Expert guide: Top Caribbean ports - Cruise International

Expert guide: Top Caribbean ports

By Cruise International | 10 Nov 2022

Beautiful white sand beach in Caribbean Islands

Caribbean. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto/IngaL

Add a little spice to your next winter-sun sailing with Caribbean expert Nigel Tisdall’s guide to the region’s most colourful Caribbean ports of call.

This winter is going to be a fabulous time to take a Caribbean cruise. Covid protocols have been lifted in many islands, testing and vaccination requirements have been eased on many ships and there is an exciting choice of itineraries exploring the balmy region of the Caribbean – including some that sail there from the UK.

How do you decide where to go? A key part of these Caribbean island-hopping adventures are the ports of call where you’ll have the best part of a day to taste the distinctive culture of each destination, visiting top-class sights and yes, relaxing on a palm-lined beach with a hit-the-spot rum punch.

Expert advice: Top ports in the Caribbean

From engrossing World Heritage sites to soul-soothing sands, here’s our guide to the best Caribbean ports and places to take your sun hat on a tropical Caribbean cruise you won’t forget.

St George’s, Grenada

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Grenada. Credit: Shutterstock/Peter Krocka

See: With its lush greenery and colourfully painted houses, the Spice Island boasts one of the Caribbean’s prettiest harbours. It’s best explored on foot (but be warned, there are some steep hills), savouring its tumbledown character and calling into the House of Chocolate to learn about Grenada’s artisan chocolate-makers.

For lunch, try grilled fish or curried goat in a restaurant on the Carenage. An excursion following the winding roads into the forested, mountainous interior is also great fun. Don’t bother with the touristy waterfalls – head instead for the Belmont Estate plantation, where you can learn about the island’s bountiful produce, then visit the seafront nutmeg-processing station at Gouyave and the water-powered River Antoine rum distillery, where they’ve been making the strong stuff since 1785.

Save: If you plan to devote at least one day of your cruise to relaxing on the beach, make it the well-kept, 1.5-mile-long sands of Grand Anse. A taxi there takes around 15 minutes, but you can also go by water taxi in five; or, for a mini adventure, jump on the local bus.

Sail: A 30-night Springtime in the Caribbean cruise aboard Saga Cruises’ Spirit of Discovery, departing Portsmouth on March 5, 2023, costs from £9,522 per person (saga.co.uk). Other lines visiting St George’s include Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, Hurtigruten and NCL.

Willemstad, Curacao

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Willemstad, Curacao. Credit: Shutterstock/SCStock

See: This World Heritage-listed Dutch Caribbean port soon has you reaching for the camera to snap its colour-charged waterfront buildings, vivid street murals and the historic neighbourhood of Pietermaai.

You can walk from the cruise terminal to the city centre, which has two parts, Otrobanda and Punda, that are connected by a pontoon bridge. Lit up at night, it’s an enjoyable place to stroll, with Plasa Bieu, a former market turned casual lunch venue, a good place for fish and goat dishes from a choice of vendors. Transport is required to reach the best beaches, such as Playa Porto Mari and Playa Kenepa, but expect them to be busy.

Active cruisers will relish Curaçao’s snorkelling and diving, while Christoffel Park has hiking trails, driving routes and the Savonet Museum, so start early to make the most of it.

Save: Don’t waste money on blue curaçao, a sweet and lurid liqueur made with bitter orange peel that’s promoted everywhere. Beauty and health products made using the island’s aloe vera are a much better gift or souvenir.

Sail: A seven-night Tropical Delights cruise with Marella Cruises on February 5, 2023, costs from £1,500 per person including flights (tui.co.uk). Other lines visiting Willemstad include NCL, Silversea and Windstar Cruises.

Bridgetown, Barbados

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Lone Star Restaurant

See: A firm favourite with British travellers, Barbados feels like home with its parish churches and love of cricket and gardens. There’s lots to see, so try a tour with the effervescent costumed guides known as The Characters of Town.

Bridgetown’s Garrison Historic Area has been awarded World Heritage status for its colonial architecture, and the restored Synagogue Historic District has a fascinating backstory.

The countryside is a delight to explore, with the highlight being stately home St Nicholas Abbey. As you’ll most likely visit better beaches elsewhere on your cruise, concentrate on cultural sights or a slap-up lunch at one of the excellent seaside restaurants such as Champers, Lone Star and Paul Owens at the Beach House.

Save: Taxis are pricey so use the blue-and-yellow public buses. It’s a fun way to explore the beaches and shops on the west coast, with a flat fare of BDS$3.50 (about £1.50, cash only).

Sail: A 27-night Grand Caribbean Celebration cruise aboard Queen Mary 2, departing Southampton on December 15, costs from £2,949 per person (cunard.com). Other lines visiting Bridgetown include Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and Seabourn.

Fort-de-France, Martinique

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Bibliothèque Schoelcher, Martinique. Credit: Richard Haughton

See: Commanding the huge Baie de Fort-de-France, the ebullient capital of this tropical outpost of France presents an engaging mix of Gallic tradition and Caribbean vivacity. You can stroll to its historical centre from the cruise ship piers, pausing at craft stalls and markets that do an attractive line in local spices, sauces and cosmetics (take euros in cash).

For a laid-back lunch of grilled langoustines, take the ferry to Anse Mitan. If you fancy a tour of this super-scenic volcanic island, book one that drives along the Route de Trace and calls into former capital St-Pierre, then follows the enchanting coastline that inspired painter Paul Gauguin. Alternatively, lovers of art and rum will appreciate the Habitation Clément distillery and sculpture garden near Le François.

Save: Entry is free to the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, a public library built in Paris in 1889 then shipped over. Today it graces the northwest corner of leafy Place de la Savane.

Sail: A 20-day Caribbean Explorer cruise aboard Enchanted Princess, departing Fort Lauderdale on February 17, 2023, costs from £2,399 per person excluding flights (princess.com). Other lines visiting Fort-de-France include MSC Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Ponant.

Bassetterre, St Kitts & Nevis

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St. Kitts Scenic Railway.

See: Cruise ships dock in the centre of the St Kitts capital and although it’s enjoyable to mosey around the old streets, your time will be better spent hotfooting it to the island’s more exceptional sights.

First up is Brimstone Hill National Park, a World Heritage Site home to a colossal British fort from the 1690s known as the ‘Gibraltar of the West Indies’. Equally unique is the St Kitts Scenic Railway. This follows a narrow-gauge line originally used for sugar cane and trundles around the north coast to the accompaniment of a cappella singers in traditional dress – timings fit with cruise schedules.

The best and liveliest beach is a half-hour drive away in the south at Cockleshell Bay, or there’s South Friar’s Bay, which is closer and has several bars. Golfers can hit a ball at the Royal St Kitts Golf Club where the palm-dotted course stretches between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

Save: Join locals for a friendly and inexpensive lunch at tiny El Fredo’s, on Newton Bay Road, where the menu is as Caribbean as it gets – think grilled fish, Creole chicken and fried plantain.

Sail: A 14-night Caribbean cruise aboard P&O Cruises’ Arvia – the line’s new ‘sunshine’ ship set to launch in December – departs Bridgetown on March 3, 2023, and costs from £1,999 per person including flights (pocruises.com). Other lines visiting Basseterre include Holland America Line, Star Clippers and Viking.

Nassau, The Bahamas

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Nassau. Credit: Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation

See: Cruise ships dock in the heart of the Bahamian capital so expect to emerge into a melee of vendors, discount stores and handsome heritage buildings. To stretch the legs, take a walk up to Fort Fincastle, which was built in 1793 and is intriguingly shaped like a paddlewheel steamer, with fine views over the port.

The National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, housed in an elegant 1860s mansion, is worth some time, along with the absorbing miscellany of island finds in the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas. After that, you’re free to do what everyone else is here for – drinking cocktails, hitting the casinos and having fun on the beach. Nassau lies on the north coast on New Providence island, with Junkanoo Beach a 15-minute walk west, or take a taxi to Cable Beach, which is lined with hotels and stretches for three miles.

Save: John Watling’s Distillery is an old estate and small-scale rum producer in Downtown that offers complimentary tours and is home to a variety of birds.

Sail: A four-night Key West & Bahamas cruise aboard Celebrity Silhouette, departing Miami on November 17, costs from £392 per person excluding flights (celebritycruises.com). Other lines visiting Nassau include Carnival, MSC Cruises and P&O Cruises.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

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San Juan, Puerto Rico. Credit: Getty Images/Napa74

See: Founded in 1521, San Juan is dramatic testimony to the power and wealth of colonial Spain. The capital of this energised US territory, where the music and good times never seem to stop, is about to rise up the ranks of the world’s key cruise ports with a planned multi-million-dollar upgrade to welcome bigger ships and enhance its cruise terminal.

Most visitors are happy to explore its historical core, Old San Juan, crowned by the mighty forts of San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal. Both offer guided visits, with the first a popular spot for picnics and kite flying. There are plenty of special interest tours focusing on Puerto Rican food, cocktails, photography and salsa as well as cultural landmarks, or you can just wander freely admiring the churches and shops.

A popular spot to relax is the courtyard of Barrachina restaurant where the piña colada may or may not have been invented in 1963. Either way, you’ll have to try one…

Save: A free trolley runs between the cruise ship pier and the historical centre, handy if you’re tired or have done too much shopping.

Sail: Virgin Voyages’ Eastern Caribbean Antilles cruise includes a late night in San Juan, from £1,114 per person for eight nights departing from Miami on December 3, excluding flights (virginvoyages.com). Other lines visiting San Juan include Royal Caribbean, Azamara, Carnival and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

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