helpful in updating the tips! You can find a link to the podcast and blog entry on this via my website tipsfortravellers.com. On the site click on the link to the Audio Podcast and you will see the podcast and link listed there.

 

(2)   CHOSE YOUR CRUSIE LINE CAREFULLY

With so many cruise brands, you need to choose who you visit the Caribbean with very carefully as it could really make or break your cruise experience.

While most of the USA based cruise lines operate extensive schedules to the Caribbean now not only out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale but multiple ports (including now even New York) there is a lot of choice. But also all of the European Cruise Lines also operate Caribbean schedules from September to March when they reposition their ships into the area during the European Winter as it is too cold to run a Mediterranean schedule.

 

Cruise lines tend to be quite nationalistic about where they promote and so attract the bulk of their passengers. This is one thing to consider as most seem to therefore have the very vast majority of passengers from their home countries on board. For example, the P&O ship I was on was a definitely about 99% UK passenger. Italian lines like MSC and Costa will be majority Italian, and of course carnival mostly Americans.

 

This also means that the entertainment, onboard games and quizzes, talks and the like will all be heavily slanted towards the home country of the ship. So make sure you are prepared for that. It also does though give you an opportunity to be a bit more adventurous. Most US cruisers using local agents or responding to local placed ads will tend to be considering only US cruise lines – forgetting that there are a load of other options that they may actually find a bit more varied or different.

 

It also is important to chose carefully based on how formal you like your cruise to be. While all lines, including even the most formal line Cunard, will have a more relaxed schedule of how many Formal, Informal and Casual nights on their Caribbean season those that have a strict dress code will enforce it. So if you are on Cunard or say one of the UK lines like P&O you will be expected to wear formal on those nights and not be allowed into the dining room without it. While other lines may be less strict, for example MSC that friends traveled on more or less the same time found maybe 30% of people wore formal on formal nights and the line did not mind. If you like things very relaxed then chose the more “fun ships” like Ocean Village or those with the more “Freestyle” approaches.

 

If you don’t like hoards of kids that come on Caribbean Cruises also chose carefully. Some of the European lines like P&O have “adult only” ships operating in the Caribbean.

 

(3)   USE THE CRUISE AS A TASTER FOR A LANDBASED VACATION

 

As I mentioned in my opening, one of the risks with the rather frantic port-to-port schedule is that the islands can start to blur a bit into each other. So while you get an overall Caribbean experience which is of glorious weather, islands, beaches and the like, it is harder to get the time to really appreciate and island other than get a taste fro what could be on offer.

 

So why not approach the cruise with exactly this in mind! I recommend is to use a cruise literally as a “sampler platter” where you go with a view to returning for a specific land based trip to one or maybe two of the islands for a week at each. So use the visits to choose an excursion that you think will give you the best sample of the kind of things or activities that you would like for a longer trip. So if you like beaches then do that, if you like walks then do those, if you like activity sports then do those, if you like history do those excursions and so on.

 

A cruise where you are visiting islands back-to-back will provide an excellent way to help chose the right and best island to visit at a later stage.

 

I know on this trip from the islands we visited I know I want to go to Barbados again, but Grenada and St Kitts are on the “must go back and spend more time” while I was pleased to see St Lucia and Antigua I don’t feel they are where I want to spend more time. The cruise really helped in that regard.

 

On that front, also watch carefully what your cruise line defines as a stop and an island. Some cruise lines include stops at what they call “private islands” which are basically small islands with a beach that they stop at, haul food onto and that is it.

 

(4) SELF EXPLORING VERSUS CRUISE LINE ARRANGED EXCURSIONS

 

The easiest thing to do is simply go through the excursion list provided by the cruise line and chose one for each port stop. Every cruise line has a wide range of tours on offer at each port and most are usually sold out.

 

They know what people like overall through doing these stops over and over again. Although I do sometimes wonder if the tours they list are sold out more through the inertia we all have as assuming we HAVE to chose one of the things on offer to do while in port.

 

Staying on board while in some ports is probably a much underused option as well. The ship is usually very empty and quiet when in port as almost all passengers will get off for some or all the day on an excursion and even a large amount of the crew will get off to go shopping and have a break from their confined living space on-board. It means the pools; spas and other activities are less crowded and busy.

 

You are unlikely to want to stay on board every port as you miss seeing new places, although friends of mine came back from a 16 night Caribbean and Atlantic Crossing with stops in Europe only getting off in one port. They were the exception as they would stay up all night partying and used days to sleep and recover! If you have a hectic "port every day" cruise do build in some days you don't have something booked as a take it easy and relax day.

 

Based on my experiences of cruising, I think there are at least 3 approaches you should consider

 

(1) Start by looking at the excursion booklet sent by the Cruise Line. This will give you a good overview of the sorts of activities that are popular and the range of things that can do done. You get a good feel for if there is a rich history to be explored, if it is an activities area and so on. You also get an idea of the sort of prices tours in that port will cost and the time and distances involved. For the islands these are not that large as most islands are pretty small. Decide the kind of things that appeal.

 

(2) Remember there is no rule requiring you to only go on cruise line tours. You should consider options. There is an excellent site called shoretrips.com that was set up by 2 travel agents who spent literally years identifying and validating tours on most of the islands. The tours on their site can be booked and paid for and they meet you at the ship. They argue that you will tend to find their tours will have smaller numbers of people on them (or you can even book some exclusively), will cost less (as the cruise lines take larger margins on tours) and also will have local people with huge local knowledge. People on cruise boards who have used the site have been very complementary. They also offer more tours taking you for longer and more relaxing tours like to beauty spots, beaches and the like.

 

(3) Then, which is what I mostly end up doing, is do it myself. This is a very easy and under appreciated option. The islands are small, used to dealing with tourists who are in and out in a day and the places to go are well known and well documented. All cruise lines provide free shuttle buses into the town center if the dock is not in the center, but for most of the Caribbean they are.

 

All the islands take US dollars everywhere and so no confusion about prices and there are always water or road taxis on hand and at the tourist spots. There are also always visitor stands or shops at the dock to get maps or other options. This way you are in control and importantly can spend as little or as long as you want at your chosen spot.

 

I also like this option as you are then talking to local people and getting more of a feel for the place.

 

On this cruise it had taken me minutes, literally to double check online the places we wanted to go through the reviews on tripadvisor.com and searching photos on flickr.com

 

(5) ISLAND SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS

 

Here are the recommendations based on the islands I visited and what I did that was good or bad and the views of others I spoke to:

 

Barbados

I have a whole podcast and blog posting about Barbados with tips and advice. The show notes on my site tipsfortravellers.com will include a link to that podcast and tips.

 

There are great beaches, and St Lawrence gap is probably the easiest area to go to as has lots of beach area but also a road full of bars, shops and places to eat.

 

The nicer and more up-market resorts are on the west of the island and there are some nice public beaches near Holetown - but you can go to any beach as anyone can use any beach.

 

If you prefer sightseeing go on a tour that includes Harrison's Caves and goes to the high spot of the island.

 

Bridgetown is worth a stroll through though not worth allocating a lot of time to, but do visit Trafalgar Square and Nelson's statue - even for the novelty factor as of course Nelson's Column and statue are in Trafalgar Square in London.

 

Grenada

This should be a beach or water day as the sea and beaches here are stunning. The lovely Grand Anse Beach can be reached by water taxis at the dock that charge a few US dollars to take you there. It was about 3 dollars per person. You get a great view of the ships in port as you whiz round them, great views of the island and the beach is great.

 

There are what seem to be concessions on the beach where for a stretch one set of people can rent you chairs and umbrellas (about twenty dollars for 2 people) and offer drinks and food for sale.

 

Chat to the water taxi guys as they will tell you the history of the island (and the coups, American invasion and hurricanes!).

 

After the beach go out the shopping mall at the docks, turn right and then go through the tunnel (built in the 189Os or thereabouts) into the lovely bay area with stunning architecture, bars, fishing boats and such like.

 

 

St Lucia

Avoid the day at a Sandals Resort as they are run down and the beaches not that great. It seems the best things to do here are to visit one of the more popular beaches or go on one of the round the island tours.

 

St Kitts

There are 2 great things to do.

 

If you like activity, go on a bike tour. This lasts the morning (or afternoon) and is quite strenuous as the island is very hill. But you get to see some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine and learn about the sugar trade as well. The tour also takes you up to look at Frigate Bay, across to the sister island of Nevis and to a beach for a swim in the amazing sea.

 

The other option is to take the helicopter tour to the now devastated island of Montserrat. The volcano eruption a few years back saw lava flowing at 1OO miles an hour and the whole place was evacuated. You see the submerged airport and other amazing sights. This is always very popular so book early for this one!

 

The narrow gauge railway (this covers the island and was used to ferry the cane from the fields to the main sugar refinery near the port) is a popular tour the cruise lines sell hard. Most people say it is not worth the time or money.

 

 

Antigua

The island boasts that it has a different beach you can visit every day, so it should also be a beach day.

 

All beaches in the Caribbean are public and so you (in theory) can go to anyone you want. The best in my view is Dickinson Beach. This is about a 15 minute cab ride (about 6 to 8 dollars) and the beach is long, in a large bay with sand that looks and feels like powder. It is quite remarkable and the sea is brilliant. Not as clear as the more southern islands but stunning. There are many small bars that also sell food and places to hire boats, kayaks and other water sports.

 

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Something like 60% of all cruises in the world today take place in the Caribbean!

 

The next most popular destination is Alaska. I find the fact that the Caribbean so dominates the world of cruising quite staggering. In reality it probably reflects more the history of cruising which really grew and developed in the area, driven by companies like Carnival and Royal Caribbean – and also the extent to which cruising is still underdeveloped in other parts of the world. It is no wonder then that the building of ships seems to be almost frantic with all the growth potential as cruising catches on in other parts of the world.

 

The Caribbean cruise season runs from after the hurricane season from around September until March each year, and then the cruise ships are redeployed onto the Alaska route or head off to Europe to ply the Mediterranean and Baltic in the summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

 

Most of the Caribbean cruises are, and pretty much always have been, 7-day trips out of Florida where ships alternate between a “Western Caribbean” and an “Eastern Caribbean” routing. This pattern ideally suits the USA vacation patterns, as most people in the States tend to have and take shorter holidays than other regions so the 7-day pattern suits them. For those wanting 2 weeks vacations, then all they do is stay on a ship for two back to back cruises.

 

The 7 day cruises tend to have one sea day to get to the islands, visits to 5 islands and then one sea day back to port, The growth of popularity of the cruising has, though, started to see many more USA ports offering Caribbean trips – and the area is by far the most popular part of the world for European Cruise lines like Cunard, P&O and Costa to send their ships to during the European winter. Or on the case of Cunard in the period running up to the New Year when it tends to be too rough and too cold for people to book on their famous transatlantic crossing and before they send their ships on their 3 month round the world cruises from January to March.

 

My recent Caribbean Cruise was part of what is called a “repositioning cruise” on the P&O ship Arcadia. As I have described there is a redeployment of ships, especially to and from Europe, before and after the main September to March Caribbean season. Most cruise lines doing this offer 2-week trips, which consist of a week cruising round the Caribbean and a week crossing the Atlantic. These cruises tend to be very good value as less people enjoy the long periods at sea and prefer schedules with lots of ports.

 

My cruise also happened to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery which was timely as traveling around the islands we visited (Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Antigua) the one thing that did strike me as I learnt more about the history of the Caribbean was that these stunningly beautiful islands were not only built on the back of slave labor, but also just how brutal and terrible the slave trade was.

 

Behind the laid back tone and startling beauty of the Caribbean is an unpleasant tale, with the `British and French primarily squabbling and fighting over control with the indigenous Carib Indians being driven out and even massacred when required to take control of the islands.

 

They then shipped in slaves from North Africa mostly in horrific conditions where many would perish on the trip. They were then sold in markets held in what are now picturesque and charming town squares. The slaves were required to work in the huge sugar plantations that soon covered most of the islands, with cruelty and force ensuring compliance.

 

It is clear that the sugar plantations owners, all of who were from Europe, grew wealthy on the practice and the sugar trade but as the sugar trade declined it also has left the islands largely under developed as the profits were shipped out and not invested into the place that created the money. This means that now that the sugar industry has pretty much died, both due to declining popularity for sugar and also cheaper and more cost effective crops like sugar beet closer to the main markets, that the only real industry the Caribbean has is tourism – and especially the cruise business.

 

Depending on whose point of view you follow, or possibly where your political leaning is, the islands are either benefiting enormously from the cruise trade – or are being shortchanged and manipulated by the cruise industry that passes little of the financial benefits on the islands. There is an interesting debate on this and one I found made fascinating reading and gave me deeper insights about how the while cruise industry works.

 

On the one side of the debate are a series of interesting books by an author called Ross Klein who wrote “Cruise Ship Blues” and other books that talk about how the industry plays islands off against each other to drive lower revenue for the island and more for themselves. For example, he talks about how cruise ships do not restock supplies and the like on the islands but only in their home ports for the main, that they keep the bulk of revenues from tours and such like and that international firms own many of the chains in the new port side malls that have been built.

 

On the other side of the argument are the materials from the main cruise body called CLIA. Their site is cruising.org, and the organization talks about the money they spend on assisting with infrastructure and the overall benefits from the money passengers spend on-shore. Either way it makes for really interesting reading and it is worth hearing both points of view.

One thing that you cannot help to note on all of the islands is that they overall do seem fairly poor and underdeveloped. There are, of course, glitzy hotels but these again seem to be owned and operated by the major chains and of course they are an important employer of locals but it is a pity that you do not see more local enterprise here.

 

So despite these observations what else struck me during my cruise around 5 islands in 5 days? On this cruise we visited Barbados (admittedly briefly as this is where we embarked), Grenada, St Lucia, St Kitts and Antigua.

 

I loved all the islands. They are all so beautiful and the beaches are glorious. In most cases the people are welcoming and friendly, which is quite a feat when they are subjected to waves of tourists during the cruise season in particular asking the same questions and doing the same things.

 

I have to admit though one of the challenges of visiting so many islands in quick succession for one day on a cruise if that they do kind of blend into each other as an overall Caribbean experience. So while beautiful, I did wonder if the islands have missed an opportunity to be more unique and distinctive. I am sure that if you spent more time on each you would get to understand and appreciate their distinctiveness, but the cruise experience does not do that justice. I am embarrassed to admit that I think that if I was not an obsessive photo taker and so have piles of images from everywhere, that I would not clearly be able to remember which island was which. Of course the trip on the island I can associate but from the non-trip elements from the port, walking around the town is where it starts to get less clear.

 

This seems like a missed opportunity. Admittedly the broad history of the islands is broadly similar (English and French fighting over them, largely English dominating, driving out the Carib Indian locals, importing slaves to drive the sugar industry), but I do think that there is way to find more uniqueness in the culture and story of each island. But this is probably more of the marketing background in me coming out, as I am not sure my fellow travelers thought as much about this.

 

The Port areas are all now very similar and this is a result in most cases of original facilities being destroyed at the turn of the century by hurricanes and being rebuilt to meet the needs of the current ship types and passengers in a more harmonious way. Disappointingly though, most of the shops in these ports are also the same with even the same chains, like the Diamond International chain for example. Even the curio/ gift shops are stocked full of largely similar merchandise with the name changed. Much of the merchandise was made in China and even the UK (most of the china items).

 

At the risk of going on, I did feel it was pity but saved on buying a lot of items from each island.

 

As a UK resident, visiting the islands has a lot of familiarity in a number of respects as the cars drive on the left hand side and many of the street names and places are familiar names from UK history and places like Piccadilly Circus and Nelson’s Dockyard.

 

There is no denying though that whatever observations and thoughts about similarities, the Caribbean and a cruise in this area is just a stunning experience. I adore the place. The islands are beautiful, the beaches and sea glorious and the people on most of the islands for the most part are charming, welcoming and surprisingly patient. Though I did notice that the more south the islands the more laid back people were and the closer we got to the USA the more assertive. I am not sure if these islands get more ships and passengers and so the islanders have become more competitive with each other.

 

If you go on a classic Caribbean cruise with basically an island a day, it can be a tiring experience as you will be up early as ships get in usually around 7am to 8am and then you are off on trips and set sail at about 5pm and 6pm then still to have the dinner, shows and other activities in the evening to enjoy. It can become a bit of a blur if you don’t pace yourself. With the repositioning cruise we had a great balance as we had the busy 5 days at the start and then the 5 sea days to really relax.

29,201 km (18,145 miles) traveled
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