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World's 16 Most Picturesque Villages

By Sandra Ramani
February 23, 2012
Wengen, a beautiful Alpine town in Switzerland.
age fotostock / SuperStock
When it comes to picture-perfect views and suspended-in-time charm, it really does take a village. We went out searching for the most camera-ready communities on the planet and found 16 towns that fit the bill, from a Swiss village straight out of Heidi to an antebellum masterpiece in Georgia.

Spend a few minutes in these 16 villages and you'll realize that "quaint" and "charming" aren't just adjectives, they are a way of life. You'll find the unique beauty in the stone cottages of what has been dubbed the most beautiful village in England, along cobblestone streets lined with Gothic architecture in the Bohemia valley of Czech Republic, and within the adobe walls of a spiritual town in northern New Mexico. These are all functioning towns, with residents who keep local industries alive (check out the century-old trout farm) as well as preserving the town's look, which is why there's no building "taller than a coconut tree" on a certain Hawaiian island. The locals will be happy to clue you in to the best photo ops as well. Some of the spots are easier to get to than others (we've provided detailed info on how to reach them all below), but all are worthy of taking a detour—and maxing out your camera's memory card.

SEE THE 16 BREATHTAKING VILLAGES


Bibury, England

Located on the River Coln in hilly west-central England, Bibury was described by 19th-century artist-writer William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England"—which is saying something in a country known for its watercolor views. Honey-colored 17th-century stone cottages, the Saxon Church of St. Mary, and a still-working 1902 trout farm are some of the ancient village's must-sees. The most photographed spot is Arlington Row, a collection of 14th-century stone buildings that were converted into weavers' cottages in the 1600s.

Getting There: The closest train station to Bibury is 12 miles away, in Kemble. Multiple trains make the 80-minute journey from London's Paddington Station (from $57 round-trip; nationalrail.co.uk). Cirencester, seven miles away, is linked to London by daily buses (from $30 round-trip; nationalexpress.com). There is no public transport directly to Bibury, but taxis are available and local hotels will often arrange transport for guests.


Savoca, Italy

The ruins of the Castello di Pentefur stand guard above Savoca, a historic Sicilian village located on a hill between the cities of Messina and Taormina, on the island's east coast. Thought to be about 1,000 years old, the town was a stand-in for too-developed Corleone in The Godfather, and fans can still visit the Chiesa di Santa Lucia church on Via San Michele, where Michael Corleone was married, then trace the newlyweds' walk down to Bar Vitelli on Piazza Fossia for some cooling lemon granita. Don't miss a visit to the Cappuccini Monastery on the northern end of town to view the collection of mummified monks, some dating back to the 1700s.

Getting There:  It's a little over an hour by car from the international airport in Catania to Savoca, or a scenic 40-minute drive from the popular resort town of Taormina. Many tour companies also offer day trips from Taormina, most of them with a Godfather theme ($170 for up to three people; sicilylimousineservice.com).

 

Wengen, Switzerland

Thanks to an Alpine location and traditional timber chalets, Wengen is the Swiss village of your dreams and looks like something straight out of Heidi (the fact that cars have been banned here for more than 100 years also adds to the charm). The alpine mountain village has been a tourist hub since the late 1800s, when notable guests like writer Mary Shelley sang Wengen's praises (she wrote Frankenstein while traveling in Switzerland, and described the Alps as ""belonging to another earth"). Many of the belle époque hotels of the era remain, including the Hotel Bellevue (from $235 per night; bellevue-wengen.ch). The village's altitude of almost 4,200 feet attracts skiers, of course, increasing the population almost ten-fold in the winter to around 10,000.

Getting There: Since cars are not allowed, travelers coming by road must park in Lauterbrunnen and take a 15-minute train ride up to town ($3.50; swisstravelsystem.ch). Train service is available from Interlaken as well; the ride takes about 45 minutes from Wengen ($7.45; swisstravelsystem.ch).


Eze, France

Sweeping Mediterranean views and tons of medieval charm have made this cliff-top town a popular stop on the French Riviera. Thanks to its key location near Nice, Eze was coveted by various invaders over the centuries, and this tangled history is reflected in its architecture—from the baroque church's Egyptian cross dating back to the Phoenicians to the Genovese-style bell turret on the 14th-century Chapelle de la Sainte Croix. Not surprisingly, the fairy-tale village was a favorite of Walt Disney's.

Getting There: Eze is about a 30-minute bus ride from Nice ($1.50, lignesdazur.com) and 15 minutes from Monaco ($1.50, lignesdazur.com).

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

One of the oldest villages in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov is set in a valley in Bohemia south of the Blansko Forest and circled by the Vltava River. The village grew up around the 13th-century Gothic castle of the Lords of Krumlov, which has 40 buildings and palaces, gardens, and turrets and today is a major performing arts location. The cobblestone streets of Cesky Krumlov's Old Town are lined with Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance buildings housing art galleries, cafes, and quaint B&Bs. One of the best ways to experience the town is to take a ride down the Vltava on a wooden raft ($24, en.ceskykrumlov-info.cz).

Getting There: Prague, about 110 miles away, is connected to Cesky Krumlov by a three-hour bus ride ($10 each way; jizdnirady.idnes.cz).


Göreme, Turkey

The iconic "fairy chimney" rock formations of Cappadocia surround the village of Göreme in Turkey's Central Anatolia region. First settled back in Roman times, the town (which has gone by several names throughout history) is today best known for its national park/open-air museum, which features some of the best-preserved examples of ancient cave churches and monasteries. The town itself has several "pigeon houses" carved right into the rocks. There are also funky cave hotels like the Kelebek Hotel, where 18 of the 35 rooms are carved into the cave (from $53; kelebekhotel.com). Nearby Uchisar offers a great view of Göreme from its hilltop castle, the highest point in the valley.

Getting There: There are regular flights from Istanbul to Kayseri, about 43 miles from Göreme. Shuttle service is available from the airport (about $13 each way; goreme.com) and most hotels can arrange transfers.

 

Chimayó, New Mexico

An aura of mysticism and spirituality surrounds Chimayó, a tiny New Mexican village located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains about half an hour north of Santa Fe. Settled by the Spanish in the late-1600s, the village became known for its weaving, farming, and livestock raising, all of which are still practiced today. In the 1800s, residents claimed that miraculous healings were happening near a recently unearthed crucifix, and in 1816 the Santuario de Chimayó chapel was constructed to mark these occurrences. Visitors—many looking to be healed—still come in droves to the chapel, which also serves as the end point for an annual pre-Easter pilgrimage.

Getting There: Chimayó is about 30 minutes north of Santa Fe and 75 minutes south of Taos.

Molokai, Hawaii

Though there are technically several residential communities on Molokai, the island has a total population of just about 8,000, making it pretty much a village itself. Home to Hawaii's longest continuing fringing reef and the world's highest sea cliffs, Molokai is often called "the real Hawaii"—there are no stoplights, there is a law against buildings "taller than a coconut tree," and more than half the residents are native Hawaiian. Activities include taking a mule ride in Kalaupapa National Historic Park, checking out the 19th-century mission-style churches and the state's longest pier in main town Kaunakakai, and strolling on three-mile-long, white-sand Papohaku Beach.

Getting There:  The small Molokai Airport is linked to Oahu and Maui, but the easiest way to arrive is via the 90-minute ferry from Maui ($63.60 each way; molokaiferry.com).

 

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada

Find a slice of Ye Olde England in Canada at the popular weekend-getaway town of Niagara-on-the-Lake on the shores of Lake Ontario. Originally inhabited by the Neutral Indian Tribe, the area was later settled by British Loyalists fleeing America at the onset of the American Revolution—and even later, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, visitors can check out historic sites like the restored Fort George and Butler's Barracks, the Niagara Apothecary museum, and dozens of well-kept Regency and Classical Revival buildings. Stroll along Queen Street, which has an array of quaint shops, teahouses, and B&Bs. The village has become famous for its theatrical Shaw Festival (running April through October) as well as wine celebrations at the dozens of vineyards in the area.

Getting There: Niagara-on-the-Lake is about an 80-minute drive from Buffalo, New York, and 90-minutes from Toronto, Canada. Shuttle service is available from airports in both cities, and from Niagara Falls ($18 round-trip, 5-0taxi.com).

 

Madison, Georgia

Norman Rockwell meets Gone with the Wind in Madison, Georgia. Legend has it that General Sherman refused to burn down the village during his March to the Sea because it was so pretty. (The more likely reason was that Madison was home to a pro-Union mayor, but no one who's been there questions the "too beautiful" description.) Restored antebellum homes still stand alongside fragrant gardens and plenty of independent boutiques, restaurants, and inns. The small village is also known for its museums, covering fine art, history, and African American heritage, as well as the mini-automobile.

Getting There: Madison is a 60-minute drive east of Atlanta and 40 minutes south of Athens.

 

Shirakawa-go, Japan

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Shirakawa-go is known for its triangle-roof houses, built in a style known as gassho, that resemble hands folded in prayer. The hallmarks of the houses are roofs with 60-degree slopes (to help the snow slide off more easily) and attics used as warm spots for raising silkworms in winter. Not many of the traditional houses remain in the area, and some in Shirakawa-go (including the Wada House and Nagase House) are regularly open to the public. Once you've seen the interiors, head to the top of Ogimachi Castle for the best views of the houses as well as the surrounding Shogawa River Valley and mountains.

Getting There: Take the four-hour train ride from Tokyo to the town of Takayama (about $178, includes a transfer in Nagoya, hyperdia.com). Nohi Bus operates several buses a day to Shirakawa-go. The ride takes about 50 minutes ($54 roundtrip, nouhibus.co.jp).

 

St. George, Bermuda

St. George is the oldest continually occupied English town in the Americas, and little has changed since the Brits established residence here in 1612. Sure, nowadays you've got gourmet restaurants, hopping bars, and upscale shops specializing in things like hand-rolled cigars and custom-made perfumes. But it's all surrounded by beautifully preserved colonial architecture and historic sites like Fort St. Catherine, the 17th-century stone State House, and St. Peter's Church, the oldest continuously occupied Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere.

Getting There: Bermuda is less than a two-hour flight from most Northeast U.S. cities. St. George is just over the bay from the international airport.

 

Caleta Tortel, Chile

Caleta Tortel is the Venice of Chile—if Venice had stilt houses and wooden walkways instead of ornate palazzi and stone bridges. The colorfully painted houses in this south Chilean village are built on skinny, raised stilts in the Chilota style typical to the region, and are connected by a network of staircases and footbridges built over rocks and marshes. The growing cypress-logging industry led to Caleta Tortel's founding in 1955. Timber is still the main game in town, as evidenced by the wooden architecture-and the sweet cypress smell lingering in the air.

Getting There: Like Venice, no cars are allowed in Caleta Tortel. A small airstrip to the east receives limited flights from the Patagonian town of Coyhaique. If you do want to drive, there is now overland access via the Carretera Austral. Plan on an 80-mile drive from the town of Cochrane. Drivers must park at a lot outside of town, then wheel luggage down the village's steep slopes.

 

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

It's blue and white for as far as the eye can see in Sidi Bou Said. All of the buildings in this cliff-top village in northern Tunisia are stark white and adorned with vivid blue doors, shutters, and decorative ironwork—and backed by the deeper blues of the Bay of Tunis. Sometimes called the Montmartre of Tunisia, the village was a favorite of Swiss-German painter Paul Klee and writers Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. The bohemian vibe exists today, with day trippers coming to stroll the stone streets and visit the galleries and cafes.

Getting There: Sidi Bou Said is 13 miles from Tunis, and accessible via road or the TGM train (about $3 round-trip). Day tours are available.


Pariangan, West Sumatra,
Indonesia

The active Mount Marapi volcano looms over this spot in Indonesia's Western Sumatra province, a protected national monument. Pariangan is said to be the oldest—and most culturally significant—village of the Minangkabau people and has numerous well-preserved examples of traditional Minangkabau pointed-roof architecture, including a 300-year-old house with woven rattan walls and wood carvings and a 19th-century mosque with still-operating communal hot springs.

Getting There: Pariangan is about nine miles by car from Batusangkar, the capital of the Tanah Datar regency in western Sumatra. The closest airport is in Padang, linked by air to major cities like Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

 

Cua Van, Vietnam

Quaint villages usually up the charm factor with cobblestone streets and restored historic architecture. But it's the complete lack of roads and buildings that makes Cua Van a must-see. Set among the dramatic limestone cliffs of Vietnam's Ha Long Bay, the floating village is made up of a collection of docked boats and colorful raft houses. (Not surprisingly, locals make their living through fishing and marine aquaculture.) Everything here bobs in the bay, even the school, to which students row in tiny boats.

Getting there: Ha Long Bay is about 100 miles from Hanoi. The six-hour bus ride from the city to the bay costs about $8 each way and tickets are available from travel agencies near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. Once you arrive at the bay, go to the tourist ferry dock, where boats are for hire to sail the 12 miles to Cua Van (prices vary, as does the quality of the boats, but typically cost around $20). Overnight cruises from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay also typically include Cua Van in the itinerary (from $188 per person, halongparadisecruises.org).

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Travel Tips

World's Most BIZARRE Food Etiquette Rules

You have good manners, right? After all, you (usually) keep your elbows off the table and say "Please pass the salt," right? But when you head abroad, things get a little more complicated. Case in point: Rest your chopsticks the wrong way, and you might remind a Japanese friend of their grandmother's funeral (Rule 2). But knowing what the etiquette rules are won't just save you from some awkward situations, says Dean Allen Foster, author of the Global Etiquette Guide series. It can also help you make friends. "It's really a statement of your openness and awareness of the fact that the people you're with... may in fact see the world differently," he says. "It's simply going to get you out of the tourist bubble." Sound good? Then here are 15 rules to keep in mind. 1. IN THAILAND, DON'T PUT FOOD IN YOUR MOUTH WITH A FORK.  Instead, when eating a dish with cooked rice, use your fork only to push food onto your spoon. A few exceptions: Some northern and northeastern Thai dishes are typically eaten with the hands—you'll know you've encountered such a dish if the rice used is glutinous or "sticky." Also, stand-alone items that are not part of a rice-based meal may be eaten with a fork. But, says Leela Punyaratabandhu, a food writer who blogs at SheSimmers.com, the worst thing to do at a traditional, rice-based meal would be to use chopsticks. "That is awkward and inconvenient at best and tacky at worst," she says. 2. IN JAPAN, NEVER STICK YOUR CHOPSTICKS UPRIGHT IN YOUR RICE.  Between bites, your chopsticks should be placed together right in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table—and nowhere else, says Mineko Takane Moreno, Japanese cooking instructor and co-author of Sushi for Dummies. (If there is a chopsticks rest, you use it, putting the tips you've been eating with on the rest.) But sticking them upright in a bowl of rice is even worse: During funerals in Japan, the rice bowl of the deceased is placed before their coffin... with their chopsticks upright in the rice. So what would she rather see: Someone doing that at a meal, or asking for a fork? Mineko doesn't hesitate. "Asking for a fork," she says. 3. IN THE MIDDLE EAST, INDIA AND PARTS OF AFRICA, DON'T EAT WITH YOUR LEFT HAND. In South India, you shouldn't even touch the plate with your left hand while eating. That's largely because the left hand is associated with, um, bodily functions, so it's considered to be dirty. In fact, says Foster, don't even pass important documents with your left hand. A lefty? Then it's okay to use your left hand—as long as you take your right hand out of the game. 4. IN GEORGIA, IT'S RUDE TO SIP YOUR WINE AT SUPRA.  At what Georgians call a supra (traditional feast), wine is drunk only at toasts. So wait for those... and then down the whole glass at once. On the upside, says Georgia-based photographer and videographer Paul Stephens, the glasses tend to be on the small side. 5. IN MEXICO, NEVER EAT TACOS WITH A FORK AND KNIFE.  Worried about spilling refried beans and salsa all over your front? Tough. Mexicans think that eating tacos with a fork and knife looks silly and, worse, snobby—kind of like eating a burger with silverware. So be polite: Eat with your hands. 6. IN ITALY, DRINK A CAPPUCCINO ONLY BEFORE NOON.  Some Italians say that a late-day cappuccino upsets your stomach, others that it's a replacement for a meal (it's common to have just a cappuccino, or a cappuccino and a croissant, for breakfast). Either way, you won't see Italians ordering one in a café at 3 p.m.—and certainly not after a big dinner. Do so, and you'll be instantly branded a tourist. If you need that coffee fix, though, an espresso is fine. 7. IN BRITAIN, ALWAYS PASS THE PORT TO THE LEFT — AND REMEMBER THE BISHOP OF NORWICH.   It's unclear why passing port on the left is so important; some say it has to do with naval tradition (the port side of a boat is on your left if you're facing the helm). Regardless, passing the decanter to the right is a big gaffe. So is not passing it at all. If you're at a meal and the decanter stalls, then ask the person with it, "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" If they say they don't know him, reply, "He's a very good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port." It sounds weird, but it's true. This is such a nationwide tradition, the Telegraph wrote an article on it. 8. IN FRANCE, DON'T EAT YOUR BREAD AS AN APPETIZER.  Instead, eat it as an accompaniment to your food or, especially, to the cheese course at the end of the meal. That said, one thing that would be a faux pas anywhere else—placing bread directly on the table and not on a plate—is perfectly acceptable in France—in fact, it's preferred. 9. IN CHINA, DON'T FLIP THE FISH. Although you might be used to flipping over a whole fish once you've finished one side, don't—at least not when you're in China, especially southern China and Hong Kong. That's because flipping the fish is dao yue in Chinese, a phrase similar to "bad luck." Plus, says Foster, "to flip the fish over is like saying that the fisherman's boat is going to capsize." The most superstitious will leave the bottom part untouched, while others will pull off the bone itself to get to the bottom. 10. IN ITALY, DON'T ASK FOR PARMESAN.  Putting parmigiano on pizza is seen as a sin, like putting Jell-O on a fine chocolate mousse. And many pasta dishes in Italy aren't meant for parmesan: In Rome, for example, the traditional cheese is pecorino, and that's what goes on many classic pastas like bucatini all'amatriciana, not parmesan. A rule of thumb: If they don't offer it to you, don't ask for it. 11. IN CHILE, DON'T EAT WITH YOUR HANDS.  Manners here are a little more formal than many other South American countries. So while it might be the most practical to just pick up those fries with your fingers, don't do it. "The greater need is to identify with European culture, so food is [eaten] with a knife and a fork," Foster says. 12. IN KOREA, IF AN OLDER PERSON OFFERS YOU A DRINK, LIFT YOUR GLASS TO RECEIVE IT WITH BOTH HANDS.  Doing so is a sign of respect for elders, an important tenet of Korean culture. After receiving the pour with both hands, you should turn your head away and take a discreet sip, says Stephen Cha-Kim, a Korean-born worker's rights advocate who regularly visits family in Korea. "To this day, if anybody hands me anything, both hands shoot out instinctively," Cha-Kim says. Similarly, don't start eating until the eldest male has done so (and don't leave the table until that person is finished). 13. IN RUSSIA, NEVER MIX — OR TURN DOWN — VODKA. The beverage is always drunk neat—and no, not even with ice. Adding anything is seen as polluting the drink's purity (unless the mixer is beer, which produces a formidable beverage known as yorsh). But there's another faux pas that's even worse, says Foster: when you're offered the drink and you turn it down. Since offering someone a drink is a sign of trust and friendship, it's a good idea to take it. Even if it is 9 a.m. 14. IN THE MIDDLE EAST, SHAKE THE CUP AFTER DRINKING COFFEE.  Typically, anyone Bedouin—or Bedouin-related—will continue to pour you more coffee once you've finished unless you shake the cup, meaning tilting the cup two or three times, when you hand it back. It's such an important tip, says Middle East-based freelance correspondent Haley Sweetland Edwards, that last year, Bedouins she was eating with in Qatar made her practice it until she got it right. 15. IN BRAZIL, PLAY YOUR TOKENS WISELY.  At a churrascaria, or a Brazilian steakhouse, servers circle with cuts of meat and diners use tokens to place an order. If a server comes out with something you want, make sure your token, which you'll have at your table, has the green side up. If you don't want any more, flip it with the red side up. Since the meat can be never-ending, it's important to strategize—if you leave that token green side up you could end up ordering a lot more than you intended.

Confessions of...A Mardi Gras Krewe Captain

New Orleans is a town that takes its partying seriously. To prep for the signature fete of Mardi Gras, local clubs known as krewes toil year-round planning balls, recruiting celebrity guests, and building massive, intricate floats—think wire frames fashioned into eye-popping shapes like dragons, Roman gods, and castles that are often "animated" by the bigger krewes—for their individual Mardi Gras parades. Native son Sonny Borey, a krewe captain for 19 years, agreed to give us a behind-the-masks tour. SEE PHOTOS FROM CARNIVALS AROUND THE WORLD   Staging a parade is like putting on a traveling musical My background is in theater—I have a master's of fine arts in directing. My mom owns a costume store where we sell beads, sequins, rhinestones, pearls—anything you'd need for Mardi Gras. So to me, staging a parade is just like putting on a big, traveling musical, except you're doing two or three of them at the same time. Out in the streets. With thousands of spectators. It does sometimes present a headache or two.   I started the krewe with famous singer Harry Connick Jr. Harry Connick Jr. and I actually started the Krewe of Orpheus together. I taught him years ago, in speech theater, at Jefferson High School here in the city. Even then, he was fabulous on that piano—an absolute talent from the beginning. And every couple of years, he still comes down and joins the Orpheus parade.   Believe it or not, Mardi Gras is a family holiday I may have had my share of youthful indiscretions—some things I've seen aren't fit for print in a family publication. But a lot of Mardi Gras's bawdy reputation is hype, and most of the uninhibited are tourists. For locals, Mardi Gras is a family holiday. People set out picnic lunches and barbecue, and their kids dress up in costumes. New Orleanians wouldn't do anything that would embarrass their mothers. This town is too small, and you're never too old to be chastised.   Misbehave and you could get kicked off the krewe Some of the older, traditional krewes aren't open to public membership. Most still aren't even coed! But the newer krewes, like Orpheus and Bacchus, let anyone of good character join—men and women, all races and creeds. Unfortunately, we have had to deny membership renewals. Anyone who smokes, imbibes too heavily, or even removes their mask during the parade faces expulsion.   You wouldn't believe how expensive it is to be part of a krewe Parading with a krewe is not cheap, to be honest. Aside from their dues, some members spend around $2,000 for beads and other trimmings. But when you're on that float, you're a rock star! Hundreds of thousands of people are screaming for your attention. Even though you've been up for 18 hours working on the float, you still have the fortitude to go dance at the post-parade ball for another six hours.   Mardi Gras after Katrina surprised us all The year after Katrina, we weren't sure we were going to have Mardi Gras, but the crowd turned out to be wonderful. Usually, people are out there screaming and scrambling for beads, but that year many just stood with signs, thanking the krewes for carrying on the tradition. We showed the world New Orleans was back.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 15 Things You Didn't Know about New Orleans 10 Beautiful Castle Hotels 21 Girl Trips You Absolutely Love 8 Items You Never Pack...But Should Can You Spot the Travel Rip-off?

Cruise Ports Secrets I Wish I'd Known Before My Last Vacation

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. 19 GORGEOUS PHOTOS OF THE PORTS   #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.   #5 Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands Known for offshore banking, the Cayman Islands have a natural side beyond the shops of George Town. Grand Cayman is one of the few places where you can see the world's most endangered iguana, the blue iguana, and thousands of tourists converge on Stingray City to watch the sea animals. Seven Mile Beach offers an uninterrupted view of the Caribbean that seems like a postcard come to life. Secret: If you like Jimmy Buffet music, catch the Grand Cayman's resident beach bum, the Barefoot Man (in real life, George Nowak). He plays most Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Reef Resort on the island's East End. If you don't have time to catch a show, pick up a CD for $16 in one of the souvenir shops in George Town. #6 San Juan, Puerto Rico It's hard to escape history in Puerto Rico; its capital, San Juan, dates back to the 16th century. The immense San Felipe del Morro fortress anchors Old San Juan and Ponce de Leon, the island's first governor, is buried at the Cathedral of San Juan. If you venture off into the countryside, you'll find beaches, rain forests and a bioluminescent bay where you can kayak. Secret: Puerto Rico's cuisine is infused with unique Latin flavors that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Caribbean. Why not spend a few hours learning how to duplicate the recipes at home? Flavors of San Juan teaches you how to make either tapas or Puerto Rican food in two-hour group classes that include a full meal and a recipe book that you can bring home. SanJuanfoodtours.com, advanced reservations required, $98 per person for a 2-hour group class   #7 Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos Although technically in the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Caribbean, the island chain of Turks & Caicos has the glorious, talcum-powder-soft sand beaches and turquoise skies that make the region famous. While luxury vacationers flock to Providenciales and celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Christie Brinkley, and Keith Richards have homes on Parrot Cay, Grand Turk has become the country's main cruising center, with a large terminal and new shops. Secret: If you love stamps (or love someone who does), make a stop at the Philatelic Bureau, located on Church Folly street. The island is known for its colorful and unusual issues, which are prized by collectors.   #8 Juneau, Alaska An Inside Passage cruise appears on many bucket lists, and no wonder. The state's scenery, particularly its magnificent glacier- and wildlife-viewing opportunities, are unparalleled. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, Juneau, the state's capital, is accessible only by water or air. Nature is all around you: Look for bears fishing in the streams near Mendenhall Glacier, and eagles nesting on the slopes of Mount Roberts. Secret: Once you get out of downtown, cruise ship crowds disappear, or at least it feels that way; Alaska's vastness has a way of making people seem insignificant. With hiking trails and a stone labyrinth garden, the Shrine of St. Therese, on a peninsula about a 20-minute drive from Juneau (take a taxi), is a reflective place to commune with nature. Visitors often spot seals, whales, and otters nearby.   #9 Roatan, Honduras The Bay Islands, which lie about an hour north of the Honduras mainland, have become a major attraction for cruise ships, which come for the area's colorful fish and clear, warm waters. Roatan has become the center of commercial development for the islands, and you'll find countless opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and interacting with marine life such as grouper, moray eels, turtles, and rays. Secret: Give your tastebuds a charge with a jam and jelly tasting at Marble Hill Farms on the East End of the island. Sample flavors include hibiscus jelly, mutton pepper jelly (made with chili cabro, this one has quite a kick) and island plum jelly made from fruit grown on the property. You'll need to take a taxi to get to The Farm; once you're there, have spiny lobster for lunch at their restaurant, the Crow's Nest.   #10 Princess Cays, Bahamas Eleuthera, one of the Out Islands is the other Bahamas port that made the top ten. Here, you can swim and sunbathe at private beaches and resorts without safety concerns (the U.S. State Department does warn about the possibility of muggings and other crime occurring on New Providence Island, where Nassau is located). Secret: Located on the island of Eleuthera, the private beach resort owned by Princess gives you a glimpse of how laid back life on the Out Islands can be. Most people spend their time on Princess Cays either on the beach or in the water (head to the sand early to corner a lounge chair and bring your snorkel gear to get up close and personal with the colorful corals, fish, and sponges that blanket the ocean floor). If you want to do some exploring, there's a small local cemetery that contains the graves of some of the island's early 1900's residents. The cemetery is walking distance from the beach—just make sure you wear bug spray and solid shoes for the mile-long trek.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 Most Beautiful Churches 15 Things You Didn't Know About New Orleans 5 Caribbean Islands to Discover Now 40 Unbelievable Underwater Snapshots To Go or Not to Go: 11 Places With a Bad Rap  

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