The Caribbean is the world's most popular cruising region, by far. During the peak winter season, there are more than 65 cruise ships in the Caribbean, and top ports such as Cozumel, Grand Cayman, St. Martin and St. Thomas can host 10,000 cruise passengers on a given day.
There is another Caribbean, however, consisting of dozens of islands that are too sparsely populated (or simply disinclined) to host megaships. These places cater primarily to visitors that arrive on private boats or the small ships of SeaDream, Radisson (now Regent), Windstar, Seabourn and Star Clippers.
In planning my cruise on SeaDream I, I was excited to see an itinerary that included several islands in this category. Here's a bit of information about each island we visited, the first five of which are off-the-beaten-path.
The idyllic French island of St. Barts (Guadeloupe) has a beautiful harbor filled with luxurious yachts and surrounded by upscale shops and restaurants. The island is small and expensive and a favorite with celebrities. We anchored in the harbor and tendered in for some shopping and beachcombing, before returning to the ship to spend the afternoon jet skiing, banana boating and snorkeling off the water sports platform. Had we not had this great amenity on the SeaDream I, there were numerous excellent beaches on the island to explore.
Hilly Virgin Gorda (British Virgin Islands) boasts white sand beaches and a popular attraction called The Baths, a series of sea caves formed by massive rocks and eons of pounding by the ocean. You can climb, crawl and wade through The Baths to a lovely and secluded beach. There you can sunbathe or join other foolhardy visitors in ignoring the posted warning signs and bodysurf the turquoise waves. Don't be surprised if you are planted head first into the sand, as I was.
Sir Richard Branson's private Necker Island, a fabled haunt of the Rich and Famous, is a few hundred yards offshore Virgin Gorda. There you and up to 27 of your friends can rent the entire island, complete with chefs, staff, gymnasium, tennis center, pools and water sports, for a mere $45,000 -- per night!
Jost Van Dyke (British Virgin Islands) is a place that seems to operate on its own time zone, which of course means that things happen whenever they happen, so you might as well get used to it. My son and I enjoyed a very scenic all-terrain-vehicle (ATV) ride around the entire island -- once the ship's talented and versatile Activities Director, Clive, tracked down the ATVs and the missing-in-action local guide.
The island is pretty and lightly inhabited and reachable from St. Thomas via a short ferry ride. It is known throughout the Caribbean for an open-air bar named Foxy's, which was lively when we visited and is THE place to be on New Year's Eve.
Jost Van Dyke was also the site of a SeaDream original, the Champagne and Caviar Splash. The ship took over a private section of beach to create a full-blown buffet for lunch. At noon, uniformed waiters marched into the water to plant a table, where they served chilled champagne and caviar to wading guests.
Nevis (British West Indies) is a friendly place that sports a dormant volcano towering 3200 feet above sea level and a tropical rain forest. Nevis did not seem to be as scenic as the places already mentioned, but it was overcast and drizzling during our kayak and snorkel excursion there and I'm sure the island would have looked better in the sunshine.
St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands) is a short ferry ride from St. Thomas, and the majority of the island is a national park. Kayaking, hiking, diving and snorkeling are the most popular pastimes.
St. Martin/St. Maarten is the smallest island in the world ever to have been divided by two nations, France and the Netherlands. The island's two ports bustle with commerce and tourism and offer a full range of shore excursions to ships of every size. I chose a very popular shore excursion in which guests crew actual America's Cup contenders from the '80s and '90s and race around a regulation America's Cup course.
The multimillion-dollar yachts are sleek and beautiful, and we were blessed with good winds and sunny skies for our race. No experience is necessary, which is good, since I had none. Guests could opt for an active role grinding winches or trimming sails or for a passive role (tending bar), all under the watchful eye of a seasoned captain and two mates. The 12-Meter Regatta is a real race that the captains definitely want to win, and the grinders get a good workout. All the participants from our ship considered the race to be a highlight of the trip.
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