White-sand beaches, clear turquoise sea, swaying palm trees, potent rum drinks and great shopping -- that's the mainstay of Western Caribbean cruises. But the cruise lines realize that travelers are getting younger and that baby boomers, in particular, are more interested in creating unique and active experiences when in port. We're talking really sporty and daring, as in testing your limits, feeling your heart pound and experiencing a rush of adrenaline.
Sure you can admire the tropical birds, but why not do it at their height, harnessed to a zip-line? Put on a snorkel and fins and get in the water to admire the fish or see how many big ones you can hook on a line. Vroom vroom down Duval Street in Key West on a Harley or learn to ride a skateboard (hey, it's a skill you can use when you get home).
The cruise lines have been busy dreaming up shore excursions for Western Caribbean itineraries that truly raise the bar beyond the norm. And if you haven't cruised in the region recently, you'll be amazed at the number of offerings.
Of course there is some logic to the madness. The cruise lines recognize that the ports are getting crowded (and Carlos 'n Charlies or other popular bar chains can only handle so many, so for them, dispersing the crowds is a must. Plus, the addition of new Western Caribbean ports also offers more options.
While the standard itinerary used to be Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios (Jamaica) and the island of Cozumel (Mexico), the lines have added places including Belize City in the Central American nation of Belize and more calls at Key West at the tip of Florida. Sometimes the itineraries also include a stop at a private beach or island owned by the cruise line.
Our favorite thing to bring back from vacation is not a tan (although we like that too), but a good story to tell, a "Guess what I did?" or "You won't believe this, but...."
The following extraordinary excursions are most likely to produce lasting memories. Be aware that not all are suitable to all passengers, and specifics may vary by line. For more, check out the Cruise Critic message boards.
The Tour: Aerial Trekking and Cave Tubing
These are two of the most popular activities in Belize City. You can combine them in one excursion or choose one or the other.
For the zip-line portion of your adventure, you'll travel to Caves Branch Outpost. You'll feel like you're a performer in Cirque du Soleil as you race through the treetops, although the eye-level birds will remind you that you're in a rainforest. Lunch is offered at the Canopy Cafe. River tubing is also available.
Who Should Go: Those who like a rush (not for those who are either claustrophobic or afraid of heights).
Why It's Extraordinary: How many times do you get to swing among trees like Tarzan and explore caves like Batman?
The Tour: Bottom Fishing
For novices and pros alike, head off in a state-of-the-art, 43-foot motor boat that takes you to a channel leading out to the barrier reef. Here you will find in abundance snapper, grunts, porgies and groupers, and sometimes mackerel, kingfish and even barracuda. Any fish you catch are donated to local orphanages or other charities.
Who Should Go: Anyone who loves to fish or has always wanted to try it.
Why It's Extraordinary: The boat anchors at one of many "secret" fishing holes where the fish are so plentiful you stand a good chance of catching one, and then you have a real fish tale to tell. Plus, the crew baits the poles, and all you have to do is hold on and reel in your catch (the crew will take the creatures off the hook, too).
The Tour: Harley in Key West
For us, the chance to live the American Dream on a Harley is the coolest thing to do in Key West (a heads up: You do have to have a motorcycle license to get on a bike). Your ride starts at the famous Mile Marker O (remember, when in Key West you're at the southernmost point in the U.S). Then you head north on Scenic Highway 101, catching gorgeous Keys views and stopping at some local hangouts.
Who Should Go: Those who are born to be wild. You must be over 25, have a valid motorcycle license and wear a helmet. The tour is sold per motorcycle; no charge for passenger.
Why It's Extraordinary: In addition to riding the open highway outside of Key West, you cruise down famous Duval Street once you get back to the city, to show off your bike to the strolling crowds.
The Tour: The Big Three
Key West is home to the only living coral reef in the U.S., with 300 species of fish (maybe more). To totally appreciate nature's bounty here, book an excursion that includes snorkeling, kayaking and swimming with dolphins. You head by boat to an area of uninhabited islands and kayak through winding mangroves where you are likely to spot birds and marine life. Then snorkel in the clear waters at a calm spot observing colorful fish. And finally, head to a place the locals call "Dolphin Playground," because it is home to a pod of bottlenose dolphins.
Who Should Go: All nature lovers and all who want a true Florida Keys experience.
Why It's Extraordinary: We're not talking seeing nature in a zoo or marine park. All the wildlife here is "wild," including the dolphins -- no cages or man-made pools.
The Tour: Stingray City
The number one must-do attraction here is a sandbar off North Sound known as Stingray City because it's where a population of rays hangs out. Here, you have the unusual opportunity of getting in the water with the usually tame creatures who have velvety soft skin and, like dogs, love having their bellies rubbed. Snorkel beside them and feel like a mermaid, but make sure to stay away from their tails because they can be, in extremely rare circumstances, dangerous (guides will be there to make sure you stay safe).
Who Should Go: Anyone who's not afraid to get into the water with sea creatures (and even if you are afraid you can still observe them from higher points in the sandbar or from the boat that gets you there).
Why It's Extraordinary: This is truly an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Tour: Black Pearl Skate & Surf
This is a world-class skateboarding facility with a professionally designed, 62,000-square-foot course. There are both beginner and Advanced Bowl sections including a competition-sized vertical ramp. Never skateboarded before? Learn here.
Who Should Go: Beginners and those looking for the ultimate challenge.
Why It's Extraordinary: If you're traveling with a skateboarding kid, this is your chance to prove you're the coolest parent around. If you're a grownup, this is your chance to be a kid again.
Ocho Rios/Montego Bay
The Tour: Dunn's River Falls
We love the falls and the fact that we can say we climbed them -- and even enjoying getting wet. A cool way to get there and also check out the local scenery is a 4x4 ride out of Ocho Rios that takes you and seven others in zebra-striped safari vehicles up famous Fern Gully to see 200 kinds of ferns and great mountain and valley views, as well as to look down at the ocean from 2,000 feet atop Murphy Hill. You'll also pass small villages, old churches and old estates, and you'll stop by a coffee plantation.
Then climb the falls (or take the option of the adjacent stone staircase) and enjoy the 600-ft. cascades. From Montego Bay, you can hit Dunn's by bus (it takes about two hours and 15 minutes each way) or book a 4x4 trek that explores that part of the island and takes you to a river and smaller waterfall.
Who Should Go: Anyone who can handle a bumpy ride and slippery wet climbing (which is more fun than it sounds).
Why It's Extraordinary: How often do you get to climb a waterfall? And you'll get to see enough of the country to appreciate the fact that Jamaica's scenery is amazingly lush.
The Tour: Adventure Park
Fly on a zip-line, rappel off the highest climbing tower in Mexico and choose from some 70 adventure routes. If adrenaline is your thing, this is your place. Join professional rock-climbing guides as you explore this man-made extreme sport wonderland with six state-of-the-art towers, suspension bridges, balance beams and more.
We like to combine a visit here with a stop at a white-sand beach where we can trade our harness, helmet and climbing shoes for a mask and fins to explore Cozumel's amazing undersea world (the marine life is so plentiful you may even see fish in the clear water from shore).
Who Should Go: Everyone who wants to go for it and feel the excitement; no previous experience is required.
Why It's Extraordinary: This is a chance to explore your limits; push yourself to the edge.
The Tour: Clear Kayaking
Cozumel has one of the largest coral reefs in the world off its shores. Head to Uvas Beach (head to Playa Uvas) and get in a two-person clear kayak to view close-up the colorful fish, corals and sponges that reside just offshore. Your guide will lead you to prime viewing spots. When you get back, put on a mask and fins and return to the water for snorkeling if you want, or veg out on the pretty beach.
Who Should Go: Everyone who is curious to see what resides below the sea.
Why It's Extraordinary: You get to see Cozumel's famous undersea world and not even get wet (unless you really want to).
--by Fran Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.
Belize images appear courtesy of Jaguar Paw Resort.
Grand Cayman images appear courtesy of Stingray City and Black Pearl Skate & Surf.
Clear Kayaking image appears courtesy of Playa Uvas.