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Cruise '99: Navigating Caribbean Ports

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page E08


On the typical Caribbean voyage, port stops – which last six to eight hours per island – are one of the best and worst things about cruising. Let's face it: It's fun to be able to say you visited Aruba, Curacao, Grenada, Dominica, St. Thomas and San Juan all in one week – particularly without worrying about ferry schedules or flight delays (not to mention never having to pack and repack). On the other hand, you can't see much in a day. The most efficient way to see tourist attractions, if you don't mind only scratching the surface, is to sign up for the cruise line shore excursions. But if you want to maximize your day on the island – whether it's to take in the main attractions and hit a few local haunts or find that secret beach – read on.

A warning: If you explore on your own, make sure you get back to the ship on time. Cruise lines will hold a ship if one of their own excursions is late. But they won't wait for independent stragglers.

The ports we picked came from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association's list of 10 busiest cruise ship stops. The information should be useful both to cruisers and to land-based island visitors. While we've culled our choices from island folk, natives and frequent visitors – not to mention members of the Travel section staff – we hope you'll join in, too. What's your best day cruising in the Caribbean? Hottest offbeat port find? Most overrated island attraction? Best big-deal tourist attraction? We'll publish a selection of tips in a later issue. Write us at Caribbean Cruising, Travel Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail (put "Caribbean Cruising" in the subject field).

Nassau, Bahamas

The Port: The Bahamas, technically, aren't a Caribbean port at all (they're in the Atlantic). But this string of 700 islands is the most popular warm-weather destination for U.S. tourists. Freeport and Nassau are the islands' two major cruise ship ports, but the latter gets more traffic. In Nassau, ships dock at Prince George Wharf, a 3 1/2-minute walk into town. If you want to explore beyond Nassau, jitneys queue up at Bay and Frederick streets; the fare is 75 cents. Taxi drivers often ignore their meters, so negotiate a fare before you get in. If you want to visit Paradise Island, water taxis leave every 20 minutes; cost is $5. Info: 1-800-422-4262,

Usual Suspects: Surrey rides through town from Rawson Square; Parliament Square, surrounded by 19th-century Georgian government buildings; the Pompey Museum, chronicling the history of slavery; the waterless moat, drawbridge, ramparts and dungeons of 18th-century Fort Charlotte; marching flamingo shows at Ardastra Gardens and Zoo; the casino at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island; the Plait Lady Store and Factory for handbags and hats, and the Straw Market for souvenirs; duty-free shopping along Bay Street.

Unbeaten Path: Scuba diving at South Ocean Beach Club; golf at South Ocean, a semi-public course; the octagonal 18th-century Nassau Public Library and Museum; a snack at Potter's Cay, a fish and produce market tucked under the Paradise Island Bridge.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

The Port: St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas make up the U.S. Virgin Islands; St. Thomas is by far the most congested cruise stop. St. John is near enough for day-trippers. In St. Thomas, cruise ships generally head for the West Indian Co. Dock in Havensight, 1 1/2 miles from downtown Charlotte Amalie; taxis charge $2.50 per person. Havensight Mall, a huge shopping center with branches of downtown stores, is right on the dock. St. John is a lovely 45-minute boat ride from Charlotte Amalie; fares are $7 each way. Info: 202-624-3590,

Usual Suspects: In St. Thomas, duty-free shopping on the waterfront in Charlotte Amalie; beaches of Magens Bay; taxi to Mountaintop for souvenirs and spectacular views; the Paradise Point tramway, which climbs 700 feet to a restaurant/bar, nature trail and a handful of tourist shops; Coral World, an underwater observatory; adjacent Coki Beach, where you can snorkel and feed the french fry-eating fish. In St. John, Trunk Bay, the best-known beach for snorkeling and swimming.

Unbeaten Path: St. Thomas Dairies' "grown-up" milkshakes, which feature tropical liqueurs; Sapphire Beach, on the island's east end, more private than Magens Bay; Cruz Bay in St. John, for arty crafts (and try the rum punch at Pusser's); Cinnamon Bay on St. John's for its secluded beach.

San Juan

The Port: Three distinct regions appeal in San Juan; Isla Verde and Condado are known for beachfront high-rise hotels, while Old San Juan offers colonial history. Most ships dock right in the heart of old San Juan, although a few, including the Dawn Princess and Celebrity Galaxy, require a 10- to 15-minute cab ride into the old city. Cabs have set prices. Info: 1-800-223-6530,

Usual Suspects: Historic walking tour of Old San Juan, a 475-year-old, seven-square-block historic district with numerous 16th- and 17th-century buildings, including El Morro Fortress, San Jose Church, Fort San Cristobal and the landscaped oceanfront Paseo la Princessa promenade; shopping; El Yunque, a 28,000-acre rain forest; a ferry ride to the Bacardi rum plant.

Unbeaten Path: Hand-rolled cigars at Cigarros Antilla in Old San Juan; Bistro Gambara and Amadeus restaurants in Old San Juan, for authentic local cuisines; Rumba, a locals bar on San Sebastian.

Cozumel, Mexico

The Port: Mexico's only major Caribbean island, Cozumel is 10 miles off the eastern edge of the Yucatan peninsula. A few ships dock in downtown San Miguel, but the new international pier handles most of the cruise ship traffic. It's a five-minute cab ride into the city. Info: 1-800-446-3942,

Usual Suspects: Scuba diving and snorkeling at Palancar Reef, La Ceiba and Plane Wreck; glass-bottom boat tours to see coral reefs; Chankanaab Lagoon National Park's botanical and archaeological attractions. In San Miguel: Carlos & Charlies Bar, for Tex-Mex; Los Cinco Soles boutiques, for crafts and art, with lunch at Pancho's Backyard in the store's interior courtyard; shopping along Malecon, San Miguel's seaside boulevard.

Unbeaten Path: Maracaibo Reef, off the southwestern tip of Cozumel, for experienced divers; Museo de la Isla, an eco-museum in San Miguel; the Archaeological Park, south of International Pier.

St. Maarten/St. Martin

The Port: This 37-square-mile island (you can circumnavigate the entire island by car in an hour) is shared by the Dutch (St. Maarten) and the French (St. Martin). Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, is the primary cruise ship port. All ships tender there at Captain Hodge's pier or at Bobby's Marina. To explore St. Martin, on the other side of the island, look for cab queues; fees are set by the government. Info: St. Maarten, 1-800-786-2278,; St. Martin, 202-659-7779,

Usual Suspects: In Phillipsburg, duty-free shopping on Front Street for linens, electronics, jewelry, cosmetics and Dutch chocolates (bargain for ready-to-wear clothing on Back Street); Great Bay and Little Bay Beach, close to town; casino gambling in Front Street hotels; the St. Maarten 12 Meter Challenge, where you race on vessels retired from the prestigious America's Cup. In Marigot, high-end, duty-free shopping in boutiques like Cartier, Polo and H. Stern; the St. Martin Museum, with pre-Columbian art and native island lore; the view from Fort St. Louis, on a bluff overlooking Marigot; nude sunbathing at Orient Beach, a 30-minute cab ride; lunch at Kaokao; the Butterfly Farm near Orient Beach (the butterflies are most active in the morning).

Unbeaten Path: In St. Maarten, Cupecoy Beach, with dramatic cliffs, caves and strong surf; the Greenhouse, on the Philipsburg waterfront, whose happy hours are popular with sailors; lying on Maho Bay Beach, just 50 yards from Princess Juliana International Airport, to watch the planes take off. In St. Martin, Marigot's Port la Royale Marina, a cluster of art galleries with the Caribbean's best collection of Asian art; hiking the nearly 1,400-foot Paradise Peak, the highest point on the island, a 10-minute drive from Marigot; lunch at Chante Clair, known for its casual French fare; Grand Case, a fishing village with more than 20 restaurants, from the budget Fishpot for seafood to the Rainbow, for haute French cuisine.

Cayman Islands

The Port: The Cayman Islands, which consist of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, is a British territory. Cruise ships generally anchor in George Town harbor in Grand Cayman and tender passengers to a dock in the heart of the city. Info: 1-800-346-3313,

Usual Suspects: Snorkeling and scuba diving in underwater caves at Seven Mile Beach; diving on Ironshore Reef; mailing a postcard home from the town of Hell, known for black rock formations; the Cayman Turtle Farm; duty-free shopping on Church Street; Heritage Craft, an indoor market, and Bye Byes, for crafts; foodstuffs at Icoa Chocolates, Cayman Island Rum Cake Center (known for Captain Rackham's Pirate Rum Cake) and Wholesome Bakery (spicy beef patties); underwater tours on Atlantis Submarines to see underwater canyons and coral formations.

Unbeaten Path: In Georgetown, the Cayman Islands National Museum; diving the North Wall on the island's northern coast; half-day fly-fishing charters; hiking in the 65-acre Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park and on the Mastic trail in the wooded center of the island; secluded beaches of Rum Point and Cayman Kai on the island's north shore.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

The Port: Jamaica has two primary cruise ports, but in recent years, much of the action has shifted from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, where ships dock less than a mile from town. Info: 1-800-233-4582,

Usual Suspects: Shopping at Soni's Plaza in Ocho Rios; Prospect Plantation; climbing Dunn's River Falls; Shaw Park Gardens above Ocho Rios; rafting on the Martha Brae River; Harmony Hall, a Jamaican art gallery also known for its excellent Italian restaurant; tractor-drawn jitney tours of Brimmer Hall Estate, a working plantation; tours of Firefly, Noel Coward's home, now restored.

Unbeaten Path: Evita's, an Italian restaurant on a hilltop overlooking Ocho Rios, favored by island-visiting celebs; drinking a Red Stripe on the balcony at Murphy Hill, a bar and restaurant 2,000 feet above Ocho Rios.


The Port: Barbados achieved independence from Britain in 1966. Cruise ships dock at Deep Water Harbour, a mile (or a 20-minute walk via the oceanside trail) from Bridgetown. Info: 1-800-221-9831,

Usual Suspects: In Bridgetown, duty-free shopping at Cave Shepherd & Co. (a good spot for high tea) and Harrison's for crystal and china, jewelry, liquor, tobacco and candy; the 1665 St. Michael's Cathedral (rumor has it that a 17-year-old rabble-rousing George Washington worshiped there). Outside town, the Barbados Museum, for colonial-era memorabilia (it's in the old military jail); the Atlantis Submarine, to see reefs and wrecks; cave tours via electric trams (no walking required); Sunbury Plantation House and Flower Forest (best explored via cruise excursions because cab fare alone runs about $80); Francia Plantation, for history buffs.

Unbeaten Path: In town, shopping for local handicrafts at Earthworks Pottery (sold in numerous stores as well as its factory, which is open to the public) and the Verandah Art Gallery, specializing in women's art (it also sells antiques). On the outskirts of Bridgetown, the Tyrol Cot Village, for Barbadian residential architecture and artisan boutiques; Folkestone Marine Park, where you can snorkel and swim an underwater trail and see reefs, wild fish and turtles; the beach at Batt's Bay; St. Lawrence Gap for nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques; the Brown Sugar restaurant, south of Bridgetown, for eclectic fare.


The Port: Guadeloupe is one of the French Caribbean islands – an outpost of France; Guadeloupeans consider themselves both Guadeloupean and French (indeed, the official language is French). Grande-Terre and Basse-Terre are the two islands that make up Guadeloupe. Grande-Terre, to the east, is mainly sugarcane fields; across a narrow river, Basse-Terre is where you'll find the best beaches. Cruise ships dock there, in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe's largest town. St. John Perse Centre, at the pier, has shops. Info: 202-659-7779,

Usual Suspects: La Darse market on the waterfront; the Place de la Victoire for sidewalk cafes; St. Antoine Market for spices and coffee; downtown Pointe-a-Pitre for French perfumes, china, crystal, wicker, handmade lace and rum.

Unbeaten Path: Musee Schoelcher, a collection of art and memorabilia that chronicles the evolution of slavery in Guadeloupe; the Ala Recherche du Passe in the Marina Bas du Fort, for antique books and bibelots; Plage Tarare, an hour's ride from the pier, for nude sunbathing; the Aquarium de la Guadeloupe; the suburb of Gosier, a 30-minute taxi ride from the port, with a good public beach, lovely local restaurants and nice shops.


The Port: The residents of Martinique, also part of the French Caribbean island group, consider themselves French – so bring a French phrasebook. The island is known as a playground for upper-class French, so expect a stylish ambiance. There are two cruise ship piers in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique: Pointe Simon is in town, but most ships call at Tourelles, 1 1/2 miles outside the city. Info: 1-800-391-4909,

Usual Suspects: Beaches at Pointe du Bout; the Cathedral of St. Louis and the Rum Museum in town; casinos in Fort-de-France; shopping at Roger Albert, famous for perfumes and Lalique crystal; crafts at Tilo and, across from the waterfront, the Centre des Metiers d'art; historic St. Pierre (the onetime capital) – don't miss the Volcanological Museum, and on the way, stop off to see the rain forest, Balata Cathedral, and the butterfly farm; shopping at La Galleria.

Unbeaten Path: The indoor vegetable market in the hub of the city, for freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices (try the sugar cane juice); Musee d'Archeologie; Lina's Cafe, downtown, one of Martinique's finest.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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