Our Top 10 Caribbean Cruise Experiences
By Susan J. Young
SouthernCruising.com™ is pleased to present this list of Our Top 10 Caribbean Cruise Experiences -- based on multiple sailings we've taken throughout the past several years to the Caribbean.
Read our list, see if you agree or not. And, then contribute your own ideas for your best Caribbean experiences.
1. Enjoy a Private Island Experience
If life's a beach, then a Caribbean cruise often delivers a beach plus a lot more -- the private island experience.
When you disembark from the ship to your pristine island getaway, you'll encounter welcoming local folks, gorgeous eco-scenery, a wonderful barbecue or buffet lunch, water toys and lots of unusual experiences. Holland America's Half Moon Cay is shown at right.*
What might you do at these islands? You might go snorkeling at Disney, horseback riding with Holland America, whale watching at Cayo Levanthado with MSC Cruises, enjoy a cabana massage with Princess Cruises or Disney Cruise Line, and try out water toys galore with Royal Caribbean International.
Some lines utilize sister line islands. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, uses the Holland America Island. Celebrity Cruises also calls at Royal Caribbean's island.
The only line with a private island dock is Disney Cruise Line. The big plus is that guests may forego the wait for any tender and simply walk on and off the ship at will.
Some lines without a private isle, create a similar experience. For example, Seabourn Cruise Line has a wonderful island experience at Virgin Gorda (it rents a beach club and facilities), complete with caviar in the surf.
For more detail on the top private island experiences, check out our previous Cruise Impressions story by Anne Kalosh about private island experiences
2. Savor an Alternative Restaurant Experience
The cuisine onboard most cruise ships is highly rated by guests. That's a given. But spend a bit extra -- $20-$30 per person on average -- and you might enjoy an evening that's not just a chance to chow down, but a savory dining "experience." This is the alternative restaurant experience, and you MUST do it once on your cruise.
Our favorite onboard alternative restaurant is Carnival's Supper Club (shown at left*) for the high quality of steaks, chops and seafood; see our recent story on the Carnival Freedom's Supper Club experience.
I've also enjoyed dining at Celebrity's classic liner-themed restaurants that boast actual artifacts from great ocean liners of the past. That experience delivers maritime history along with great food and good service.
If you like Italian food, then do not miss Sabatini's, one of Princess Cruises' alternative restaurants. Hint: do not eat much for lunch or breakfast if you opt for this experience.
Sabatini's specializes in cornucopia of Italian cuisine including antipasta, hot and cold appetizers, soup, an entree and dessert. Yes, you'll waddle out, but you have to do this experience at least once in a lifetime.
Some lines have alternative dining experience without charge; they only require a reservation. These include Oceania and Regent Seven Seas to name a few. We've eaten at most of those restaurants and they're excellent with a good aura and great service.
Some luxury lines have what we'd term "extreme" upscale fine dining experiences. For example, Silversea's Le Champagne experience carries a heftier price tag.
It's worth the bucks, however, for the more intimate dining experience with exceptional cuisine and wine pairings.
We also have sampled and enjoyed Le Bistro on NCL (shown at left*), Chops Grill on Royal Caribbean, and one particularly savory choice, Paolo, on Disney (designed solely for adults - so it's a relaxing fine dining experience without the kids).
3. Get Up Close with Sting Rays and Dolphins
We have chosen critter encounters with sting rays and dolphins as number three, primarily because we've known so many fellow cruisers who come back raving about these experiences. We enjoyed a sting ray experience in the Turks & Caicos one year; it was an unforgettable experience.
Something about communing up close with nature can be a rewarding experience, as one assesses the majesty of the marine animal kingdom.
In Grand Cayman, one of the island's most popular tours available from most cruise lines is the Stingray City tour. You're taken to a shallow spot of water offshore. Soon you're surrounded by sting rays waiting to be fed by the guide.
You may swim or snorkel with the rays, as in the photo at left, courtesy of Royal Caribbean.*
You might also touch sting rays at experiences available at Disney's and Holland America's private islands.
Dolphin swim tours are popular throughout the Caribbean in multiple locations; one dolphin encounter bookable on Royal Caribbean for a Jamaican port call is shown at right.*
The latest to tell us "it was the best experience of the entire cruise," was my cousin Sandra Bullock from central Florida; she recently returned from a Carnival cruise and swam with the dolphins in Cozumel, Mexico.
We've heard many similar comments from others over the years.
4. Amble through the Ruins
I never met a ruin I didn't like. For me, discovering history through magnificent ruins is a highlight of any vacation.
If you can handle an often rocky one hour ferry/catamaran ride across the channel from Cozumel to Cancun, and you are prepared for a full day on the road, then definitely book the Tulum shore experience on a Cozumel port call. (At left, Royal Caribbean guests are shown exploring one ancient site.*)
If your ship calls at Playa del Carmen, you may more easily visit Tulum - without the ferry ride.
Tulum is a stunning Mayan city set atop the cliffs along the ocean. With a spectacular setting, it's the easiest of the "big ruin" experiences on Cozumel port calls.
I also have taken a trip to a less well-known archaeological site in the Yucatan via a Princess shore trip; that too was rewarding, because it was more remote, less touristed.
Top Mayan shore trips, though, are a trio of big names. From Cozumel, it's a trip to Chitchen Itza. I don't recommend this for families. It's a boat ride, and then a very long ride of several hours to the jungle ruins. But if you are a fan of history, archaeology and want to see one of the most famous sites in the Mayan world, it's worth the trip. You will be tired by day's end.
In addition, cruisers also might visit the ancient Mayan cities of Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala (one of Tikal's temples is shown at right*) on cruises that call along the eastern coast of central America. Those typically involve a flight and then a drive to the ruins.
5. Tour Your Ship
In an age of tight security, bridge and engine room tours are now off limits for cruisers on many ships. A few, however, may offer such tours. Check your daily program for options; often you must sign up in advance and spots are limited. It's a fascinating experience to sit in the captain's chair on the bridge and realize that the ship can be manuevered through a joystick (yes, just like a video game).
One tour that's become highly popular is the galley tour. When you realize that a cruise line prepares a la carte dinners for 3,000 or more people a night and orchestrates that with precision, it's amazing. Most hotels serving groups can only muster a "set menu" to serve so many people in the same amount of time.
So head back behind the galley doors to watch the pastry chefs, see soup preparation, learn how the orders are placed and picked up and visit with the staff. It's fun and makes you appreciate your dinner even more.
Another new trend is the art tour; many lines have rolled out tours of the extensive art collections onboard. Holland America recently introduced iPod art tours onboard its ships, for example.
6. Shop 'Till You Drop
Cruise lines aren't stupid; they've figured out that the way to your wallet is to open bigger and more spectacular onboard shops.
Shopping has become "the activity" for many on sea days (a Princess Cruises' shopping trip by guests is shown at right*), and duty free shopping is available at nearly all Caribbean islands.
St. Thomas, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, St. Maarten and other islands offer a plethora of goods -- from local crafts to high-quality diamonds and pearls.
You'll also have your choice of crystal and china wares, fine clothing and electronics.
Souvenir-wise, there are the usual tee-shirts, cups and tacky fare. That said, what would a vacation be without those. Cruisers headed for Nassau might saunter through the Straw Market for such souvenirs as well as hand-crafted goods.
Either you're a shopper or you aren't. If you are, the Caribbean is a prime area for getting the goods.
7. Head for the Jungle (or Mountains, Beaches, Caves, etc.)
There's something primordial about journeying into a deep, dark jungle. Increasingly, cruisers are doing just that with new zip line adventure tours through jungles in the Caribbean.
From Belize to Coco Cay (Royal Caribbean's private island experience in Haiti), new shore trips are allowing guests to hook up to a line and fly through the rainforest or down a mountain.
Personally, I prefer a bit more tame adventures. On one Seabourn cruise I took a Martinique full-day rainforest adventure to explore the country's interior rainforest and visit other sites around the island. The scenery was superb, and of course, it was raining in the rainforest, but it just added to the cache.
Another option is to visit the volcanic rock Baths on Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands; this unusual rock formation cascades down to the beach. It's eerie, adventuresome and a site of pristine natural beauty.
Snorkeling and scuba diving are also extremely popular on Caribbean cruises. There is something to be said for getting out and enjoying scenery -- both above ground and below water -- that you don't have at home. The Caribbean has plenty of these options.
8. Enjoy the Show
One of the best things about a cruise anywhere in the world is that it's a highly inclusive product. Among the perks included in your cruise fare is entertainment.
Many lines have high-class production shows. We enjoyed a lively New Orleans show onboard Carnival recently (one Fun Ship show is shown at right*), and we've always liked NCL's Jean Anne Ryan productions.
A cruise ship show is the next best thing to Las Vegas or Broadway. You can usually choose from two times for the same show each evening, so you have flexibility in setting your schedule.
One real treat is the ice show on Royal Caribbean. Again, this isn't Ice Capades, but it's close.
The skaters do some amazing things, considering the smaller size of the ice rink (see photo at left*) and the fact that the ship is moving. The costumes for the ice show are Broadway-quality.
Take time, though, to enjoy the smaller entertainment venues around the ship -- perhaps a piano bar or a lounge with a cabaret act. Sink into a comfortable chair and enjoy a drink, and savor the live music.
Also, some lines, such as Cunard, are known for ballroom dancing with a live orchestra. Regent Seven Seas recently debuted the largest orchestra on a luxury line at sea and a completely new entertainment product.
9. Test Your Limits; Learn Something New
The ultimate test for cruisers seeking thrills is to try the surf pool onboard Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas or Liberty of the Seas.
It's actually a bit harder than surfing in the ocean, they say. I admit, I haven't done it. But I've watched and it's a lot of fun to become an armchair surfer and just watch.
Kids are often much better at learning than adults, but anyone who tries deserves a medal and certainly gets bragging rights at the dinner table.
Rock climbing on Royal Caribbean and some NCL ships is also an extreme sport that many cruisers enjoy.
But physical pursuits aren't the only ways you can stretch yourself -- by learning something new.
Try the pottery classes on Princess, take a computer course on Crystal, try scuba lessons, take a cooking class on Holland America (as in the photo at left*), or go shopping with the chef to learn what he or she looks for when buying fresh produce.
On Costa, you might even learn how to dance the tarantella, a classical dance with instantaneous spins and directional changes
One of the best things about a Caribbean cruise is checking out the daily program to see what special activities appeal. So yes, by all means go to bingo, an art auction, pool games and any other pursuits you love on a cruise. But broaden your horizon as well -- by diving into something new.
10. Savor Your Private Balcony
As most travel agents will tell you, those who book a balcony on one cruise usually never go back to an oceanview cabin or an inside cabin. Once they've had one, they're hooked.
Yes, it's true that cruisers may only spend a limited time on their balcony, so what's the big deal? It's really the "opportunity" to go outside anytime you want in a private manner.
Simply pop outside whenever you wish to grab a breath of fresh air. Enjoy the sunset or al fresco dining with your spouse. Grab your camera and snap away as El Moro comes into view as your ship sails by.
Take time for a quiet moment -- just you and the sea and sights. A balcony is an outdoor experience away from the fray of the ship's public areas. Spend quality, private time with your family. And, if you're on a huge ship with thousands of others, you know you always have a private spot to sit outdoors and enjoy the view.
Princess' Balcony Breakfast is a robust option designed for dining on your balcony. Most lines are happy to serve your room service order on the "patio."
So, these are our Top 10 Caribbean Cruise Experiences. There are undoubtedly others.
What are yours? What experience particularly "made" your Caribbean cruise vacation? Do you agree or not with the above? Everyone has their own experiences.
So send us your Top 10 or other comments on our Reader Feedback Form.
*Photos by Susan J. Young or various cruise lines and destinations. All rights reserved. Please do not copy nor link to these photos. Thank you.