Via magazine
Via magazine - Your AAA Magazine

Caribbean Cruising

Big ship or small ship? Here's two ways to cruise.

El Castillo at Tulum overlooking the sea, image
Photo caption
At Tulum, the largest building is the guard tower, nicknamed El Castillo.

Western Caribbean
Big Ship

It was in Jamaica, in the 1940s, that English playwright Noel Coward discovered his own Valhalla. He lived the last years of his celebrated life on this stunning Caribbean island, at Firefly, the beloved house that he built above Oracabessa, on Jamaica’s north side.We were on a tour bus in the port town of Ocho Rios, not far from Oracabessa. I looked out the window where a morning shower was clouding the fractured roads with mud. We weren’t going to Firefly. No, I mused, instead, we’re walking out into that mess in our swimsuits and... I don’t want to think about it.

Jamaica was our last stop in a week-long cruise through the western Caribbean, a world of periwinkle skies and bleached sand. We sailed on Carnival Cruise Line’s Destiny, the world’s biggest ocean liner, a mammoth luxury hotel on water, all lights, brass, and polished marble, and a glittering home away from home after exhausting days in port.

What this big ship cruise is like

The Destiny is like Vegas on water: nightly entertainment, continual dining and snacking, free 24-hour room service. About the only pleasures you pay for are gambling, drinks, and shopping.

This megaship holds more than 3,000 guests. The Destiny’s huge top deck is the world’s biggest tanning bed—row after row of lounge chairs occupied by bodies in search of a George Hamilton tan. After dinner, the thing to do ishead for the ship’s cushy 1,500-seat Palladium Lounge for the nightly floor show, including original, Broadway-style productions with a live orchestra. Guests also go to the Lounge before each portof call to hear short talks about what to do and see while on shore. Most of the talks were heavy on where to find the best shopping bargains and light on culture and history.

And we did exhaust ourselves. Even though the cruise was well-paced, with languid days at sea between ports, the Destiny made sure that no guest ever left any port bored or empty-handed. Our cruise called at Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. Since the ship docked less than a day at each port, Destiny guests, more than 3,000 of us, broke speed records to see how much snorkeling, scuba-diving, and shopping we could cram into our time on shore.Our first stop was Cozumel, a coral islet a dozen miles off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most folks chose to shop and party at Cozumel’s hopping town of San Miguel. But lots of us took the tenders to Playa del Carmen for shore excursions on the mainland.

We went to Tulum, a Mayan ruin about 45 minutes down the road from Playa del Carmen. Tulum is bound on three sides by walls made of the Yucatan’s ubiquitous limestone. Its fourth wall is the luminous Caribbean.

You can explore Tulum in a couple of hours. The best-known buildings, including El Castillo, a cliff-top structure topped by a temple, and the Temple of the Frescoes, a Mayan observatory, are roped off. But the site is concave, affording lofty views on the sides that expose the site’s ancient soul. A black-and-tan mutt, sprawled flatter than a tortilla, sunned himself in our path; dun-colored iguanas eye-balled us cautiously. Brambly palms and mangroves swallowed our voices and threatened to snatch back Tulum at any time. The tourmaline Caribbean beckoned folks to strip to their swimsuits and dive in from Tulum’s jewel-box beach. Many did.

Later, I cooled off by snorkeling in Cozumel, world-famous for snorkeling and scuba-diving. Considering how close we were to ship traffic and San Miguel, the water was remarkably limpid, with a hardy mix of brain, elkhorn, and stinging corals. A good chunk of Cozumel’s coral reef is protected, but souvenir-hunters snatch the coral anyway, rapidly destroying what has taken nature thousands of years to grow. ("You remember that the next time you see a piece of coral on your friend’s coffee table," said Lois, a local T-shirt merchant and reef activist.)

In the evening, we headed for a languid cantina, La Mision, where we scarfed chiles rellenos and cold guacamole, washed down with frosty beer and 7-up. You can take a cab to and from the ship, or even hire a horse and buggy for the entire evening (about $80). As the sun shrank into a searing gold band on the horizon, we decided to walk the peaceful four miles back to the Destiny before it pulled out for the Caymans.

If you have only a few hours in the Caymans, skip the land tours and head for the water—that’s where the best action is. Grand Cayman, our second port of call and the largest of three islands that make up the Caymans, is surrounded by coral reefs. We signed up for a morning snorkel tour off of St. George, Grand Cayman’s capital, to see the island’s unique underwater topography. But we saved the best for last—a snorkel tour in the afternoon to feed friendly stingrays.

About fifty of us landlubbers were bussed to Stingray Sandbar on Grand Cayman’s North Sound, home to a group of good-natured, gluttonous, stingrays that love to be hand-fed.

A welcoming committee of five dozen stingrays darted forward to greet the boat as we approached, and swarmed the first victim in the water, a man who shot his arms heavenward and shrieked. They skimmed through the swimming-pool blue water like rubbery flying saucers, curling around our legs like cats, begging for food.

Tentativeness gave way to giggles, punctuated by occasional bellows from those who had calamari gently sucked from their fingers. Wave a sticky morsel of calamari under the water and you are the center of a nibble frenzy.

One woman finally threw up her hands. "That’s it, I’m out of here," she announced, doing a hasty breaststroke back to the boat. Too creepy for her.

The morning threatened rain when we docked at our last port, Ocho Rios, in the center of Jamaica’s north coast. The port town was crowded and antiquated, but if you look beyond the dilapidated roads and the tin huts selling T-shirts and candy, you see an island of unearthly beauty.

Jamaica’s northern and southern coasts are separated by a backbone of mountains, including the famed Blue Mountains, running east to west, veined with more than 120 rivers, and thick with vegetation. Jamaica also has a profound sense of its identity; we were encouraged to act Jamaican when in Jamaica.

Our tour started in Ocho Rios, where, to the squeals of the ship’s souvenir hunters, we stopped at two lively tourist malls. Our tour ended at Dunns River Falls so we could climb...a waterfall? In an interminable morning downpour, we were hustled from the bus into the parking lot wearing only bathing suits and water socks. Somewhere through the rain I heard an ominous "shhhhhh" that intensified as we were led under the banana and breadfruit trees, and down to the ocean.

On the beach, tour guides hastily told us to form a human chain. Shhhhhhhhhh. I looked up at a steep mountainside of cascades tumbling down limestone terraces. At the bottom where we stood, the water splashed onto the sand and over our feet, headed for the denim blue ocean.

"Uh, oh," I muttered.

It was too late to wimp out. The guides shooed us forward.

"C’moncom’oncom’on! Gogogo!" they cried. Climb, you fool. Don’t hold up the line. Don’t break the chain.

We started up the face of the cascades, clasping each other’s wrists, soaked after ten feet. The falls were surprisingly free of algae, with lots of crannies for toeholds. Every few feet upward, there was a reprieve, a placid knee-deep pool of water. A college-age first-timer, Eric, sporting earrings in both earlobes and a tattoo on his calf, yanked me upward and waded through the water and the spray to help other shaky tourists.

Far above, I could see, like colorful ants, climbers who had made it to the top. This was a hopeful sign. Don’t ask me how I felt when I discovered "the top" was actually just one more of the terraces.

"We’re only halfway!" a waterlogged girl behind me cried.

"Gogogo!" Ubiquitous guides planted along the way constantly hustled us upward.

We reached the top jubilant and refreshed. You will, too. Get yourself a spicy jerk pasty and a cold Pepsi or beer at a snack hut in the parking lot. You’ll want it and deserve it.

And when you’re really worn out, the Destiny will be always waiting for you like an enormous womb. The ship is so huge that it has a seven-deck atrium, two floors of shopping, three swimming pools, and close to a dozen bars and discos. Most of the Destiny’s cabins—60 percent—have views, and many, like our room, have private balconies. Our room also had lots of closet space, a picture window, and a sitting area with sofa and table. There are few places that vacationers can travel like Hollywood royalty without breaking the household budget. So it’s no wonder that people are willing to wait months for a balcony room.

The ship is "cashless," meaning that on board, you pay for your drinks and shore excursions with a plastic card that the Destiny issues to each passenger at the beginning of the voyage. You can sign up for shore excursions through your cabin TV, and the end of your trip, you pay your shipboard bill with your own credit card via TV.

The Destiny holds a lot of passengers—3,400 on this cruise, plus a crew of more than 1,000. Its size and its reputation for round-the-clock razzmatazz attracts those looking for a floating party on water. The passengers loved to while away their time frying in the sun like oiled sea bass, killing a few brain cells with Woo Woo shots, and dining on cuisine that ranged from sublime (the best snapper I ever had) to the pedestrian (iceberg lettuce salad).

In fact, our ship was sold out. Our dinner mate, Mike, was on his third Carnival Cruise, and I overheard another guest already planning his next Carnival Cruise to the Southern Caribbean.

The Destiny takes its reputation as a Carnival Cruise "Fun Ship" seriously. If you don’t cha-cha your way through your cruise, then the Destiny feels it hasn’t done its job. On our week-long Caribbean cruise, the partying passengers consumed 8,000 gallons of alcohol.

Our only complaint was the indifferent service at the Pursers desk. We ran into a brick wall when we inquired how to arrange a plane trip from Cozumel to the Mayan ruin of Chichen Itza. The Destiny had no information about charter outfits in Cozumel, even though Chichen Itza is highlighted in the ship’s magazine as a possible tour to take on your own. We enjoyed the organized ship’s tours enormously, but ran into resistance when we wanted to diverge from the Destiny’s own shore program. —Lisa Kluber

southern caribbean
small ship

What is lovely about sailing the blue-green Caribbean on a ship with an eight-foot draft is waking each morning in the other Caribbean, the one the big ships never see. It’s the Caribbean of small villages free of the tourist throngs, and dreamy bays where humans are in short supply.

In a week on Clipper Cruise’s "Hidden Islands of the Grenadines and the Windwards and Leewards," I spent my days hiking the rainforests and colonial waterfront towns, hanging out on white sand beaches and floating in a lukewarm sea, watching the squirrelfish and flounders watch me. Late in the afternoon, on-board lecturers covered subjects such as "Planters, Sugar, and Slaves," or "Coral Reefs: Oasis in the Sea," or "Pirates, Privateers, and Buccaneers." Then the convivial crew of the Yorktown Clipper served exquisite food prepared by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. This ship’s lounge—which doubled as the lecture hall—offered the possibility of a late-evening drink, and maybe a quiet game of cards or backgammon.

What this small ship cruise is like

This Clipper itinerary sails to small ports of some of the southeastern Caribbean islands including: St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Union Island, and Bequia.

Entertainment consists of tours of the islands (priced from $19 to $80), beach lounging, snorkeling, and evening lectures by on-board naturalists, or an on-board historian. The one lounge/bar doubles as the lecture hall. Attire is casual, although some passengers dressed for the welcome dinner and the Captain’s dinner. There is one open-seating serving for dinner. For breakfast and lunch passengers can chose between a buffet, or full service in the dining room. The U.S. registered Yorktown Clipper has 4 decks, and carries 140 passengers, and a 40 person crew. Repeat customers are common, one couple was on their 13th trip.

But after dinner, sated and satisfied, I would usually head for my cabin and drift off to sleep, rocking back and forth in my little room on the Promenade Deck, knowing I would wake to yet another southern Caribbean island burst out of the fiercely blue seas.What is not lovely about being in the Caribbean on a cruise ship with an eight-foot draft is its propensity to bob and rock in sea swells. Without a deep keel, passengers are much more affected by seasickness. Our only bad night, however, was the first on open sea; then most of us found our sea legs.

Our week began on the Leeward Island of St. Kitts. When Christopher Columbus sailed west on his second voyage in 1493, he named the island "Saint Christopher" after the patron saint of travelers, and possibly himself. He called the neighboring island, "Nuestra Señora de las Nieves" or "Our Lady of the Snows," because of the wispy white clouds that shroud the tallest peak of what is now called Nevis.

St. Kitts and Nevis form one country—so far. The day we were on Nevis the locals were voting on a measure to secede from the dual-island government. It didn’t pass.

St. Kitts, the first British colony in the West Indies, was just one of the islands that the British and the French battled over many times. I passed up the tour of Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, and joined a rainforest hike and a tour of the Romney Manor, one of the island’s old sugar plantations. Today, the manor is home to a batik factory called Caribelle Batik. From Romney Manor, we followed our guide into the rainforest, stopping along the way to identify mahogany, towering gum, and giant trees with buttressed trunks. We kept our eyes out for the monkeys that consider these dense forests home. Alas, the only hominoid we saw swinging on the Tarzan-quality vines was our guide, and a few of the more adventurous cruisers with good upper-body strength.

The next morning I opened the curtains in my cabin as we were docking in Charleston, the largest city on Nevis. Both St. Kitts and Nevis are volcanic, as are many of the Lesser Antilles. Nevis drives skyward out of the sea, blanketed in green, all sides meeting at one major peak wrapped with clouds. In town, locals draped themselves out of windows of tin-roof shacks, or over chairs next to storefronts. Women sold fresh fruit on blankets spread in the streets. The small Horatio Nelson Museum (he stopped off on this island in the 1780s long enough to meet and marry Fanny Nisbett) is worth a stop, as is the philatelic bureau full of multicolored stamps in strange shapes, decorated with local fish and plants.

Most sugar production has moved to other parts of the world, but it remains an economic force on St. Kitts. On Nevis, tourism is the new economy; the new luxury Four Seasons hotel along Pinney’s Beach employs nearly a quarter of the island’s residents. That afternoon all Clipper passengers gathered on this beach to bob in the sea, or learn how to play Caribbean cricket from shipboard historian Barry Lane.

On the third day: Dominica. For me it was love at first sight for this island of twisting volcanic peaks, covered with water and greenery. Word is that when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella asked Christopher Columbus to describe Dominica, the explorer crumpled a piece of paper, and tossed it onto a table. "That," he said, "is Dominica."

Our taxi driver, arms flailing in all directions, shouted to us over his shoulder as we wound up the narrow, wet, road into the hills, "365 rivers, 29 miles long this way, 15 miles wide that way. We export water!" On the way to the rainforest and a small tumbling waterfall called Emerald Pools, he jerked the car to a stop, jumped out, ran into some orchards, and emerged with the sweetest oranges and grapefruits I’d ever tasted.

My afternoon was spent with native Dominican Bertrand Baptiste searching the rainforest for endangered parrots. Baptiste works for the forestry department studying two species of endangered parrots—the Jaco (Amazona arausiaca) and the Sisserou (Amazona imperialis). The largest of all Amazon parrots, only 300 or so Sisserous still exist, and the island protects and celebrates the bird with much fanfare. We wound our way around rainforest trees that reach high through the forest canopy to feel the sun. Bertram proudly told us that even his young son and daughter can name all the local birds by their calls, in their Latin names. When we arrived at the edge of a deep gorge, Bertrand immediately spotted a brilliant Sisserou across the gorge. A short while later a bright green Jaco flew into sight.

The next morning, two volcanic spires called the Pitons loomed outside my window. These green spires, Petit Piton and Gros Piton, welcome visitors to Soufrière, St. Lucia.

Our taxi-tour of southern St. Lucia included the Diamond Botanical Gardens and mineral baths where we got a close look at tropical ginger, heliconia, and jade plants. Because it is volcanic, St. Lucia is full of fumaroles and steam vents. From the gardens, we headed uphill to the putrid Sulphur Springs, a barren crater pocked with steam vents, then herded back into the taxi vans for one more stop at the Mourne Coubaril Estate, where workers split open coconuts with machetes for us to sip the sweet milk.

After an afternoon spent exploring Pigeon Island National Park, Fort Rodney, and the white beaches in Rodney Bay, we left St. Lucia, and headed to the Grenadines.

Next morning a deserted Chatham Bay, Union Island, lay outside my door. I chose to spend my last two full days in the Caribbean taking small boat tours. Thursday, on board the schooner Friendship Rose, we pitched in a wavy sea to tiny Palm Island and Mayreau, where as soon as we anchored, I grabbed my snorkel and mask, and jumped into brilliant waters. Underwater masses of fan coral waved back and forth in the soft tide, rows of barrel coral the size of washing machines dotted the sea floor.

Friday we docked in Admiralty Bay, Bequia (pronounced Bek-way). About forty of us had signed on for a catamaran cruise to snorkel along the shores of the private island of Mustique. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and other famous names have owned million-dollar homes here. This is idyllic Caribbean: painted wooden fishing boats along the beaches, palm trees leaning over the water’s edge, and pink and blue and green building facades lining the green lawns.

We arrived back in Bequia in time to wander Port Elizabeth. Admiralty Bay was dotted with sailboats, drawn here because of the strong winds and small protected bays. Bequia’s rich seafaring tradition includes boat building, whaling, and sailing. A small book store, and a model boat store stayed open late for the Yorktown passengers. Along the shore I passed a father bathing his young son by water’s edge. A man selling necklaces from a folding table tried his best to get me to buy, teasing and laughing with a Caribbean lilt. A jump-up taxi rolled past, locals hopping on and off the back.

Bequia was our last port of the week. After dinner I went up on the sun deck and stared to the west, watching the silhouettes of the sailboats fade in a flawless Caribbean sunset.

The next day, almost fifteen hours of travel time later, I was home in San Francisco, waiting for sleep to take over my exhaustion, but it wouldn’t. Something was missing. The motion. I missed the water, I missed the warmth of the sea, the air, the attitude. Most of all, I missed not knowing what would appear outside my window in the morning. —Maria Streshinsky

Photography courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in September 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.