The Caribbean continues to ride high as the world’s most popular cruising destination thanks to the rich profusion of islands that can be visited by ship.
Most cruise companies – and major lines such as Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and MSC Cruises – have at least one or several ships in this region.
While the main cruise season is during winter, there are sailings year-round, with lines basing ships at islands such as Barbados or sailing from Florida ports including Miami and Port Canaveral, or other U.S. cities like New York and Galveston in Texas. There are also a handful of cruises that sail between the UK and the Caribbean.
As the cruise industry continues to recover from the pandemic and more Caribbean destinations open up, business is returning to normal, with not only the established players but some new names too.
The mainstays of most cruise programmes to this tropical region are Eastern Caribbean voyages, which visit the likes of Barbados, Saint Lucia, St Kitts, the British Virgin Islands and Grenada, and Western Caribbean voyages, which include Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
However, itineraries vary between the larger ships of the mass market lines, which generally stick to the main destinations that can accommodate them, and boutique companies with smaller ships that can stop at smaller isles such as Nevis, St Martin, the Grenadines and smaller British Virgin Islands.
Many major cruise lines also have their own private islands, mainly located in the Bahamas, that offer desert island experiences with water sports, beach barbecues and water play zones.
Among smaller lines making their Caribbean debut this winter (2022/23) is the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection – the upscale hotel brand’s first foray into the cruising world with its mega-yacht Evrima, which offers a mix of short sailings in the Bahamas with longer voyages through the Grenadines to St Kitts, Antigua and the BVIs.
Another newcomer offering a swanky yacht-style experience is Emerald Cruises with its 100-guest Emerald Azzurra, which sails round-trip voyages from Barbados to St Vincent and the Grenadines and also between St Martin and Barbados, with calls including Antigua and Martinique.
Boutique line Windstar, with its mixed fleet of classic sailing yachts and motor-yachts, will have three ships based in the Caribbean in winter 2023 and introduces a new Beach Fun & Sun sailing through the British Virgin Islands and French Caribbean.
Luxury line Silversea has 25 Caribbean cruises this winter, ranging from seven to 31 days, and its new ship Silver Dawn makes its debut in the region with sailings from Fort Lauderdale and Barbados, with calls including Bonaire, Tobago and Grenada.
French line Ponant has teamed up with Smithsonian Journeys for a lecture-led voyage exploring the Caribbean’s historical and cultural heritage on a sailing that starts at Vieux Fort in Saint Lucia, taking guests to Portsmouth in Dominica, Bequia and Mayreau in the Grenadines, Grenada’s capital St George’s and the Tobago Cays National Park, finishing in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Sea Cloud Cruises’ fleet of tall ships will also spend the winter in Caribbean waters, with its newest ship Sea Cloud Spirit making its debut and sailing to the tiny islands of Eleuthera and the Exumas in the Bahamas, another first for the line.
Among the larger lines, Celebrity Cruises is debuting its newest ship Celebrity Beyond, one of its three innovative Edge-class ships, which will all be in the region visiting islands that include Grand Cayman, St Maarten and the Bahamas.
P&O’s new mega-ship Arvia also celebrates its tropical debut as it sails from Southampton for a season of winter sailings from Barbados and Antigua, while Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship Norwegian Prima will make maiden calls to Jamaica and Grand Cayman.
Another ship making its mark is Carnival Celebration, the latest addition to the fleet of Carnival Cruise Line, which is offering both Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from Miami.
Next winter (2023/24) sees another host of fresh arrivals with new luxury line Explora Journeys, owned by the giant MSC Group, deploying its first superyacht, Explora I, in the region, while upscale line Regent Seven Seas Cruises will have its latest ship Seven Seas Grandeur.
One of the most exciting arrivals will be Royal Caribbean International’s new monolith Icon of the Seas which debuts in January 2024 as the world’s largest ship holding a record-breaking 7,600 passengers.
It will sail year-round in the Caribbean, with calls including St Maarten and RCI’s own private island in the Bahamas, Perfect Day
The Caribbean offers a huge and diverse range of activities to tempt cruise passengers ashore and in recent years these have evolved to showcase the region’s cultural heritage, distinctive musical rhythms and culinary flavours.
More adventurous diversions include helicopter tours of Antigua, speedboat rides along the coast of Saint Lucia (past its famous Twin Pitons), dune buggy adventures through the rugged terrain of the Dominican Republic, and a chairlift ride over the rainforest at Mystic Mountain on Jamaica where passengers can then speed along on a bobsled ride.
The Caribbean’s prized assets is its array of dazzling white-sand beaches, offering plenty of opportunity for cruise guests to enjoy the azure seas during relaxing beach stops, perhaps taking one of the many boat trips along the coast for a picnic lunch and some snorkelling.
But some attractions are uniquely tied to the islands. In Jamaica, one of the most popular and best fun excursions is climbing Dunn’s River Falls or lazily floating down the river on a rafting trip.
No trip to Grand Cayman would be complete without visiting Stingray City – the famous sandbar where tame stingrays gather to be fed squid by holidaymakers – while one of the biggest draws in Barbados is Harrison’s Cave, where tourists can explore a series of underground chambers stretching for around 1.5 miles.
Several islands invite cruise excursion visitors to take a tour of grand plantation houses for a fascinating taste of life hundreds of years ago when slaves worked the sugar plantations on islands such as Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts.
Today the grand houses are all that remain, and while the sugar industry has ceased, some fields of sugar cane remain to supply the various rum distilleries where visitors can see – and taste – this spirit that is so inexorably linked to Caribbean life and its famous sweet-tasting cocktails.