Each day, dozens of cruise ships plow through the warm waters of the Caribbean, bringing tourists to from one vacation paradise to the next. Each ship has an itinerary chock-full of tropical locations at which they’ll dock just long enough for every passenger to get a taste of the Shangri-La of the day. So before you go floating off on your next well-deserved Caribbean escape, take some time to figure out which ports-of-call are at the top of your list.
Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos
Turks and Caicos is a British Overseas Territory that’s made up of two island groups; you guessed it, the Turk Islands and the Caicos Islands. Despite being only 7 square miles, Grand Turk hosts the territory’s capital, Cockburn Town. But its population is still quite small, with less than 4,000 residents.
Like the rest of the destinations on this list, Grand Turk has some of the best beaches in the world. But the island is also notable for the presence of a big-name tropical chain; Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville has set up shop right next to the cruise ship terminal. The vibe is always festive there, especially for Parrotheads; they’ll recognize drinks named after Buffet songs like the “5 O’Clock Somewhere” (served in a clock-shaped container), the “Who’s To Blame,” and the “Last Mango In Paris.”
The Turks and Caicos National Museum in Cockburn Town is an excellent place to hear about the rich history of the islands. In addition to exhibits on the native Taino people who used to inhabit this part of the Caribbean, the museum displays cannons, anchors, and other artifacts from the Molasses Reef shipwreck, which dates back to the early 16th century. In fact, it remains the oldest excavated shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere.
Animal lovers visiting Grand Turk are in luck. Donkeys were first introduced by European settlers but have since fallen out of use. Not to be deterred by lack of purpose, their descendants run feral throughout the island. Though somewhat shaggier and more unkempt than the donkeys we’re used to seeing, they’ve certainly made themselves right at home.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
One of the biggest things the U.S. Virgin Islands have going for them is their stunning views, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than on St. Thomas. The city of Charlotte Amalie, the territory’s capital, is situated on the island; the city is one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Charlotte Amalie and its surrounding harbor are best viewed from Paradise Point, a hill to the southeast of the city. And it only gets better; the best way to get to Paradise Point is by skyride – an actual cable car carries you 700 feet up to the observation point. If your ship’s schedule allows, get there in time to see the sunset. You’ll be facing west, in perfect position to watch the sun sink beneath the hills on the far side of the bay.
If you’re one of those ultra-dedicated gym junkies who absolutely refuses to skip leg day, even on vacation, St. Thomas has an answer. The famous “99 Steps” in Charlotte Amalie are a good place to get a workout in (many people try to count the steps as they go, and the consensus is that whoever named the steps somehow skipped a few). At the top, you’ll find the so-called Blackbeard’s Castle, a tall stone tower built in the 17th century by the Danes, who ruled the islands until 1917. While the real Blackbeard certainly sailed these waters during the castle’s existence, his actual connection to the tower is dubious.
But your Instagram followers don’t need to know that.
Dominica is an independent island nation, the northernmost of the Windward Islands. Much of the nearly 300 square mile island is covered in lush rainforest, with some breathtaking natural wonders. The aptly-named “Boiling Lake” holds the distinction of being the world’s second-largest hot spring; its bubbling water and the vapor cloud that hangs over it attracts those who value natural splendor.
Whale-watchers should also prepare themselves for the opportunity of a lifetime. Whales and dolphins are known to be present in the waters around Dominica, and there’s no shortage of boat tours for those who want to catch a glimpse of them.
Beachgoers can all find places that are right for them. Near the capital city of Roseau, Mero Beach is always bustling and there are plenty of shops, restaurants and bars within an arm’s reach. Farther away, more secluded beaches are perfect for those who want an entire stretch of sand all to themselves. The rocks and reefs just offshore make for a great place to go snorkeling. Even better for snorkelers, however, is a natural phenomenon off Champagne Beach, south of Roseau. There, due to volcanic activity, small bubbles float up in a never-ending stream from the sea floor, passing schools of colorful fish that seem to like the bubbles just as much as we do.
Lying just off the coast of Venezuela, so close that you could swear it’s part of South America, Curaçao is an island nation that provides a burst of color alongside a rich history to the passengers of the many cruise ships that dock there. Like the other members of the so-called “ABC Islands” – made up of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao – Curaçao is a Dutch-speaking island, having been a colony of the Netherlands from the 1630s up until 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles were dissolved and Curaçao became a constituent country of the Netherlands. Despite Dutch being the language used by the government, a local language called Papiamentu is considered by the majority of Curaçaoans to be their native tongue; English, however, is also an official language and is widely spoken.
For those among us who prefer our drinks on the tropical side, the name Curaçao might turn us into Pavlov’s slobbering dogs. That’s because the island has lent its name to a liqueur made from the peel of the lahara fruit, a citrus first cultivated on Curaçao. Blue Curaçao has become a staple of tropical cocktails, making notable appearances in drinks such as the Blue Hawaiian, the Blue Lagoon, and the Blue Margarita (there’s a noticeable theme there).
Curaçao (the country, not the drink) is noteworthy for its unique architecture. The shape of the buildings in the capital of Willemstad harkens back to the gabled houses of Amsterdam, and there are places where one could almost forget where they are. But the giveaway is that the buildings here are all painted magnificent colors, each wall a brighter pastel than the last.
An old stone fort, known as Rif Fort, still bristles with cast-iron cannons, a vestige of an era when pirates and enemy navies could be just over the horizon. Today, bars and restaurants have succeeded in taking the fort, and the music that emanates from within really hurts its intimidating image.
This one differs from the rest in that it isn’t actually an island. And it probably won’t just be a stop on your cruise, either. South Florida is a cruise ship hub, the Grand Central of cruises going all around the tropical Caribbean. If your vacation begins there, it’ll be a happy day full of sail-away parties and fancy dinners and waving at the people on the docks below. If your vacation ends there, it’ll be a melancholy day where you say goodbye to all the friends you made and start to think about things you’ve put out of your mind like school and work.
But beyond the love/hate relationship passengers may have with the region, South Florida’s Atlantic coast has a lot to offer. From north to south, the coastal cities are all widely recognized tropical vacation hotspots. West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami form the backbone of the urban strip running down the coast. With its seemingly infinite number of clubs, the region’s nightlife is unmatched. Beneath a magnificent skyline, beautiful beaches and parks wait for you to try them out. There’s no better place to wrap up your vacation of a lifetime.