How to enjoy the Caribbean’s busiest cruise ports while avoiding cruise-ship passengers

06/21/2014 12:00 AM

06/21/2014 1:41 PM

Tranquil bays, untrammeled forests, and beaches where my footprints are the first of the day — the Caribbean I treasure is one of solitude and escape.

So it stands to reason that the top cruise ship ports should be the last place for a quiet-seeking beach bum to look for a Caribbean vacation. When I see cruise ships pulling into port I envision beach loungers in short supply, overcrowded attractions and aggressive taxi drivers.

To be fair, some islands are large enough to absorb the influx of cruise visitors. San Juan is the region’s fifth busiest port but cruisers don’t travel far from that city of 395,000. Those of us who are phobic about tourists in matching outfits can simply escape to resorts elsewhere on Puerto Rico.

By contrast, the region’s busiest cruise destinations are smaller places that are often home to six or more megaships at a time in winter. With vessels carrying between 2,000 and 5,000 passengers apiece, that’s quite a temporary population surge for a place like St. Thomas, an island not much larger than Manhattan with just 52,000 residents.

But St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a beautifully sculpted island, laced with comely beaches; the shopping — for jewelry and electronics — yields terrific bargains. I’ll happily visit the island during the summer and fall when less than half the cruise ships come calling. Hotel prices are discounted 30 to 40 percent off high-season rates, air travel is cheaper, beaches and attractions are far less crowded.

Yes, the cruise ships still come in summer, but there’s room on these islands for the both of us. Here’s a landlubber’s guide to the big four cruise destinations.

COZUMEL

Far and away the region’s busiest cruise ship port, Cozumel is just southwest of Cancún, Mexico’s premiere vacation hub. But with 2.7 million cruise visitors in 2013, the 30-mile-long island is its own kind of tourist mecca (Cozumel was developed for tourism well before Cancún). With some of Mexico’s best diving and an American-friendly veneer, Cozumel is nonetheless a welcoming port for overnight visitors.

Lodging is concentrated in the main town, San Miguel; the cruise ship docks aren’t far away. On the average day, the town is inundated. There are no ships on Sundays — in summer, anyway — but most shops are closed then. If you want to explore the shops, aim for Wednesdays, when only one or two ships are in port.

“Enjoy town in the evening, don’t go during the day,” suggests Maribeth Mellin, author of Traveler’s Mexico Companion and a longtime Cozumel traveler. “Head just 10 blocks in from the waterfront and you’ll find great restaurants and real Mexican neighborhoods.”

Mellin recommends serious divers work with reputable small dive operators. Some of the larger all-inclusive resorts cater to not just their own guests but cruisers as well, using 40-passenger dive boats. Scuba Club Cozumel gets high marks from readers of Scuba Diving magazine.

Sand fans will find the south coast of the island lined with beach clubs. Sometimes fun, they can be swamped on cruise days. But there are plenty of beaches, and the long undeveloped east coast — the wild side — offers a better chance of escaping the crowd. “Not all areas are safe for swimming, but look for the little seafood restaurants on bays with calmer water,” says Mellin. One is Playa San Martin, where there’s a lifeguard and palapas offering shade at the restaurant Chen Río.

Also consider a day trip to nearby Playa del Carmen, a 45-minute ferry ride from Cozumel. While cruisers mob the town’s Avenida 5, if you go late in the afternoon you can dodge the herd. Ferries depart hourly, with the last trip back to Cozumel leaving at 10 p.m.

ST. THOMAS

Luring almost 1.9 million cruise ship passengers last year, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands largely hums to the beat of the cruise industry. Though the island is relatively small, ships are divided between two docks, flanking both sides of the harbor town of Charlotte Amalie, which is beautifully positioned at the base of steep mountains. When seven ships are in port on one day — not uncommon in winter months — overnight guests can feel pushed to the side.

But in the summer, there are often three or four long-weekend days in a row with no cruise ships in the harbor. And with the tourism department’s Virgin Islands Nice or Inntimate Treasure promotions, travelers staying a minimum of five nights (through Sept. 30) can receive $500 or more in cash credits that can be used at island restaurants and attractions ( www.visitusvi.com/package_and_promotions).

Year-round, Wednesdays are the busiest cruise day, but exploring town — which has a wealth of historical sites as well as shopping — is best when there’s one ship in port. Without a ship, many shops close and sellers become more assertive.

Somehow, in my half-dozen or so trips to the island I’ve never visited famous Magen’s Bay when I didn’t find it inundated with bodies. I wouldn’t have thought to suggest it, but Wendy Snodgrass, owner of the island bed and breakfast Bellavista says Magen’s is still her favorite beach to recommend to guests.

“If you can do it on a weekday when there’s no ship, it’s fabulous,” says Snodgrass. “You can paddle board, there’s a beach bar for lunch, and as you head away from the bar it’s quiet, with lots of shade.”

Only a few years ago Smiths Bay was a run-down, trash-littered beach, but following a major clean-up and other enhancements it now shines with calm, protected waters that are ideal for families. It’s also the locals’ favorite, so Smiths is crowded on weekends, but less so during the week. For snorkeling, head to Coki Beach (“get there early and get your place,” suggests Snodgrass).

Day trips by ferry to neighboring islands are enticing ( www.vinow.com/general_usvi/interisland_ferry/#water-island-ferry-crown-bay-to-phillip-s-landing). Snodgrass recommends packing a picnic from Gourmet Galley ( www.gourmetgallery.net). Water Island, where the classic novel Don’t Stop the Carnival is said to have been set, is a 10-minute shuttle from Tickles Dockside Pub, next to the Crown Bay cruise ship dock. Uninhabited Hassel Island, located in the St. Thomas harbor, is visited by Virgin Islands Ecotours ( www.viecotours.com), on 3- or 5-hour kayak tours. You can also see Hassel by boat on Wednesdays with the St. Thomas Historical Trust ( http://stthomashistoricaltrust.org).

The most desired day trip from St. Thomas is to St. John, two-thirds of which is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park. Frequent ferries depart for Cruz Bay from Red Hook, on the east end of St. Thomas, a 20-minute ride. Once in Cruz Bay, the Lind Point hiking trail leads to Salomon Beach and Honeymoon Bay, about 45 minutes on foot. Though the latter is visited at midday by cruise tours, until late morning and for much of the afternoon these beaches are blissfully quiet.

ST. MAARTEN/ST. MARTIN

The smallest place shared by two countries, the half-Dutch, half-French island of St. Maarten is the Caribbean’s most densely populated island, receiving as many as seven ships a day in winter months — almost 1.8 million cruise visitors in all for 2013. The impact is acute, but it’s predominantly felt in the town of Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, a 15-minute walk from the port. Duty-free shopping here is (along with St. Thomas) the best in the region, but in summer and fall there are just one or two ships a day, minimizing the impact; on Fridays no ships dock.

The two other places frequented by cruise visitors are Orient Bay, the island’s touristy clothing-optional beach, and Maho Beach, which kisses the airport runway and is famous for midday landings of jets that barely skim the sand. “Most cruise passengers don’t get much farther than Orient and Maho,” says Carter Glass, owner of the Turquoise Shell Inn ( www.tshellinn.com). Instead, Glass recommends beaches on the French side to his guests. “Baie Rouge and Long Bay are nice and not over-populated, and most cruise passengers don’t go to Mullet Bay on the Dutch side.”

On my last visit I enjoyed Friar’s Bay and secluded Happy Bay, also on the French side; they can be idyllic, even when several cruise ships are in port. Make sure not to leave anything in your car, even in the trunk — petty crime is a problem.

Over the years I’ve watched Loterie Farm ( http://loteriefarm.com/) evolve from a simple farm-and-forest hideaway to one of the best outdoor attractions in the Caribbean. The 135-acre private preserve has a terrific, harnessed adventure course (zip lines, tricky bridges and obstacles) and a pool nestled into a streambed where day beds and cabanas are for rent.

Glass also suggests getting out on the water, and though many boat trips are designed for large groups of cruise visitors, more intimate options are available. “Passaat ( www.sailholiday.com) is a 100-year-old schooner — it’s a little more classy than your average catamaran,” Glass says. Day sails, sunset trips and dinner cruises are offered out of the St. Maarten Yacht Club.

Day trips from St. Maarten to neighboring islands are easy to arrange. The superb beaches of Anguilla are just a 20-minute ferry ride from Marigot; mountainous Saba and chic St. Barthelemy are reached by ferry or short plane hop.

GRAND CAYMAN

As the hub of a three-island British Crown Colony, Grand Cayman is one of the world’s largest offshore banking centers. It’s also the region’s fourth busiest cruise port, with almost 1.4 million coming ashore last year. There are no cruise visits on Sundays, but up to four ships call on other days of the week.

There aren’t too many places to hide all these visitors — beyond George Town, the Cayman capital, you’ll mostly find them at the Cayman Turtle Farm or on snorkel trips to Stingray City, a sandbar where dozens of rays swim with visitors. There’s also “Hell,” the very definition of tourist trap — a gift shop stop on many of the cruise tours around the island.

Instead, we’d make a trip to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, a 65-acre preserve displaying a wide range of tropical plant species. It’s also on the agenda for cruisers so we’d go in the afternoon when they’re cleared out, but don’t overlook the daily 90-minute blue iguana “safari,” a tour of the breeding program for the world’s most endangered iguana.

Seven-Mile Beach, flanked by most of the island’s hotels, is deservedly famous — broad, clean, and crowded in patches. Head to the far north end and it’s less crowded, but we’d rent a car to visit the east end beaches, wispy shores protected by a ship-catching offshore reef.

And on days when cruise ships aren't in port, Stingray City is less crowded and well worth discovering.

Luigi Moxam, founder of the George Town restaurant Cayman Cabana, recommends visiting the smaller sister isles, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. “They’re like two separate destinations,” Moxam says.

Both are possible day trips, with several flights daily. The Brac is the only one of the three Caymans with much in the way of topography, a limestone bluff that runs almost the length of the 12-mile-long island. Lucky visitors might spot the endangered Cayman Brac parrot on a hike through the preserve. Pancake-flat Little Cayman, with just 170 residents, is best known for the Bloody Bay Wall, one of the world’s top dive sites, but it’s also home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies, who live in a wetland preserve.

Though cruise visitors fill the streets of George Town by day, Moxam notes that most passengers are headed back to ships by 3 in the afternoon. “It quiets down a bit and you can get the full attention of the shop owners and waiters,” he says.

At Cayman Cabana, a you-hook-it-we-cook-it offer is pitched to fishermen — catch your own fish and the restaurant will cook it to order. There’s a fish market next door for would-be anglers.

“And of course we get our fish fresh from the market as well,” Moxam says.

George Town and Seven-Mile Beach are the places to land for Cayman’s renowned sunsets. The cruise ships have sailed off by then, allowing the island to reclaim a bit of normalcy.

San Diego-based writer-photographer David Swanson wrote the “Affordable Caribbean” column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine for 14 years. Despite dozens of trips to the region in summer and fall months he has never tangled with a hurricane.

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