The Caribbean offers more ship options for a family cruise than any other region. but what about the ports of call?
WHICH AGE GROUPS ENJOY THIS AREA?
- INFANTS AND TODDLERS: Yes
- GRAMMAR-SCHOOL AGED CHILDREN: Yes
- TWEENS: Yes
- TEENS: Yes
The Eastern Caribbean is a home run in regards to appealing to all ages of children young and older in your family. This is because most youngsters enjoy frolicking in warm, azure waters; teens enjoy engaging in the high-action water sports; and parents welcome the relaxing tropical settings.
HOW TO CUT DOWN ON THE WHINE FACTOR:
INFANTS, TODDLERS AND CHILDREN: Pack a small pail and shovel from home to insure hours of sand play.
ALL AGES: The Caribbean sun is very strong year round. Slather your kids in suntan lotion frequently and bring water bottles from the ship to keep them hydrated.
WHEN TO GO:
Other than late summer/early fall when hurricanes are a possibility in the Caribbean, this region is perfect for cruising year round. Just keep in mind that from June to August, the heat is extremely intense. For that reason, I would NOT choose a shore tour that is primarily on land during the summer. Hanging out in the water in the Caribbean during the summer is a MUST to avoid whining.
PORT TIPS FOR TOTS:
ST. THOMAS AND ST. MAARTEN: Streets in the port/main town area are navigable with a stroller, however, they do get crowded when a few mega-ships are in port. Early morning is best for ease of travel with a stroller.
SAN JUAN: Due to its age, Old San Juan has narrow sidewalks. Strollers are manageable but baby backpacks are easier for navigation's sake.
FAMILY PHOTO OPS:
ST. THOMAS: If you go on a motorcoach tour of the port town of Charlotte Amalie, you will undoubtedly be brought high above the ship-dotted harbor for a postcard-perfect photo op.
SAN JUAN: Your children will look dwarfed standing aside massive El Moro. Make sure you get the sea, fort and your kids in the photo.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY: INDEPENDENT SHORE ACTIVITIES FOR FAMILIES
INDEPENDENT BEACH VISITS: The number one way to save money while ashore in the Caribbean is for your family to hop in a taxi pier side and go to the beach independently. Make sure you get the taxi company's phone number to call for a ride home in case there isn't a taxi stand by the beach. (There usually are however.)
Most beaches will ask you to pay for a beach chair or umbrella, but otherwise, your costs will be much less than if you opted for a beach shore excursion sold through the cruise lines. These often cost AT LEAST $40 per person for a half day.
DISCOUNTED SHORE TOURS: Alternatively, you may want to book shore excursions through two slightly discounted web sites prior to your cruise: http://www.portpromotions.com and http://www.shoretrips.com. These websites allow you to book popular shore excursions worldwide at rates that are often (but not always) lower than the cruise lines'. For example, typical rates range from $5 to $15 off a standard cruise line rate per person. A representative from this company meets you pier side and your shore excursion will often include passengers from other ships in port.
KEY WEST: Even though you'll see tons of promotional material for the Conch Trolley Tour, pass on it and instead get a map at the pier. Situated close to the pier is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which has one of the best collections of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere. My daughter got a kick out of trying to lift the pure gold bar. Located right in Mallory Square is the small Key West Aquarium, which features a touch tank and fish feedings.
NASSAU: The Pirate's of Nassau Museum is great to get your family in the swashbuckling mood. It's conveniently located in walking distance of the pier. Another place perfect for families is Andastra Gardens and Zoo. You can get there by short taxi ride and explore the tropical plants and birds on your own. Check ahead of time to make sure you time your visit with the marching flamingo show your children will not forget that one!
SAN JUAN: The colorful buildings and narrow lanes of Old San Juan make it look rather European and help keeps your children's attention. Make El Morro fort your destination; take a cab to El Morro from the port and walk back to the ship. Kids love running around El Morro's ramparts that overlook the dramatic Caribbean.
Another favorite is a horse-drawn carriage ride through Old San Juan. The horse-drawn carriage rides depart from the visitors' bureau which is a few minute walk from the pier. There is also a craft market by the visitors' bureau which is one of my favorites in the Caribbean quality goods at affordable prices. There are usually crafts and handmade toys there that children will enjoy purchasing.
ST. MAARTEN: St. Maarten's beaches on the French side are gentler but tend to have nude sunbathing. One of the well-known French beaches is Orient Beach which has clothing and clothing-optional areas. On the Dutch side, the following beaches are clothing required and accessible via taxi from Philipsburg: Great Bay Beach, which is right by the cruise pier and shops, has clean water and a rubber raft kids can jump off for a fee of a few dollars; Dawn Beach is a 20-minute cab ride from Philipsburg with gentle waters, a reef and snorkel equipment to rent; and Simpson Bay Beach, which is a 15-minute cab ride from Philipsburg, offers gentle waters but no changing facilities nor amenities.
Another independent activity for families is a visit to the St. Maarten Zoological and Botanical Park, about a 10-minute taxi ride from Philipsburg. The Zoo is home to more than 60 species of exotic mammals, reptiles and 180 Amazon parrots which are featured in their natural environments.
ST. THOMAS: Catch a taxi from the pier to the beach. World-famous Magen's Bay Beach is scenic but gets crowded. Try instead Sapphire Beach at the Doubletree Sapphire Beach hotel. Bring your camera for lovely beach scenery and crystal clear water.
Coral World is a great destination for families. You can get there independently to save some money; the taxi ride is about $10 to $15 each way. Coral World aquarium has many outside touch tanks in addition to inside exhibits. The highlight of this marine park is the Underwater Observatory Tower, where you can view a coral reef through 24 windows. Bring your bathing suits because next to Coral World is Coki Beach.
SPLURGING: OTHER MUST-SEE SHORE EXCURSIONS FOR FAMILIES:
Note: The following are a few family-friendly tours or excursions that are accessed easiest via organized short excursion either purchased through your cruise line or the independent shore excursion companies mentioned above.
ST. THOMAS: A day trip from St. Thomas to St. John is very scenic. While you can get to St. John independently and save money, it is a three-step process each way that involves: getting a cab to the ferry dock; riding the ferry to St. John; and getting a taxi from the St. John pier to the beach. This is one of the few excursions I suggest you book through your cruise line or via one of the on-line booking sites for ease of travel and not having to worry about getting the ferry back on time independently. St. John's Trunk Bay beach is gorgeous and is a great place for gentle snorkeling with your kids.
ST. MAARTEN: Children enjoy the Butterfly Farm shore excursion. You can stroll the tropically foliated paths and a guide will show you the various stages of graceful butterflies. Another kid and especially teen-favorite is Loterie Farm, a private tropical forest with guided hikes. What older children and teens enjoy most here is the Fly Zone. This zip line system is perched high above the trees and also includes rope bridges and other obstacles. There is also a simpler Little Tarzan course for young ones.
SAN JUAN: El Yunque is America's only tropical rainforest and is well worth the shore excursion investment. Covering 28,000 acres, El Yunque has plenty of walking trails, waterfalls, tropical plants, tree frogs and exotic birds. You may want to bring ponchos on this excursion since the rainforest receives 100 billion gallons of water annually.