Do Your Homework
After nine cruises with our daughter, we found that independent exploration of your cruise destinations is often the best strategy with children. Kids need to blow off steam, and tours offered through the cruise line may be too long or confining. Instead of going on a bus tour, most children would rather spend a day at the beach, or go on a hike to soak up the region's natural flora and fauna. Besides, a typical half-day excursion in the Caribbean to Sting Ray City, Grand Cayman, or Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica, for example, will cost a family of four about $160.
There are a number of ways to figure out what to do in port on your own. This means that you have to do a bit of research and "homework" prior to your trip, but I have found that it's well worth the effort. Go to your local bookstore or library and get a guidebook on the region you are visiting. Two guidebooks in particular are especially helpful when it comes to figuring out what to do with youngsters in port. The first is "Cruise Vacations with Kids" (Candyce Stapen; Prima Publishing), which details the attractions you can visit independently with your family in various ports around the world. One of the best things about this book is that is makes suggestions for various age groups.
The ship's staff and crew can also offer advice on the best beaches or local hikes for your family. On our first cruise to Alaska, we asked a crew member for a suggestion on where to hike, and he told us about a great trail in Ketchikan, which we hiked on both our Alaska cruises. On warm-weather cruises, I ask the ship's shore excursion personnel for suggestions of beaches we can get to by cab that have bathroom facilities. I have yet to be steered in a wrong direction.
Group Shore Excursion Strategies
There might be some shore excursions sold through the cruise line that your family really wants to go on, but that would be too difficult to do independently. For example, an excursion from St. Thomas to beautiful Trunk Bay on St. John's involves taking a ferry and then an overland ride. Thus it is far easier to buy the excursion through the cruise line. We usually choose one must-see excursion for each cruise and tend to do the rest of our port explorations independently.
You might also want to book shore excursions through two slightly discounted web sites prior to your cruise. Portpromotions.com and shoreexcursions.com both offer on-line booking of popular shore excursions worldwide at rates that are often (but not always) lower than the cruise line's. For example, shoreexcursions.com's rates range from $5 to $15 off a typical cruise line rate. Note that with this option, your travel mates on these excursions might include passengers from other ships in port that day.
Sample Family-Friendly Caribbean Excursions
Here are a few ideas to get you started exploring some Caribbean ports independently:
St. Thomas: Catch a taxi from the port to world-famous Magen's Bay Beach. Since this is such a popular beach, you'll have no problem getting a taxi back to the port.
Grand Cayman: There are a number of beach clubs along Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman that charge a small entry fee for day use. The beaches here generally have bathrooms and food service. They also charge a fee for rental of beach chairs and sports equipment.
San Juan: Old San Juan is great for strolling with kids. The colorful buildings and narrow lanes make it look rather European, which youngsters enjoy. Make El Morro Fort your destination. (You may want to take a cab there from the port and walk back to the ship.) Children love running around the ramparts that overlook the dramatic Caribbean. Another option is a horse-drawn carriage ride through Old San Juan. One of our visits was an evening port call, so this was a relaxing option for a tired child. We walked a few minutes from the pier to the visitor's bureau, where the horse-drawn carriage rides depart.
Key West: Forget about the Conch Trolley Tour and instead get a map at the pier. Situated close to the pier is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which boasts the richest collection 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. We also discovered "Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden," which makes its home in the last large undeveloped plot in Key West. My daughter loved the long narrated tour that Nancy herself gave us, including her many exotic parrots. Alexandra still talks about a parrot that did somersaults for peanut rewards!
Whatever you choose to do ashore, make sure it is within your budget, and that it is not too strenuous or too long to capture and hold your kids' attention.