Big Ship? Small Ship? Which Is Better For Your Caribbean Cruise?

For many of us, the Caribbean remains the de-facto cruise destination. Warm weather, crystal-clear seas and brilliant sandy beaches have brought visitors to these idyllic islands since the days when explorers and pirates alike sailed these waters. But the Caribbean can also offer two distinct experiences for cruise passengers, and the one you experience all depends on the size of your ship.

Big Ship Caribbean

Allure of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's newest vessel, is the largest cruise ship in the world. Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean

Big ships and Megaships obviously offer the most in the way of onboard entertainment and activities and are a great choice for those who crave the latest and greatest. In fact, there’s never been a better time to sail to the Caribbean aboard big mainstream ships. This winter, Carnival Dream, Celebrity Silhouette, Norwegian Epic, and Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas all offer Caribbean itineraries – and those are just the brand-new ships. By the way, click the links for our cruise reviews on these ships.

Even short sailings, which used to be the strict domain of older, less well-kept cruise ships, are getting the megaship treatment as lines deploy increasingly newer vessels on these popular runs.

Carnival Fantasy and Independence of the Seas are seen in Cozumel, Mexico - one of the busiest ports in the Western Caribbean. Photo © Aaron Saunders

But big ships have big berthing requirements; everything from the length of the ship to the depth of the water under the keel has to be considered when planning their itineraries. The result? A lot of big ships calling on some very small ports – all at once. Things can get crowded ashore, even though the cruise lines do manage it well, and hey, there’s always the option of doing one of the things we love best when we’re in port: staying on the ship!

Small Ship Caribbean

Coming ashore in the Caribbean from Silversea's Silver Explorer. Photo © Ralph Grizzle

A Caribbean cruise on a smaller ship, however, presents a world of difference. For starters, many smaller vessels are ultra-luxury ships. This in and of itself ensures a unique and memorable experience, but the itinerary is where these ships truly shine. Many luxury lines and small-ship operators offer voyages departing from non-U.S. ports like Bridgetown, Barbados and Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Because small ships are, well, smaller, they can berth where huge ships cannot and tender passengers ashore to islands that simply wouldn’t accept a larger ship. It’s hard to fault the natural beauty of any Caribbean port, but it’s these intimate islands where the true Caribbean lifestyle shines through.

The idyllic paradise that is Bequia. Photo © Aaron Saunders

One of our favorite small-ship ports is Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. With only a tad more than 4,000 inhabitants, Bequia is only seven square miles across. It redefines the word “idyllic.” You won’t find Starbucks or Diamonds International here; just acres of beautiful palm trees, quaint cafes, and an infectious, laid-back island lifestyle. There’s no pushing, no shoving. It’s just you and the locals – and even then, that number may be less than some of the largest megaships alone could carry.

Other small slices of paradise include Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands; Monserrat; St. George’s, Grenada; Gustavia, St. Barts, Basseterre . . .  the list goes on. In fact, the number of small, out-of-the-way Caribbean islands vastly outnumbers the major Eastern and Western Caribbean ports, allowing small ship lines to create a stunning array of itineraries.

Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea, Star Clippers and Windstar Cruises are just some of the lines operating smaller ships in the Caribbean.

So while there’s no right or wrong way to sail the Caribbean, there definitely are different ways to experience this remarkable paradise. It’s your choice.

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