The Caribbean is a classic cruise destination, tailored to people who want nice white-sand beaches, tiki bars serving tropical drinks, hot island music, and the chance to perfect their tans. Yet beyond those generalities, the Caribbean islands each provide slightly different versions of fun in the sun. Some especially St. Thomas and Nassau are much more touristy and commercial than others, but they’ll appeal to shoppers with their large variety of bustling stores. Others Virgin Gorda, St. John, and Jost Van Dyke, for instance have more of an eco-tourism appeal. Ports such as St. Barts and Virgin Gorda have a low-key yachting-port atmosphere, while Key West and Cozumel are all about whooping it up. And if your passion is for coral-reef snorkeling, deep-sea diving, or golf, only certain islands will really fit the bill.
In general, all the Caribbean islands are getting more business by increasingly bigger ships. The more famous and larger the port, the more likely there will be a flotilla of cruise ships lined up in a row and passengers clogging the streets. This is especially true in the busy winter season, before some of the ships that serve Alaska and Europe in the summertime move on to those routes. The crowding may not seem like that big a deal before you arrive; after all, you’re probably going on organized excursions and are only in town for a few hours. But the reality is that these ports can’t always handle the masses with elegance: Important attractions might be thronged, and competition for space on popular beaches can be fierce. Also, since many cruise lines use the same shore excursion providers, your excursion could be packed with guests from other ships and lines.
It’s harder than ever to find the unspoiled, uncrowded corners of the Caribbean, though they still exist if you have the dough to book a luxury small cruise, one that skips the more mainstream ports of call.