"Baby let's cruise, away from here..."
Living in Central Florida gives us the ability to take Caribbean cruises from ports like Miami, Port Canaveral, Tampa or Fort Lauderdale and for a family that loves cruising, it is one of the best things about living in the Sunshine State!
Carnival Imagination (Western Caribbean)
Carnival Glory (Eastern Caribbean)
Carnival Liberty (Western Caribbean)
Carnival Breeze (Western Caribbean)
Carnival Sunshine (Eastern Caribbean)
Norwegian Pearl (Alaska)
Those are the cruises we've been on so far and then we have two more coming up next year:
Norwegian Epic (Eastern Caribbean in March of 2019)
Norwegian Bliss (Alaska coming in June of 2019)
Rather than bore y'all with the details of each and every cruise, what I decided to do was just cover the different ports we've been to in the Caribbean and just make suggestions for things to do while you're there! One thing that we learned on our Honeymoon Cruise on the Carnival Imagination back in 2002 is that we are not cruise ship "tour" people. We HATE being rounded up and herded onto tour buses like cattle and you are essentially held captive by the cruise line for 3+ hours, based on the length of your excursion.
Honestly, there really isn't any reason you can't do these tours with a private company on your own at a fraction of the cost. If you are the type of person who MUST have the security of being on a cruise line sanctioned trip where the ship will not leave without you, then do what you must, but in all of our trips, at all of our stops, we've never even come close to being a pier runner (someone who almost misses the ship leaving port and has to run all the way from customs to the gangway).
You just need to do your research and be willing to think outside of the box. There are so many websites out there like CruiseCritic.com that have countless message boards about tours, excursions and ports of call. One of the best parts of a trip is the planning and finding cool, fun things to do that not many people might be doing while in port. You know what that means? Less crowds and more time to truly enjoy and see all that there is to offer at many of these Caribbean destinations.
For these, I am going to do them in order from least (#9) enjoyed to most (#1)...remember this is all personal preference, but I'll give you my reasons why! One thing I want you to remember is that my critiques are based on them as CRUISE STOPS ONLY, not as a multi day vacation spots. Sometimes you just have a short limited time there, so there is only so much you can see or do, even though you know it is an awesome place beyond the cruise terminal itself.
9. Nassau, Bahamas
Now I know my friend Jessica is going to be tripping out that Nassau is at the bottom on my list. She is from the Bahamas, loves her country and having known her for 8 years now, I can attest to all the beauty her country has to offer. Some of the stuff she posts just has knocked my socks off and we do plan on visiting the Islands for a real "vacation" one day soon and actually get to enjoy that beauty first hand. Unfortunately, the time we were in port was really pretty limited, so we decided to just do some sightseeing and check out the views from Fort Fincastle and walk around the downtown area and go to the Straw Market.
The walk to the fort was not a hard one to navigate and I was bound and determined to pull a Rocky Balboa and make it to the top of the Queens Staircase. As a history buff, I like going to old places and wanted Sarah to learn something on her trip as well. After visiting the fort, we headed down through town an went to the Straw Market looking for souvenirs. Pretty much everything there was Made in China. Yeah, I'll pass.
It's not that we didn't like it, but I found the city to be a bit dirty, the people were not very friendly and at the straw market, I just didn't like the fact that it was just another series of shops/booths selling junk that is mass produced overseas and just has the word Bahamas slapped on it. If you really want people to be impressed, sell something original and creative and pretty. You'd be surprised how much people will spend when you know it's just not assembly line garbage that has nothing to do with the Bahamas.
But if you're looking for cheaply made straw handbags or Rastafarian tams with fake dreadlocks attached to them, the straw market is for you!
8. Bassaterre, St Kitts
This island has SO much potential, but one thing the three of us were talking about more than anything else we saw on our trip was how much of the natural beauty of the island was completely and utterly spoiled by the trash that is just seemingly thrown or dumped where ever they want.
The Surfrider Foundation could spend a whole year here and probably not make a dent in the amount of single use plastic bags, straws, bottles that are just strewn around the beaches, the sides of the roads and on the rocky coastline. Huge lengths of fishing lines knotted and twisted, decaying old fishing nets discarded wherever the former owner decided he didn't want to make the effort of throwing them away. Old rusted boats with damaged hulls just pulled high onto the shore line as to not float away. It was bordering on depressing...but then you would see something so beautiful, it would take your attention away to something else for a while.
All of that aside, I can't recommend our tour guide, Chris Brookes, high enough. We did the Full Island tour and he is local, from St. Kitts and his love for the island, his passion for the culture and for the land is truly evident. He was very friendly, outgoing and really went out of his way to show us the beauty and history of St. Kitts. I will forever be thankful for him for introducing us to the Caribbean grapefruit flavored soft drink, Ting. Damn, that stuff is refreshing on a hot day!!
You can contact Chris via email at Islanyute@gmail.com to book a tour.
7. Grand Cayman Island
Yes, there is the Seven Mile Beach. Yes, there are amazing dive sites here and the yes, I know the weather is amazing. Jason and I actually came here on our honeymoon cruise and did one of the cruise ship excursions to "Stingray City" which was pretty cool. That being said, unless you like to lie on the beach or want to go snorkeling or on a dive trip, there really isn't much to DO, per se, during a day time cruise stop.
Wait a second! You can always to to "Hell".
Yep, there is a "town" on the island called Hell with a post office, so you can send a letter from Hell. It is a tacky little tourist trap in the middle of nothingness, surrounded by an unpleasant rocky landscape. Yeah, that's about it. Don't bother going. If you want to go to Hell, go to Michigan. It's much nicer there.
If you're really desperate, you can always go to the turtle farm where they teach "sea turtle conservation". Let me tell you this straight up....that whole turtle conservation thing is a bunch of bullshit. They raise sea turtles for human consumption.
Yes, it is supposed to help save the wild sea turtles, but I would never set food or give a single f-ing dime to a place that promotes the consumption of sea turtles. We aren't living in 1858 anymore and islanders aren't Robinson Crusoe stuck on some isolated, uninhabited island. Raise a frickin' cow, chickens or a goat if you want tasty protein. Can you tell I truly love sea turtles?
While we were there on our last few trips, we went into town to grab a Dunkin Dounts coffee since cruise ship coffee general sucks and to pick up rum. Seven Fathoms Rum is actually a good sipping rum and is aged in casks under the water in the CI's. Big Black Dick rum is also a good one for mixed drinks and for use in rum cakes. We just call it BBD rum).
On one cruise, we saw there was a replica pirate ship anchored out in the Georgetown Harbor, so I looked online and found there was a tour of the Jolly Roger where they would take the kids and swear them in as pirates, make them swab the deck all while us parents drank rum punch. I knew Sarah would love it and I'll about any place that serves rum punch! She was going though her pirate phase thanks to the Scooby Doo movie "Pirates Ahoy!" and she had a blast. Jason walked the plank and we all jumped overboard and swam in the gorgeous water. I don't see they offer that any longer but it was a fun few hours for us as a family!
6. San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan is nice and I know that there is so much more to Puerto Rico than just Old San Juan, so it is some place that I would like to go on a separate trip. Flights from Florida are totally cheap and after everything they have been though after the hurricanes they really need the tourism dollars. We've stopped there twice and the first time, we did a guided tour with a tour guide, Albert Aguirre with Surf Cabs (don't know if he is still doing tours of the island) but we had a really nice time. He took us out to the El Yunque rain forest and let me tell you, they weren't kidding when they named it a rain forest. It was crazy wet there, but we had a blast!
When we went back to San Juan on another cruise a few years later, we walked out to the old fort and Sweet Baby Jesus, it was so flippin' hot and humid I thought I was going to die. Also, we were coated head to toe with mosquito repellent due to the Zika Virus outbreak, so I smelled like a citronella candle and looked like I just fell into a grease pit. I just couldn't get over the humidity. It was like being in a steam bath. It wasn't an environment very conducive to having an enjoyable time, but it is a beautiful city and one worth touring.
Old San Juan really is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to seeing Puerto Rico. There really is so much more. Beautiful beaches, beautiful, kind people and food that will make you never want to go home. Oh and did I mention that the delicious Pina Colada was invented in San Juan? Just another awesome thing to add to the list!
5. Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel is a great place, but remember that it is an island, so if you are looking to take a tour and go to the mainland of Mexico and visit the ruins of Tulum while you are in port, this would be the time I highly suggest you take a cruise line sponsored tour. Why would I recommend that when I hate being herded like cattle on tour buses? One word: SAFETY
Don't get me wrong...Mexico is a wonderful country with beautiful people, but like any place where there are a lot of tourists, there are bound to be some less than savory people and you don't want to put yourself in a situation where you may be taken advantage of. Put yourself in the hands of a reputable tour group that the CRUISE LINE uses, so in the event of something happening, like your tour bus being stopped in the middle of the road and armed hooligans board the bus and steal everyone's personal belongings (yes, that has happened before), you could get compensated by the cruise line and they could expedite you getting replacement passports, contact credit card companies, etc...
If you're just going to stay on the island, trust me y'all...you're as safe as kittens. You don't need to know Spanish, either, although it is always nice to try to speak the language. On our first trip there with Sarah, I had mentally practiced my Spanish because I knew she would want to go grab something to eat at the local McDonalds, as she was younger and had not developed a more educated palette. I walk up to the counter and proceed to order a cheeseburger, french fries and a small coke in Spanish. The guy behind the counter just smiled at me and in English as perfect as can be says "Would you like a Happy Meal for your daughter?" The point is to always try to speak the language, as it will be appreciated!
Recommended places if you just want to lie out by the water, have cocktails under coconut palms and watch the kids play:
-Paradise Beach Park
Located just 6 miles from the port, you can just grab a cab at the taxi stand outside of the cruise terminal and for $5 a person they'll take you there...It's super easy to hail a cab back as well!
"The facility fee is only $3 USD. There is a $18 USD fee only if you decide to use our 10-ft water slide, a Jungle Joe floating multi-tiered climbing structure, the Rockit circular water rocker, snorkeling gear, kayaks, beach floats, trampoline, iceberg, coconut tree climb and bungee trampoline jump. The $18 USD / person fee is good for the whole day and covers all of the toys mentioned."
There are food and beverage minimums for guests, but trust me, the food is good and the drinks are stong and cheap. As it says on their website, "Just like your home town bar or restaurant, we ask that you eat and/or drink while you are here ($10 minimum per person). It takes money to maintain such a clean and beautiful Beach Club with all these amenities! Kids under 6, however, are exempt from this policy."
Chaakanaab National Park
Alo within a cab ride distance from the cruise terminal, It is $21 to get in but there is no required food purchase. I was here back in 2002 and it was a super nice place. There is no sandy beach that gently slopes into the water. There are stone stairs that drop off into the ocean and it is AMAZING snorkeling. You can also swim with the Dolphins here. Don't make the mistake and book the Dolphin swimming tour to Dolphinaris, as it is located down towards the center of San Miguel and it was sad looking. I was so disappointed I booked the wrong place, but Sarah had a fun time. She didn't know the difference.
Dolphin Swim at Chakanaab: YES
Doplhin Swim at Dolphinaris: HELL TO THE NO!!!
San Miguel is the main town on Cozumel and where all of the shopping is located. A great restaurant to go to is Las Palmeras right in the center of town. Great food and huge ass margaritas! https://www.restaurantepalmeras.com/
There is tons of shopping to do, so a great way to approach things is to take a cab all the way down to the end of the main shopping district, then work your way back towards where you would go to grab a cab to head back to the ship. That way you're not back tracking and passing by stores you've already walked past and you don't need to worry about saying "no thank you" over and over again to store owners who want you to come in their place.
Just be prepared for every Diamond, Tanzanite, Emerald International store known to man. Don't waste you time there...seriously, the prices aren't that great. You can however, get a great price on Mexican Silver at some of the smaller stores. Just don't pay anywhere near the sticker price. You can bargain in any of the stores and they will take your US dollars.
4. Ocho Rios, Jamaica
We love Jamaica...the people are friendly, the food is excellent and the scenery is so very beautiful! We didn't want to do the traditional "Go visit Dunns River Falls" because we knew it would be way crowded and we wanted to see as much of the Ocho Rios area as we could. We contacted Yardie Tours http://www.yardietours.com and we booked the 4 hour Ocho Rios Highlights, Shopping and Lunch tour and we met with our driver Christopher right at the cruise ship terminal. We had such a great time. He was such a fountain of knowledge, telling us about the Jamaican culture, we talked about politics and since I knew in advance we were stopping by a local elementary school, as the kids loved when tourists came by, I brought two large canvas bags filled with school supplies for the teachers to share with the students. He took us to high above the city where we could see the whole landscape below. We went to a local open air, produce market where he purchased a bunch of different local fruit for us to try and that was where I learned I loved the mamey fruit!
We stopped for a lunch of jerk chicken, included in the price of the tour, and it was the first time I had ever tried it before. I was blown away...talk about delicious!!! After spending 4 hours with Christopher, we new we wanted to come back and visit the island and we did a few years later on both a trip to the Sandals Resort Montego Bay and then back again to Ocho Rios on another cruise stop.
On our second cruise to Jamaica, we took another tour with Yardie to "the Blue Hole". It is a freshwater spring out in the jungle and it is beautiful, much less crowded than other touristy spots and we had a great time. We also stopped for more jerk chicken for lunch and did a little shopping. You can trust Yardie tours for a great experience each and every time!
3. St. John, USVI
I have always wanted to visit the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, so when our shipped docked at St. Thomas, I had a game plan in order to get us to the other island so we could go snorkeling in Trunk Bay, one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Yes, our cruise ship was offering tours to get to some of the other islands, but we could do it much cheaper on our own and come and go as we wanted, so I had everything planned out in advance to get us off the ship and on our merry way!
First off, you need to do some planning. You need to check your arrival times in port and when you will be leaving port, because this is not just a get off the boat and grab a cab to the beach kind of deal. You are going to another island in the USVI chain, so you need to get off the boat ASAP, get into a cab to be taken to the Red Hook Ferry (you can check out the schedule here), then when you get to Cruz Bay on St. John, you will need to grab a cab to take you to the beach you want to go to...For us, it was Trunk Bay.
For example, on our coming March 2019 cruise we get to St. Thomas at 7:00 am and leave at 2:00 pm, which means you need to be back at the boat by 1 pm at the very latest. If you are in port for only a half day, I would NOT recommend leaving to go to another island. Truth be told, it would be cutting it very close to do a trip over to St John, because you have to plan on at least 20 minutes to get to the Red Hook ferry from the port, plus the travel time time the ferry takes to get to St. John (approx. 20 minutes, so let's say 30 minutes to be safe), then the cab ride from Cruz Bay in St. John to your destination Trunk Bay.
Just as a heads up, on St. John, an open air cab ride from Cruz Bay to Trunk Bay is $8 (each way) for one person, or $6/person for a group of 2 or more. and it's about a 15 minute drive.
So basically plan on at least 1 hour each way of cab rides and a trip on the ferry. So if you are one of the first people off the cruise ship, you MIGHT be able to catch the 7 am Ferry, but if not , you are waiting on the 8:00 am departure, so you would get to Cruz Bay around 8:30, then you still have to catch a cab to Trunk Bay.
Remember you would have to be back at your ship by 1:00 pm, so that means you would have to be BACK at the Cruz Bay Ferry in time to make the 12 noon return ferry, since the next one doesn't run until 1 pm and then you are risking missing your ship that leaves port at 2:00 pm, so you'd have to leave Trunk Bay at around 11:30 am.
When you think about it, it is a lot of work when you consider you still have to wait in line to rent snorkel gear at Trunk Bay (and they are really slow!) and so you get maybe 2 hours of beach time? I only suggest a side trip to St. John if you are there for a longer time...like maybe 4 or 5 pm.
That all being said, visiting Trunk Bay was worth it. The ferry ride in and of itself was breathtaking and Trunk Bay was gorgeous and great for snorkeling. The water was pristine and the beaches very. very clean with changing facilities, restrooms, showers and taxis waiting to take you back to the Cruz Bay Ferry.
You can do side trips like these on your own. It just takes planning and learning the schedules. When you do it, you will be so happy with yourself when you see those poor schmucks loading and unloading off giant buses looking bored and tired. Be a little adventurous!!!
2. Grand Turk Island, Turks & Caicos Islands
There really isn't much to Grand Turk Island, but this is a perfect spot to do absolutely noting, lie on the beach, drink very strong cocktails and swim in some of the most beautiful water ever! Most people get off the cruise ship and make a beeline for Margaritaville and spend a fortune on food, but seriously people, walk about a 1/2 mile down the beach and go directly to Jack's Shack. It is a beach bar and small restaurant that is run by two Canadians who decided to move south and open a beach bar. With their well known beach dog, Topher, who is a friend to everyone and their utterly delicious jerk chicken and cracked conch, this is THE place to spend your day.
Please note that in the past, they were a cash only operation, but they may take credit cards now. The bar opens at 9 am when the ships are in port, so it is always good to get their early if you want to stake claim to an umbrella table. You can rent beach chairs as well...
While we have rented a golf cart and explored the other parts of the island, there really is not much to see at all. It is a very dry, almost desert like place in areas and there is no real major development. I'm sure the hurricanes of last year took a serious toll. For the Joy Family, Jack's Shack is everything you could want or need on Grand Turk Island...
1. St. Martin (French)/Sint Maarten (Dutch)
Without a doubt, if you want to do some snorkeling and see as much of the island as possible, contact Captain Alan's Boat Charters at https://captainalan.com and see about booking a semi private excursion. We did this and it was SO AWESOME! Our boat captain for the day was Captain James Kirk (for real!) and he took us around all of the island, both French and Dutch sides.
Per their website "This is our renewed 4 hour trip in which we explore the beautiful north side of the Island, great snorkeling at two of the best reefs St.Maarten has to offer. Visit to the exotic beaches of Pinel Island and Tintamarre with their great atmosphere, great views, where we chill out and enjoy our awesome freshly made French bread sandwiches with Gouda cheese, salami and more...
Tintamarre is an uninhabited 2.5 square miles island with an awesome beach and magnificent views. First we dip in, snorkel and swim with the turtles. Then we end up on the beach and enjoy this incredible spot, a real paradise. Pinel Island is a delight. There is a very cool Tiki beach bar at this exotic location with great food and drinks under swaying palms. This was formerly a tiny French penal colony, from where it derives it's name, and it's now an exquisite little beach hangout, with great views & fantastic swimming in waist deep water, especially nice for kids."
We got to see Trump's estate on the French side of the island, and according to the captain, he never goes there (this was over a year before he took office). We saw a plethora of sea turtles and beautiful fish. Watching the planes coming in low at Maho Beach was always on my list of things to do and we set anchor in the bay to watch a few large planes come in. Talk about incredible!!! Instead of having sandwiches for lunch like they advertise, Capt. Kirk anchored us right off shore, we jumped off and walked up the beach to a beachside restaurant where I had the most fresh tasting grilled mahi-mahi I have ever had in my life. OMG, it was fabulous. I really need to find out the name of that restaurant, because we will go back!
After our snorkeling trip, we headed into town to pick up a few bottles of special MaDouDou Rum. The rum is made on St Maarten and only sold there on the island. The Guavaberry is wonderful mixed with Ting grapefruit soda and served over ice. That is now my official summertime poolside cocktail. We brought a few bottles of their rum back home to enjoy!
"Ma Doudou is a small family run business based in Cul-de-Sac. Its specialty homemade rum has been in productivity for more than 20 years. The quality of their products, their unique rum flavours and their original hand painted bottles make Ma Doudou rum the most popular and most appreciated rum in St. Martin. The unique flavours consist of Vanilla-Banana, Coco, Orange-Cinnamon, Passion Fruit, 3 spices, Pineapple, Mango, Mojito, Leche de Coco, Guavaberry and Orange-Ginger. We also offer homemade marmalades, specialty teas, spices, and oils. All of the products are 100% traditionally made by local craftsmen. The fruits are fresh and come from surrounding islands; cane sugar is used and cooked on location along with each bottle that is hand painted in our Creole house. Ma Doudou: A taste that will not disappoint you!"
We really wish we had more time there and we would go back for a multi-day trip if possible. Even if a cruise is the only way we can afford to get back there, we will one day and I am sure it will keep its Number One ranking in our eyes!