Southern Caribbean Ports for Families

| January 16, 2006
For families seeking an alternative to the typical Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise routes, the Southern Caribbean is a great option. These varied itineraries, which usually depart from Florida or Puerto Rico, are home to many scenic gems. Southern Caribbean stops are generally less crowded than popular ports on Eastern/Western Caribbean itineraries like St. Thomas or Grand Cayman.

In port, children can explore the natural world. Southern Caribbean ports are full of uncrowded beaches, waterfalls, caves, and butterfly farms. This article will highlight things to do with kids in the Southern Caribbean ports of Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, and St. Lucia. Most of my suggestions are cost-effective activities you can do independently, i.e. taking a taxi from the port area to the beach, rather than buying expensive shore excursions from the cruise line.

ANTIGUA My family and I swam at Halcyon Cove Hotel's beach twice over the years and we loved it. There are lounge chairs, natural shade huts, a bar and grill, and lovely solitude. The water is gorgeous and perfectly calm for kids. The taxi stand at the hotel will call a taxi back to the port for you. Closer to St. John's is Fort James Beach, where you can rent umbrellas and beach chairs. Stay in the designated swimming area, since currents can be strong farther from shore. Runaway Beach is also a short cab ride from the port and is home to many resorts and restaurants.

Kids of all ages enjoy exploring Nelson's Dockyard National Park. This restored dockyard was home to many English ships during the 1700s, when plenty of pirates roamed these waters. The park includes the Dockyard Museum, housed in an 1800s building; the Blockhouse, a military fortification built in 1787; and Shirley Heights Lookout, with arched walkways, powder magazines and wonderful sea views. There are also hiking trails in the national park with tropical vegetation and vistas.

Betty's Hope is the only working sugar mill in the Caribbean. Kids can learn how sugar is harvested and processed there. If you want to visit Betty's Hope, consider renting a jeep for the day or take a shore excursion offered by the cruise line. Not far from Betty's Hope is Devil's Bridge, a natural arch carved by centuries of pounding waves.

ARUBA Aruba best sand-and-surf areas are Palm Beach and Eagle Beach, both flanked by hotels (the former by high-rise hotels, the latter by low-rise). All beaches in Aruba are open to the public; a taxi from the port to either of these areas is about $12. Another beach option is the Sonesta Hotel's private island beach. The hotel is right on the main street in Oranjested and offers boat service (fee required) from its lobby to its nearby island, complete with facilities.

Also on the main street in Oranjested is the office for Atlantis semi-submarines. I took my daughter when she was about six years old on a semi-submarine and she really enjoyed it. The good thing about a semi-sub is that it offers an above-water option if kids feel claustrophobic below water level.

Late in 2006, Morgan's Island water park - the biggest water park in the Caribbean - will open. The 84,000-sq. ft. water park will feature water slides, water rafting, and swimming pools.

Children who enjoy animals might like the Aruba Butterfly Farm, where they can observe the life cycle of these beautiful creatures. Another option is the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary, near the AYO rock formations. Tours educate children about these gentle animals, with up-close viewing. You should rent a jeep to explore these areas.

BARBADOS Only swim at beaches on the western side of the island; those on the eastern (Atlantic) side are dangerous for swimmers. North of Bridgetown's cruise terminal is a slew of beaches along the Gold Coast. Most are about a 15-minute ride from the cruise terminal and can get a bit crowded. To the south of Bridgetown and also within a 15 to 20-minute cab ride is Sandy Beach, whose calm waters make it a favorite with families.

Other than taking a taxi to the beach, it's best to check out the following via shore excursion. Atlantis Submarine is also offered in Barbados and features large windows through which to view the marine life. My daughter and I once went on the excursion to Harrison's Cave, followed by the nearby Flower Forest. At the cave, electric trams transported us into a dark yet pretty world beneath the ground. Flower Forest is in a lovely area of gentle hills, lovely vistas, and tropical vegetation.

CURACAO Beaches in Curacao are known for good underwater visibility, so snorkeling opportunities abound. Blauwbaai (Blue Bay) is the largest and most popular beach in Curacao, offering changing facilities and shade for little ones. Not far from the cruise port in Willemsted is Santa Barbara Beach, with white sand, tranquil seas, changing facilities and a snack bar. The beach has access to Curacao Underwater Park, with snorkeling and scuba trails.

Curacao's biggest attraction is the Curacao Seaquarium, with 400 species of sea creatures; it also has a "swim with the dolphins" experience. My daughter and I enjoyed the "dolphin experience" (sans swimming – since she was not old or tall enough to participate in swim with the dolphins at that time). We stood in knee-deep water and were able to touch a dolphin and give commands to this friendly creature. Afterwards, we watched a short, entertaining show by these smart mammals. You can cool off at the beach right by the Seaquarium, which has facilities.

DOMINICA Lush Dominica is full of natural sights, ranging from waterfalls to mountains and lush countryside. That said, Dominica is not the best port for beaches. Many are rocky, with dark, volcanic sand. Your best bets are exploring the inland beauty of the island via a shore excursion.

Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pool nature tour is a half-day option where you can view a cascading waterfall. Then a 15-minute walk through a forest leads you to Emerald Pool, with a pristine swimming hole and small waterfall. You'll really feel like you got off the beaten path.

For older children, try the Indian River excursion. A boatman paddles you upriver where you can view river vegetation. Older kids and teens also enjoy the adventure of WACKY Rollers Adventure Park, where you can zip-line through the trees, river tube, or kayak [email protected] Another unique option is the Rain Forest Aerial Tram. A gondola takes you through the treetops to view animal and plant life

GRENADA Billed as one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, Grand Anse Beach boasts two miles of wide sand. Only 10 minutes from the port town of St. George's, Grand Anse features calm waters, restaurants, and water sport rentals.

Scenic St. George's offers a few forts for families to explore independently. A good hike from the cruise terminal leads you atop Fort George, built in the early 1700s. You'll see antique cannons in the midst of the fort's ruins, and wonderful views of the town and port. Similarly, 18th-century Fort Frederick offers great views. You may want to have a taxi take you to the top of Richmond Hill to the fort and then walk down.

Grenada is a lush island, and one-third of it is set aside as parks and natural preserves. One three-hour tour offered by the cruise lines highlights the island's most beautiful spots: Grand Etang Lake, located in an extinct volcano; Annandale Falls, with its 50 foot drop; and Grand Etang Forest Preserve, with its rainforest flora. For grade school kids and older, the cruise lines offer a one-mile hike in Grand Etang Forest Preserve to Seven Sisters Waterfall, where you can swim in natural pools. Both Seven Sisters and Grand Etang Falls can be slippery, so wear water shoes.

MARTINIQUE Picking a beach in Martinique is trickier than on other islands since many of them have gray, dark volcanic sand. However, at Ponte du Bout, across the bay from Fort-de-France, there is a white, man-made beach for swimming and water sports. Nearby are Anse Mitan and Anses d'Arlet which have sandy, natural beaches.

The main town of Fort-de-France is large by Caribbean standards and offers many French restaurants and shops, but children will generally find roaming around town boring. You may want to opt for a cruise line excursion. One that interests children visits Martinique's rainforest and butterfly farm. Older kids find the excursion to St. Pierre interesting too. In 1902, Mt. Pelee erupted and turned this culturally-rich town into the Pompeii of the Caribbean. A trolley called Cyparis Express stops at the major tourist spots in St. Pierre, such as the Volcanic Museum.

If you want adventure and are willing to spend some cash on a taxi for your family, there are two sure hits with kids. Aqualand is in Carbet, about a 40-minute drive from the cruise port (approximately $60). This water park is in a tropical setting and features a mini park for young children as well as wave pools, water slides, and super water slaloms for older kids and adults. You can direct questions to [email protected]

Another big hit with kids and teens is Mangofil, located in Trois-Ilets -- also about a 40-minute cab ride from the port (about $65). A much cheaper way to go is to take the ferry, at $7 for adults and $4 for kids, from Fort-de-France to Trois-Ilets Marina. Taxis are available for a nominal cost at the marina to drop passengers at Mangofil. Arrange a time for the taxi driver to pick you up again to take you back to the ship via ferry. With the help of trained staff, guests at Mangofil can swing on ropes, climb on replicated "monkey bridges", and zip line through the rainforest! There are three levels of activity called "Mangokid" for children; "Big Mango" for adults; and "Mangokaid" with the most physical challenges. Mangofil entry costs about $24 per person. You can direct questions to: [email protected]

PUERTO RICO The main beach areas nearest 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. Go to the tourist office, La Casita -- located near the cruise pier -- for suggestions as to which part of these large beach areas to taxi to.

All cruise lines sell an excursion to El Yunque rainforest, with waterfalls, tropical plants and exotic bird life. At its visitor center, kids can learn how a rainforest flourishes.

Independently, you can walk through picturesque Old San Juan (or take a taxi) to El Morro, the huge fort built by the Spanish from 1540 to the 1700s. With its massive ramparts, barracks, drawbridge, and harbor views, the fort will make kids feel like swashbucklers from earlier days. Many locals bring kites to fly with their families on weekend afternoons on the expansive lawn in front of the fort.

Also in Old San Juan is the Children's Museum, with many hands-on exhibits for kids to explore.

If your ship just calls in San Juan for a night visit, check out the horse and carriage tours with your kids. My daughter enjoyed it as the horse clip-clopped through the dramatically lit Spanish-style government buildings in Old San Juan. We got the carriage ride by the tourist office.

ST. KITTS Only a few miles from the island's main town of Basseterre is Conaree Beach, with good swimming conditions despite being on the Atlantic Coast. Frigate Bay, not too far from town on the island's Caribbean Sea side, boasts fine, white sand.

St. Kitts is not hugely developed, so don't plan to spend much time independently in Basseterre. Instead, take a taxi to the beach or go on a cruise line shore excursion. The most popular attraction is Brimstone Hill Fortress, built in the late 1600s, and commanding a great view. The fort is one of the best preserved in the Caribbean. Another stop on most tours is Romney Gardens, with tropical foliage amid the ruins of a sugar estate. For older kids, the rain forest adventure hike starts at Romney Gardens, where sometimes you can spot monkeys in the wild.

ST. LUCIA My family and I had a wonderful time at the Rex St. Lucian hotel's beautiful beach. We paid a small fee to use lounge chairs and umbrellas, and also enjoyed water sports at the beach. There were a few low-key vendors selling crafts on the beach. The kids got a kick out of buying bananas right off the banana boat, which stops at the beach daily! If you want to stay closer to Castries, take a taxi to Vigie Beach or Reduit Beach on the island's western coast. That side of the island offers calm waters, while the Atlantic side can be rough for children.

St. Lucia boasts some lovely beaches, but if you opt for an excursion to Pigeon Island, you'll get two attractions for the price of one. First, you can hike up Fort Rodney in Rodney Bay for views of the Pitons (twin mountains on St. Lucia) and sometimes as far as Martinique. Additionally, you'll have time to swim in Pigeon Island's crystal waters. Another shore excursion that kids will find interesting is to the town of Soufriere, with its drive-in volcano, LaSoufriere. You can drive cars into the old crater and walk around there amidst the sulfur springs.

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