Caribbean Cruises: What's Hot, What's Not

 Tobago

Unlike its metropolitan and party-hardy big brother Trinidad, little Tobago is content to be a laid-back and natural Caribbean beauty. With the western hemisphere's oldest protected rainforest, marine parks, and secluded white sand beaches, Tobago has been recognized by World Travel Awards as the World's Leading Green Destination, a status it was given in 2007. What's more, whether you come here for a quiet beach honeymoon or an active adventure vacation, you can generally do it pretty cheaply.

Whatever your style, it's worthwhile to experience both Tobago's beaches and its wild interior. Tobago was purportedly the inspiration for "Robinson Crusoe," and even though the deserted beaches described in the novel were based on observations made almost 300 years ago, you can still find such beaches on the island today.  Try going to Pirate's Bay, which was used in the 1954 film version of the novel. You should also plan on a snorkeling trip (25$) to Buccoo Reef, where you can swim with tropical fish in crystal-clear waist-deep water.

To see the rainforest and its many colorful bird species, stay in an eco-lodge or go on a day tour with a local guide.  The Cuffie River Nature Retreat, an eco-lodge located on the edge of the rainforest, offers a variety of nature tours including birding walks and visits to secluded waterfalls and natural pools. All inclusive rates for two people start at $185 per night, which includes all meals and a nature walk. If you'd prefer to stay near the beach, try the intimate Hummingbird Hotel, where room-only rates start at $50 a night.

(Photo: iStockPhoto/Andrew Carter)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 10, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AirTran, American, Aruba, Azamara Cruises, Caribbean, Carnival, Cayman Islands, Celebrity Cruises, Costa Cruises, cruise, cruise itinerary, Disney Cruise Line, Erica Silverstein, Cruise Critic, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, JetBlue, Norwegian Cruise Lines, P&O Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises, San Juan, St. Croix, St. Kitts and Nevis, Tortola, Trinidad and Tobago.

The Caribbean is such an established cruise destination that it still snags more cruise travelers than any other region in the world. It's incredibly popular and is always a good choice for winter sun-seekers because—at least for North Americans—it's relatively close. It can also offer bargain prices.

One of the growing challenges the Caribbean has faced over the past few years is a sense of fatigue. Once you've sailed the Western Caribbean from, say, Galveston, New Orleans, or Tampa, you've pretty much been there and done that. The same goes for those who have cruised Eastern Caribbean routes from Florida's ports (not to mention those on the East Coast, such as Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, and New York). On these cruises, passengers visit the same ports time and again—places like San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. Ship congestion and lackluster onshore experiences on certain islands aren't exactly drawing travelers back to the region.

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To combat this malaise, industry execs are always looking to add trendy and fresh locales that will entice passengers to return to Caribbean cruises. They've created new ports—such as Carnival's outpost on Grand Turk, the ever-present private Bahamian islands and the carved-from-the-jungle Costa Maya—seemingly out of thin air. They've also plumbed the depths of the Southern Caribbean to find new destinations, just waiting for ships to arrive.

Until sanctions are lifted and Cuba opens its doors to American cruise ships, don't expect too many surprises on Caribbean itineraries. But, whether you're looking for up-and-coming, not-yet-on-the-radar destinations, or are just hoping to avoid the has-beens, read our analysis of what's hot and what's not in the Caribbean for the upcoming cruise season.

Hot Spots

St. Croix

Why: St. Croix, one of the three major U.S. Virgin Islands, fell off the cruise traveler's map after the 2001/2002 season, when numerous unresolved issues with petty crime persuaded cruise lines to go elsewhere. So, some five years later, Disney's announcement that it would feature new Caribbean routes in 2009—including St. Croix—raised a few eyebrows. Suddenly, numerous ships have St. Croix on 2009/2010 itineraries—Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas, Holland America's Maasdam, Celebrity's Millennium, and Azamara Journey. It also doesn't hurt that the local government has invested $18 million to beautify the port city of Frederiksted, which has been transformed from seedy to charming. Additionally, the island, like its U.S.V.I. brethren, is clustered among other popular isles and is, therefore, an incredibly convenient port of call.

What's there: St. Croix offers an experience much different from the overcrowded shopping mecca of St. Thomas. With much more room to move around (St. Croix encompasses 84 square miles and is more than twice the size of St. Thomas), St. Croix provides an astounding variety of activities and features two urban centers—Frederiksted on the west coast and historic Christiansted to the north. Promoted as the U.S. territory's historical destination because of the Danish architecture it houses, St. Croix is home to the remnants of numerous plantations, great houses, and windmills. Buck Island Reef National Monument is the premier natural attraction on an island rife with prime snorkeling and diving sites.

Tortola

Why: Much like St. Croix, the capital of the British Virgin Islands received a huge boost when it struck a deal with Disney Cruise Line, adding itself to the family favorite's Caribbean itineraries in 2009. Unlike St. Croix, Tortola doesn't have a history of theft and crime to hinder its development as a popular port. With its proximity to San Juan—a routine port of origin for Southern Caribbean cruises—and the always-popular St. Thomas, Tortola is certainly centrally located. It also serves as a jumping-off point for day trips to nearby B.V.I. spots like Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda. Being part of a British territory also helps, at least when it comes to winning favor with European cruise lines. P&O and Fred. Olsen use Tortola extensively on their Caribbean itineraries, and Hapag-Lloyd and Costa also call on Tortola. In 2009, pretty much every line you can think of has Tortola on an itinerary. On the port's busiest days (Wednesdays and Thursdays), you'll find up to five ships at the island at the same time, which could mean a lukewarm rating for Tortola on next year's hot or not list. Go now.

What's there: At times, the knock on Tortola has been that there are simply not enough attractions on the sleepy island to appease hordes of cruise ship passengers. But, that's actually a misconception. It's a superb destination for watersports, leaving the shopping mecca status to St. Thomas; snorkeling and diving sites are first-rate, and several underwater wrecks—including the RMS Rhone—are popular sites. The warm tradewinds make this a sailor's paradise, and the other islands in the B.V.I. chain are just a short boat ride away. Day trips—especially to neighboring Jost Van Dyke (home of heavenly White Bay and its Soggy Dollar Bar) and Virgin Gorda (where you can explore the caves and pools of the famed Baths)—are plentiful and convenient.

St. Kitts

Why: St. Kitts' pivotal location sets it squarely between the Eastern Caribbean (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) and the Southern Caribbean (Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia), making this surprisingly uncrowded island a top choice for all sorts of Caribbean itineraries. This versatile port certainly made an impression on Celebrity, which chose it as one of three ports to include on the inaugural, seven-night itineraries of its brand-new, innovative, largest-of-the-fleet Celebrity Solstice. (More predictably, San Juan and St. Maarten round out the stops on the round-trip Ft. Lauderdale sailings.) If Solstice's destinations garner as much as attention as the ship itself, St. Kitts might start drawing more crowds after all.

What's there: The natural beauty of St. Kitts goes beyond its pretty coastal areas to include more inland greenery—a result of the island's former sugar cane industry. (The cane still grows in gorgeous, leafy, green patches.) White sand beaches and their surrounding waves attract sunbathers, swimmers, water-skiers, windsurfers, snorkelers, and divers. The island's rainforest and dormant volcano are home to monkeys and exotic birds, and unusually shaped lava deposits are the main attraction at Black Rocks. For a touch of human history and some outstanding views, visitors can tour the former British barracks at Brimstone Hill Fortress and go to Bloody Point to honor the memory of thousands of Caribs, who were massacred by Europeans. For a day trip, a ferry ride to sister island Nevis takes travelers to an even less crowded haven of reefs and beaches.

Tobago

Why: Often coupled with its sister island, Trinidad, Tobago is beginning to stand out as an up-and-coming Southern Caribbean cruise port. Construction has been completed on a new pier at its Scarborough port, so now ships as large as Voyager-class vessels can dock right at the island, rather than being forced to inconveniently tender. Other ongoing port improvement projects include connecting the port area with the Esplanade shopping street, customer service training for taxi drivers and other vendors, and a possible upgrade to the Charlotteville jetty so larger ships can call there, as well. And, the efforts are working; Celebrity has agreed to add Tobago to Celebrity Summit's 2009/2010 itineraries, and Tobago's 2008/2009 season will see twice as many cruise ship calls and an estimated 100,000 cruise visitors (a record for the island).

What's there: Tobago is as close to the old-school Caribbean ports as they come. It's home to the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere and is an ideal destination for hikers and birdwatchers. At the Argyle Waterfalls, visitors can swim in natural pools or simply enjoy the beauty of the area. Offshore coral reefs lure snorkelers, while the less adventurous can enjoy underwater views on glass-bottom boat tours. There are plenty of beaches for sunbathing, and history buffs will be in their element while touring the island's historic forts and waterwheel.

Costa Maya

Why: Costa Maya—a port destination on the Southern Yucatan that was, literally, carved out of the jungle—lost its "hot" status when Hurricane Dean leveled the port complex, as well as the nearby fishing village of Majahual in 2007. But, more than a year later, the rebuilt port has begun welcoming cruise ships back to its shores and is topping the popularity charts once again. Why? Construction projects have made the port, which resembles a private island, better than ever—a larger pier, now able to accommodate three ships instead of two (including ships the size of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the new contender for biggest-ship-ever when it debuts in fall 2009); upgraded shops, restaurants, and pools; and tours like a zip-line excursion. Majahual has been beautified and now features a boardwalk along the beach. Among the first to visit the rebuilt port are Carnival Legend, P&O Cruises' Oceana, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, Disney Magic, Norwegian Spirit, and Holland America's Veendam and Westerdam.

What's there: The made-for-tourists village offers open-air restaurants and bars, pools, a private beach, and duty-free shops. From the port, guests can head to the village of Majahual to walk along the beach, dine in local restaurants, play watersports, or relax on sandy shores at the Uvero Beach Club. Other excursion options include a kayak tour through mangroves, snuba diving, visiting Maya ruins, and the BioMaya Bacalar—an adventurous day out, complete with a zip-line ride, swimming, and a jungle trek.

Cooling Off

Grand Cayman

Why: Long a mainstay of Caribbean cruising, the Cayman Islands have seen an incremental decline in recent years. In 2008, the number of passengers and vessels calling in Grand Cayman was down from 2007. Though still a cruise port powerhouse, Grand Cayman, perhaps, has embraced too much of a good thing. During high season, as many as six big ships a day can be found offshore, tendering passengers into tiny George Town. (The lack of a cruise pier or docking facility is a major hindrance.) And, despite the fact that local business owners are all for maintaining a high peak of cruise traffic, the island's commitment to its delicate coral reef system creates environmental tensions.

What's there: Even more well-known than George Town, the island's tiny downtown, is Seven Mile Beach (which is actually only 5.5 miles long). It's lined with resorts, water-sport purveyors, and restaurants. Other attractions include the 65-acre Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Garden, the historic Pedro St. James "castle" (considered the birthplace of democracy in the Caymans), and scuba diving.

San Juan

Why: San Juan, which has had much success as a port of embarkation for Southern Caribbean itineraries, is challenged. In spring 2008, American Airlines—a major provider of airlift to San Juan—cut flights to the island by 45 percent. Although carriers like AirTran and JetBlue have stepped in to fill the gap, there are still fewer flights—which are crucial in ferrying passengers to their ships—to this departure port, a popular jumping-off point for Southern Caribbean itineraries. As such, travelers are now faced with fewer options and possibly higher fares. As a one-day port of call, San Juan is also struggling. Negative feedback from cruisers about the port experience is causing cruise lines to drop the island from itineraries. (Because of timing issues, ships departing from coastal U.S. ports don't get into the harbor until evening, when most shops and historic attractions are closed.). Royal Caribbean recently took San Juan off its 12-night Southern Caribbean itineraries on Explorer of the Seas in 2010, choosing to start the cruise with three consecutive sea days, rather than spending part of a day (or night) in Puerto Rico.

What's there: San Juan is best known for its beautifully preserved old city, which, conveniently, is where cruise ships dock. Visitors can take in the old city walls, cobblestone streets, imposing fort, and cathedral. There are numerous boutiques and duty-free shops. Outside the city, multiple beaches offer stretches of sand, ripe for sunbathing, and El Yunque rainforest is a must-see for hikers and nature enthusiasts.

On the Radar

Aruba

Why: Located on the southern end of the Southern Caribbean, Aruba has long been one of the most distant ports of call in the region—distant, that is, from ports of embarkation, such as San Juan, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. Its distance, along with high fuel costs, caused some cruise lines—Carnival, for one—to pull Aruba from schedules in 2007, citing the need to save money. But, in 2008, the number of cruise ship passengers visiting Aruba began to climb, forecasting a rebound. Will dropping oil prices bring Aruba back into favor, or will travelers, clinging to homeport cruising in uncertain economic times, force cruise lines to give the island the cold shoulder? Stay tuned.

What's there: Beaches, beaches, and more beaches. Aruba is a beach bum's paradise. It's also a great destination for golfers, gamblers (the island is lined with casinos), and duty-free shoppers.

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