Avid Cruiser Voyages: Small-ship Caribbean

Since the dawn of the industry, the Caribbean has remained one of cruising’s most quintessential destinations. Popular with travellers in both winter and summer, there’s no shortage of ships – or itineraries – in this relatively small geographic area.

Barbados is routinely visited by larger ships, but it is the smaller cruise ships that will provide you with the full “immersion” experience. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

While cruise lines around the world frequently send their biggest, newest and best ships for a season of sailing to the Caribbean’s most popular ports, the experience aboard a smaller ship, presents a world of difference. For starters, many smaller vessels are ultra-luxury ships, expedition vessels, or yachts that recall the glory days of sail, but in a modern way. Not only do they ensure a top-notch onboard experience, but their relatively small size also allows them to call on ports that are simply unavailable to the big megaships.

Many luxury lines and small-ship operators offer voyages departing from non-US ports like Bridgetown, Barbados and Philipsburg, St. Maarten. In fact, the sleek sailing yachts of Windstar Cruises do not sail roundtrip from any U.S. port. By starting their voyages at alternate ports, these smaller ships are able to spend less time traversing the Caribbean Sea and more time allowing their passengers to bask in it.

The romance of sail is alive and well aboard the ships of Windstar Cruises. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

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 really shines through.

One of our favorite small-ship ports is Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. With slightly 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.

The idyllic paradise that is Bequia. © Aaron Saunders

Other small slices of paradise include Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands; Monserrat; St. George’s, Grenada; Gustavia, St. Barts, Basseterre, St. Kitts … 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, Silversea, Star Clippers and Windstar Cruises are just some of the lines operating smaller ships in the Caribbean.

If you’ve never been to the Caribbean before, you might want to partake in the megaship experience that calls at popular ports like St. Thomas and Philipsburg in the Eastern Caribbean, or Cozumel and Belize City in the Western Caribbean to start with. Then, once you’re ready for the full immersion experience, seek out the smaller ships operating diverse Eastern, Western and Southern Caribbean itineraries.

Expedition cruises offer the unique chance to explore some of the world’s most remote destinations, including the Caribbean. Shown here is Silversea’s Silver Explorer. © Ralph Grizzle

There’s no right or wrong way to experience the Caribbean, but exploring the hidden gems this sun-splashed region has to offer has proved to be one of our most enjoyable – and surprising – cruising experiences.

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