Not all ports of call in the Caribbean are flooded with passengers—some islands see less traffic and offer something more extraordinary.
Not every Caribbean island is visited by multiple cruise ships every day. Some are busy only a couple of months out of the year, others just a few days a month. And in these cases, less familiarity can mean more fun.
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Even among lush Caribbean destinations, the dual island nation of St. Kitts & Nevis has a distinctive natural beauty. Basseterre, St. Kitts gets a fair number of cruise-ship visits, but the significantly smaller Nevis sees only a few smaller cruise ships since most others cannot dock and must use tenders. Dotted by small inns as well as the lavish Four Seasons Resort, the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton is covered by lush hills and dominated by 3,232-foot Mount Nevis. Its beautiful landscape also includes long stretches of isolated beachfront. The capital, Charlestown, offers a surprising array of upscale restaurants and casual beach bars.
The British Virgin Islands are made up of 16 inhabited and some 43 uninhabited islands. Tortola is the center of visitor activity, and the capital Road Town offers a variety of restaurants as well as a popular shopping district. Tortola Pier Park is one of the Caribbean’s newest cruise facilities, featuring several restaurants that serve locally-caught seafood and drawing near-daily ship visits from November through March. The 60 BVI islands and cays are in close proximity, so it’s easy to take a ferry or a sailboat for quick island-to-island hops. But the island of Tortola itself has many beautiful beaches, especially on the north shore, with one of the best at Cane Garden Bay.
Although the island gets a fair number of cruise-ship visits during the busy months of November through March, there are almost no ships for the rest of the year. The island’s 290 square miles are sparsely populated, and the capital Roseau serves as the gateway to an ecological wonderland of lush flora and fauna protected by an extensive national park system (including Morne Trois Pitons) featuring serene inland rivers and high mountain peaks. Most of the island’s tour companies operate out of Roseau, offering many opportunities for adventure sports, whale-watching trips, and hikes. Champagne is a popular snorkeling spot, where underwater volcanic vents emit continuous streams of bubbles.
A major source of nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and cocoa, as well as exotic flowers and rare fruits, Grenada, not surprisingly, is known as the “Spice Island.” It’s far enough south in the Caribbean that it doesn’t get the same crush of cruise-ship visits as more convenient islands, though there are still a handful days in high season (December through March) when you may see more than one ship in port. While Grenada has many secluded beaches, you need venture no farther than Grand Anse Beach in the capital St. George’s to find one of the best in the entire Caribbean; its mostly calm waters stretch for two miles along a ribbon of white sand. The island is also known for waterfalls, including several in the easily accessible Grand Étang National Park.
Although you may see a ship in port almost every day from December through March, Martinique sees almost no cruise ships between April and October. An overseas département of France, Martinique has a cosmopolitan capital in Fort-de-France, but the mountainous island is also known for its white sand beaches and for Mount Pelée volcano—at 4,583 feet, the highest of its many mountains—which looms over the town of St-Pierre (and destroyed it in a 1902 eruption). Gorgeous beaches are a short ferry ride away from Fort-de-France in Les Trois-Îlets.
Although it’s not a private-island experience per se, this purpose-built development is currently used only by Norwegian (plus its sister lines Oceania and Regent Seven Seas) on Western Caribbean itineraries, and there’s rarely more than a single ship in port. It’s actually located on two adjoining islands offshore from Placencia, and features a cruise-ship pier, a marina facility for mainland excursions, a seven-acre beach, restaurants, and adventure activity centers. There’s a pool for those who don’t want to travel off-island, but everything (including all food and drinks) has to be paid for in cash. The development’s centerpiece is a 130-foot-tall lighthouse structure that serves as the central area for zip lines, suspension bridges, and free-fall jumps. Shore excursions can take passengers to the Nim Li Punit Maya site.
Antigua’s cruise-ship dock is in the capital, St. John’s, which is also the island’s shopping and dining hub. During the busy season from December to March, there’s almost always a ship in port, and some days there may be several. Nearby English Harbour is where you’ll find Nelson’s Dockyard, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally a British naval base, it’s still used today as a working marina for yachts and ships, while the restored complex’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings are filled with restaurants and shops. Another popular site is Shirley Heights, a military lookout and gun battery with sweeping views of English Harbour. The island is best known for its many beautiful white sand beaches, including stunning Dickenson Bay.
WHERE: Dominican Republic
Puerto Plata has long received the occasional cruise ship, and visits have increased significantly with the opening of Amber Cove, a massive purpose-built cruise-ship port complex between the city and Playa Grande. The pier can accommodate two ships, which it sometimes does during high season (December through March), but during the rest of the year, traffic is limited to several ships each week. Amber Cove has its own bars, restaurants, and shops, as well as a zip line and a sprawling pool area with water slides and private cabanas. But it also offers easy access to the city and its malecón, amber museum, cable car (to the summit of 2,601-foot Mount Isabel de Torres), and aquarium.
Trinidad is the larger of the islands that make up the nation of Trinidad & Tobago, but Tobago is renowned for its natural beauty and occasionally receives cruise ships from December through March. The island’s landscape features deep, fertile valleys running north and south of the mountainous center, flowing down to a coral platform at the island’s southern tip. A short taxi ride from the island’s capital, Scarborough, Pigeon Point is generally considered Tobago’s most beautiful beach—a long expanse of white sand and blue water.
These days, nearly all cruise ships dock at King’s Wharf on the island’s West End, but a few smaller ships will occasionally dock in St. George’s Parish, on the East End. Historic St. George’s town is a charming UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continuously inhabited British settlement in the Western Hemisphere, overseen by Fort St. Catherine. You can stroll along the winding cobbled streets to find colonial fountains, gardens, and plazas. Nearby attractions include the Crystal and Fantasy Caves and the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo, but the island’s best beaches are found in Southampton Parish on the West End.
Curaçao gets a cruise-ship call almost every day from November through March, but ships are fewer and farther between at other times of the year. The capital, Willemstad, has an urban character absent from many Caribbean destinations—a delight of winding streets, shops, and sidewalk cafés serving Dutch and Creole cuisine—and its floating market is famous. Willemstad also has Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Americas, and the Kura Hulanda Museum, which expertly chronicles the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its influence on Curaçao. If you’re not interested in history, you may be reassured to learn that the main draw of the island is its white sand beaches and nearby coral reefs.
WHERE: St. Lucia
Although most cruise ships call at Castries, St. Lucia’s capital, others go to the southern port of Soufrière, and still other (smaller) ships sometimes pull right up into Marigot Bay. As many as two ships regularly call at Castries daily during the busy season, from December through April. Passengers tend to congregate at the sprawling market in downtown Castries, but many go out on the island to see some of St. Lucia’s natural beauty—including the Pitons, the hot sulphur springs, and other tourist attractions near Soufrière. Others may head to Morne Fortune to see Fort Charlotte, a former military outpost overlooking Castries Harbour.
WHERE: St. Vincent & the Grenadines
One of the smaller, lesser-visited Caribbean ports, beautiful Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) is itself an under-the-radar island in the region. At only 7 square miles, with a tall mountain range covering its center and winding roads dropping down to intimate beaches, it has little tourism infrastructure and is visited exclusively by small ships. Port Elizabeth, its only town, has a few restaurants and shops that sell mostly handmade souvenirs (model boats are a specialty of the island)—it’s popular with day-trippers from St. Vincent. Cruise passengers may feel they’ve been transported back in time to the 1950s. Princess Margaret Beach is lined with a few shacks that serve as bars (the best is Jack’s) and is visited as much by passengers of mega yachts as by other tourists.