When it comes to planning a cruise in the Caribbean, it’s hard to make a wrong decision as every destination offers something of interest – idyllic beaches, diverse activities and cultural attractions – and all unique and distinctive as the islands themselves. Perhaps the biggest choice is whether to cruise the crystal clear waters of the East or the azure waters of the West.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Heavenly Sunsets itinerary offers a ten-day voyage through some of the Eastern jewels of the Caribbean – St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. John, St. Bart’s and Nassau. A stop in St. Kitt’s lively capital of Basseterre offers a look at the city’s historical colonial past (National Museum, St. George’s Anglican Church and Independence Square) as well as a chance to snorkel, sunbathe and windsurf. The “Mother Colony of the West Indies” known as St. John is particularly notable for its Rainforest Conservatory complete with waterfalls, Mayan influenced sculptures and a variety of flora. And as one of the smallest of the trio of US Virgin Islands, calm and tranquility make it the perfect hideaway.
Gustavia, the capital of St. Barthelémy a.k.a. St. Bart’s, is the ultimate spot for sophisticated jet setters. Long known as a playground for the rich and famous, the French-speaking island offers glam in abundance with some of the most luxurious boutiques and restaurants in the Caribbean –and prices to match. And when you’re tired of shopping, shell hunting on the aptly named brown sands of Shell Beach is free.
Nassau marks the final stop where a viewing of flamingos at Ardastra Gardens & Zoo, a swim in the blue waters of Western Esplanade Beach or a visit to the outdoor Straw Market for souvenirs is the perfect way to spend the day.
For a tour of the West, the Tropical Essence ten-day cruise highlights destinations in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Cayman Islands and Key West. The popular city of Cozumel in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a diver’s haven, thanks to the underwater reef gardens and fauna as well as a great place for rappelling, zip lining and swimming with the dolphins. And if it’s land activities you are seeking, check out the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio.
With its coral reef filled with tropical fish, the Honduran island of Roatán also offers some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the world. And while we are on the subject of the best, Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach was named one the ultimate beaches by Caribbean Travel and Life where diving is the perfect place to spot a stingray or two.
Located on the southern tip of the Florida Keys, Key West is famous for its active Margaritaville style nightlife, historical sites and the former playground of writer Ernest Hemingway. After a morning of sailing, kayaking and shopping, be sure to explore the island’s unique architecture via a walking tour and catch the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (and perhaps say hello to a six-toed cat or two). And finally, a visit to the town’s irreverent cemetery reflects the off-beat nature of Key West where “I told you I was sick” is one of the many gravestone epitaphs.
HOW TO SAVE, HOW TO ENJOY
SOME TIPS TO HELP YOU SAVE
Finding Cruise Values
Those inexpensive Western Caribbean cruise promotions may sound like a terrific bargain, but you really need to know more. Ships have become fancier and offer more amenities, so trying to figure out the actual cost of your trip can be complicated. There is no one simple answer.
Historically, the only extra fees were crew tipping, beverages, ship-to-shore phone calls, gambling, excursions and gift shop purchases. Today, cruise lines are adding all sorts of interesting features, available for an extra cost. Extras may include exercise classes, Internet access with per minute charges ranging from $.35 to .25 and alternative dining options with a and up charge per person.
If many of these “extras” are important to you, consider upgrading your cruise line. Luxury lines tend to be more all inclusive and you can get more of your needs included in the cost of your cruise.
In any event, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your vacation cruise budget.
Look for Sales
The Internet is the best source for seeking out sales. Virtual travel agencies, particularly those geared to the do-it-yourself traveler, make it possible for you to act as your own agent. You can book your own cruise and even select your own cabin.
The Internet has a handful of high profile travel agencies with great reputations for accuracy, customer service and excellent pricing. They generally offer lots of extras along with recent consumer reviews.
The prices on a cruise line’s brochure should be considered sample pricing. Unless a particular itinerary is very special and demand is higher than supply, you should never have to pay the brochure price.
Pricing a cruise is a lot like looking for airline tickets. Fares constantly go up and down. Travelers who have the flexibility to wait until close to departure dates (three to six weeks before departure for cruises) may find the best rock bottom pricing. You may not be able to choose an outside room, but the pricing can be very attractive.
Another option may be to advance plan your cruise. Many cruise lines offer excellent fares and throw in otherwise expensive upgrades to people who book six months in advance and pay a deposit. The most valuable upgrade would be a “balcony stateroom for the price of an outside cabin”.
The official season for hurricanes is from June 1st through November 30th. This can be an excellent cruise time for bargain hunters.
The bar bill can often drive your on-board costs up. Look for discount packages such as “wine and dine” deals. Cruise lines will also offer a drink of the day special or a bucket of beer, five beers for the price of four. You can also save money by getting an all-you-can-drink soda card, which used to be limited to children.
Communicating back home from onboard can be very costly. You can expect to pay .95 to .95 per minute for ship-to-shore calling. One thing you can do is find a cyber center in a port and send emails from there at a fraction of the cost.
Using the spa on the ship can be very pricey, as much as for a 50-minute massage. One tip to help you save if you want to use the spa: book your time when the ship is in port. The price is often 10% to 20% lower at that time.
SOME TIPS TO HELP YOU ENJOY YOURSELF
The Western Caribbean ranks as one of the world’s great vacation destinations by combining some of the Caribbean’s most vibrant cultures along with natural wonders on land and sea. If offers the rich historical treasures of the Mayan Empire, a diver’s and snorkeler’s paradise as well as an archaeological treasure trove.
The sheer volume of Western Caribbean cruises attests to the fact it truly is a year round destination. Temperatures seldom vary from highs in the 80s and lows in the 70s, with humidity at the 70 percent level all year long.
Things to See and Do
Traditional ports in a Western Caribbean cruise often include: Belize City, Belize; Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Key West, Florida; Montego Bay and/or Ocho Rios, Jamaica and Progresso, Mexico. Here are some shore adventures you should take in these ports.
Belize’s 185-mile barrier reef is the largest in the Western Hemisphere, and the scuba diving is world class. Cruise ships offer supervised excursions for snorkelers at all levels. One of the most popular snorkeling spots along the reef is Shark/Ray Alley, where you share the water with southern stingrays and nurse sharks.
You should definitely see the great walled city of Tulum. The sixty-acre site features stone carvings, archways and architecture with “sundials” that light up during the solstices. Tulum’s main castle sits on a limestone cliff overlooking the Caribbean.
Take a stroll among the casuarinas trees along the white sands of Seven Mile Beach. But then take a boat trip to the famous “Stingray City Sandbar.” As you snorkel in the shallow waters, you will be able to feed the huge stingrays with chopped up squid provided by the tour operators. The rays will eat from your hand and are quite polite.
Save some time for a quick run to the Tortuga Rum Factory on South Church Street. The factory’s rum cakes are famous with flavors such as coffee and key lime. You can even purchase mini sized cakes for about and they make great gifts.
The southernmost point of land in the United States, the “Conch Republic” of Key West has a history as one of the favorite haunts of artists, celebrities, presidents and literary giants. Be sure to visit the Ernest Hemmingway Home and Museum and “The Little White House” where Harry Truman relaxed. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum houses millions of dollars worth of treasure salvaged from a Spanish Galleon.
You must also stroll down Duval Street, home to many shops and restaurants including Sloppy Joe’s Tavern where Ernest Hemmingway spent time writing and entertaining. Do not miss an opportunity to have some Key Lime Pie here.
Take an excursion to the 6,000-acre Rose Hall plantation. The plantation’s Great House, built in 1760, is said to be haunted by the ghost of its former mistress, Annie Palmer.
Dunn’s Rivers Falls is the place to see here. Climb a 600 foot high staircase surrounded by lush foliage as you watch the falls crashing down on a white sandy beach.
Many cruises offer excursions that focus on the arts, including visits to museums, galleries such as Harmony Hall and tours of Noel Coward’s beautiful retreat, Firefly.
The Mayan city of Chitzen Itza is a short two hours from Progresso. With its intricate temples, the famous pyramid of Kulkulcan, a sacred ball court and astronomical observatory, it is certainly worth the trip. Another important Mayan ceremonial center, Dzibilchaltun, is but fifteen minutes away.
If the ruins intrigue you, look for the face of the living Maya. The descendants of the Maya still thrive here, having preserved their language and many of their ancient ways.
These are but a few of the many adventures and sights you can visit and experience during your Western Caribbean cruise. There will be many more excursions offered by your cruise line, so investigate and take advantage of the beauty and culture of the Western Caribbean.
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