INSIDER TRAVEL SECRETS
Cruise Ports Secrets I Wish I'd Known Before My Last Vacation
A year's worth of cruise data reveals the most visited cruise ports on earth. Fortunately, there are hidden attractions to be enjoyed in each one of them. Here's how you can follow the wisdom of the cruising crowds—without having to spend all of your time with them.
If you're planning a cruise, chances are high that you'll be traveling to the Caribbean. According to CruiseCompete.com's annual report, nine of the ten most popular cruise ports in the world are in the Caribbean (or close enough to count).
The website's list, which is compiled from cruise quotes requested by potential customers, shows that Alaska is also a perennial favorite for cruisers. Several Inside Passage ports made the cut, with Juneau coming out as the most requested cruise stop in the 50 states.
With so many people wanting to go to the same places, you might worry about crowds—but you don't need to. It turns out that even the hottest port has a few places where you can get off the beaten path. Here are some recommendations that will make you feel like you're in the know, before you get off the ship.
#1 Nassau, Bahamas
Just 180 miles from Miami, the Bahamas are usually the first or last stop on an eastern Caribbean cruise (even though the archipelago is technically in the Atlantic). People love the islands—there are approximately 700 in all—for first-class snorkeling, casinos and fine dining, and it's top four ports are Nassau, Princess Cays, Great Stirrup Cay and Half Moon Cay, it's the most requested country in the world for cruising, according to CruiseCompete. Two of them made the list for the top ten most visited ports in 2011, including the capital, Nassau, which is a major shopping center.
Secret: If you'd rather mingle with locals than join the crowd heading to Senor Frog's, take the Number 10 Jitney to Arawak Cay, where you'll find several stands serving up fried seafood. Go to Goldie's, and order a cold Kalik beer with some conch fritters; if you go to the back porch, sometimes you'll see workers pulling up the conch from the water.
#2 Cozumel, Mexico
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula continues to draw sun seekers who want some culture with their cruise, particularly this year when the Mayan calendar predicts the end of days. But there's plenty of room for fun, too. Cozumel, an island off the coast, offers countless snorkeling and water-based activities, as well as gorgeous beaches: Corona ads are often shot here.
Secret: Can you stand the heat? If so, the Mayan Steam Lodge/Temazcal experience—a spiritual sauna-like ceremony that includes native rituals—may be for you. Afterward, you'll jump into the property's freshwater cenote (underground spring) to cool off (there are also showers, if you'd prefer to rinse off there). The four-hour excursion costs $80 per person, and includes transportation to and from the ship.
#3 Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
If you're on an eastern Caribbean cruise, you'll probably stop in St. Thomas, as it's one of the world's busiest cruise ports. A Mecca for duty-free shopping, the Charlotte Amalie port has plenty of jewelry, perfume, and electronics stores; check prices at a few shops before you buy to ensure the best deal. St. Thomas can also be a good place to unwind on a beach or provide a good jumping-off point for exploring the nearby island St. John, which is quieter and less developed.
Secret: While everyone else on your ship heads for the famed Magens Bay beach, pick up some groceries at Crown Bay Marina for a picnic lunch and catch a ferry to Water Island, sometimes considered the fourth Virgin Island. Not only is the sea at the island's palm-lined Honeymoon Beach calm, the cove is quiet—you won't find the shops or tour operators here that you see on other St. Thomas beaches.
#4 Philipsburg, St. Maarten / St. Martin
One island, two cultures: With portions settled by the French and the Dutch, the island is one of the smallest to be governed by two countries (don't worry, though, almost everyone speaks English). Philipsburg, on the Dutch side, rivals St. Thomas for duty-free shopping, while the towns of Marigot and Grand Case on the French side are filled with fine and casual restaurants with French flair where you can find dishes like escargot (snails) or bouillabaisse (fish soup).
Secret: If you don't want to join the crowds breathing jet fumes at Maho Beach, take a short cab ride to French Cul-de-Sac, where you can catch a ferry to Pinel Island (regular service starts around 9 a.m.). The uninhabited island off St. Martin has several restaurants where you can rent beach chairs, have drinks and go snorkeling; there's a designated snorkel trail in a protected marine reserve on the island's south side, where you can spot sea fans, urchins, turtle and rays among the coral.