With more than 7,000 islands spread across an area almost as large as the continental U.S., the Caribbean Sea is ready-made for cruising. Since the late 1800s when banana boats carried vacation passengers between Jamaica and the Eastern Seaboard, the Caribbean has remained at the cutting edge of the cruise industry. If you're into the biggest ships with all the latest bells and whistles, then the Caribbean is your kind of pond.
Like the Mediterranean, its watery counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, the Caribbean Sea tends to get divided into east and west when it comes to cruises.
Departing from South Florida or the Gulf coast, the typical western Caribbean itinerary might include Key West in the Florida Keys, Nassau in the Bahamas, the island of Cozumel off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Belize City, Grand Cayman and Jamaica's north coast.
A Western Caribbean cruise features a wide variety of cultures and landscapes in a short time frame. With each new port comes something new and different from the day before, be it jungle-covered Mayan ruins in Belize, swimming with whale sharks off the Yucatan, reggae music and Red Stripe beer in Jamaica, or even Hemingway's cats at the Ernest Hemmingway Home and Museum in the Florida's Key West.
Most of the ships plying this route are huge — between 2,000 and 4,000 passengers. And when you get three or four of these behemoths in the same port at once, the journey into town can resemble a stampede. Be prepared to wait for some of the more popular tourist destinations, or break away from the zip-lines and beach resorts to discover culinary or cultural flavors at portside eateries and shops.
Travelers who prefer smaller ships and quieter ports should sample the Eastern Caribbean. Many of these cruises depart from Puerto Rico or St. Martin. That entails an extra flight, but the rewards are well worth the effort — a chain of French, Dutch and former British colonies with gorgeous volcanic landscapes, rich island cultures and wonderful Creole foods.
Although the Windjammers, the original sailing craft purpose-built for cruising. are no longer around, several new companies have filled the cruising-under-canvas void in the eastern Caribbean. There are a number of weeklong summer sailings in the windward and leeward islands calling on places like Grenada or Antigua.
These sailing cruises provide an unforgettable and personal experience with the region, from taking suggestions from the captain and crew about their favorite sites in ports of call to helping hoist the sails or steering the craft. Once ashore, the far-flung islands offer up-close experiences with the various cultures that historically inhabited them, be they Mesoamerican, colonialist or modern.
-By Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer
For more great summer travel options, go to latimes.com/summertravelseries.