Luxury Caribbean Cruises: What to Know and Where to go
If you’ve daydreamed about going on a luxury cruise, chances are you’ve pictured yourself in the Caribbean. With its iconic beaches, swaying palm trees, and crystal clear waters drenched in sunshine, the Caribbean is beside the Mediterranean, one of the most popular luxury cruise destinations in the world. Its close proximity to several US departure ports makes the Caribbean an easy cruise destination for short and long cruises alike, and there are a wide variety of Caribbean cruises to suit all tastes.
However, the absolute best way to cruise the Caribbean is on a luxury cruise line. What makes luxury cruises special? Not only are they all-inclusive, floating resort-style vacation packages, they also offer exclusive experiences only available to their passengers. And when visiting a luxury cruise destination as popular as the Caribbean, having premium options can be like experiencing the whole region again for the first time.
Here are some of our top recommendations on when to visit and what to see on your next luxury cruise vacation.
Why Take a Luxury Cruise to the Caribbean?
From gorgeous sun-kissed beaches caressed by turquoise waves to vibrant rainforests sheltering ancient ruins - the Caribbean offers a little bit of everything. Architecture enthusiasts will love getting a closer look at the colonial ports, while history buffs can channel their inner Indiana Jones exploring Mayan ruins. You can relax on the beach one day, swim with pigs another, and zip-line through lush rainforests the next. Refresh yourself with French Creole cuisine, rum punch, and fresh tropical fruit - all without the hassle of multiple flights or hotels. There are many reasons why especially luxury cruises for couples are in the Caribbean.
Here are our top 3 reasons why your next luxury cruise should be in the Caribbean.
1. The weather
The Caribbean’s sunny, beachy reputation makes it a prime getaway destination, especially during the cold, dark winter months. While there are some weather issues to be aware of before you book your trip (which we’ll talk more about later), the weather in the Caribbean is generally sublime. Warm days and nights give it a forever-summer feel, even in the dead of winter. Rain is common, particularly in late summer and fall, but it’s fairly easy to plan your trip around serious storms.
2. Cultural and historical diversity
Despite many islands feeling like their own secluded paradise, the Caribbean has historically been quite the melting pot. Dutch, French, British, Indian, West African, and indigenous cultures have intertwined in this region for centuries. Colonial architecture is common, as is fusion-style cuisine. While it’s important to recognize that this unique cultural intermingling is the result of imperialism and exploitation, it has also led to the Caribbean’s famously welcoming and friendly attitude. Many islands celebrate their diverse heritage, and will likely invite you to join them in their joie de vivre.
3. Beaches and natural attractions
Just like the weather, the Caribbean is world-famous for beaches. White sand beaches dotted by swaying palm trees are common, and some islands also boast lush rainforests and high mountain peaks. Many islands are made from ancient (or not-so-ancient) volcanoes, and they sustain massive amounts of life. Flora and fauna are abundant, from leafy flowering plants to turtles, stingrays, and tons of fish. There’s plenty to explore on a Caribbean cruise, so be sure to budget both beach days and active excursions.
Winter is easily the best time to cruise the Caribbean. From December to April, the weather is ideal, with little rainfall and typically warm to hot days and milder nights. This makes it the perfect time for cruisers from the US, Europe, and Britain to escape the chilly winter and thaw out in the sunshine.
As is typical with cruise destinations, ideal weather conditions mean peak season also falls during winter and early spring. This means the Caribbean is more likely to have more crowds and cruises will be more expensive during this time. However, more excursions will usually be offered, and itineraries are more stable.
An option for cruisers seeking discount luxury cruises is to go in early summer when rainstorms are more likely but the islands will be calmer and luxury cruise ships emptier. June to August is the beginning of hurricane season so storms, rough seas, and last-minute itinerary changes are more likely, but it may be worth it to avoid overcrowded ports and extreme prices.
While you may see incredible luxury cruise deals from June to November, be aware that this is hurricane season in the Caribbean. It may not be such an issue on mega-ships, but rough seas can ruin small luxury cruise ships. Be particularly wary of cruises during September and October, as this is the height of hurricane season. If you do choose to cruise during these months, we highly recommend you invest in good cruise travel insurance - just in case.
It’s also worth noting that many Caribbean islands were ravaged by hurricanes last year. We recommend double-checking with your cruise line or shore excursion provider to make sure all your preferred activities are available before you book.
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Where to Go
When it comes to picking the perfect luxury Caribbean cruise itinerary, it’s important to note that Caribbean cruises typically fall into three categories: Eastern Caribbean, Western Caribbean, and Southern Caribbean. Longer cruises (lasting a week or more) can visit all three categories, but shorter cruises usually stick to just one.
As many luxury cruise lines tend to offer small ships exclusively, luxury Caribbean cruises can look a bit different from their mainstream counterparts. Luxury lines like Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, and Viking Cruises still visit many of the most popular ports in each area. Meanwhile, small ship cruise lines Ponant, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Star Clippers offer even more immersive and secluded itineraries.
Here are some of the best ports to visit during your luxury Caribbean cruise, plus some hidden gems you may have missed out on.
Most Popular Eastern Caribbean Ports
The Eastern Caribbean is ideal for cruisers seeking beachy relaxation and plenty of aquatic adventures. Islands are close together, so it’s common for Eastern Caribbean cruises to be port-heavy, with fewer sea days. Shore excursions usually focus on more strenuous activity, like hiking or biking, or more individual pursuits like shopping.
Here are some of our favorite cruise ports in the Eastern Caribbean.
Although technically the Bahamas aren’t in the Caribbean Sea, Nassau tops the charts as one of the most popular destinations for Eastern Caribbean cruises. The capital of the Bahamas, the port of Nassau is close to the city’s downtown, making it easily accessible for cruisers. Beautiful white sand beaches slope gently into brilliant blue water, making this luxury cruise destination ideal for beach days. Other great excursion options include golf and snorkeling.
St. Maarten / St. Martin
It may surprise you to find out that St. Maarten and St. Martin are very distinct from each other, and each offers something different. St. Maarten has Dutch roots, while St. Martin is French. St. Maarten welcomes larger cruise ships; St. Martin invites small vessels. Both sides of the island have great beaches, and St. Martin’s Baie Orientale is notoriously “clothing optional.” This is a great destination for catamaran excursions, beaches, and shopping.
St. Barts (St. Barthélemy)
An ideal Eastern Caribbean luxury cruise destination, St. Barts boasts plenty of prime beaches and charming architecture. But the real draw of this island is the shopping. Haute couture may seem unlikely with iguanas roaming the isle, but St. Barts’ French roots grow deep, and boutique shopping is excellent. Dining options are also superb - try Restaurant Le Gaiac for an al fresco meal.
Most Popular Western Caribbean Ports
Western Caribbean cruises tend to focus more on culture, history, architecture, art, and food. With plenty of ports in Mexico and Central America, these itineraries are infused with active shore excursions and exploratory spirit. Head inland to explore Mayan ruins, zip line through the rainforest in Belize, or swim with stingrays in Grand Cayman.
Here are some of the Western Caribbean’s most popular cruise ports.
One of the Western Caribbean’s most famous hotspots, Cozumel combines stunning beaches with ancient history, shopping, and wildlife. This small island boasts a diverse array of activities from swimming with dolphins to exploring the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. Take a cab to San Miguel in the island’s interior for prime shopping, or hop on a ferry to nearby Playa del Carmen to explore Mayan site Tulum.
Grand Cayman Island
Another well-known and well-loved port, Grand Cayman Island wows cruisers with its close encounters with sea life. Go snorkeling with Stingrays in Stingray City, a shallow sandbar where the sea creatures come to catch a meal. Or visit the island’s turtle farm to learn more about sea turtles. Beyond animals, Grand Cayman also offers excellent shopping and nightlife, though it can get very busy during the high season.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Jamaica’s second-largest city and unofficial capital of tourism, Montego Bay delivers excellent shopping, beaches, and unparalleled golf courses. Luxury beaches are abundant, so plan for a tan. Nature lovers will also delight in the island’s many natural attractions, including the picturesque Dunn’s River Falls. While Jamaica can get crowded during peak season, exclusive luxury excursions are available.
Most Popular Southern Caribbean Ports
The Southern Caribbean is generally less crowded than the Eastern or Western Caribbean, as it’s further afield from common US departure ports like Port Miami or Fort Lauderdale. For this reason, many luxury cruise lines focus on immersive experiences in these culturally diverse and naturally beautiful islands.
Here are our top picks for the most popular cruise ports in the Southern Caribbean.
St. Kitts, St. Kitts and Nevis
The island of St. Kitts makes up one half of the country St. Kitts and Nevis. Its towering, verdant mountains make for great hiking and ziplining excursions, and its wildlife-filled waters are great for snorkeling and diving. Take a walking tour through historic Basseterre or a railroad tour of the island. You could also rent a catamaran to nearby Nevis and spend a day on the water, or simply lounge on a beach.
Antigua, Antigua and Barbuda
Pink and white sand beaches give this island a whimsical feel. Shore excursions range from shopping to helicopter tours and diving. Plus, Antigua’s colonial past lends it a colorful and charming city center, perfect for a walking tour or a night out on the town.
One of the wilder islands in terms of natural attractions, St. Lucia is home to reefs, rainforests, and even volcanoes. It’s a favorite getaway among the well-heeled and has earned its reputation as one of the Caribbean’s most stunning locales. Whether you stay on the beach, venture inland for a hiking or adventure excursion, or sample fresh-caught fish from the reefs, St. Lucia is an unforgettable cruise destination.
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Most Underrated Caribbean Cruise Destinations
Since the Caribbean is one of the most popular and well-trod cruise regions in the world, it’s likely you’ve heard of these hidden gems. They may not exactly be secrets, but these cruise destinations certainly offer a little something extra that it’s worth discovering for yourself.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Dwarfed in many ways by neighboring Tortola, Virgin Gorda is nevertheless a stunner in its own right. With yacht clubs, wintering movie stars and billionaires, and incredible natural geologic formations, Virgin Gorda is 8.5 square miles of pristine Caribbean paradise. It’s only the third-largest of the British Virgin Islands, and its small size means few cruise lines can access it. Because of that intimacy and exclusivity, it’s a favorite port of call for luxury lines like Windstar and SeaDream Yacht Club.
Colombia’s picturesque 16th-century port city is a charming entrypoint into the South American continent. While larger cruise lines like Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean do venture there, Cartagena is best experienced aboard the Seabourn cruise line. Opt for an immersive itinerary aboard Seabourn Sojourn to sidestep the frequent complaint from megaship cruisers that there wasn’t enough time to explore.
Bequia Island, The Grenadines
If you’re looking for pure relaxation and luxury, visit Bequia Island in the Grenadines. This tiny island measures just 7 square miles and is particularly popular among the yachting and sailing crowd. Choose a sailing on Royal Clipper by Star Clippers, Windstar’s Star Legend, or Silversea’s Silver Shadow. This island is still something of a secret among luxury cruisers, but it comes highly rated by those who value slowing down for an afternoon and taking it all in.
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