Looking To Start Cruising Again? The Caribbean Will Be Ready Soon!
Over the next several months a number of shorter Caribbean cruises will be available. The North American cruise industry is going to focus on Caribbean itineraries to begin with and we can expect a competitive marketplace to develop. The US CDC is still limiting cruises to 7 days or less out of U.S. ports but that still makes for some good cruising.
The Caribbean and the Bahamas is one of the most popular itineraries in the cruising world . Taking a three, four or five day cruise out of Florida is a great way to sample cruising at a very inexpensive price (some 3 and 4 day cruises are as inexpensive as $200 to $300* per person). Royal Caribbean and Carnival have a number of these itineraries sailing out of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral all year round. In addition to these two cruise lines there are a number of additional lines in the market with many of them sailing only seasonally.
The Bahamas cruises are probably the most economical and usually include a stop in Nassau or Freeport and a day at one of the “private islands”. If you are booking one of these cruises and can swim, one of the best excursions you can take is a snorkeling trip. Everyone should experience this at least once in their life because there is nothing to compare to gliding over a coral reef watching marine life swimming all around you. If your stop is Nassau we would also recommend going over to Paradise Island and visiting the Atlantis resort. There is a daily admission fee and most cruise ships also offer tours but it includes sea life exhibits, beaches, a water park, casino, restaurants and bars. In addition you can walk thru Nassau town and shop for souvenirs, duty free watches, jewelry, clothes and liquor (see customs rules below). The private islands offer a day of beaches, barbecue, water sports and more.
There are also west-bound short cruises which usually include Cozumel, Grand Cayman and often Key West. With our favorite stop actually being Kew West with its shops and restaurants. One of our favorite attractions is the small aquarium only a short walk from the pier. Unfortunately cruise ships must sail well before sunset so you will miss the sunset celebration at Mallory Square (the large cruise ships would block the view of the setting Sun) which is the best show in town.
Stopping in Cozumel offers some duty free bargains (be sure and pick up vanilla) including silver, onyx and tequila (see customs rules below). The cruise ships will offer tours including beach trips and snorkeling but our recommendation is to take a taxi to Chankanaab Beach Park and pay the admission. You’ll save a lot of money and can go and return when you want. Chankanaab Beach offers a bar, food, snorkeling rental and beach chairs and the water is great. Reefs are a bit of a swim to get to though. There are two cruise ship areas in Cozumel. One is downtown and only a short walk to shops and the infamous Senior Frogs. The other is a bit north (actually two pier areas) with shopping areas dedicated to cruise passengers. There is also a smaller version of Senior Frogs which actually has a good snorkeling area right next to it. A warning if your group includes teenagers because one of the local pastimes is pouring tequila into young Americans, so keep a watch.
Grand Cayman is the other usual stop on these itineraries and offers probably the best duty free shopping on this cruise. It is a tender port (you have to take boats in from the ship) which drops you off right in the center of Georgetown. Grand Cayman is dotted with great beaches (one five miles long), terrific snorkeling and diving and every American chain restaurant you can name. A word of warning, The Cayman dollar is permanently fixed to the US dollar with the exchange rate being one Cayman dollar equaling US$1.25 so everything is 20% more expense than it appears. Our recommendation for a great day is a tour to “stingray city” but it is advisable to book thru your ship. It is a long day and sometimes it gets dangerously close to missing the sailing. Pick one that visits the stingrays and also a coral reef for snorkeling.
If you are looking for a little bigger taste of the Caribbean than a three or four day cruise the next step up is the week-long cruise. The major Cruise lines typically divide their itineraries between east and west Caribbean. The east itineraries usually include St. Thomas and the Dutch side of Sint Maarten and often Nassau or Freeport and sometimes Haiti (another private beach area). The west itineraries usually include Grand Cayman and Cozumel with one or two additional ports. These can be Negril Jamaica, Roatan Island Honduras http://www.honduras.com/roatan/ , Costa Maya and sometimes Key West. With a few exceptions most of these ports have a few things in common. Beaches, water sports, diving and snorkeling and if that is your interest we would suggest packing a couple of beach and swim outfits, and to save money bring lotion and a mask and snorkel. Often buying an inexpensive mask & snorkel at home is cheaper than renting at a Caribbean beach.
Costa Maya is a Mexican port that has been developed out of the jungle by the Mexican government as a new resort area. When we first visited fifteen years ago it was a pier, a half dozen tourist shops, a bar and an undeveloped beach area. It has now grown into a town, a number of new beach resorts and a nicely developed public beach area.
Roatan is another stop that is often included on the four or five day cruises and is also very popular with ex-pat Americans and retirees. It has also changed a lot over the last decade or so as a cruise destination. When we first visited the ship docked at the Port of Roatan and we walked into the typical Honduran town to shop. Today the ships dock at the Cruise Ship Terminal with its attached shopping village which offers the same selection of jewelry stores and souvenir shops as dozens of cruise ports.
St. Thomas is the centerpiece of most Eastern Caribbean cruises. It is a U.S. possession with world-class beaches, historic sights and true duty free shopping. The cruise ships dock at either the Sub Base east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Sub Base will require a taxi (or a tourist bus unique to St. Thomas) but there is a nice walking trail along the water from Havensight which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. From Havensight take a cable car up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and the view. Go into Charlotte Amalie and sit in the Greenhouse Bar on the waterfront where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker (In a Bar In Charlotte Amalie). Walk down Creque’s Alley where the Mamas and Papas essentially got their start as a musical band (immortalized in their song Creque Alley). Walk down ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade and do some shopping or visit the shops and galleries in the alleys like Drakes Passage. Take a trip to the far side of the island to Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named as one of the world’s ten best beaches. We would also suggest visiting Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information below).
Cruise ships frequently visit Sint Maarten which is the Dutch side of an island that includes two countries. The north end of the island is the French side or St. Martin. Most cruise ships dock at a pier area that includes a large shopping village. The island has a number of great beaches along with good diving and snorkeling locations but they do require a tour or taxi to reach most of them. To get into the main town of Philipsburg you will also need to take a tour bus or taxi. You can also take a taxi over to the French side of the island, which features the smaller and more relaxed town of Marigot with a number of restaurants and cafes featuring an authentic French flavor. There are waterfront restaurants known locally as lolos, these small, vibrant eateries offer a full range of local specialties in an authentic setting that maintains an island market feel. Be careful to allow plenty of time to get back to the ship. With four or more cruise ships in port on some days, afternoon rush hour taking people back to the pier can turn into slow bumper to bumper traffic. Again this is the major reason to take advantage of ship tours as you are guaranteed not to miss the ship.
There is a lot of confusion about bringing back duty free liquor and how much and from where. The following is from the web site of U.S. Customs:
How much alcohol can I bring back from a U.S. insular possession (U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, or Guam) duty-free?
The state you arrive in determines the amount of alcohol you can bring back for personal use. As long as the amount does not exceed what that state considers a personal quantity*, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will allow you to enter the U.S. with up to five liters of alcohol duty-free as part of your $1,600 exemption – as long as at least four liters were purchased in the insular possession, and at least one of them is a product of that insular possession. Additional bottles will be subject to a flat duty rate of 1.5% and subject to Internal Revenue Service taxes.
Please note, only one liter of alcohol purchased in a cruise ship’s duty-free shop is eligible for a duty-free exemption, although if at least one bottle purchased on board is the product of an eligible Caribbean Basin country**, then you will be allowed two liters duty free. If you buy five liters of alcohol in – say – the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and one of them is the product of the USVI, then you would have reached your duty-free limit. Any additional purchases made on board in a duty-free shop would be subject to CBP duty and IRS tax.
If you buy four bottles in the USVI, one of which is a product of the USVI, then you could purchase one additional bottle from the onboard duty-free, and it would be eligible for duty-free entry. * Most States restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be brought into that State apply only to residents of that State. Usually people transiting a state are not subject to those restrictions, but sometimes regulations change, and if this is a matter of utmost importance to you, you can check with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board where you will be arriving to find out what their policies are. ** Most Caribbean Basin countries are considered beneficiary countries for purposes of this exemption. (Anguilla, Caymen Islands, Guadeloupe, Martininque and Turks and Caicos are not eligible)