Avid Cruiser Voyages: Big Ship Caribbean

In last week’s installment of Avid Cruiser Voyages, we touched on just what makes the Caribbean aboard a small, intimate ship so special. But far and away the most popular way to see the Caribbean is by sailing onboard some of the biggest, newest and most feature-laden cruise ships out there. What’s more, there’s good reason to want to join the masses.

Large cruise ships and megaships like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas 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.

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

They’re also excellent choices for multi-generational families looking to sail together during the popular winter and summer months. One key advantage that big megaships have over smaller vessels lies in their diverse amount of onboard amenities. Big ships can offer multiple pools, waterslides, hot tubs, decks featuring real lawns, private cabanas, sprawling spa areas, and even more extreme features like zip lines and surfing simulators.

They also offer diversions that are designed to cater to adults and kids alike, including adults who might normally pick smaller ships for their own sailings sans family. The big ships’ onboard kid and teen programs are better than those found in many land-based establishments, and entertainment onboard can range from family friendly Broadway productions to risqué midnight comedy hours just for adults.

Need to cool off? The SVEDKA Ice Bar aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic is a great way to beat the heat. © 2012 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 itineraries. The result? A lot of big ships calling on some small ports – all at once.

Don’t get us wrong: We love big-ship cruising and any visit to the Caribbean is sure to be a memorable one — for better or worse. Forewarned is forearmed: On one day in December 2011, the popular port of Philipsburg, St. Maarten welcomed more than 14,000 cruise ship passengers — in a single day.

Philipsburg itself has a population of slightly more than 1,000 permanent residents – meaning your fellow passengers will vastly outnumber the locals if there are several ships in port when you arrive. It also means things can get a little competitive in town, as tourists – including those staying in land-based resorts on the island – vie for that last souvenir or hunt for seats at a local watering hole.

Philipsburg, St. Maarten on a relatively quiet March day. © 2012 Aaron Saunders

But Philipsburg can’t hold a candle to the all-out cruising mecca that is Cozumel, Mexico. A true ship-lover’s paradise, this town of roughly 77,000 routinely hosts up to eight ships in a single day, bringing between 12,000 and 20,000 guests to the island. Whether you’re destined for an overland trip to the breathtaking ruins of Tulum or simply the Margaritaville at the end of the pier, your visit is guaranteed to be a busy one.

Admittedly, in most places you’re unlikely to notice whether you’re with 8,000 people or 14,000. Still, these are ports where you may benefit by arranging your own private excursion or day plan, or choosing to take part in one of the ship-sponsored shore excursions that are designed to take you further afield.

Other extremely popular ports of call include Nassau, Bahamas; St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Ochos Rios, Jamaica. Grand Turk and even Samana in the Dominican Republic are seeing ever-increasing calls as well.

Nassau and other ships are seen from the deck of the Norwegian Epic. Brace yourself: it can get busy. © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Big-ship cruise lines do their best to arrange schedules to provide a mix of popular ports with calls on their own private islands or smaller, off-the-beaten path ports like Costa Maya, Mexico, but at some point on your sailing, you’re almost guaranteed to pull up alongside “cruise ship alley,” an endearing term used to describe the city-like enclosure of the enormous pier apron once several ships have docked.

Still, that’s one of the fun parts of big ship cruising – and if you’re a ship buff, the opportunity to get up-close and personal with a number of different cruise ships can be thrilling, particularly during arrival and departure.

But most of all, big ship cruising in the Caribbean is just plain fun — for everyone.

Sunset in the Caribbean. © 2012 Aaron Saunders

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