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SHIP TO SHORE:
An Insider's Guide to Popular Caribbean Ports of Call

One of the many beauties of cruise travel is that passengers only have to unpack once, but get to visit many places. This is especially true in the Caribbean, where varied islands and ports of call are typically within one or two night’s sailing of one another.

A day in any Caribbean port can be as varied as the passengers disembarking ship. It’s just a matter of a little insider information on the way to spend the day.

Smart cruise travelers make the most of each day. Whether that means staying aboard the ship while a majority go ashore or planning an outing no organized shore excursion could match, the ship is in port and it’s time for a day in...

Cozumel: An Underwater Wonderland

For scuba divers, Cozumel is a world-class underwater wonderland. For non-divers visiting by cruise ship, the island is the perfect place to visit the underwater world for the first time.

Cozumel is a great diving destination thanks to the wall that drops off its western shore. A steady current running from the south brings in fresh nutrients and sea life, making each drift dive special. Just jump in the water and drift along the famed wall, surfacing to your awaiting dive boat. The clear waters usually offer around 100 feet or so of visibility and common marine life sightings include huge groupers, black corals, giant sponges, moray eels and much more.

Each day, dozens of dive boats head out to the reef, generally going south to famed dives at Punta Sur or Santa Rosa Wall. This is Cozumel wall diving at its best. The second, more shallow, dive typically features dive sites like Paradise Reef, Tormentos, Cedar Pass, Tormentos, Palancar Horseshoe and Gardens, or Chankanaab Caves.

Cozumel's residents welcome divers with open arms (and fins). The local people and dive shop employees are incredibly friendly. Though Spanish is the official language, English is spoken throughout the island.

Grand Cayman’s Rum Point

To many cruise ship passengers, Grand Cayman means famed Seven Mile Beach, swimming with stingrays, or a visit to the Turtle Farm at Boatswain’s Beach. However, those in the know often head to Rum Point for something a bit different.

First documented on a 1773 map, Rum Point is now a complete beach destination far from the crowds of bustling George Town or Seven Mile Beach. It features everything a beach-goer could desire: a quiet beach; clear waters; cold drinks and local food and practically any beach activity one could want (including snorkeling, a glass-bottom boat trip, water toys, or simply napping in one of many shady hammocks).

Though some cruise lines do offer shore excursions that include time at Rum Point, it’s also easy to reach independently. Taxis await dockside in downtown George Town and can whisk passengers to Rum Point in less than an hour. Though the price might be steep for one person, the taxi fare goes down for each additional person (and a discounted return fare can often be negotiated in advance).

Taking a taxi also provides some flexibility for stops along the way to Rum Point or on the way back to George Town. For instance, Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park beckons with 65 acres of Caymanian flora, fauna, history, and beauty. The Mastic Trail offers another natural diversion. Once a route of commerce before roads were built, the two- or three-hour (out-and-back) trail passes through mangrove swampland, palm savannah, and rocky outcroppings.

Rafting in Jamaica’s Rio Grande

Errol Flynn knew a civilized island activity when he experienced it. River rafting couldn’t be more civil than on Jamaica’s Rio Grande. This is truly one of the Caribbean’s most unique ways to spend a day.

Though thousands of visitors have been rafting down the Rio Grande in Flynn’s wake and the ‘put-in’ can sometimes look like a bamboo raft parking lot, this adventure doesn’t feel very tourist-crazy once the rafts spread out on the river. You’ll see plenty of fauna and flora, as well as experience a side of Jamaica that’s different from the bustling beaches and shopping areas.

The adventure typically begins at Grant’s Level, which is about six miles north of Port Antonio. Here, rafters board the two-person bamboo rafts for the two- to three-hour trip downstream to the take-out at Rafter’s Rest.

The rafts are made up of ten or so bamboo logs bound together and they typically run about four feet wide and 25 to 30 feet long. Many of the rafts are colorfully decorated with orchids and other foliage. They feature comfortable wooden lounge chairs for their passengers.

The licensed and experienced raft captains can make the trip even more enjoyable, thanks to a wide array of knowledge about local plants, animals, people, and history (and most of it is true). Positioned at the front of the raft and typically barefoot, they guide the raft down the river, using the current to move the raft and a pole for pushing off the bottom.

The journey ends at Rafter’s Rest, which has a restaurant, bar, a souvenir shop, and changing facilities.

A History Walk in the Bahamas

The Bahamian island of New Providence means bustling Nassau to most visitors. A stroll through Old Nassau provides a slow-paced exploration of history on New Providence and in The Bahamas. This port city's fascinating past is best seen by foot. The best place to start a walking tour of Nassau is at Rawson Square and the Ministry of Tourism Reception Services Office. They have many maps and can provide helpful information.

Most visitors start their stroll right at the modern cruise ship port, known as Prince George Wharf, where many cruise ships will likely be docked. Here, there’s also the Hairbraider’s Centre, where tourists with varying lock lengths have their hair braided.

Rawson Square is at the foot of the dock. The square’s main feature is the Churchill Building, where several government officials have offices. There’s also a statue of Sir Milo Butler, the first governor of The Bahamas after the islands gained independence in 1973.

The waterfront walkway to the west is known as Woodes Rogers Walk, the street named for the first British governor of The Bahamas. It eventually leads to the infamous Straw Market.

Before heading that way, look for Parliament Square just behind Rawson Square. This busy square includes a statue of young Queen Victoria, as well as the Senate Building, the House of Assembly and the Supreme Court.

With much more than just handmade straw souvenirs, a visit to Nassau's Straw Market has to be one of the most unique shopping experiences in the islands. Once there, visitors find a cornucopia of color and atmosphere.

Behind the Straw Market at George and Bay Streets, look for the Vendue House and the Pompey Museum. This 18th century building served as a slave market until the Emancipation Act of 1834. The house is named after the slave who lead a revolt on Exuma and the museum houses exhibitions about Bahamian culture and many fine paintings by well-known Bahamian artist, Amos Ferguson.

Up Market Street from the Straw Market, be sure to visit the Balcony House, which was built by ships' carpenters in the late-1700s. It now houses an interesting local museum, a staircase from a ship, slave kitchens, and three other historic houses.

Further up Market Street, Gregory's Arch spans the road. This pretty arch, built in 1852, marks the entrance to Grant's Town, one of the earliest settlements of former slaves and their ancestors. Nearby, you can take a peak at the pretty pink Government House and marvel at the Christopher Columbus Statue, which has been there since 1830 and commemorates the New World arrival of Columbus in The Bahamas.

At the corner of Elizabeth Avenue, the National Historical Society Museum provides one of the best historic overviews of The Bahamas. The exhibits traces the history of The Bahamas from pre-Columbus period to the present.

After visiting the museum, take a right on Elizabeth Avenue and head up the Queen's Staircase. These steps were carved out of limestone by slaves for a quick route to Fort Fincastle at the top of the hill. Each of the 69 steps supposedly stands for a year of Queen Victoria’s reign. Fort Fincastle was built in 1789 and has a commanding view of the harbor.

Take a Hike in St. John

For many cruise passengers stopping in St. Thomas, the neighboring island of St. John still remains a secret spot of natural beauty. In fact, going to St. John to take a hike provides one-stop shopping for those in search of a bargain outdoor activity.

For the price of a short ferry ride either from downtown Charlotte Amalie or nearby Red Hook, St. John offers some of the best hiking in the Caribbean.

The ferry to St. John docks in the town of Cruz Bay, which is also the location for the headquarters and Cruz Bay Visitor Center of the Virgin Islands National Park. Roughly two-thirds of St. John’s 19 square miles is protected as national park land. Laurence Rockefeller deeded much of the land to the federal government more than 40 years ago, saying he wanted to keep the island “a thing of joy forever.”

St. John is certainly a joy to hikers, thanks to 22 self-guided hiking trails, where visitors will find ancient petroglyphs, lots of lush foliage, stunning views, and maybe even a secluded beach for a refreshing post-hike dip. Many trails lead right out of Cruz Bay, while others are easily reached by public transportation. In addition, Cruz Bay Visitors Center staff can provide helpful independent hiking information--as well as offering popular guided tours.