First time cruisers usually choose an Eastern Caribbean itinerary due to the close proximity to southern Florida, as well as the quantity of available cruises by many cruise lines to these popular destinations. Although the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos are in the Atlantic, they are lumped with the following Eastern Caribbean islands for cruise purposes: Hispaniola, encompassing the Dominican Republic and Haiti; Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John; St. Maarten; the British Virgin Islands of Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda; Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis. We have included links to previous posts regarding Grand Turk, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the British Virgin Islands and the new Amber Cove port (shown in photo above) near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic at the end of this blog post.
Island of Hispaniola – Dominican Republic/Haiti
The second largest island in the Caribbean was founded by Columbus and is home to two countries — Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Several ports in the Dominican Republic, the larger eastern portion of the island, that cruise lines visit include La Romana, Samana, and Puerto Plata. The D.R., as it’s known, stretches over two-thirds of the island and is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It also claims the West Indies’ highest mountain peak — rising some 10,415 feet from the Cibao Valley. Christopher Columbus founded the first permanent European settlement in the D.R. in 1493. Punta Cana is also in the eastern portion of the Dominican Republic where there are numerous all-inclusive resorts.
Port of La Romana (Casa de Campo)
La Romana ranks as the Dominican Republic’s youngest, smallest and most wealthy province. The 7,000-acre resort village of Casa de Campo, which is like a town itself, is located in La Romana and it’s the main draw for cruise passengers during a day in port. Most of the more interesting options (particularly golf, tennis, skeet-shooting and horseback-riding) are available only through ship excursions, and a limited range of activities exist for independent-minded visitors. In addition, some ships don’t even call on this port until mid-afternoon or later, which limits outdoor activities.
Catalina Island is a small land mass of 6 square miles off the shores of the Dominican Republic near La Romano, formed by coral stone and surrounded by one of the most diverse ecosystems in the Caribbean Sea. It is classified as a national monument with a protected environment and little development, making it a popular spot for diving, fishing and snorkeling. You can arrange tours to Catalina Island with private companies on La Romano.
Samana and Cayo Levantado
Samana, a port on the Dominican Republic’s northeastern peninsula, might not look like much at first, but it offers some pleasant surprises to those who venture beyond its shops and restaurants. Positioned near several fishing villages, the colorful town offers some amazing food that’s both fresh and authentic, as well as opportunities for ATV tours, horseback-riding, waterfall visits, beach breaks, and of course mingling with locals. There are few attractions, so an organized tour is the best way to experience this region. You also won’t want to miss local specialties like larimar jewelry, Kola Real soda and Dominican hot chocolate.
Trips to the nearby island of Cayo Levantado, visible from Samana and located about 10 minutes away by boat, are also available, but only through your cruise line’s excursion offerings. (Private tour operators are not allowed to transport cruise passengers to the island on days when ships are anchored.) Additionally, some ships call only on Cayo Levantado, half of which is a public beach that’s available only to cruisers on days when ships are in port, and the other half is a private resort.
View our post on the new Carnival Corp. private destination Amber Cove near Puerto Plata where the first Jurassic Park movie was filmed, located on the northern coast.
Punta Cana is an extremely popular all-inclusive destination on the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. There are numerous resorts frequented by the traveler who wants an authentic getaway destination in the Caribbean. Many cities in the US have charter and/or direct flights to these lifetime memories resorts, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Royal Caribbean has a privately owned destination in Haiti – for information on Labadee, please see our post Are You Visiting a Cruise Line Private Island or Destination?
Antigua & Barbuda
While the Caribbean is most well-known for sun and sand, there’s lots of history on offer as well. In Antigua, the historical highlights are Nelson’s Dockyard and Shirley Heights, both of which are remnants of the island’s British military past. Each can be visited as a separate excursion, oftentimes combined with a beach stop or lunch, and both are typically included in any full bus tour of the island.
Antiguans like to boast that they have 365 beaches — one for each day of the year. And while no one counts to ensure the accuracy of this catchy marketing claim, the squiggly shaped island indeed is full of beachy gems, each with its own unique appeal.
Part of the West Indies, Antigua was first occupied by the peaceful Arawak Indians around 200 B.C. They stayed until the arrival of the Caribs, an Amazonian tribe, whose name was derived from the Spanish word “caribal,” meaning “cannibal.” Then, the island was known as Wadadli until 1493 when Columbus, who never made landfall, sailed by and named the island in honor of Maria de la Antigua, a saint he worshipped in Seville.
The English arrived in 1632, establishing sugar plantations and bringing African slaves; slavery was fully abolished in 1838. Great Britain held the island until 1981, when Antigua (pronounced “An-tee-gah”) achieved independence.
The island was an important colonial base of the Royal Navy, with English Harbour in the southeast serving as its headquarters. The remains of the navy’s presence represent some of the most fascinating attractions — a walk around historic Nelson’s Dockyard and the grounds of Shirley Heights reveals remnants of a working Georgian-era harbor, old forts and officer’s quarters, as well as a multitude of crumbling sugar mills from the days when sugar plantations ruled the island. In more recent years, English Harbour has become the capital of international yachting and sailing, and those activities are responsible for a surge in population during the winter months. The season opens in December with the Antigua Yacht Show and ends in May with Antigua Sailing Week, one of the largest annual regattas in the Caribbean.
Since gaining independence, Antigua has all but abandoned its agricultural heritage in favor of a tourist economy. The island can hold its own in the duty-free shopping category, but the real highlights lie well beyond the capital and port town of St. John’s.
Antigua owns an average high temperature of a pleasant 81 degrees, but it’s a slightly less hospitable climate in the summer when the trade winds die down. Antiguans celebrate these slower summer months with the annual Carnival at the end of July and beginning of August. The island is susceptible to hurricanes and tropical storms, with a direct hurricane hitting about every seven years on average. The highest risk is in early September — so there’s little need to worry during peak cruising season. Bring your umbrella, though, because more than half of the days in November through February experience rainfall.
And if all those beaches aren’t enough, Antigua’s sister island, Barbuda, is accessible by ferry for day-trippers. The ferry drops you in the middle of 14 miles of unspoiled pink shell beaches — including one that used to be a favorite of Princess Diana; it’s now named in her honor.
St. Kitts and Nevis
For an escape from the crowds, cruisers can hop a ferry from St. Kitts to the less-traveled island of Nevis. While on the island you can opt to take a historical drive, lunch at a beachside restaurant, snorkel the Caribbean waters or, better yet, combine all three.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus was allegedly so smitten with this volcanic island that he named it after St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Since its discovery, St. Christopher (later shortened by British sailors to St. Kitts) has been fought over by the British and French who, tragically, made it a center of the West Indian slave trade. Pirates, including the notorious William Kidd who was marooned on Nevis after his crew mutinied, enjoyed lucrative careers in Basseterre Harbor.
St. Kitts and sister isle Nevis were part of the British Empire until 1967, earning semi-independent status when they were named associated states of Great Britain. In 1983, the 68-square-mile St. Kitts and Nevis became an independent, two-island nation with a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister. While British holdovers such as cricket and driving on the left side of the road remain, the Kittitians are extremely proud of their history and how far they’ve come on their own.
The island’s lush geography lends itself to eco-tourism, starting with the dense tropical rain forests that surround dormant volcano Mount Liamuiga. Colorful birds and butterflies, as well as the green vervet monkey, reside here.
Sugar cane, the staple of the economy since the 17th century, was St. Kitts’ main export until production stopped just a few years ago. However, wild sugar cane fields remain, particularly in the west, and offer a scenic ambiance that is more reminiscent of Hawaii than the Caribbean these days. While tourists have discovered St. Kitts (evidenced by the row of lively beach bars on South Frigate Bay, known as “The Strip”), the island is still relatively unspoiled and crowd-free, with a relaxed, authentic atmosphere.
The most popular excursions in St. Kitts include:
- Island Tour
- Scenic Railway
- Beach Break
- Catamaran Tour (to St. Nevis as well)
Located due east of Florida’s east coast, a very popular port of call on New Providence Island is Nassau. The large resort complex of Atlantis is on neighboring Paradise Island and has numerous activities to partake of with a day pass or optional excursion. Known for its beaches and coral reefs, the capital of the Bahamas retains its pastel-colored characteristic British colonial buildings including the Government House painted in pink. Watersports abound such as snorkeling, diving (including shark diving), sailing, and other water-related options such as the Submersive Underwater Bubble (SUB).
Another popular port is Freeport, the main city on Grand Bahama Island in the northwest area, with its oceanfront Lucaya district’s beaches, resorts, and shopping. Lucayan National Park features underwater caves, kayaking and nature trails. A popular place for snorkeling is Deadman’s Reef where our owner saw spotted rays, a lemon shark, turtles and the usual assortment of beautiful fish sprinkled among numerous types of coral.
In addition to Nassau & Freeport, most large cruise lines including Princess, Norwegian, Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America have their own private island destination in the Bahamas; for details on these individual ports, see our post entitled “Are You Visiting a Cruise Line Private Island or Destination?”.
San Juan and the US Virgin Islands
Please view our separate post on San Juan, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St Croix.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
See our post So You’re Going to St. Maarten!
Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos
Please view our post on Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
The British Virgin Islands
View our separate post on Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, and Virgin Gorda, home of the Baths, in the British Virgin Islands.
We at Getaway Dreams Come True Travel have a wealth of knowledge and can assist you in determining if the Eastern Caribbean islands are suited for your tastes. We are committed to crafting lifetime memories for you and yours; please call 724.752.2655 to schedule your Vacation Planning Session.
You may also wish to view our other posts on the Caribbean: