On my first trip to Tortola almost two decades ago, I was struck by how the British Virgin island’s northern coastline was ribboned with tranquil coves of plush white sand.
Some of the beaches were deserted at midday. Others percolated with traffic from mom-and-pop inns and barefoot restaurants. Cane Garden Bay wasn’t quite “virgin,” but it was still a pretty special hideout, looking much like the tropical beach of my dreams.
Since then, the island’s cruise ship pier has been greatly expanded. Tortola, with a population of just 23,000, now hosts 400,000 cruise visitors annually.
On my last trip to Tortola I was dismayed to discover that the main town was clogged with sunburned daytrippers in search of gift shops and bathrooms. Outside the capital, roads were cluttered with new cars and swift traffic. Worse, slender Cane Garden Bay was now lined with hundreds of beach loungers and aggressive vendors negotiating for the precious beachfront.
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Soon after that Tortola visit I found myself on Anguilla, just 100 miles east. I walked resplendent Rendezvous Bay at dawn when I shared it only with scampering shore birds, and I walked it at dusk when a few ramshackle beach bars pulsed with easy reggae for a crowd of five or eight.
When I explored by car there were no swarms of traffic — I mostly encountered locals conducting their daily business. It was peaceful, much closer to the Caribbean I fantasize about when I’m home.
The distinction: Anguilla does not cater to cruise ships.
Cruising the Caribbean is a big business. Destinations like Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman and Haiti have built or are planning new docking facilities, while established ports like Antigua and Barbados are expanding, to be accessible to more and bigger behemoths.
Following a recent port expansion, St. Kitts — which a decade ago had relatively few cruise ship visits — is projecting more than 1 million cruise visitors for the upcoming season (compared to 100,000 stayover visitors).
Places I never saw cruise ships at all as recently as a decade ago are new favorites for cruise lines. Bonaire, St. Vincent and Tobago are among the outposts that now receive regular visits by 2,000- to 3,000-passenger ships. Tiny Bequia in the Grenadines will receive a succession of 500- to 800-passenger ships this winter.
Even St. John — home to the Virgin Islands National Park — will be visited by Holland America’s 790-passenger Prinsendam, and next year’s port schedule reveals even more small and medium-sized ships headed here.
None of this was on my radar when I started writing about the region two decades ago.
For those of us who want to spend more than a few hours on an island, and might like to experience the Caribbean’s charms beyond cruise-ville’s T-shirt shops and jewelry emporiums, our world is shrinking.
Here are five islands that still deliver the uncrowded escape you may be thinking of. Yes, they all receive cruise ships, but except as noted, they’re of the 300-passenger-or-fewer variety.
I’m a big fan of the Anguilla vacation. The island, supine and scrubby, doesn’t offer a lot of the usual volcanic, green Caribbean scenery, but its 30-some beaches are world-class beauties, and many of them remain undeveloped. Best of all, no cruise ships hog the view (the biggest ships would be taller than Anguilla’s 213-foot highest point).
The island takes its dining cues from St. Martin, seven miles away, and the menu ranges from grilled lobster with your feet in the sand on a speck called Sandy Island, to sushi and pan-Asian at Cha Cha San, to elegant repasts at the main resorts. Of the latter, Malliouhana reopened Nov.1 after three years being closed — my two meals here (under previous management) were among the best I’ve ever had in the Caribbean.
Resort prices could make a backpacker swoon. Cap Juluca on glorious Maundays Bay remains a tried and true operation, the lights of St. Martin gently twinkling in the distance (low season rates from $495; capjuluca.com). But Anacoana Boutique Hotel is a wallet-friendly Mediterranean-style property, with Meads Bay two minutes away on a footpath (from $160, with discounts for solo travelers; anacaonahotel.com).
Caveat: The 516-passenger Europa 2 will visit Anguilla this winter on Dec. 30 and 512-passenger Saga Pearl II calls on Feb. 3.
CULEBRA AND VIEQUES
Satellites lolling off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques have yet to taste mass tourism. That’s largely because the U.S. Navy owned much of the two islands during the region’s big tourism buildup, using them for troop training and bombing practice. The Navy left Culebra in 1975, and in 2003 Camp Garcia on Vieques became conservation land administered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Trust.
Today, the islands are gradually awakening to a tourism-focused future. But cruise ships have ignored them, leaving undeveloped beaches for you and me to explore.
Sleepy Culebra, the smaller of the two, can be explored in a leisurely couple of days. Fine snorkeling reefs shelter the island’s beaches, several of which are reached on unmarked trails. Flamenco, a mile-long semi-circle of pillow-soft sand, regularly appears on lists of the Caribbean’s greatest beaches — just one small hotel and a campground overlook Flamenco. An uninhabited offshore island, Culebrita, has other coves — a great day trip.
Vieques is considerably larger — almost twice the size of nearby St. Thomas — but only the middle third has been developed. The two ends of the island, former Navy land, contain miles and miles of bush — and beaches. There’s a modest restaurant scene in the two towns, and you can kayak through a bioluminescent bay that is one of the world’s brightest. A 156-room branch of the W Hotel chain opened here in 2010, dosing Vieques with its brand of cool.
But most accommodations are simpler, and I like Malecón House, which offers 10 chic rooms, next to the seaside village of Esperanza (from $160; maleconhouse.com). Culebra has limited options, but the family-run Club Seabourne is a cheerful, well-appointed inn on Fulladoza Bay (from $169; clubseabourne.com).
Approaching Nevis by boat from its larger sibling St. Kitts, one cannot help but be entranced by the near-perfect shape of Nevis Peak, a 3,232-foot conical volcanic apex that makes the island look like a giant Hershey’s Kiss adrift on the swelling Caribbean sea.
The topographical grandeur was perfect for the sugar days, when the island was robed in cane fields and became one of the region’s wealthiest. Much of that history still can be found — the ruins of Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace are next to the museum, and British naval hero Admiral Nelson seduced Fanny Nisbet here, and they married at Montpelier Plantation.
Several plantations have been converted to small inns, including Montpelier, where polished meals meet refined service, high on a shoulder of the gently slumbering volcano (from $324; montpeliernevis.com). Another is Golden Rock, with old stone walls that tell stories and a garden that just won’t quit (from $180; goldenrocknevis.com).
The lobster sandwich at Golden Rock is perhaps the island’s favorite lunch, while green vervet monkeys scamper through the steep jungle next door. For sundowners, head to Sunshine’s Beach Bar on Pinney’s Beach and order a Killer Bee — or two. Little more than shacks in the sand, Sunshine’s is the convivial meeting place for visitors and locals alike, including the occasional famous face (the Four Seasons Resort is a stone’s throw away).
Caveat: The 790-passenger Prinsendam visits on Dec. 23.
So, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands may be off limits for cruise-phobic types, but this archipelago of 60-some islands and outcrops still has backwaters where you won’t see big ships (except, perhaps, on the horizon). Chief among them is Virgin Gorda, third-largest island in the chain.
The island’s most famous lure is the Baths, a geological formation comprising house-sized boulders tumbled along a pacific bay. Grottos and passageways thread this evocative setting, and though it’s popular with daytrippers from Tortola, a benefit of staying on island is exploring before and after the crowds.
Good beaches flank the Baths, but my preference is Savannah Bay, a languid, undeveloped carpet of white sand.
For lodging the scene-stealer is Little Dix Bay (from $560; rosewoodhotels.com), built by Laurance Rockefeller and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. Offering a more rustic experience is Guavaberry Spring Bay (from $160; guavaberryspringbay.com) with one- and two-bedroom rondavels inspired by Africa’s round huts located within walking distance of the Baths.
Caveat: The 684-passenger Ocean Princess calls on Virgin Gorda on Dec. 30, and the 700-passenger Azamara Journey visits March6.
Yes, I know Bermuda isn’t in the Caribbean. But this mid-Atlantic outpost has its share of tropical attributes, and although quite a few cruise ships call, they do so primarily in summer. In winter, the island is virtually ship-free.
Yes, winter temperatures are cooler than islands to the south — daytime highs reach the mid to upper 60s, with water temperatures in the same range. But for those seeking a more developed destination with all the shopping, dining and diversions of larger islands, Bermuda delivers.
What’s more, winter is Bermuda’s off-season — the opposite of the Caribbean. Beaches are less crowded, hotels lower prices, and restaurants offer deals. Through April 15, the Little Venice group of restaurants sells three three-course dinners at any of seven restaurants for $149. Included are venues like Harbourfront and Blu, where entrées typically run $30 to $44 (www.diningbermuda.com).
Whale watching occurs in winter, with March and April the peak viewing months. Divers will be delighted by the shipwreck opportunities (Scuba Diving magazine ranks Bermuda as the region’s top wreck dive location). Golf is another popular sport that remains in full swing during winter — Bermuda has more golf courses per square mile than any place else in the world.
Best of all, just 21/2 hours by air from Miami, Bermuda is easier to access than most of the Caribbean’s smaller islands (including all of those cited above).
Caveat: Several cruise ships will stop at Bermuda in November and December on transatlantic repositioning itineraries. Otherwise, the 2015 cruise season doesn’t begin until mid-April.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed management of Golden Rock, an inn on Nevis. The owners, Brice and Helen Marden, are responsible for recent upgrades to the property.
David Swanson wrote the Affordable Caribbean column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine for 14 years.
Smaller islands, no ships
There are smaller Caribbean islands with limited infrastructure where cruise ships never visit, year-round. Among the crowd-free destinations: Anegada, Saba, St. Eustatius, Montserrat, Marie-Galante, Mustique, Carriacou, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
Research cruise ship schedules for ports worldwide at www.cruise timetables.com.