By WALLACE IMMEN
The proliferation of cruise ships criss-crossing the Caribbean has created traffic jams in classic island ports like as St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Cozumel. That`s led to voyages of exploration to lesser-known ports. Even though some of them are getting popular, they still retain a flavor of the Caribbean of old.
Here are ones to check out the next time you ship out:
VIBRANT ST. VINCENT
St. Vincent has remained a difficult to reach and relatively unchanged enclave in the Caribbean, south of larger and better-known St. Lucia. Cruise passengers will find its port city Kingstown a throwback to the colonial Caribbean, with quaint buildings with stores that are not yet geared for shoppers or gourmets. For eco-tourists, however, the island is rich with attractions including lush forests and coral reefs. Rock climbers can make it all the way to the rim of La Soufriere, the volcano that tips the northern end of the island.
See it soon because big changes may be on the way after a new airport is completed in 2012.
ROAMING AND DIVING ON ROATAN ISLAND
A wide range of cruise lines now include Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, in their itineraries in the western Caribbean. That’s a far cry from a decade or so ago, when the dock at Coxen Hole was a rickety freight pier and most of the tourists who visited were scuba divers planning to spend a few days on a live-aboard dive boat. The modern Mahogany Bay Cruise Center has changed all that, although it’s vital to get beyond the tourist zone to really get the feel of the island. The big dock is part of a theme-park like complex with its shops and a zip line makes the port look very much like any number of other port stops in the Caribbean. As a scuba diver, I head out immediately for a shuttle to one of the dive shops that take certified divers to some of the most colorful reefs in the Caribbean. All the ships offer a beach day at Tabyana Beach, which has beautiful sand but because so many cruise passengers are using it becomes as crowded and busy as the pool deck on the ship. An alternative is to arrange with a taxi driver to take you to more peaceful West End Bay and pick you up later in the day (although be sure you negotiate and agree on the price before getting in the cab). The island is mountainous but the main focus of interest on a visit here is the crystal clear water and easy snorkelling.
Who visits: Many lines that do western Caribbean itineraries
VOLCANIC VIRGIN GORDA
The whole island is a rural retreat for yachters amid the profusion of British Virgin Islands but the main attraction for nearly everyone who comes is the picture-book perfect beach known as The Baths. Many of the huge volcanic boulders scattered along the coast are stacked atop each other, creating caves and grottoes in the surf of the pristine white sand beach. Snorkelling is amazing as well because the coast has never been fished, so a profusion of large, brilliantly colored fish inhabit the coral reefs very close to shore. You’ll be happy you brought a waterproof camera. People love to climb on the rocks but be warned: they can be slippery. Another major hazard is the sun, which reflects off all the rock and white sand with devastating power to burn skin not protected with copious amounts of sun lotion.
While Martinque has become a must-do French island in the Caribbean, its butterfly-shaped neighbour Guadeloupe has escaped the superhighway building and beach crowding that development brings. The port city of Pointe-a-Pitre makes for a colourful walk with its outdoor produce and flower markets in the middle of town, with enough French fashion shops to make just getting off the ship an eye-filling experience.
A great adventure is to get out on the costal roads to explore the two contrasting halves of the island: Grand Terre and the unspoiled southern zone, Basse Terre whose Parc National is dominated by a still active volcano. Remarkably, because of the prevailing winds most all the rain falls on one slope, creating a lush rain forest, while the other side is dry and desert-like.
TANNING ON GRAND TURK
The first time I ever went to the Turks and Caicos, 20 years ago, the desk clerk at Miami’s airport asked me “where in the world is Providenciales?” The Turks’ capital city and its 40 neighboring sand bars were islands known mostly to scuba divers and people looking for a beach where no one would bother them. How that’s changed since Carnival Corp. invested in a huge new port complex, complete with retail shops, beach and a recreation area and pool. The attractions on the island beyond the port are still sparse, but a visit here gives you a look at the old days in the Caribbean, complete with goats and donkeys on the road. If you’re in to sunning on a seemingly endless stretch of white sand and snorkelling or scuba diving, this the place for you.
This island of Dominica is an example of “if you build it they will come.” For years this island that has virtually no beaches but is known for its beautifully lush mountains, rainforests and waterfalls was not on the main cruising routes because it had only one tiny dock far from the main town.
It’s gained fame by being a setting for scenes in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean films and from visitors who bring back fabulous photos they’ve taken of unspoiled nature and stories of swimming in hot springs and breathing some of the cleanest air in the world. There was so much interest from cruise lines wanting to visit that Dominica built a new cruise terminal at the edge of the colonial city of Roseau that’s capable of handling some of the biggest ships sailing in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, the fenced in make-believe village that includes diamond stores, t-shirt shops and chain restaurants clashes completely with the real castaway Caribbean city of Roseau, whose narrow streets, somewhat disreputable bars and moss-covered churches make for interesting sightseeing. Those who fancy a bit of a hike can just head to the edge of town to a lush national park and botanical gardens. Taxi drivers will be happy to become tour guides to give you a guided drive around the island, much of it on valley roads lined with trees and vines. One thing you’re unlikely to see is a sandy beach, because most of the coast line is a sheer drop into the sea. You might want to carry an umbrella, because it rains pretty much every day, and even if it’s not raining, the spray from waterfalls causes the trees to drip water most of the time.
It’s definitely a unique stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit.
Who visits: Azamara Club Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean International, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Star Clippers.