Highlights for family cruising for some of the most popular Caribbean ports
This installment of the Family Port Guide covers Eastern Caribbean attractions and beaches that are family-friendly. In most cases (but not all), recommended spots can be reached independently by foot or taxi from the cruise pier. This article addresses the very popular Eastern Caribbean islands of St. Thomas/St. John and St. Maarten, as well as Nassau, Bahamas.
Nassau's close proximity to Florida, along with its diverse attractions and activities, all contribute to the port's popularity. From its pirate museum to its unique dancing flamingoes at Andastra Gardens, Nassau serves up plenty of family-friendly attractions. While Nassau's history includes influences ranging from pirates to Confederate blockade runners, its 250 years of British rule has left its mark. One can still see a slightly British flavor in the town's government buildings, forts, and names of streets and squares.
Your cruise ship conveniently docks at Prince George's Wharf. Nearby is Rawson Square, the main hub of Nassau and the location of the Tourism Information Center. Horse-drawn carriages line the west side of the square and are available for family-friendly rides around the downtown area.
While forts are great places for children's imaginations to explore the days of cannons, pirates, and great sailing ships, the Pirates of Nassau Museum is a good spot for this too. The museum, on Marlborough Street near busy Bay Street, offers an entertaining, interactive experience for all ages.
On a recent ship call, both my nine-year-old daughter and my one-year-old enjoyed Andastra Gardens and Zoo. We easily reached Andastra by taxi and explored its five acres of tropical plants and birds at our own pace. The highlight is the marching flamingo show, which children love. The flamingoes, which are the national bird of the Bahamas, parade around a viewing area of spectators daily at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., performing many amusing tactical feats!
Neighboring Paradise Island, linked to Nassau via a short bridge, is devoted to fun in the sun. You can enjoy the beaches at Paradise Beach and Pirate's Cove for a nominal fee. Paradise Island's biggest attraction, Atlantis Resort, does not allow day visitors to use its fabulous water slides and pools. However, most cruise lines sell an excursion that includes The Dig at Atlantis and is sometimes coupled with the beach at Atlantis. The Dig is a dark, elaborate maze of rooms and corridors that recreates what the ancient lost city of Atlantis might have looked like. Throughout The Dig are plenty of colorful fish in oversized tanks. While most children will like The Dig (except for little ones who might be afraid of the dark atmosphere), I think the shore excursions to The Dig are overpriced. I stayed at Atlantis for a few days as an overnight guest and I feel it is best to experience this vast, impressive resort as a multi-day visitor than as a cruise guest.
ST. THOMAS/ST. JOHN
St. Thomas is one of the best-known islands in the Caribbean, but its main attraction is shopping, which is generally not on the top hit chart for kids. However, the island's second most popular attractions – its lovely beaches – are a must. The island's best known beach, Magen's Bay, is set in a lovely crescent bay with a hilly backdrop. Unfortunately, this attractive setting has made the beach very popular and thus potentially crowded. I suggest Sapphire Beach, since it is a little less crowded and is reached easily via taxi. Located at the Doubletree Sapphire Beach Resort, Sapphire Beach offers great views of hills and islets, along with crystal clear water. Another family favorite is Coki Beach, right next to Coral World Ocean Park.
In the main town of Charlotte Amalie, right near the cruise ship pier, you can hop on an Atlantis Submarine. After a short boat ride to the submarine, you can view sea life at depths of up to 90 feet. We like to end our port calls in St. Thomas by walking from the pier to Paradise Point Tramway, which takes you 700 feet above sea level. Bring your camera for great family photos with a spectacular backdrop of the harbor, mountains and cruise ships. You'll find a snack bar and short hiking trails at the top, along with an exotic bird show at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
If you'd like to share a bit of Caribbean lore with your children, take a cab up to Blackbeard's Castle. (It's much easier to walk back down to town afterwards than to trudge uphill in the heat.) There are gorgeous views of the town and sea from there. The castle is really more like a tower; it was built in the 1600s and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Back in Charlotte Amalie is Fort Christian, which is harbor-side and houses the Virgin Islands Museum. Built in 1672 by Dutch settlers, it is one of the island's oldest landmarks and is home to old maps and nautical memorabilia.
When you call in St. Thomas, you can also opt to visit the lush nearby island of St. John. Much of St. John is a national park, thus it is much less built up than St. Thomas. You can reach St. John's picture-postcard Trunk Bay beach via ferry and van from St. Thomas. This can be done via a purchased shore excursion through the cruise line, which takes care of transfers and often includes snorkel equipment for Trunk Bay's easy snorkeling trail. However, this excursion costs about $180 for a family of four and only allows you about 1-1/2 hours at Trunk Bay. Much of the rest of the four-hour excursion is spent getting the large groups of passengers on and off the ferry and vans.
Once at Cinnamon Bay, you can go on a short hike around a sugar mill plantation or swim at a near perfect beach. Both Cinnamon and Trunk bays have shower and bathroom facilities and food concessions.
St. Maarten – with its Dutch and French sides – also has two different atmospheres at its beaches. Those on the Atlantic side have naturally rougher surf than those on the Caribbean side, while the beaches on the French side are more apt to have topless or nude sunbathing. When my daughter was a toddler, we took a taxi ride from Philipsburg to well-known Orient Beach and she was too young to notice the nudity. However, now that she's a pre-teen, we have avoided going there since she would be uncomfortable. There are a number of other beaches that are family friendly and accessible via taxi from Philipsburg. These include:
- Great Bay Beach, which is right by the cruise pier and shops, but still features very clear water and a rubber raft kids can jump off for a fee of a few dollars.
- Dawn Beach: This lovely beach is a 20-minute cab ride from Philipsburg and its gentle waters are family-friendly. There is a reef there so you can rent snorkel equipment beach side and snorkel right from the shore.
- Mullet Bay: This resort has a mile-long sandy beach and is a 20-minute cab ride from Philipsburg.
- Simpson Bay Beach: About a 15-minute cab ride from Philipsburg, Simpson Bay offers gentle waters; however, there are no changing facilities or 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 and reptiles and 180 Amazon parrots. It features wildlife in their natural environments such as Squirrel Monkey Island, a landscaped area in an excavated moat where you can see monkeys up close.
Children also enjoy the lovely Butterfly Farm. Amidst waterfalls and lush foliage, you can stroll the paths and see the various stages of graceful butterflies. This is a long taxi ride (it's near Orient Beach), so you may want to consider taking the shore excursion sold through the cruise line.
Lastly, in town are Fort Amsterdam and Fort Willem, which are short taxi rides from the pier. These forts command great views of the sea and were built in the 1600's. Also in town you can find plenty of women who will give your kids "Caribbean braids" at a reasonable price. One time my daughter had someone on Great Bay Beach braid her hair, but we had to move locales mid-way through since the beaches are patrolled and these women do not pay taxes on their services. You can also find a kiosk or two in town for braids.
Two shore excursions for older children and teens are unique. The first, Rhino Riders, involves inflatable, motorized small boats that you learn to navigate. You then sail by Marigot Harbor and on to an undisturbed beach for some free time. Children must be 10 years old to participate and must be accompanied by an adult on this fun, but expensive, excursion. For teens and adults, there is also the America's Cup Regatta, where you can assist in sailing your boat to victory.