With the slightest effort, you can easily avoid the hordes of tourists.
The busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean may see several giant ships, each with over 3,500 passengers, dock in a single day. Adding 10,000 or more extra souls to these islands doesn’t go unnoticed. The key to getting away from your fellow cruise passengers is sometimes to zig where others zag—which can be easy if you put just a bit of effort into finding the right excursion or destination.
Like a regatta of floating apartment buildings, blazing-white cruise ships parade in and out of Cozumel, the most popular port in the western Caribbean. Sunday is a big day, but there’s at least one on the horizon every day of the year and some days the island sees as many as six. Its main town, San Miguel, can feel overwhelming because most passengers stick to the highly touristed main streets along the waterfront. Avoiding them may mean a mere five-minute walk away, perhaps to one of the popular beach clubs. If you want to explore one of the island’s quieter beaches, head to Playa Palancar or Playa Uvas, which draw cruise-ship passengers in smaller numbers. If it’s beautiful reefs you’re looking for, book an independent diving or snorkeling trip with one of the local operators—just make sure it’s heading to one of the less busy areas.
Multiple megaships call at Nassau almost every day of the year, and passengers flood the downtown area, shopping for kitschy souvenirs and T-shirts, duty-free liquor, jewelry, and rum cakes. Although you can find a diamond in the rough at some of these shops, most goods aren’t even made in the Bahamas. Passengers who stray from the beaten path will be rewarded by original, distinctive, creative, and locally made home decor, glassware, jewelry, soaps, clothing, and artwork—all a short taxi ride away at Craft Cottage Bahamas on the grounds of Doongalik Studios, a fine-arts gallery on the outskirts of Nassau. You may even meet one of the artists during your visit.
WHERE: Cayman Islands
Not only is Grand Cayman among the Caribbean’s busiest cruise ports, but passengers must be tendered ashore, a process that can take hours when two or three large ships are in port at the same time (a common occurrence). The key to avoiding crowds here is to eschew the popular snorkeling excursions to Stingray City and shopping sprees in George Town, and instead to get out on the island, especially to the less-visited North Side. Located within Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the Blue Iguana Nature Reserve offers visitors an up-close look at conservation efforts to save these endangered endemic lizards.
WHERE: U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Thomas has two different cruise ports (Havensight and Crown Bay) that can accommodate up to six ships in a single day, and both are often full in high season. Thousands of cruise passengers disperse all over the island—especially to Magens Bay (and neighboring St. John) for excursions—and quite a few of them head to Charlotte Amalie to stroll and shop. What many don’t know is that Camille Pissarro, the 19th-century artist widely considered the father of French impressionist painting, was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. Indeed, his family home is located on 14 Dronningens Gade, just off the downtown shopping district. The building contains several shops and an art gallery on the second floor that displays the work of both Pissarro and other artists.
WHERE: St. Maarten
The busy port of Phillipsburg can see as many as five ships on any given day. While most of these passengers head into town for shopping or to one of the nearby beaches, it’s still possible to find a quieter spot. Just a 15-minute drive beyond the cruise pier (in Simpson Bay) is the Carousel gelateria, where you can find authentic gelato made with natural ingredients imported from Italy and take a spin on the shop’s whimsical merry-go-round or stroll in the waterfront hibiscus garden. The store has a long history—look for the black-and-white 1959 photo of actress Ingrid Bergman feeding a spoon of ice cream to her husband, producer Lars Schmidt.
Falmouth‘s dual docks can (and often do) accommodate two of the world’s largest cruise ships simultaneously—almost one million passengers pass through the port every year. There are usually large ships docked three days a week, and on those days upwards of 10,000 passengers pack the small town or head out on island tours. Those seeking a more unusual experience should stick closer to the pier for a tour by Falmouth Heritage Walks to Jamaica’s 200-year-old Jewish cemetery, which is generally empty of visitors. Located along a quiet street of this historic Jamaican town, the small graveyard contains elegantly carved tombstones (several featuring Hebrew inscriptions) alongside the ruins of those that succumbed to the ravages of time.
WHERE: Puerto Rico
San Juan is one of the Caribbean’s busiest cruise ports, so there are often three or four ships every day year-round. Large groups board buses for an expensive city tour of Casa Bacardí, but you can do it on the cheap and almost as easily on your own—particularly if you’re docked at one of the piers in Old San Juan. The family-run Bacardí distillery traces its roots to Facund Bacardí i Massó, a 19th-century Catalonian wine merchant credited with transforming rum, an unrefined local spirit, into one of the world’s most widely produced and popular beverages. A historical tour ($15) starts every 30 minutes and can be booked in advance. To get here, take the Cataño ferry ($0.50) from Pier 2 in Old San Juan (cruises dock at Pier 4), and then taxi to the distillery from the ferry terminal (about $3 per person); ferries run every 15 to 30 minutes.
WHERE: St. Kitts
Not quite as busy as some cruise ports, the capital city Basseterre nevertheless sees one to three ships almost every day (two can dock simultaneously at Port Zante). Many passengers get no further than the Port Zante mall, which is steps from the dock. There are plenty of excursions, but one in particular will help you forget the crowds. Built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane from the island’s plantations to the factory in Basseterre, the St. Kitts Scenic Railway takes visitors on a relaxing 30-mile, three-hour tour circumnavigating the island (air-conditioned below, open-air above). Mind you, this is a popular excursion with cruise passengers, so you’ll still need to reserve early, but it’s much more low-key than most attractions and gets you out of the crowded capital.
WHERE: Turks & Caicos
Grand Turk may be the largest island in the smaller archipelago of the Turks & Caicos Islands, but it’s still small enough that you notice when 4,500 passengers descend en masse from a giant ship docked at the pier. The Grand Turk Cruise Center, a 13-acre complex, serves as the launch point for shore excursions, but most passengers never get beyond the immediate area. The purpose-built facility offers shopping, a spa, a pool, and one of the Caribbean’s largest Margaritaville restaurants. The Sun Ray beach is gorgeous, and the spillover traffic often moves just north to Jack’s Shack. The whole area feels (and is) busy on cruise days. To get away, you need only take a short ride to Pillory Beach, which won’t have near the crowds, or visit the Turks and Caicos National Museum on Front Street in town.
Because it’s south of the typical path of most Atlantic hurricanes, Aruba stays busy year-round, and as many as three ships can dock here daily. There’s usually at least one ship in port six days a week. Aruba’s attractive, candy-color capital Oranjestad is no shrinking violet and can accommodate a lot of passengers (there’s a free hop-on, hop-off trolley) but it can still feel busy. Better to head to the wilds of the island’s west end—to Arikok National Park, which offers terrain that’s best described as strangely moonlike, with hills and plains filled with tall cacti and red-tinged rocks and soil, all set along a sweeping coastline. You can easily venture there on your own or take a guided tour on horseback or via ATV, jeep, or safari vehicle (sponsored by your ship or not). The massive boulders at Casibari and Ayo are among the most popular attractions.
Although it gets a respite from daily calls from May through October, Bridgetown still sees cruise ships year-round, and during the busy season from November through March there may be as many as two to four ships daily. It’s all the more reason to escape the bustling capital to an unusual attraction. Bushy Park in St. Philip offers visitors a novel and unexpected Caribbean adventure focused on motorsports—a 2.2-kilometer, FIA Grade Three course that hosts professional racing events. On non–race days visitors can test their skills with everything from a go-kart to a high-performance race car.