While Cuba has been off-limits to most American travelers since 1963, in recent years cruise ships have started calling again and flights from the United States have resumed. Most visitors today are drawn not only by the islandâs mild climate and beautiful beaches but also its cultural riches. Havana has a wealth of colonial buildings and vintage automobiles, as well as intimate paladares that serve local dishes and street parties that move to the rhythms of mambo and salsa. On the country's southern coast, Cienfuegos has elegant mansions and a 19th-century street plan that earned it a place on UNESCOâs list of World Heritage sites.
The British and the French played keep-away with the island of St. Kitts in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the British ultimately controlling the island, its capital, Basseterre, and Fort Brimstone, the ""Gibraltar of the West Indies."" Take a cruise to the city today and you'll see traces of both countries, in a setting that's all Caribbean. Part of the Windward Island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, the busy port of Basseterre eases along a sheltered bay surrounded by green hills and mountains. Highlights of the town include Independence Square, the old section of town; the Circus which is modeled on Piccadilly Circus in London ,a green bronze clock an architectural delight, a main shopping district; and St. George's Anglican Church, built and rebuilt in the 300 years since its initial construction.
Barbados is what England might look like if it had taken a tropical vacation years ago and decided to stay put. Cricket is the national sport, afternoon tea is a given, and motorists hug left. All these are remnants of the English settlers who arrived in what is now Bridgetown in 1628. Your cruise will show you the British influence most directly in the historic old section of town, which has been singled out as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other highlights include the Barbados Museum and the Careenage district, with its bars and restaurants. It is full of silver beaches, aquamarine sea and loads of water sports.
Belize City, Belize
Dive down to one of the world's great barrier reefs. Drop in to one of the caves that stipple the Yucatan Peninsula. Soak up the ambiance of the only Central American country that claims British colonial influence. Belize slots into the Yucatan between Mexico, to the north; Guatemala, to the west and south; and the Pacific; to the east. Cruise to Belize to find the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Inland, you'll discover marshes, low mountains, and riotous biodiversity everywhere you look. And in Belize City, the country's largest city, you'll discover a bit of England gone tropical.
Privateers loved Cartagena, the chief Spanish port in New Granada (today's Colombia). Sir John Hawkins besieged the city in 1568 and his nephew, Sir Francis Drake, sacked it 18 years later. In response, Spain poured millions into the port's defense, building the fortifications that are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town the walls protected is also part of that World Heritage designation. Cruise visitors can walk those deeply textured alleyways today through some of the best-preserved colonial neighborhoods of the Americas. When you're ready for a change, there are beaches ready to hand. Bocagrande is busy and close to the city. Playa Blanca is south across the bay and quieter. Both are lovely.
Castries, St. Lucia
The old volcanoes have hardened and are crusting over with jungle, but they do make for some beautiful serrated scenery across the island of St. Lucia. Most improbable are the Pitons, two roughly conical mountains rising right up from the ocean on the island's southwest coast. Cruise to a land that still seethes, especially at Soufriere, said to be the world's only drive-in volcano. To the north, the island's capital, Castries, snugs into a sheltered bay. Check out the local market on Jeremie Street, explore Derek Walcott Square (named for the Nobel-winning poet), or spend some time on Vigie Beach.
Colon lies on the stunning Caribbean coast of Panama, where unparalleled beaches and lush tropical scenery are de rigueur. In nearby Portobello, discover the ruins of Spanish forts, watch the colorful yachts sailing in the bay or hunt for treasures in the local markets. Travel to the Gatun Locks for a bird's eye view of the immense ships passing through the Panama Canal.
Costa Maya, Mexico
This is the timeless Yucatan cenote-pocked, cave-addled, mangrove-tasseled, reef-encrusted, temple-strewn, and calm. North of Belize and south of Cancun, Costa Maya stretches from the fishing town of Xcalak up the coast to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Your cruise docks at Costa Maya Port, where you can spend time shopping, relaxing, or planning an adventure -- underwater, along the coast, or into the interior. There are a number of Mayan ruins in the area, including the sprawling Ruins of Xcabal, which are still being uncovered.
Canada's smallest province is an island that seems to be tethered to New Brunswick by the 8-mile-long Confederation Bridge lest it drift into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Leave the mainland, cross the bridge, and make a right for Charlottetown. The largest city on Prince Edward Island as well as its capital, Charlottetown's Victorian architecture, abundance of parks, and harbor side location make it an idyllic stop for cruise visitors. Walk the cobblestones of Victoria Row, see the house that inspired ""Anne of Green Gables,"" or explore the wild shore of Prince Edward Island National Park.
Noted for being one of the Caribbean's best-preserved Georgian towns, Falmouth boasts a rich 18th and early 19th century history. Explore Saint Peter's Anglican Church, built in 1795; shop for local crafts at the Albert George Shopping and Historical Centre, and visit Greenwood Great House; built in 1760, this house was once owned by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's family and today is home to the finest antique museum in the Caribbean.
Christopher Columbus visited the island in 1502, but didn't like the snakes or the hostile reception from the native people. Cruise travelers will find the island, and its capital of Fort-de-France, more welcoming. Located in the Lesser Antilles between St. Lucia and Dominica, Martinique is dominated by a cluster of volcanoes, including the still active Mount Pelee. Fort-De-France, the bayside capital, is located on the west coast of the island. In town, cruise guests should include a visit to the formal gardens of La Savane Park. Highlights outside town include Saint-Pierre (buried by the 1902 Mount Pelee eruption) and the beach of Grand Anse des Salines.
There is an abundance of things to see and do in the Fort Lauderdale area: visit the newly redesigned Fort Lauderdale Beach and cafes, stroll the historic Riverwalk, shop the luxurious stores on Las Olas Boulevard or venture to the Everglades for an intriguing air boat excursion.
Galveston is a coastal city located on Galveston Island and Pelican Island in the U.S. state of Texas. Much of Galveston's modern economy is centered in the tourism, health care, shipping, and financial industries. The 84-acre University of Texas Medical Branch campus with an enrollment of more than 2,500 students is a major economic force of the city. Galveston is home to six historic districts containing one of the largest and historically significant collections of 19th-century buildings with over 60 structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Georgetown, Cayman Islands
The western end of Grand Cayman Island contains one of the most delightful cities in the Caribbean. Underwater. In the shallow waters West Bay, you can swim into Stingray City, where the rays will let you touch, feed, and hold them. About a mile west, on the other side of the island, lies Seven Mile Beach, an emblematic stretch of Caribbean idyll. And just south is Georgetown, the country's capital. The town is a crayon box of shops (look for a piece of colorful Caymanite or black coral), restaurants, and history, including the Cayman Islands National Museum and the Maritime Treasure Museum. The harbor offers endless water activities for cruise guests, including snorkeling, scuba diving, and glass-bottom boat tours.
Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos
About a quarter mile from the western beaches at Grand Turk, the sea floor drops 7,000 feet right down into dark blue. Just at the edge of the dropoff, there's a reef pocked with arches, turrets, and tunnels called the Grand Turk Wall. The reef is a haven for fish, and with its clear water, for divers, too. Cruise to Grand Turk for the diving, and if not, come for the beaches. Grand Turk is fringed with them, lying as it does at the southeastern end of the Bahamian archipelago. Grand Turk has witnessed a lot of history, from Ponce de Leon to the space race. Come to the National Museum in the capital, Cockburn Town, to get a taste of it.
Gatun Lake, Panama
Here is human labor on an operatic scale: When it was created, Gatun Lake was the largest human-made lake in the world. All it took was the world's biggest dam to create it. And all that took was one of the greatest feats of engineering in history. The Panama Canal stretches 48 miles from the Caribbean Sea in the north to the Pacific Ocean in the south. Much of the journey is a narrow cruise through the jungle, but 21 miles of the transit is across the sprawling Gatun Lake, a haven for sailors, scientific research, and anglers chasing peacock bass.
Gustavia (St. Barts), France
The island of St. Barts wasn't a huge target during the European colonial wrestling matches across the Caribbean. Still, it had its share of suitors. Founded by the French, there was a British takeover that lasted the blink of an eye before the island reverted to French control, was traded to Sweden, and then sold back to France. French it remains. Gustavia, the main town, is a flock of red-roofed houses that cluster around a petite harbor. Highlights for cruise guests include Gustavia Lighthouse, the view from Morne Vitet, the highest point on the island; and the beaches, notably St. Jean (for water sports), Lorient (for the shade and the quiet), and Shell Beach (for the shells).
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Half Moon Cay offers everything you need for a day of play on your Caribbean cruise. Park yourself in an air-conditioned cabana along a two-mile crescent of blinding white beach. Visit Stingray Cove to feed and learn more about the gentle creatures. Ride your horse to a deserted beach and into the surf. Or, take your kids to Half Moon Lagoon, island's aqua park and children's playground. Part of the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay lies about 100 miles southeast of Nassau and is visited on nearly every Caribbean itinerary.
Key West, Florida, US
Key West is where Florida makes its last ragged stumble into the celadon waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The water and the climate have been drawing visitors for centuries, from Ponce de Leon to Harry Truman to writers like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. Somehow, the writers managed to get some great work done, and their legacy lives on. Area highlights for cruise visitors include the Ernest Hemingway House (full of many-toed cats), McCoy Indigenous Park (full of rescued marine animals), and numerous local beaches (full of vitamin D). Try Fort Zachary Taylor, South Beach, or Higg's Beach. Take a sightseeing tour on the Conch Train that circles the island or the Old Town Trolley.
Kralendijk (Bonaire), Antilles
The forecast calls for sunshine and 81 degrees. The westernmost of the ABC Islands (the others being Aruba and Curacao), Bonaire is shaped roughly like a drawn bow aiming an imaginary arrow at the Netherlands, of which the island is a municipality. Take an hour out of your cruise to walk Kralendijk, the capital. You'll likely hear people speaking Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamentu as you pass the brightly colored shops and restaurants. After you see the town, explore the island. To the north is Washington Slagbaai National Park, to the south is the flamingo sanctuary at Pekel Meer, and all around is some of the best diving in the world.
Miami is one of the state's and the worlds most popular vacation spots. Though destinations often are said to offer something for everyone, the Miami area offers multiple enticements for everyone: The trendy nightlife of South Beach, bejeweled by the eye candy of the Art Deco district. The bustle of Calle Ocho and the highly caffeinated energy of Little Havana. The plush hotels of Miami Beach and the historic hideaways of Coral Gables. Seemingly endless shopping opportunities in modern, sprawling malls and the quiet, personal attention offered by the family-owned shops of Coconut Grove and many other corners of the region. The lures of deep-sea fishing and golf and tennis. Major league football, basketball, hockey and baseball. Boat shows and auto racing. Art festivals and outdoor food and wine extravaganzas. An international airport and the worlds busiest cruise port. The Miami area offers all of this and so much more.
Mahogany Bay, Honduras
You're in for an easy day in Mahogany Bay. The port is an idyllic enclave for cruise visitors, encompassing 20 acres of the Caribbean island of Roatan. Enjoy the cruise center's shopping and dining, then take a chairlift to the private beach. Mahogany Beach is nearly 300 yards of white sand, quiescent water, private cabanas, and watersports. Roatan lies east of Belize, north of Honduras, and at the southern terminus of the second-largest barrier reef in the world. If you can pull yourself away from Mahogany Beach, consider a visit to the Carambola Botanical Gardens or spend some time underwater: Local diving is world-class.
Any visitor will create their own Aruba cruise experience, but here are two to try. First, there is the Aruba of beaches, sun and shopping. And why not? The beaches shimmer. The sun grants its benedictions through dry, 82-degree days all year long. And the shopping buzzes along Main Street and Lloyd G. Smith Boulevard. Second, there is the time-sculpted Aruba. Arikok National Park covers nearly one-fifth of the island and is home to species you'll find nowhere else, caves for exploring, and ragged, wind-torn bits of coastline. Of course, there are a million other Arubas. Go find yours.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Odd for a waterfall, the terraced cascade at Dunn's River Falls is continuously rebuilding itself. The river is full of calcium carbonate and sodium, which turns the underlying rock into a vast hard water deposit. Gather some friends from the cruise, form a human chain, and hike directly across the face of the falls. Or, head up the hills above Ocho Rios to either the Shaw Park or Coyoba botanical gardens. The parks are profligate with their flora and feature their own intimate waterfalls and views to the town below. Hungry? Try Fisherman's Beach for authentic Jamaican seafood.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
In the surreal world of the Costa Rican rainforest, the tropical hothouse environment pushes life into a constant state of fast forward. Holly species change sex. Plants live on air, not soil. Orchids instruct insects where to land. Puerto Limon, on the Caribbean coast is a gateway to all that bio-fantasia. There are national parks, refuges, and reserves in all directions, from the coast to the jungled mountains to the volcanic parks on the road to San Jose. Closer to town, highlights for cruise visitors include Playa Bonita beach, a couple miles from downtown, and a panga-boat ride along the Tortuguero Canal, which encompasses more than 100 miles of waterways along the coast.
Port Canaveral in Florida
Port Canaveral is your gateway to the parks and entertainment complexes of Orlando, the spectacular wonders of the Kennedy Space Center and the natural habitats of the alligator and Florida manatee. Experience the wonders of the Kennedy Space Center and see, hear and touch NASA's historic past and exciting future. Stroll through the Rocket Garden, home of Apollo and Gemini-era rockets, board life-size replicas of the space shuttle Explorer, and see spacecraft that orbited the Earth. Enjoy an exciting, educational airboat tour into central Florida's Everglades, or explore the unique shops and parks of legendary Cocoa Beach.
Philipsburg (St. Maarten), AN
Geographically, sixty percent of the island of Saint Martin French. Forty percent is Dutch. And 100 percent of it is wonderful. Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch section of the island (called Sint Maarten), and lies on a gentle arc of land with a saltwater lake to the north and a bay to the south. An esplanade runs alongside a white sand beach, so you can switch from sunning to shopping and back again in moments. One block in from the beach, cruise visitors can visit the duty-free boutiques of Front Street, one of the great shopping avenues of the Caribbean. Outside town, you can choose from one of the island's nearly 40 beaches. Mullet Bay is one of the nicest.
Road Town (Tortola) Virgin Is.
Two details: first, a ""road"" in the nautical sense is a sheltered area outside a harbor; second, the oldest building in Road Town is a prison. Seamanship and a general rascality shaped the early history of the British Virgin Islands, as the British, Spanish, French, and Dutch all parried and thrusted for control, with pirates wreaking general havoc all around. Today, the island of Tortola and its capital, Road Town, is a place for cruise visitors to relax and explore the emerald forests and viridian waters. Highlights in town include the Botanic Gardens, the Folk History Museum, and the brightly colored shops downtown. Oh, and the beaches: try the popular Cane Garden Bay or Brewer's Bay.
East of Belize, north of Honduras, and at the southern terminus of the second-largest barrier reef in the world, the island of Roatan is a quiet haven for divers and beach aficionados. Columbus stopped by, as did the Spanish, English, and one long-ago New Englander who survived as a castaway for more than a year. The west end of the island has many highlights for cruise visitors, including West Bay Beach, Parque Nacional Sandy Bay, and the energetic town of West End, which has some of the best food in Honduras. Be sure to spend some time underwater: The diving off the north shore of the island is world-class.
Dominica has been nicknamed the ""Nature Island of the Caribbean."" Morne Trois Pitons National Park, at the southern end of the island, includes mountain jungles, geysers, mud pools, and one of the world's largest boiling lakes. Morne Diablotins National Park contains the eponymous peak, nearly 5,000 feet high. Cabrits National Park, at the island's north end, protects reefs and wetlands. In addition there are two forest reserves, a marine reserve, and a parrot reserve. Cruise visitors should bring their hiking boots! You'll dock in Roseau, which carries echoes of France in its architecture and impromptu street layout. Visit the French Quarter for the full effect, then grab a walking stick and go.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Built in the 1600s to protect the town of San Juan, the massive Fort San Felipe El Morro took on British, Dutch, and American naval attacks in subsequent centuries. It seems everybody wanted a piece of the island. You'll see why. Cruise to Puerto Rico for a mix of the historical, the natural, and the sensual. The fort is a World Heritage Site now, and you can walk its thick outer walls, peek into its sentry boxes, or just stop to drink in the view across San Juan Bay.
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.
It seems like the entire length of St. Thomas's coastline is intricately scalloped. What that means for cruise visitors is an endless succession of sandy crescents and protected coves. Try Magen's Bay, just on the other side of the island from the main town, Charlotte Amalie. Hull Bay has surfing in winter. Brewer's Bay pairs well with sunsets. Snorkel at Coki Beach. Once you've beached enough, consider taking the aerial tram up to Paradise Point. You'll get a great view of Charlotte Amalie. And then? Shopping -- duty-free. There are dozens of stores downtown, ranging from the upscale Yacht Haven Grande to the eclectic Vendor's Plaza.
St Georges, Grenada
Grenada is nutmeg-scented island that dangles like a pendant at the southern tip of the Windwards, with the town of St. George's its capital. Its high point, Mount St. Catharine, is one of five volcanoes that have shaped the steep, lush, and wrinkled landscape. St. George's lies at the southern end of the island, a cluster of red roofs and green hills beside a protected deepwater harbor. Cruise visitors can ascend to Fort George, built three centuries ago by the French, for a view over town. Once you climb down, visit St. George's Cathedral or the Anglican Church. Then head into the mountains for a hike to St. Margaret's Falls or Mt. Qua Qua.
St. John's Antigua
Antigua is a Caribbean paradise, with sun-drenched beaches and lush rainforests. Explore the capital city of St. Johns, where the baroque towers of St. Johns Cathedral stand guard. Visit the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda and see Arawak and colonial antiquities. Glimpse rarely-seen species in the rainforest canopy. Nearby, Barbuda is home to one of the region's most significant bird sanctuaries.
Fort King George is a legacy of the hegemonic urges of the English, French, and Dutch. Perched on a hill above Scarborough, the capital of Tobago, the fort offers cruise visitors a view of the bay, the town, and green hills all around. Cruise visitors can explore the fortification and its archaeological museum, then visit the rare flora at the Botanical Gardens and Orchid House or shop for local crafts at the Scarborough market. Tobago is a pilgrimage site for divers, as well, for its reefs and wrecks, notably the Maverick Ferry. If you want to get a taste of the island before you go, watch the 1960 film ""Swiss Family Robinson,"" which was filmed here.
Willemstad (Curacao), Antilles
If there were no canals, the Dutch would have invented them. Behold Willemstad, with its deepwater harbor, interlacing waterways, and narrow shop fronts that seem always to be stretching to their full height. The capital City of Curacao is a Caribbean cruise delight. Willemstad graces the Shottegat harbor with neighborhoods that mix Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese urban styles and then dresses them in effulgent pastels. It's a combination seen nowhere else in former Dutch colonies. Wander the shops and markets of the Punda and Otrobanda districts and soak up some color.
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