Then a brochure for P&O fell through our letterbox advertising Caribbean Cruises. The offer was, if you booked before a certain date, you would receive £200 on board credit, plus the cruises weren't as expensive as we thought – deal clincher for us then! AND we flew there and back to ensure we received the most amount of time in the Caribbean as possible – WINNER!!
We were super excited about visiting the Caribbean together for the first time and seeing some amazing countries, and this part of the world definitely did not disappoint!
We were on MV Ventura a “family friendly” mega-ship with 14 decks which can hold 3,078 passengers, whoa! The Titanic held 2,435 passengers – yes I know that’s a bad comparison, but on our first ever cruise, we couldn’t help but have irrational thoughts, especially when we were on the top deck at moonlight looking out over the vast open ocean; deep dark water as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful and quiet, so we pushed those silly thoughts aside and just enjoyed the silent-filled night with only the gentle noise of our floating resort gliding through the water.
For every Country we visited, we researched what there was to see and do. Cruise ships run excursions but generally they are more expensive than if you sourced a local company, and money from the excursion doesn’t always benefit the economy of the country you are visiting. Cruise ships dock, rarely buy local produce, dispose of waste but rarely give back to the community. We were mindful of this on our cruise and felt guilty for not contributing to less-than-wealthy Caribbean destinations, with this in mind, we used reviews on Trip Advisor to email companies and pre-book excursions in advance. During our research, we found that most local companies will often adjust tour routes so you aren’t following large numbers of tourists around from your own cruise ship, they will also pick you up and return you to the port in good time before your ship leaves.
There are many water based activities on the Dutch island of Bonaire and nature conservation is high on the island’s agenda. With 100% of the waters surrounding Bonaire and Klein Bonaire being a protected national park, this small country is known to be a hot spot for divers. Alternatively, you can take a catamaran snorkelling trip to Bonaire Marine Park or go kayaking at the Mangrove Eco Centre. For land lovers there are 4x4 or Harley Davidson adventures, you can go for a nature walk around the island to view the beautiful lakes or spot the pretty birds, or just stroll through the town enjoying the colourful buildings.
Aruba is a tiny Dutch Caribbean island nine miles off the coast of Venezuela which can be seen on a clear day. Along with Bonaire & Curacao, Aruba forms what are known as the “ABC islands”. The picturesque capital of Oranjestad is full of colonial pastel coloured Dutch architecture and a lovely place to stroll around if beaches aren’t your “thing”. Aruba has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world and locals speak fluent English, Dutch, Spanish as well as their native Creole.
If you are a beach lover, head to Eagle Beach or Palm Beach which are the best on the island rated in the top 10 in the world! With an average of about 15 inches of rain all year, you are almost guaranteed a sunny day when you visit. We knew this in advance so caught a taxi to Eagle Beach, a photographer’s (and beach lovers!) paradise. The picturesque native divi-divi (also known as fofoti) trees dotted around have been used in various advertising campaigns. It has powdery white soft sand, crystal clear waters and free cabanas to grab some shade if you need it. Its picture-postcard perfect in every way, a beach-lovers dream!
The most exciting destination for us was Jamaica and is a country I had longed to visit for many, many years. Our cruise ship docked at Ocho Rios in the north and we had pre-booked a “Nine Mile & Dunn’s River Falls Tour” with Jaital (this company no longer runs this tour but there are other companies who do). Dunn’s River Falls is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Ocho Rios and Nine Mile is the birthplace of the legendary Bob Marley. They really are the "Jewel of Jamaica", however if neither of these activities float your boat whilst you are in Ocho Rios, you can go rafting on the Martha Brae River, have a laugh whilst river tubing or, for the more adventurous, plunge 3,280 feet through the rainforest on a bobsled a-la “Cool Runnings” style!
The view of this island from our ship was beautiful and the best we had seen on the two week cruise. We docked directly opposite a stunning beach with powder white sand, lush green palm trees and crystal clear waters so inviting, we wanted to just jump right in. We went for a snorkel in waist-deep water and were met with a stunning array of colourful fish who didn’t mind us sharing their territory.
St Maarten/St Martin
We had heard that the best way to see St Maarten island was to hire a taxi and take a private tour, so a few of us waited by a taxi rank and booked one between us which obviously kept the cost down.
St Maarten is the smallest island in the world divided between two nations. The northern French half is known as St Martin and the southern Dutch half is St Maarten. The island has 37 beaches in its 34 square miles. We were taken to Maho Beach, infamous because the small airport runway almost meets the sand and is separated only by a narrow road and a flimsy fence. As we were on a whistle-stop tour of the island, we weren’t lucky enough to see a 747 fly over our heads but a small carrier plane did pass over. If you spend some time on this beach, then you should have the experience of being very close to the under-belly of a jumbo jet!
This is a very pretty island and it’s lovely to see the two different cultures so distinctively in a small location.
Antigua has always been a popular wedding/honeymoon destination so we knew the beaches would be special. This was the only port which had a steel band playing as we stepped off the ship – aaaaaaah, music to our ears! This was the sound of the Caribbean that we had been waiting for! For me, the sound of steel band is quintessentially Caribbean.
This island is dominated by rich, vibrant rainforest and relatively untouched by tourism, therefore it is a nature lovers paradise! If you are looking for a Caribbean island with scenic walks, waterfalls and more greenery than you can shake a stick at, this is the place for you!
We had pre-booked a “Roseau Valley Treasures” excursion with Bumpiing Tours prior to our visit based on the excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. We liked that they catered for people on cruise ships but they also time their visits around crowded excursions run by cruise operators. Our first stop was Morne Bruce, a lookout point where you can see the entire town – very impressive!
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t so great when we visited so we didn’t have an opportunity to see the famous Pitons, instead, we did something called Snuba!
Barbados is the Caribbean playground of the rich and famous, and the west coast is known as the “Platinum Coast”, one of the most expensive areas in the world to live. A “whose house belongs to which A-list celebrity” tour didn’t appeal to us ... instead, we had read about a turtle snorkel encounter so pre-booked a catamaran tour with “Ocean Mist Catamaran Tours” (sadly this brilliant company are no longer in operation).
However we were here for the snorkelling, not just the fantastic catamaran journey and snorkelling with the turtles was magnificent! We anchored in an area the captain thought they would be and just waited. The turtles soon swam by so when they were spotted, we just popped into the water and watched as they cruised around – but no touching and no trying to chase them!! I would thoroughly recommend this trip and it’s such a shame that Ocean Mist Catamaran Tours are no longer in operation.
The pros –If you are undecided as to which Country to visit, whether this be around the Caribbean or Mediterranean, cruising is a fantastic opportunity to see a lot of different islands in one holiday. It’s a perfect “taster” and if, like us, you find one you wish to return to, as least you have an idea of what to expect.
The cons – If, like us, what you love about a new Country is getting to know its people, culture and language, that is sadly missing. You only have an opportunity to spend a few hours in each place, so can only really pick a couple of things to do and, although an island tour is great, we felt we wanted more time at each stop to soak up the atmosphere.
One final say - If you love the idea of cruising and care about the environment, please read this fabulous post by Jenn from By Land and Sea “10 Ideas For More Sustainable Cruise Travel”
Things we would do differently with hindsight:
1. We wouldn’t use P&O – if felt as though the staff were more like teachers and there appeared to be a lot of “telling off” for the smallest of things that didn’t make us feel comfortable. We knew we were a captive audience, but we felt their Customer Service was lacking in favour of trying to sell to us all the time. We became friendly with people who were allocated the table next to us at dinner and they had used Royal Caribbean. They said there was a huge difference between the two companies and they would recommend Royal Caribbean, but they wouldn’t recommend P&O. I am not recommending you shouldn’t book with P&O, I am saying that they weren’t the cruise liner for us.
2. To get the cheapest deal we opted for an Inside cabin which meant no windows or natural light and if we were to go on another cruise, we would choose one with a balcony. I can’t think of anything nicer than having my morning coffee on a balcony watching us cruise into port.
3. We would pick a liner that wasn’t so big – we were on the Ventura which held over 3,000 people and although it was beautiful and impressive, there were just too many people for our liking. We don’t like being around crowds of people so to be surrounded by 3,000 with no means of escaping these crowds wasn’t comfortable for us.
4. We would pick a liner that was more suited to our age and not “one size fits all”. This was a family cruise liner and the entertainment didn’t always suit our taste and for two weeks with no where else to go at night other than stay on the ship, sometimes this meant the evenings dragged. Docked near to us at one Port was a German ship called Aida, they bikes and segways for hire when you disembarked, now that would suit us a lot more.
5. We would choose a non-UK based company, not because we have anything against the British (we are British!) but we like to go on holiday and escape “the every day” so to hear the British accent all around us couldn’t help us totally escape mentally. The beauty for us about travelling is meeting people from different nationalities around the pool or at dinner, I always say that you learn so much about other countries and cultures through travelling; not just from the place you are visiting, but from the people you meet travelling.
We never say “never again” and this type of holiday ticks many boxes and provides a luxury experience. For someone’s first cruise, our advice would be to read reviews about the ship and cruise company and experience they provide carefully and if it’s something you want to do – you should definitely do it!
We certainly do not regret our cruise, we will simply learn from this experience and do things better in the future!
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