Picture yourself snorkelling in a secluded cove, wandering through narrow cobblestone streets, or sunbathing on a stretch of powdery white sand. The Caribbean offers thrills aplenty for the winter weary. Departure cities, itineraries, and ports of call may vary, but a Caribbean cruise practically guarantees sun-kissed shores, tranquil turquoise waters, azure skies, and balmy climes. Evelyn Byrne, Managing Director of Castle Travel, is a true cruise convert and has enjoyed cruises in this region among others.
The ports of call you visit will depend on the itinerary and cruise line, but how you spend the day on shore is entirely up to you. Book excursions before setting sail or while on board, or make your own arrangements in port.
Droves of visitors flock to Nassau, Bahamas every year, drawn to the charms of Old Town, the soft sands of nearby Cable Beach, and a bounty of colourful markets and duty-free shops. Take in the sights on foot, or hire a horse-drawn carriage for a romantic ride about town. Watch local craftsmen weave hats, shopping bags, dolls, and other souvenirs at the popular straw market, and marvel as fishermen unload crates of bananas, papayas, and pineapples at the Potter's Cay waterfront market. Other attractions include the Ardastra Gardens, which boasts its own flock of trained pink flamingoes, and Crystal Cay, a marine park featuring a unique underwater observation tower and nature trails that wander through lush tropical foliage.
San Juan doubles as a port of call and embarcation port, and its many attractions keep the cruise ships coming back for more. Restored Spanish colonial architecture, graceful plazas and promenades, and narrow cobblestone streets capture the charm of Old San Juan. Visitors can explore five centuries of history in a few hours, and still have enough time to relax on the beach or hit the casinos. Scuba diving, snorkelling, and deep-sea fishing are other popular in-port activities.
St Thomas is another favourite stop for cruise ships, and although this tiny island measures just 12 square miles, its shops and beaches pack a punch. Ships dock at Charlotte Amalie, where old-world charm meets new-world retail obsessions. Duty-free bargains abound, but according to the shopping mavens, the best deals to be had are on liquors and linens. The popular Limetree, Sapphire, and Brewer's beaches offer glowing white sands, stately coconut palms, and warm waters. Snorkelling equipment and lounge chairs are available for rent at many beaches, all of which are open to the public.
Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula is a popular stop for western Caribbean cruises. Ships usually dock on the island of Cozumel or across the strait in Playa del Carmen. Swaying palms and sun-drenched shores are standard, but Mayan ruins and top-notch diving are the real draw. Chichén-Itzá provides a peek into the past and wows visitors with impressive pyramids and temples. The more accessible and much-visited ruins at Tulum feature dramatic views of the Caribbean within the walls of an ancient Mayan fortress. Scuba divers from all over the world flock to Cozumel's Palancar Reef, which shelters elephant-ear sponges, black and red coral, and fish of every imaginable hue.
Cruise ships regularly dock in Jamaica's harbours. Do not miss Dunn's River Falls, where 600 feet of crystal-clear waters cascade through a tropical jungle onto the beach. Guides escort nimble visitors to the summit via a slippery stone staircase that winds through the waterfall. See how the other half lived at one of the plantation great houses that open their doors to tourists, like Rose Hall or Greenwood near Montego Bay. Exercise your gastronomic options with a plate of jerk chicken and a tall rum punch made from locally distilled spirits.
A laid-back attitude and British manners welcome visitors to sleepy Grand Cayman Island and passengers slip ashore in George Town just long enough to hitch a ride to Seven Mile Beach. The powdery stretch of sand measures just five and a half miles from tip to toe, but who's counting? Snorkel with slippery sea creatures in "Stingray City" or view endangered green sea turtles at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Aruba's arid climate doesn't seem to deter the island's many visitors. Seven miles of sugar-white sands and calm turquoise waters set the scene for top-notch sunbathing, swimming, and water sports. Sail or snorkel from Palm Beach, or stop for a tropical cocktail at one of the luxury resorts, which feature landscaped beachfront gardens and bustling 24-hour casinos. Glass-bottom boat tours and shopping are other popular activities for cruise ship passengers disembarking at Oranjestad.
Pink-tinged sands lead to crystal-clear waters on the island of Barbados which boasts some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. Favourite Gold Coast sunning spots, like Payne's Bay, Brighton Beach, and Church Point, are a short drive from the cruise ship terminal near Bridgetown, and visitors can refuel or savour the shade at the many beachfront restaurants and bars. Since it is a former British colony, expect to see manicured gardens, local cricket matches, and menus offering afternoon tea.
To find out more about cruises, make sure to come to Castle Travel’s Cruise Open day on Saturday November 15 from 12pm to 5pm. Their office is located in Castlebar on Ellison Street (between the Bank of Ireland and Heatons ). Or contact Castle Travel on 094 902 4244 where a travel consultant will be happy to recommend the right cruise for you.