By Aaron Saunders
Despite being one of the most popular itineraries in the world, many Eastern Caribbean cruises seem to offer the same assortment of ports from one cruise line to the next. But if you look closer, there’s a whole world of adventure to be had in these sun-splashed islands; all you have to do is dig a little deeper.
So how do I spend my time whenever I sail the Eastern Caribbean? Here are a few of my favourite excursions to take while ashore.
Castries, St. Lucia
Although it could be considered part of the Southern Caribbean, St. Lucia works its way onto many longer Eastern Caribbean itineraries, and it’s not difficult to see why; after multiple visits to the island famous for its large and small land masses known as The Pitons, I am still finding things I enjoy about it.
While an excursion to the beautiful town of Soufriere is always an excellent choice, I discovered a brilliantly enjoyable way to explore off-the-beaten path here: the three-and-a-half-hour long Lucian Style Segway excursion.
If you’ve never had the chance to ride a Segway, they are a lot of fun. Surprisingly intuitive, actually, once you get the hang of it. And when you do - and you will, thanks to a simple test-course - it actually makes a fantastic way to explore this island.
Along the way, we stopped at Pebble Beach and spent some time poking around the sealed-up bunkers and tunnels that are still inset into the pristine hillside, having been constructed during World War II for the American military.
At Mount Pimard, one of the highest spots on the island, we stopped for fresh fruit and refreshments, backed by some of the most stunning vistas in the Caribbean.
Perhaps most importantly, the people who run this tour are first-class all the way. When my fiancée fell off the Segway and skinned her elbow - after proclaiming herself “the Segway Master” - our guide kicked into action, cutting off a branch of a nearby aloe plant and putting the fresh aloe over her wound after cleaning it.
Initially, I was a reluctant participant in the whole thing. Now, I can’t imagine having spent my day any other way.
Though technically located in the Bahamas, Nassau is veritable staple of the Eastern Caribbean itinerary, and chances are good that at some point during your Caribbean sojourn you’ll find yourself up on deck as your ship sails past the iconic pink Atlantis Resort. And as I discovered, you may as well give in to temptation here and do what everyone else will likely be doing: taking an excursion to spend the day at the Resort.
Here’s the deal: Atlantis boasts more waterslides, waterparks, and activities than you can shake a stick at. There’s 2.8-hectare lagoon and an archaeological maze known as The Dig that boasts over 50,000 marine mammals. If you have kids, an excursion to Atlantis is a no-brainer. Heck, if you’re just looking for a fun way to spend the afternoon, it’s tough to go wrong with these popular excursions that range from just a few hours to all-day extravaganzas.
Philipsburg, Saint Maarten
It’s hard not to like Philipsburg. After all, the beach and the main town are just a quick five-minute water taxi ride away, and plenty of retail therapy can be found by wandering up and down the rows of quaint shops situated nearby. But the Dutch capital of Philipsburg is just half of what makes this island unique.
If you’re looking for a little slice of Europe in the Caribbean, “St. Martin under Two Flags” takes you from the Dutch side of St. Maarten to the French side of the island and its capital, Marigot.
With an excursion to Marigot, you can browse the unique shops here, indulge in the open-air markets in the French Quarter, and sample some of the delicious, French-inspired cuisine. Close your eyes, and it isn’t difficult to imagine yourself in the south of France. It’s like travelling to Europe without actually being there.
Aviation buffs won’t want to miss one other spectacle: Princess Juliana International Airport and its approach runway that takes widebody commercial airliners like the Boeing 747 right over top of swimmers in Maho Beach. Hop a taxi here for a real rush!
Road Town, Tortola
The capital of the British Virgin Islands, Road Town is one of the most scenic ports you can call on in the Eastern Caribbean – and that’s saying a lot. Road Town is a brilliant place to stroll around, shop, or just escape to the beach. But there is one thing that everyone who comes here has to experience: an excursion to the Baths at the Virgin Gorda.
Made up of boulders formed by the island’s volcanic origins and eroded down over hundreds of years, the Baths, as they are known, form natural tidal pools, caves, arches, and cozy grottoes that just beckon you to come closer. Flip open the pages of nearly any Caribbean cruise brochure, and you’re sure to see a snapshot of these often other-worldly geological formations.
If lots of cruise ships are in port it can get quite busy here, so I always try to take one of the earliest excursions off of the ship. But a visit here is tremendously worthwhile.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
There’s nothing like an excursion to Old San Juan. The imposing seaside San Felipe del Morro Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a must-see attraction in its own right. Much of San Juan’s history either directly or indirectly involved the fortress, constructed between the 15th and 19th Centuries.
But the walking excursion is a great way to experience more of this historic city, including Quincentennial Square, Cristo Street, and the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, containing the tomb of explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who became the first Governor of Puerto Rico and was credited with discovering (and naming) Florida while searching for The Fountain of Youth.
St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas, is a beautiful city of around 20,000 inhabitants that routinely sees its population nearly double during the height of the Caribbean season. Nestled amid the lush, rolling hills and picturesque bay, it is also one of the Eastern Caribbean’s largest shopping meccas. I have seen tourists nearly lose their minds here as they frantically race back and forth from stores selling t-shirts, alcohol, diamonds and watches.
But when I’m in St. Thomas, I like to get out of St. Thomas and save the duty-free shopping for the airport. And there’s no better way to do that than with an excursion to the nearby island of St. John.
With the St. John Island Tour, you can spend approximately four hours exploring this historic, picturesque locale. It provides a great overview of an island most visitors to St. Thomas miss, and a stop at Cruz Bay near the end of the tour provides a chance for a different shopping experience. My ultimate favourite part of the tour: Cinnamon Bay is absolutely breathtaking with its nearly-transparent waters and lush, green hills. Bring extra memory cards for your camera!
Looking to find a (relatively) quiet escape from Charlotte Amalie without leaving the island? The three-hour Magen’s Beach Getaway is a great excursion for those who want to relax and soak up the sun, or even for aspiring photographers looking to get that one snapshot that will make your friends, family and co-workers jealous; it’s that beautiful.
And there’s nothing wrong with a little jealousy.