by Wallace Immen

A guide to visiting the Caribbean's less-travelled islands by cruise ship

The PitonsThe Pitons, St. Lucia - Wildroze/iStock

There are 28 nations and more than 7,000 individual islands in the Caribbean. How many have you experienced?

If you’ve cruised at all in the Caribbean, you’ve probably sailed into ports where  a number of other ships have all arrived at the same time. You’ve been to islands, sometimes more than once and you’re looking for something different.  

Where are those quiet islands with quaint colonial towns caught in a time warp? Where are those gorgeous, uncrowded beaches you crave?

They’re out there. And all you need to enjoy them is to look for cruise itineraries that steer to islands that are off the main cruise routes.  

St. George's, GrenadaSt. George's Grenada - FlavioVallenari/iStock

Consider Grenada. The intoxicating scents of cinnamon and nutmeg fill the air. The water of the bay is so clear you can see sunlight reflecting from the sandy bottom.  The thrill of sailing into Grenada’s St. George’s harbor isn’t just being on the only ship dropping anchor today in the historic pastel town. It’s being welcomed to an island of spice plantations and natural beauty that hasn’t been over-run by tourism.  But see it soon, because Grenada is gaining popularity and is now on itineraries of Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, MSC Cruises and Oceania Cruises.

Guadeloupe, the volcanic French island that’s Martinique’s smaller sister, is another Caribbean destination that’s becoming a bigger tourist draw. Yet it retains its laid-back charm, with food markets that recall the south of France before it was discovered. But there are also modern boutiques and some great shoe shopping.  Azamara Club Cruises, Costa Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and SeaDream Yacht Club are all making the exotic island a stop on their itineraries.  

DominicaDominica - JohnAndersonPhoto/iStock

Another discovery is Dominica, an island that proves it’s true that if you build it they will come. In the past, this mountainous island with lush rain forests could only accommodate small ships at a single wooden dock that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.  As soon as a convenient cruise pier was built in the center of Roseau, the capital, cruise lines started taking notice.  But rarely is there more than one ship in port on the same day. The island’s attractions include waterfalls, jungle gorges filled with wildlife and 300 miles of hiking trails. Cruise lines that visit Dominica are Cunard Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Star Clippers.

Antigua is another island to explore soon. A cruise dock in the capital of St. John's that can accommodate up to four ships has made it much easier for larger ships to visit.  With the larger dock,  a modern shopping district catering to travelers has developed in an area around the pier.t walk two blocks from the pier and you’re in a time warp of a town that dates back to the days when the island was known basically for its sugar plantations and reliable winds for sailing.  The island boasts 365 beaches-- one for every day of the year-- so there’s sure to be one that suits your mood.  It’s on several itineraries of Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America and Silversea Cruises.

To get more exotic, it pays to be flexible in your travel dates.  For instance, there are a lot more choices for discovering less-visited ports if you can extend your vacation horizon beyond seven days.  

FlamingosFlamingo Sanctuary, Bonaire - Tomo/Shutterstock

ArubaOranjestad, Aruba - LanaCanada/iStock

The islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao off the coast of South America have some of the most unspoiled reefs and expansive white sand beaches anywhere and retain the flavor of their Dutch heritage. Aruba boasts it has the most consistently sunny weather in the Caribbean, but the ABCs, as they’re called, aren’t on many cruise itineraries because they take extra time to sail to from Florida.  Princess and Celebrity Cruises both offer sailings that visit all three islands on 10-day to 14-day itineraries from Florida.  Oceania Cruises offers the islands on 10-day nd 12-day itineraries from Miami.

  Another strategy for finding a more authentic Caribbean experience is to look beyond Florida for a starting point for your cruise. Puerto Rico, St. Maarten or Barbados may cost more to fly to than ports in Florida, but they’re much more convenient to less-visited islands. Carnival Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises are using San Juan as a home base for cruises. It’s handy to gorgeous islands such as. Lucia and its southern sister. Vincent, plus St. Kitts and Nevis and the British Virgin Islands.

TortolaSoper's Hole, Tortola - Cravers1/iStock

Windstar Cruises is offering dedicated “Yachtsman’s Caribbean” round trips from Philipsburg, St. Maarten that visit tiny islands, including the intriguing-sounding Soper’s Hole.

Further south, Bridgetown, Barbados is a jumping off port for cruises on Seabourn, MSC Cruises, Star Clippers and Windstar.  These cruise lines offer itineraries that follow routes favored by sailors, following the trade winds to Grenada and  less-known island neighbors  in the Grenadines, like Bequia or Mayreau, whose palm-lined beaches are worthy of castaway adventures.

Seabourn offers dedicated Caribbean Yacht Harbors cruises, to ports where the only company is still likely to be sailboats. Starting in Barbados, a seven-night Seabourn trip might include Dominica, Guadeloupe and outposts like Tortola and Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgins Islands.

For the ultimate in exclusivity, consider a more intimate ship that can get into secluded bays that bigger ships can’t.

The baths, Virgin GordaThe Baths, Virgin Gorda - GBlakeley/iStock

The ships of SeaDream Yacht Club and Star Clippers accommodate fewer than 200 guests and specialize in visiting places where they can declare a beach their own for the day. They can tender in to attractions like The Baths on Virgin Gorda, a fantastic formation of lava rocks and pools of gin-clear water. Their itineraries may also include the memorable port of Gustavia harbor on the hedonistic French island of St. Barthelemy, the pristine beaches of Isles de Saintes, as well as the hard to get to volcanic island of Saba.

The choices are plentiful if you’re flexible and adventurous. Do a little homework in planning your next Caribbean cruise and you’ll be rewarded for it.

Originally published in Vacation Magazine Winter 2017 issue.

Get Cruise & Travel Updates!
Get Cruise & Travel Updates!