The Islands of the Eastern Caribbean
By Sara Macefield | 5 May 2020
If you’re in search of fabulous scenery, sandy beaches and crystal-clear water, head for the world’s most popular cruising spot – you won’t fail to be impressed by the sights, sounds and colours on offer in the Eastern Caribbean.
With its beautiful crystal-clear waters and simply idyllic island hideaways, the Caribbean has proved irresistible to seafarers since it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century.
English, Spanish and French explorers followed in his footsteps in search of New World treasures. Today, however, modern-day sailors on sleek yachts or passengers relaxing on the many cruise ships ply these waters, seeking riches of a different kind: the fabulous scenery, gentle trade winds and year-round warm climate have turned the Caribbean into the most popular cruising spot on the planet.
With 7,000 tropical islands, there’s plenty to tempt cruise ships of all shapes and sizes to this corner of the world. Stretching in an arc, southwards from Puerto Rico to Grenada, the Eastern Caribbean includes the main islands of Barbados, Antigua and St Lucia, while further south, and closest to the South American coast (just a few miles from Venezuela) are the sister islands of Trinidad and Tobago and the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao to the west. Here’s a quick guide to some of the most favoured islands for cruisers.
This island boasts a rich maritime history, from when a young Horatio Nelson was based here in the 1780s. Now Nelson’s Dockyard sits proudly as the world’s only working Georgian dockyard and has been lovingly preserved. Antigua is one of the world’s top sailing spots and its Sailing Week every April is well known for its races and parties.
The capital, St John, is where cruise ships moor up and passengers step ashore into the modern Heritage Quay pedestrianised shopping area. Taxi drivers, who are also qualified tour guides, gather here and offer island tours that tend to cost a lot less than cruise line excursions. Discover St John’s bustling streets and its impressive cathedral, or try one of the island’s many beaches. Antigua lays claim to 365, one for every day of the year, and Dickenson Bay, just a 15 minute taxi ride from where the ships moor, is worth a visit.
Probably the best-known Caribbean island, Barbados is a haunt of the rich and famous. Its exclusive west coast is where you’ll find some of the best hotels, and best restaurants too – The Cliff and La Mer are both easily reached for a spot of lunch, although it’s advisable to book in high season (February/March).
Cruise ships dock at the main port on the outskirts of the capital Bridgetown – a 20-minute walk or five-minute taxi ride away. The city itself is lively and cosmopolitan, while the island’s pretty countryside is dotted with traditional English-style stone churches and grand old plantation houses. Of the wealth of excursions offered to cruise passegners, A Best of Barbados tour will cover much of the island, while other popular attractions include the Atlantis Submarine or a visit to the Concorde Experience to see one of the British Airways Concordes that used to fly to the island. Independent-minded passengers hoping to pick up their own tours at the port, like you can on other islands, will be disappointed however, as security at the port prevents this happening – it’s best to make arrangements in advance.
With its lush, rugged scenery, prominent twin Piton peaks, tropical rainforest, the world’s only drive-in volcano and pretty waterfalls, St Lucia is one of the most beautiful islands. The main tourist areas are in the flatter north of the island at Rodney Bay, noted for its wide curving sandy beach, and a short distance from the capital Castries, where the cruise ships dock. There are two duty-free shopping centres here, but visitors wanting to explore can unearth the island’s natural attractions in Soufriere in the south. Getting to the south is a bit of a journey, so it’s best to go on an organised tour, but once there you can swing on a zip-wire through the rainforest or skim the treetops on the Aerial Tram.
Known as the so-called “Nature Isle” of the Caribbean for its stunning rugged lush mountains and rainforest, Dominica is a perfect unspoilt retreat and a regular cruise stop, the ships moor close to the sleepy capital Roseau. Boasting some of the region’s most varied flora and fauna, including the world’s second-largest boiling lake and numerous waterfalls, this is the place for trekking through rainforests, meeting indigenous tribes, and taking boat trips to spot whales and dolphins – all excursions on offer.
Nicknamed the “Spice Island”, Grenada has been famous for growing more spices per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Less commercialised and more unspoilt than some of its neighbours, the capital St George’s (passengers exit the cruise port directly into the town) is one of the prettiest towns in the Caribbean. Whilst there, visit some of Grenada’s spectacular beaches and lush rainforest where tropical fruits and spices grow, or take a tour of the small factories where they are processed.
St Vincent and the Grenadines
This string of 32 islands stretching from St Vincent in the north to Grenada in the south represents the traditional Caribbean and is popular among smaller cruise ships that can easily moor up. This was the setting for the Pirates of the Caribbean films and with its deserted islands, pristine beaches, azure waters and hidden coves, it’s easy to see why. Popular stops include pretty Palm Island, exclusive Mustique and the beautiful Tobago Cays.
British Virgin Islands
This collection of more than 50 islands, islets and cays makes up one of the most beautiful parts of the Caribbean and is perfect for those wanting to get away from it all and enjoy the sleepy surroundings. The main islands are Tortola and Virgin Gorda, which, with their lush mountainous terrain and dazzling white sand beaches, are favoured cruise stops. One of the most popular sights on Virgin Gorda is The Baths, a collection of granite boulders containing grottoes and pools, while the safe, clear waters around the islands are noted for their fantastic sailing and good diving.
Trinidad & Tobago
These sister islands are like chalk and cheese and cruises tend to stop at one or the other. Both are recognised for their fantastic birdlife, flora and fauna but Trinidad, the larger of the two, is more developed as a commercial and industrial hub. It is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular carnivals which bursts on to the streets every February. In contrast, Tobago is an unspoilt, typical Caribbean island with alluring white beaches, small villages, boutique hotels and smart new resorts.
One of the smaller, lesser-known islands, St Kitts has a lush tropical landscape dotted with abandoned sugar mills and romantic plantation house hotels. Cruise passengers moor up at Basseterre, the charming capital with its Georgian architecture and even a tiny Victorian-style roundabout called Circus that’s modelled on London’s Piccadilly Circus. Visitors can soak up the views of St Kitts’ sister island Nevis from the virtually deserted beaches (if you want to be independant you’ll need a taxi to take you) or chose to head inland, perhaps on an excursion, to explore the rainforest, take the scenic railway – the first of its kind in the Caribbean – and visit the historic Brimstone Hill Fortress.
The French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Barthelemy (usually known as St Barts) and St Martin offer an intoxicating mixture of Gallic chic and West Indian charm with sumptuous hotels, stylish boutiques and some of the best restaurants in the region. Martinique is famous as the birthplace of Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s famous consort, while St Barts is a magnet for the celebrity set.
US Virgin Islands
The US Virgin Islands offer a trio of different experiences albeit with a strong American flavour. St Thomas is the most popular cruise stop and a lively, commercialised hub full of shops. St Croix attracts its fair share of ships but is quieter than St Thomas, while St John is the most beautiful and unspoilt. Puerto Rico is a melting pot of Spanish, Indian and African cultures even though it’s a US territory and its lively capital San Juan has luxury hotels and plenty going on. Further afield you’ll find fertile rainforests, colonial towns and numerous beaches.
The ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao offer a combination of Dutch culture combined with Spanish, Caribbean and American influences. Aruba is the most Americanised with casinos and sprawling resorts; Bonaire is famous for its fabulous diving; and Curacao is known for its pretty historic capital Willemstad, full of Dutch-style buildings. Another Dutch outpost, and regular cruise stop is St Maarten – the Dutch side of the island of St Maarten/St Martin which is shared with France. The Dutch portion is known for its colonial buildings and casinos, while the French side is admired for its array of chic shops and restaurants.