Early morning, November. Tiny Silver Cloud had docked in St. John’s, Antigua. After six tranquil days of crossing the Atlantic, I looked forward to stepping off the ship and onto terra firma. As I sat lacing up my shoes, suddenly the sunlight streaming into my stateroom began to darken. Through the sheer curtains, I could see why: A wall of balconies was pulling up alongside. Silver Cloud, capacity 296, meet Emerald Princess, capacity 3,080. Sigh, paradise lost.
Yes, I confess, having endured the Atlantic gauntlet where on some days there was not another ship in sight, I felt a sense of entitlement. I did not want to share my day in quaint St. John’s with 10 times more cruise passengers than had made that crossing with me. Nonetheless, with shoes laced, I trundled down two sets of stairs and crossed the short gangway onto the pier. Take a deep breath, I told myself, and plunge in.
As someone who has written about the cruising lifestyle for more than two decades and who has cruised the Caribbean more than two dozen times, I know that there are many Caribbeans for cruisers to experience. There are the geographical divides, for example: Eastern Caribbean, Western Caribbean, Southern Caribbean.
But there’s also another pair of Caribbeans: Big-ship Caribbean and small-ship Caribbean. Certainly, both big and small have merit, but both also deliver deeply contrasting experiences.
For starters, on big ships, you can expect you’ll have plenty of company in ports, not only from your ship but also from the other ships that are calling at the same port on the same day. That’s because big ships are fairly limited with regard to where they can dock or drop anchor, so they all tend to visit the same places — sometimes all at once.
Along with the masses disgorging from Emerald Princess in St. John’s, I walked along the pier, through the security gate and along a crowded waterway. Far from alone — or even alone enough to enjoy what could have been a serene experience — I finally gave up and returned to the ship.
Contrast that to Bequia (pronounced Beck-Way), which I visited last fall on Silver Explorer. Total number of cruise passengers on the island, situated in the Grenadines: fewer than 100 of us who had been zipped ashore on zodiacs to Port Elizabeth, Bequia’s capital.
The atmosphere in Port Elizabeth was totally relaxed, almost comatose. There were a few shops and a small market, but no pushy vendors. When a taxi driver suggested he haul a few of us across the island and we responded that we would prefer to walk instead, he put out his fist to bump knuckles with me, wishing me — and the others — a pleasant walk.
And so we walked — from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and back, about six miles. The island was so quiet that we trundled along on the road without having to worry about traffic.
The landscape was gorgeous, and though it may sound clichéd, we stopped several times to smell the roses or whatever flora we came upon. The experience was unrushed and unmanufactured. No Starbucks or Diamonds International to distract us, just acres of beautiful palm trees and an infectious, laid-back island lifestyle.
It’s startling to think that Bequia’s entire population, 4,300, could not even fill the largest cruise ships, Oasis and Allure of the Seas, with passenger capacities of 6,296 each when all berths are filled.
One of the most surprising Caribbean destinations I ever visited on a small ship was Los Roques. Situated on a spit of land north of the Venezuelan mainland, the charming town has only a half dozen or so dusty streets that were thick with small hotels catering to international tourists who arrived by plane.
The town was storybook Latin America, with only a few people roaming the streets during the hours of siesta, lazy dogs lying on their bellies under shade trees, and kids diving from the piers into water as blue as Windex.
Once, on a Caribbean island visited only by small ships, I climbed to the highest peak in the the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The island was Saba, in the Dutch Caribbean.
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 companies 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 companies operating smaller ships to smaller islands in the Caribbean.
But there’s a price to be paid for exclusivity. Many of the smaller vessels that frequent these smaller ports offer top-end luxury cruise experiences that often cost more than $300 per day — per person. Compare that to bigger ships, carrying 2,000 or more passengers, where the cost can sink into double-digit per diems.
The upshot: You could pay three to four times more if you want your footprints to be among the first — and only — on that sandy beach. Small luxury ships do provide a lot more than exclusivity to the Caribbean islands, including a (nearly) all-inclusive vacation. Big ships, on the other hand, typically include very little outside dining (and some dining venues costs on large ships). The additional purchases on big ships — beverages, gratuities, shore excursions (some of which are included in the fare on a luxury ship) — can negate their low cost of entry.
A couple of years ago, I enjoyed cruising for two weeks on Emerald Princess. The Princess Cruises’ ship offers a quality cruise experience, with lots to do and more-than-adequate staterooms, even at the lowest-priced level.
Spanning 15 decks and 951 feet (nearly one-fifth of a mile), Emerald Princess is not the biggest of the big by a long shot, but she is big enough to make trips between staterooms and public rooms near-Olympic events, particularly if you use the stairs. Once, I arrived at one end of the ship to snap a photo only to discover that I had left my camera in my stateroom at the other end of the ship. I was out of breath when I returned with the camera nearly half a mile later.
Naturally, when ships the size of Emerald Princess (and larger) disgorge passengers, there are a lot of feet contending for space in shops, restaurants and on activities.
Once, while anchored on a Carnival ship in the Cayman islands, I tendered ashore to what seemed to me a standing-room only town. The shops I visited were so crowded that I had to pull my arms into my sides and shuffle sideways to move about. I’m not claustrophobic, but I felt squeezed and uneasy and couldn’t wait to get out and back to the ship.
That said, the big cruise ships have become adept at managing the throngs of passengers. Shore operations are usually executed efficiently. Still, there’s no getting away from the crowding in such ports as Cozumel, Mexico, which, during the cruise season, routinely hosts up to eight ships a day, bringing between 12,000 and 20,000 guests to the island. Whether you’re destined for an overland trip to the ruins of Tulum or simply the Margaritaville at the end of the pier, you’ll have plenty of friends to accompany you.
Back in St. John’s, the sun was setting as Emerald Princess engaged her powerful bow thrusters to push away from the pier and point its bow toward the open sea. Many of us on Silver Cloud stood on the open decks and watched the spectacle of the large, but beautiful, vessel making its way into the sunset.
Calypso music played from the pool deck, and from the balconies of staterooms, flashes fired like firecrackers as passengers snapped one last picture of paradise.
“It looks like they’re having a good time,” a fellow passenger remarked to me as we stood there with cocktails in our hands. Then as he turned to walk away, he added: “I just hope they’re not going where we’re going.”
By Ralph Grizzle, Two Caribbeans originally appeared in Sunday’s Miami Herald.