In a very quiet way, the Southern Caribbean, probably the least known part of the region, is becoming one of the most interesting.
The islands of the Southern Caribbean, which translate roughly to those lying east and south of St. Maarten/St. Martin, have always been slightly more exotic than counterparts in the Western and Eastern Caribbean. Part of that is due to the very strong colonial influence that pervades many of these islands, a great percentage of which are still related to France, the Netherlands and the U.K.
But in the immediate post-September 11 era, these islands, including Aruba, St. Barth's, Curacao, Martinique, Dominica, Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Antigua, St. Kitts, St. Lucia and Nevis (to name a handful), took a big hit.
Cruise lines struggled to fill ships for a variety of reasons. San Juan has typically been a major port of embarkation for seven- and 10-night itineraries, but its airlift is far more limited than those starting points in major cities in the continental U.S. like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. As such, departures are often pushed back until 11 p.m. (Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas is one example) to allow for more time for day-of arrivals.
As well, traveler reluctance to fly, which has spurred the cruise industry's homeport U.S.A. strategy, meant passengers were opting for destinations they could cruise to from a drive-to locale.
What's making a difference these days is that the very strategy of homeporting that first hurt the region is now helping. Puerto Rico's San Juan, not to mention Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, continues to be a mainstay turn-around port, but now cruise lines such as Holland America and NCL are offering "deep south" voyages from New York in cooler months.
The region is also quite popular among U.K. travelers with British-based cruise lines such as P&O and Ocean Village.
Personality of the Islands
The islands fall into a handful of categories, and cruise line itineraries typically include a representative from each. For instance, the biggest appeal of places like Aruba and Antigua is their beaches. Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe offer varied scenic opportunities (from rain forests to volcanoes), not to mention urban outposts that reflect both West Indian and French heritages.
The Dutch-influenced Curacao is a fabulous destination for snorkeling and scuba diving; even more so is sibling Bonaire. St. Barth's is so French it feels as if you're in the midst of the Mediterranean -- go for the sidewalk cafes, hot and trendy beach scenes, elite boutiques and fabulous gourmet restaurants. Dominica and Grenada, both relatively undeveloped, have unique appeals. The former is considered the "Garden of Eden" of the Southern Caribbean while the recovering Grenada, which suffered savage destruction as a result of 2004's Hurricane Ivan, is laid back, with a genuine small town feel.
Big Ship? Small Ship?
Beyond the obvious distinctions between big-ship and small-ship cruising, the biggest difference is in itinerary. Larger ships that cruise the region tend to stick with the better-known islands that can offer a variety of shore excursion opportunities. Popular ports on these cruises tend to highlight Barbados, Aruba and Antigua, for instance.
Smaller ships (and those more eco-oriented) tend to balance the voyage between "greatest hits" ports and those you've probably never heard of, like Bequia, St. Vincent, Mayreau Island, Iles des Saintes and Tobago Cays, among others.
Most of the major cruise lines offer Southern Caribbean itineraries; big-ship options include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, NCL, Princess and Royal Caribbean. Small-ship options include Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Seabourn, Windstar, and Star Clippers, among others.
For folks limited to a weeklong trip, San Juan continues to be the best option. It hosts, on a year-round basis, ships such as Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas and Carnival Destiny. During high season (the winter months) ships from numerous line base trips from there.
Numerous longer cruise options -- 10 nights and up -- sail from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. And, from New York, NCL's Norwegian Spirit and Holland America's Noordam (the latter launching in 2006) will both offer roundtrip sailings.
For more details, check out our Find a Cruise feature.
Hurricane season should be taken into account. Though many of these islands, including the aforementioned Grenada, have traditionally been thought to lie below the hurricane belt, the storm damage here in 2004 and beyond has changed some minds. Even Aruba, whose location typically is considered outside the belt, got sideswiped by a storm in 2007. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief