The Western Caribbean – with its sun-drenched beaches, Mayan ruins, and unique natural attractions offers plenty of port options for families. In the past, Western Caribbean itineraries only included Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel, but in recent years the cruise lines have expanded their itineraries and now often feature calls in Belize, Roatan, and the purpose-built port of Costa Maya, Mexico. Following are some of the top attractions for kids in the Western Caribbean ports of Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Ocho Rios or Montego Bay, Jamaica; Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and the Bay Island of Roatan, off the northern coast of Honduras.
I have personally visited some of these attractions with my children, but many of these tips are from readers who posted suggestions for fellow parents on the CruiseMates.com message boards. As always, the parents' message board remains THE place to go for information on cruising with kids because of your interest and participation. Thanks and smooth sailing in the Western Caribbean!
BELIZE CITY, BELIZE
A number of web sites can help you book tours before you leave home. They include: www.belizecruiseexcursions.com; www.seasportsbelize.com; and www.cbelize.com. While all cruise lines offer an array of shore excursions, they are often cheaper if you book through a local tour group instead. You can do this through some of the above web sites.
Many readers report satisfaction with port calls in Belize, especially those who visit the tiny island of Caye Caulker. Called "one of the highlights" of their family cruise by one reader, Caye Caulker can be reached by a reliable water taxi service located near the ship pier. (Follow signs for Caye Caulker water taxis.) The regular 45-minute boat service to this pristine beach area costs $15 round trip for adults while children are half-price. One reader suggests going to "the point" -- an area of ocean surrounded by a cement wall, creating a natural pool about two feet deep. This is perfect for little ones to frolic in all day. If you go over the cement wall and swim for about 10 feet, reports one reader, there are great sandbars to explore. The area abounds with starfish, snorkeling opportunities and a bar/snack bar.
Some lines offer a "swim with the stingrays" excursion at Caye Caulker. However, you'll save yourself a lot of money if you visit Caye Caulker independently without the stingray encounter. There are also tours to Shark Ray Alley, where you can touch a sand shark. However, it involves a 45-minute boat ride to the site and swimming in deep water. Thus, I only suggest this tour for teens and adults.
Other tiny deserted islands that you can visit are Goff's Caye and Rendevous Caye. Readers report that the former has good snorkeling in clear waters. You can book an excursion to Goff's Caye through www.belizecruiseexcursions.com. Many cruise lines offer a snorkeling and beach excursion to Rendevous Caye. Minimum age for snorkeling there is eight years.
Cave tubing is unique to Belize. Most adults really enjoy it, but if you bring a child, make sure your youngster is able to lug a caving headlamp and life vest 45 minutes on a rainforest path to the river entrance. Because of this, the cruise lines have a minimum age of eight years from February through June, and 12 years from July to January. Once you reach the river, you are equipped with a flotation device which will lead you through dark, limestone caves and shallow waters. One reader reported that after some initial apprehension, his daughter did end up enjoying this unique tour. Note that on www.belizecruiseexcursions.com there is a kids' caving tubing excursion offered for those five years and older by X-Stream tour company.
Two tours that have no age limits and are relatively "tame" include Baboon Sanctuary and the Belize Zoo. Since howler monkeys are known as "baboons" in Creole, you will actually be viewing howler monkeys in their natural habitats at Baboon Sanctuary. Visitors can walk for about 30 minutes on a prepared jungle path where you will definitely hear and hopefully see howlers. During our recent cruise to Costa Rica, we heard and saw howler monkeys; once you hear the unique sounds they make, you'll never forget it! The Belize Zoo is 30 miles from the port and covers about 29 acres of tropical savannah. There are about 125 animals there which are native to Belize, including toucans, egrets, tree frogs, howlers and jaguars. These tours are offered by most cruise lines.
COSTA MAYA, MEXICO
Puerto Costa Maya is the Caribbean's first port designed solely for cruise passengers and is Mexico's fastest growing port. Located on the southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, Costa Maya is sheltered by the second largest coral reef in the world, making for good snorkeling opportunities. The port area features a state-of-the-art entertainment complex for eight daily folkloric shows; a 70,000 sq. ft. shopping center and bazaar that boasts local crafts, leather goods and jewelry; spa services; restaurant and bar; Uvero Beach; and saltwater pools. While there are presently three berths for cruise ships, plans call for two more.
Puerto Costa Maya is an ancient maritime trading port of the Mayan empire and thus affords passengers both historical experiences as well as exploration of sea and surrounding jungle. I don't suggest bringing children on tours of the Mayan ruins, since the tours are too hot and long for youngsters.
Instead, take advantage of the many water sports offered to grade school children such as the clear kayak tour to view the coral reefs (minimum age is eight years); catamaran/snorkel adventure (six years and older); or the eco-airboat ride through Rio Huach National Park to view wildlife and mangroves (must be eight years old). Those with kids under these minimum ages might opt for a day at Uvero Beach with its water sports rentals and hammocks. For more information, go to www.puertocostamaya.com.
Some readers suggest saving money by foregoing the cruise lines' excursion to Chankanaab and instead taking a 20-minute cab ride there from the port. If you plan on participating in a dolphin encounter or swimming with the dolphins, you can save a few dollars booking directly through Dolphin Discovery (www.dolphindiscovery.com). My daughter was nine years old when we participated in a dolphin encounter and she loved it. We stood in knee-deep water and got to pet the dolphins and see them perform a few tricks. The minimum age, according to cruise line shore excursion information, is three years old. However, I suggest waiting until your child is a few years older than that to fully appreciate this rather expensive tour.
When we called in Cozumel, I went on a full day excursion to the mainland (Playa del Carmen) to see Mayan ruins. While I found this fascinating, I do not recommend it for children. The excursion was very long and hot (one older woman on our tour passed out while we were viewing the pyramids and temples). While I was at the pyramids, my husband took my then five-year-old daughter to a folkloric show sold through the cruise line. They thoroughly enjoyed the colorful, swirling costumes and dancers.
There are two beaches which readers say are "great family spots" and can be reached via taxi from port. Cab rides to Playa del Sol cost about $15 each way (up to four people in a cab) and beach fees are $10 per person for the basic entry package. The facilities here include beach chairs, clean bathrooms, pool, snorkel area with replica Mayan ruins, activities director, water trampoline, shops and buffet court. A little south of the cruise pier you'll find a number of beach clubs. One reader notes that her "personal favorite is Mr. Sancho's beach club. There's a sandy beach area, local arts and crafts, food, water activities, a large hot tub and very, very clean restrooms." Although there isn't an entry fee, this beach is reportedly not as crowded as some others.
Another family took their daughter to a nice little mini-golf course located three blocks from the waterfront on First Street.
GEORGETOWN, GRAND CAYMAN
Stingray City is one of the top attractions for families calling in Grand Cayman. It's not actually a "city" -- Stingray City is an area in a few feet of water where stingrays congregate. Visitors can stand in the water and touch these gentle giants.
CruiseMates.com family message board readers offer mixed reviews on whether little ones enjoy this experience or are afraid. One reader recently said her two-and-a-half year old loved getting up close with these large, gentle fish, while other children are said to be apprehensive about allowing the animals brush up against them. My daughter was seven years old on our second Western Caribbean cruise and had no desire to visit Stingray City. Note too that since the water is three to four feet deep, your child will have to be big enough to stand in that depth or you'll have to hold them in your arms. Some readers have booked Stingray City through Captain Marvin's tours, saving money compared to going on this excursion through the cruise line.
What my daughter instead enjoyed was the Atlantis semi-submarine. While the semi-sub gives you the option of escaping to the top for fresh air if needed, Alex had no problem being submerged and really enjoyed seeing a real "feeding frenzy" of fish out our window.
While you have to visit Stingray City with a tour group, there are a number of other options for independent visits. My favorite is Seven Mile Beach – I still have a framed photograph of my daughter lying on her stomach, playing in the sands of Seven Mile Beach, with the gentle surf behind her. We took a taxi from the port to Seven Mile Beach where there are beach chairs, umbrellas, hotel restaurants and facilities to use for a nominal fee per person. The current cab rate is $3 per person each way between the port and the Holiday Inn, one of many hotels that allow visitors to use their beach facilities. You'll find water sports equipment for rent all along Seven Mile Beach too.
A number of readers have traveled independently, via taxi, to the Turtle Farm, which costs $20 for three people in a taxi. At present, you can touch turtles, if you desire, at the various exhibits at the Turtle Farm. The attraction is undergoing an expansion to include a Caymanian-themed area called Boatswain's Beach that will include a snorkel lagoon, a predator tank viewable by snorkelers, an aviary, iguana sanctuary, educational pavilion and a Caymanian heritage street with craft vendors and restaurants. The initial stage of Boatswain's Beach, which will include a turtle breeding pond, will be open in the first quarter of 2005. The rest will be completed by January 2006. Admission at time of publication is $6 for adults and $3 for children.
MONTEGO BAY OR OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA
Dunn's River Falls is the biggest attraction for cruise passengers in Jamaica. Visitors are lead in groups (holding hands) up cascading waterfalls. You have to know your child's abilities to judge whether they're ready for this, since it involves some scrambling up slippery rocks. On my daughter's first visit when she was five years old, she was too frightened to go up once she saw the gushing water. Thus, she and I climbed the adjacent steps for a view of the falls and then swam in the small but nice beach at the bottom of the falls until my husband finished the trek up.
On our second Western Caribbean cruise Alex was seven years old and was able to climb up the falls with our assistance. Alex was very proud that she was able to do it the second time around. Many (but not all) tours will take you to the falls via boat and then continue on to a beach for a few hours. We enjoyed this option. Some excursions alternatively offer a dolphin encounter at Dolphin Cove after Dunn's River Falls.
Some other tours that grade school children enjoy include Martha Brae River Rafting. You'll board a 30-foot raft and enjoy a lazy two-mile ride down the Martha Brae River. Bird life can be seen along the way. Another unique way to see some of Jamaica is via tractor-drawn jitney at 1,000-acre Prospect Plantation. This is one of the oldest plantation tours in Jamaica and you'll see sugar cane, bananas, pineapples and other types of fruit.
For those six years and over, some cruise lines offer horseback riding at Chukka Blue. There you and your guided horse can explore Blue Hole, a 16th century sugar estate, complete with Great House, ruins of a waterwheel, and one of the original breadfruit trees brought to Jamaica by Capt. Bligh on the Bounty. The grand finale is when you unsaddle your horse and ride into the sea together!
For families with younger children, I suggest enjoying the sun and sand at the following beaches, which are close to Montego Bay: Rose Hall Beach Club, tucked behind a natural reef and offering panoramic views of the turquoise sea; or Doctor's Cave Beach Club, believed to be fed by mineral springs with healing powers. If your ship calls in Ocho Rios, James Bond Beach Club is just 20 minutes away. Located on a private peninsula, it has three lovely beaches and water sports rentals. Generally beach clubs have a required fee and also staff security guards to make sure you're not hassled by vendors. Still, use good judgment and consider wearing a waterproof pouch around your neck to put your money in if you all go swimming.
One of the newer port-of-calls in the Western Caribbean, the island of Roatan has been described by CruiseMates.com family message board readers as a "very poor island "with "some very beautiful beaches – water was as clear as can be." A few passengers have even snorkeled right in the harbor. That said, most readers opted for beach excursions either independently or via the cruise line. The most visited beaches include:
- Tabanya Beach is a short cab ride from the port with very nice water for swimming; beach volleyball is available too. You can go there independently or with a cruise excursion. One reader reports that it's better to go with the tour since they have security guards in the area where the cruise ship passengers are, to insure that tourists are bothered by vendors.
- Foster's West Bay is reportedly a lovely, quiet beach.
- West End Beach has been called "beautiful" by our readers and offers snorkeling. You can reach the beach via taxi.
- Parrot Tree Beach is a 30-minute cab ride away and features light surf, a nice beach, craft shop, rest rooms and snack bar.
If you're not into fun in the sun, you may want to try the semi-submarine excursion. One reader and her family reported that the semi-submarine "pleased everyone in our group. We saw lots of beautiful fish."