The following are beaches that either I have taken my kids to or that fellow parents from CruiseMates.com's family message board have visited. (Thanks to all of you who posted your favorite family beaches.) The main criteria for a family-friendly beach are: It is accessible by foot or taxi from the cruise port; has gentle water with few waves; offers bathroom facilities, a snack bar, and easy access to taxis back to the ship. Some of these beaches are public and thus will only charge a small fee or none at all. Others are part of a hotel or resort that accepts day visitors. These will generally charge you an entry fee per person or ask you to pay for use of their beach chairs and umbrellas, which may cost you about $15 for two lounge chairs.
I suggest you ask the shore excursions desk aboard ship to give you an approximate idea of how much a taxi will cost to a specific beach that I have mentioned. Also make sure you won't have a problem getting a taxi back from the beach to the ship. Although some shore excursions personnel don't want to be bothered helping you with anything other than purchasing a shore excursion from them, persist in asking them to help you decide which beach to visit. This has been my strategy for our 12 family cruises and I haven't received bad advice yet!
Here's a checklist of things to bring with you on your excursion to the beach: beach towels that the ship gives you upon disembarkation; small bills for a taxi; and a few small pails and shovels you either brought from home or purchased along the way for the kids. Most important, though, is to have a relaxing time with your kids. On cold winter days, I relish the beach days we had with our kids on our Caribbean cruises this past year.
Closer to St. John's is Fort James Beach, where you can rent umbrellas and beach chairs. Make sure you stay in the designated swimming area, since currents can be strong farther away from the shore, one of our readers suggests.
Another option in Aruba is the Sonesta Hotel's private island beach. The hotel is right on the main street in Oranjested and offers boat service right from its lobby to its nearby offshore island. According to one of our readers, the facilities are first rate. However the fee, which includes the boat ride and lunch, is high -- about $25 per person for adults.
Well-known Cable Beach is about a $10 taxi ride from Nassau's cruise ship pier and offers water sports, restaurants and shops. Alternatively, you can take a ferry or taxi to Paradise Island, where you can enjoy Paradise Beach, which charges a nominal admission, or other beaches such as Pirate's Cove.
All beaches in Barbados are open to the public. The beaches on the island's western side are calm, while the Atlantic side can be rough. Some suggestions from a reader include Payne's Bay or Church Point, the latter of which has plenty of trees that offer natural shade.
The most popular beach near St. George's is Tobacco Bay Beach. This small beach is nestled in a cove and has restroom facilities as well as a snack bar.
You can't go wrong by taking a taxi to Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman. There are a number of different public beach clubs (you will have to pay a small fee) along Seven Mile Beach, so ask your shore excursions staff to recommend one. The water along Seven Mile Beach is very gentle and some of the hotels along the beach have water sports rentals. One time we even walked across the road from the beach and ate at my daughter's favorite fast food spot -- Burger King -- before heading back to the beach for the afternoon.
For independent beach ideas, check out Playa San Francisco, which is about a $10 taxi ride from downtown San Miguel. There is no entry fee to the beach. If your ship docks at the International Pier rather than the main downtown pier, you can walk to Le Ceiba and Crown Paradise sol Caribe; both charge daily fees for visitors.
One of our readers suggested taking a taxi to the Jamaica Grand Renaissance Hotel, where you can use the pool and beach facilities for about $12 a day for adults; less for children. The hotel is accessible by taxi and has lockers to store any valuables you brought with you.
In Jamaica, I suggest only going to a hotel or resort beach since they have their own security guards to make sure guests aren't hassled by locals trying to sell something. There generally are not security guards at public beaches and thus you will be on your own as far as safety is concerned. Although I think Jamaica is one of the most naturally beautiful Caribbean islands, there is a "hassle factor" to be considered. That is why it is one of the few islands where I purchase a group shore excursion through the cruise line rather than explore independently.
St. Thomas/St. John
If you are looking for beaches you can explore independently in St. Thomas, consider Magen's Bay, which is perhaps the best known public beach in St. Thomas, but also the most potentially crowded. Sapphire beach, in a lovely natural setting, is located at the Doubletree Sapphire Beach Resort, while Coki Beach is right next to Coral World.
We recently had a great time at the Rex St. Lucian hotel's beautiful beach. We paid a small fee to use the lounge chairs and umbrellas and also enjoyed the water sports at the beach. While there were a few people selling crafts on the beach, we particularly enjoyed buying bananas right off the banana boat, which stops at the beach daily!
If you want to stay closer to Castries, then take a taxi to Vigie Beach or Reduit Beach located on the island's western coast. This side of the island offers calm waters while the Atlantic side can be rough for kids.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
St. Maarten recently cleaned up its town beach, Great Bay Beach. While this is not an idyllic beach with palm trees, it is conveniently located right by the water taxi and a block away from the main shopping street in Philipsburg. I was actually surprised at how blue and clean the water was when we were there this year. We found the convenience of Great Bay Beach attractive especially since it enabled one of us to easily take our older daughter to the beach in the afternoon while our infant napped aboard ship. Also, there is a float/trampoline in the water there. We paid a small fee to use it and my daughter had a great time jumping off it into the water.
The main beach areas nearest to Old San Juan are Condado Beach and Isla Verde. Both areas are flanked by numerous hotels; the former is popular with families and the latter offers less rocky swimming options. You can go to the tourist office, La Casita, which is located near the cruise pier, for suggestions on which part of these large beach areas to visit.