Calm seas, perfect sunsets, a pirate or two, and a glass of champagne on the deck of a luxurious cruise ship. Cruises in the Caribbean have a tendency to bring up many images, and most of them are brochure-perfect.
There are some things that people tend to forget about, like the ports of call you will be visiting. Every ship, even a gigantic cruise ship, must come to dry land at some point. When a cruise liner docks in a small port, it’s like a city coming to town.
Don’t become one of those tourists that look like they just stepped off a space ship and don’t know quite where they landed—check out some of our tips for first time cruisers here). Some of the best Caribbean cruises aren’t only about the amazing ships and amenities, but also where you get off the ship – so take a hard look at your Caribbean cruise itinerary to figure out what awaits.
Ports of call are often beautiful towns with a rich history and many things to see. And even if you think you know it all, there are so many new things to learn about the nooks and crannies of this amazing region that you’ll probably never be done exploring. Here are just five of the best Caribbean cruise destinations:
1. George Town, Cayman Islands
George Town is the capital of the Cayman Islands, which were still under British rule in the 70’s. Since gaining independence, Cayman Islands became a major world banking center and one of the best Caribbean cruise destinations.
If you disembark in this port town, make sure to head straight to one of the many seafood restaurants. If there is one place where you can get a fill of the freshest and most delicious seafood with a beautiful ocean view, it’s here. George Town is foodie-famous. There is also a brewery and a rum distillery – rum being the historical beverage of choice in the Caribbean.
If you want to get wet, you can find many snorkeling and dive tours here. There are more snorkeling spots and tours that you can count, and they’re here for a very good reason. The view from the beach is beautiful, but the view underwater is one of the best in the world.
2. Kingstown, St Vincent
Kingstown has a mixed French-British history. Here, you are sure to spot old world architecture. Saint Mary’s Cathedral of the Assumption is a lovely nineteenth-century building, that feels almost like an oasis. A stroll through its inner courtyards can be a peaceful experience and a break from the hustle and bustle of a cruise ship. Even in a busy world of cruise ship tourism, you can find places to slow down and get introspective.
You can catch another break at the Botanical Gardens, which happen to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. You don’t often associate gardens with a Caribbean cruise, but this is the real deal. This is a great spot to take in an impressive collection of plant species and catch a glimpse of the St Vincent parrots. You can hire a guide who will tell you about all the medicinal plants that grow here.
3. Fort de France, Martinique
If you are looking for that old world look, you better step off the ship in Fort de France. Even the name sounds like an old bastion of style and architecture, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s like a tropical island and New Orleans rolled into one.
Back in its day, Fort de France really was a citadel, surrounded by no less than four military forts. These forts guarded against pirates in their day, and should be at the top of your list of things to see here. They were built as early as the seventeenth century.
There are a lot of points of cultural interest that are also worth a visit. You can see many galleries as well as museums that dive into local history, sugar plantations, and local life. Any Caribbean cruise can have a learning moment!
4. Kralendijk, Bonaire
Bonaire is the little-known sister island to Aruba and Curacao. When you go on shore leave here, you will soon realize that you are in the candy bowl of the Caribbean. The neat, brightly colored houses look so delicious!
This tiny Dutch island has a lot to offer. If you are looking to stretch your legs and get moving before getting back aboard the ship, this is just the place. Kite surfing and windsurfing are especially popular here. You can also catch kayak tours, hike through the mangroves and go snorkeling in the perfect blue waters.
Kralendijk is also the perfect place to go shopping – head to the outdoor Bonaire Arts and Crafts Cruise Market and support local artisans. You will find a gift for everyone here, even if they have everything. For instance, be prepared for painted and sculpted coconuts, local spirits, necklaces, amazing street food and a plethora of local fruit. The quirky things found here are the perfect souvenirs from your Caribbean cruise and a great present for those back home.
5. Colon, Panama
Welcome to Colon, the gates to the famous Panama Canal. The Canal is one of the most daring engineering projects ever undertaken by the US government. It allows ships to pass between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans without the treacherous passage around Cape Horn.
When you come to this port, it is an absolute must to tour the locks and watch ships make their way into the Caribbean Sea. The Gatun Locks are said to be the best place to have a peek at the complicated mechanisms that help to operate the canal.
If you have time for more adventure, Fort San Lorenzo is definitely a one-in-a-kind detour. It’s located just 8 miles outside of Colon, accessible by self-guided tours only. This fort was first built by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. It was meant to protect gold shipments from the famed Caribbean pirates. Who knows what mysteries are hiding in these ancient ruins?