Read an Excerpt
The World Of Caribbean Cruising
Once reserved almost exclusively for those with lots of money to spend on leisure time, cruising has become one of the most popular forms of travel. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that today's cruise ships offer good value for whatever level of luxury your budget will bear. Other things that attract people to cruising are the variety of things you can do on these floating resorts, the fact that it is a comprehensive all-in-one vacation, and the romanticism and luxury associated with the experience. The ability to see several different and often exotic places in a single vacation is also, no doubt, an important factor.
Some people have never taken a cruise because they believe the cost of such a trip would be too high for their budget. While it may seem high at first, you'll soon realize that, because your fare includes almost all of your expenses, a cruise vacation can be surprisingly affordable.
The Caribbean is, far and away, the most popular cruise destination in the world. During 2001, for example, just over one third of all cruise line passengers world-wide sailed in the Caribbean. This amounted to well over two million people--more than twice as many as the second most popular cruise destination, the Mediterranean. Precise figures on the breakdown of Caribbean markets aren't as reliable but there is little doubt that the eastern Caribbean has the single largest share. On the other hand, combined totals for the southern and western Caribbean almost equal that of the eastern section and exceed it if you include Puerto Rico and St. Thomas.
A Survey of the Southern& Western Caribbean
The Caribbean Sea is a sub-division of the Atlantic Ocean. The border between the sea and the ocean proper is formed by the Greater Antilles on the north and the Lesser Antilles on the east. The Bahamas, which lie to the northeast of the Greater Antilles, technically aren't part of the Caribbean. South America forms the southern edge of the Caribbean, while Central America and Mexico's Yucatán coast lie along the western edge. The Yucatán Channel between Mexico and the western end of Cuba is the dividing point between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. This body of water (along with the Straits of Florida that separate that state from Cuba) are not part of the Caribbean as far as geographers are concerned. For travelers, the distinction isn't of any great importance. The Caribbean has an east-to-west length of about 1,500 miles and varies in its north-to-south dimensions from 400 to about 900 miles. With an area of approximately 750,000 square miles, it is the second largest of all seas, exceeded only by the South China Sea. However, it is only a scant 2,000 square miles larger than the third place Mediterranean. With an average depth over 8,400 feet, the Caribbean is the deepest of the world's major seas. The name of the sea comes from the Carib tribe that lived here at the time of the European discoveries.
Since this book covers only a portion of the Caribbean, our next order of business must be to define what is meant by the "Southern and Western Caribbean" regions. Cruise lines themselves often classify specific itineraries as being eastern, western or southern Caribbean, but different cruise lines can also define them differently. Historically, the most common classification of the Caribbean islands is as either the Greater or Lesser Antilles, with everything to the east of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands being in the Lesser Antilles. Generally, the Lesser Antilles, along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, is considered to be the eastern Caribbean. This includes St. Martin, Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, Barbados, and Grenada, all of which are well described in Hunter Publishing's Cruising the Caribbean: The Eastern Ports of Call. However, both San Juan and St. Thomas xxx in the Virgins Islands xxx are also included in the book you are reading because these ports are often part of itineraries traveling to both the western and southern portions of the Caribbean.
Therefore, doing a little addition by subtraction, the following (besides Puerto Rico and St. Thomas) are covered in this book:
Southern Caribbean: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (collectively known as the ABC Islands), and Trinidad & Tobago. A growing number of South American ports are also visited on southern Caribbean cruises, among them Cartagena in Colombia and Venezuela's Margarita Island.
Western Caribbean: The Bahamas, the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. This region also includes Key West and ports on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and Central America.
The Islands & Their People
While much of the Caribbean shares common threads in their historical development and their people, the same cannot be said for the fringes of the Caribbean region--notably Mexico and Central America. Given the overall scope of this book, our discussion in this section must be limited to the islands.
The original inhabitants of the Caribbean were the peaceful Arawaks. They are thought to have arrived about 2,000 years ago from South America. Although they were separated into distinct tribes, all shared a common language. They achieved a fairly high level of cultural development but were essentially wiped out sometime after 1,200 AD, when the more aggressive Carib tribes arrived, also from South America. Their artistic skills were not as high as the Arawaks, but they were accomplished hunters and fighters. The latter skill was to make them a thorn in the side of the Europeans for some time.
Christopher Columbus discovered a large number of the Caribbean islands on his four voyages to the area under the flag of Spain. However, the Spaniards were more interested in searching for gold and concentrated their efforts in Mexico, South America, and what was eventually to become the southern part of the United States. Except for a small Spanish settlement on Trinidad, it wasn't until the 1620s that the Caribbean's first permanent European settlement was established. This was the colony of St. Kitts. It wasn't long before the second-arriving English were followed by the French and the Dutch. Colonial rivalry was intense and these powers were, more often than not, at war with one another. This wasn't always because of the importance of the colonies. Rather, many of the wars that were fought over a period of more than two centuries were extensions of conflicts in Europe itself, just as the colonial wars of North America often were. Ownership of the islands changed hands frequently. This is one reason why many of the islands to this day display such mixed cultures.
At first most of the colonial agriculture in the Caribbean was devoted to tobacco and other crops that were not labor-intensive. That all changed with the success of sugarcane, which soon became the most profitable agricultural crop. Large plantations were developed, but the number of native Caribs who were available to work the plantations wasn't sufficient. Never that numerous to begin with, harsh European colonial policy, especially by the Spaniards, had reduced their numbers even further. The solution was the importation of slaves from Africa. By around 1700, there were more Africans in the Caribbean than their white masters. When the slave trade finally ended in the 19th century, more than two million blacks had been imported, an amount more than five times as great as were brought into the United States.
The reduction in profitability of sugarcane resulting from the abolition of slavery caused widespread economic problems throughout the Caribbean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was one of the major factors behind the increasing and often violent opposition to colonial rule. The more liberal British colonial administration led the way in promoting at least some form of home rule. Over a period of about 40 years (beginning in the 1930s) the majority of Caribbean islands earned their independence. A few are still colonies and some (mainly the French and Dutch islands) are technically incorporated into their European homelands. The Dutch islands have much greater local autonomy than their French counterparts. Today, the degree of economic prosperity varies widely from one island to another. However, tourism is a major player in just about every island's economy.
The people of the Caribbean islands are unique culturally. Although the overwhelming majority of people are descendants of the African slaves, their culture is a combination. Certain islands have a distinct British cultural side while others are more French or Dutch. A significant number of Asians (especially from the subcontinent) are also part of the mix. Moreover, the inhabitants have added their own cultural elements that go back to the days when they were oppressed by colonial masters. This is reflected in both religion and language. Although most islanders are either Protestant or Catholic, elements of tribal religious practices have been incorporated into these religions and exist to varying degrees. Rastafarians are, for example, an African-Christian group that are most numerous on Jamaica but exist throughout the Caribbean. When it comes to language, the "official" language is almost always that of the island's former colonial heritage--that is, English, French or Dutch. However, a local dialect called Creole (or patois) is common, especially in those islands whose heritage includes more than one colonial master. English is widely spoken throughout the southern and western Caribbean islands even in those locations where the official language may be something else. However, the melodic manner of speaking and the liberal use of locally developed words and expressions gives the English a unique sound and one that is often delightful to the ear (except when you're trying to concentrate on getting directions correctly).
The Way to See the Caribbean
Except for a handful of people who are well heeled enough to have their own boat, there are only a few ways of traveling through the islands. The first option is to charter a boat. You and your family can be captain and crew if you have the necessary navigational experience. If not, the charter company will provide a crew for you. If you're imagining that this is a costly way to see the Caribbean, you are absolutely correct. For most people, therefore, it is not a viable way to go. If, on the other hand, this does interest you, most travel agents can put you in touch with brokers who arrange both on-your-own rentals and and charter rentals with crew. The second method is to travel by air. There is an extensive system of air services between the various islands as well as reasonably convenient connections to most American cities. However, this can become a very expensive proposition and you often waste a lot of time getting to and from the airports and waiting for flights. Don't forget that cruise ships do much of their traveling overnight while you are sleeping. It is alright to fly if you are going to be setting yourself down in one place for several days or are only going to be visiting one or two ports. But air-hopping between islands can become rather tiresome if you plan on seeing three or four islands, which is what most cruises will do.
Although there are regularly scheduled ferry services connecting a number of Caribbean islands, this is not a practical method in most cases. It is somewhat easier to do this in the eastern portion of the Caribbean where the islands are often closer to one another and more services are available. But, even there, frequent services are the exception rather than the rule, so figuring out a workable itinerary can become a problem. Ferries become fewer as the islands spread out more heading westward and southward.
So cruising becomes the method of choice. But we should still take a close look at both the advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Cruising
A cruise is essentially a complete package vacation, with an allowance for you to do your own thing at ports of call, as well as before and after the cruise. It's great if you don't like to plan all the details of a comprehensive vacation. Although the Caribbean travel scene is dominated by American visitors, many of the islands do have a distinctively foreign flavor. This will make many potential travelers more comfortable with the idea of a cruise vacation where strange language and food aren't a problem. Of course, you will encounter some of these things in port but you can avoid most of it by taking guided excursions offered by the cruise line. A cruise allows you to combine different types of vacation experiences in one trip. For those who like to be on the go, there is plenty to see and do in the ports, while the traveler who seeks rest and relaxation will find plenty of that on board ship.
Cruise line advertising always boasts that they actually save you money over a land-based vacation because you don't have additional costs for hotels, food, and so on. This is only partially true. If you like to stay at very expensive hotels and dine in the finest restaurants, then you may consider a cruise an absolute bargain. But although there are a variety of cruise price categories, there aren't any truly "budget" cruises among the main lines.
Disadvantages of Cruising
A week-long cruise generally covers about four ports of call. Even though most sailing is done overnight, cruising is a slow way to travel and if you want to be on land every day the only way to do so in the Caribbean would be to island-hop by air. The biggest potential problem in cruising is the amount of time allowed on shore. Cruise liners generally stay between six and 12 hours at most ports of call. When you subtract time for getting on and off ship, lunch and other matters, you will almost always find yourself with less than eight hours of time to see the sights, shop or do whatever appeals to you in port. The good news is that most of the islands and their port cities are quite small, so this is far less of a problem in the Caribbean than it is, for example, in Europe, where a single day in many of its great port cities can only touch the surface.
The biggest potential drawback of a cruise is for the independent-minded traveler who likes to plan all the details of a trip. Obviously, you have a degree of flexibility in port but you don't have all that much choice when it comes to the itinerary. So, be prepared to sacrifice something since you don't have the choice of telling the captain where you want to stop each day!
The Cruise Lines & Ships
Types of Cruises
The majority of Caribbean cruises share many common attributes and even common ports of call but the available variety may come as a big surprise to a lot of people. Caribbean cruises are most frequently one week long (eight days and seven nights, although the eighth day you get off the ship early in the morning in order to allow time to return home). They often begin and end on either Saturday or Sunday, but this is not always the case. If a week is too long for you, it is quite easy to find Caribbean cruises that are as short as two nights. At the other end, you will find cruises as long as 10 nights. Two-week Caribbean cruises are more rare, but they are out there if you hunt hard enough. Those who wish to cruise for two weeks can sometimes do so by taking "back to back" cruises. This is an option on those cruise ships that alternate itineraries from one week to the next. In such cases, you can remain on board when the ship returns to its port and then take the second week cruise. This is far better than having to change ships in order to extend your cruise experience.
The major other distinction is where the ships go. The Caribbean is large enough, both geographically and as a cruising market, to allow segmentation by region. The eastern, western and southern regions of the Caribbean are the usual designations, although not every cruise line includes the same islands in these regions. Cruises of less than four nights always depart from southern Florida and visit the Bahamas. Week-long cruises can have any number of embarkation points.
Cruise Lines Serving the Southern & Western Caribbean
W hile the majority of the major cruise lines have extensive Caribbean itineraries to choose from, don't assume that they will always have something to suit your interests. The following list of cruise lines serving the Caribbean will give a brief rundown of their service in this region as well as a short summary of what can be expected from each line.
This isn't meant to be a derogatory term in any way. It simply means that these are the cruise lines that appeal to the broadest section of the traveling public. They generally have the most ships in service on Caribbean routes and also feature the newest and often largest of today's ships. The cruise line profiles that follow are meant only to introduce you to the main choices and to categorize their styles. Further details about exactly what that means will be found when you get to the individual ship descriptions that follow in The Ships section, page **.
Carnival Cruise Line, (800) 327-9501, www.carnival.com. The world's largest cruise line now has a fleet of 20 self-proclaimed "fun" ships and 18 of them are on various Caribbean routes either all or part of the year, covering a wide spectrum of ports in all regions. They are at the top of the list in terms of ships serving the Caribbean. Carnival also has more US embarkation ports than any other line. They have been introducing new ships into their fleet with amazing frequency (more are under construction and in the planning as you read this) and even their older ships aren't particularly old. In addition, almost all of their ships are quite large, with most being in the mega-liner category. Carnival provides a very competent cruise experience at a competitive price and strives for a mostly informal and fun atmosphere. It is good for both couples and families.They target the average person for its cruises.
Celebrity Cruises, (800) 437-3111, www.celebritycruises.com. With a total fleet of nine ships, eight of which are serving the Caribbean market for at least part of the year (the ninth does briefly make it into the Caribbean on trans-Panama Canal cruises), Celebrity is one of several lines that plays a transitional role between the Carnival/Princess type ships and the more sophisticated luxury lines. You can expect to pay somewhat more for that slight upgrade, which may or may not be worth it to you. Celebrity's ships are both modern and beautiful. They are generally large, but not as big as most ships in service on many of the other mass-market lines. Celebrity will be found in just about all of the Caribbean's major ports, so finding a suitable itinerary shouldn't present any problem.
Costa Cruises, (800) 462-6782, www.costacruises.com. This Italian line is better known in Europe but it has two of the finest ships in its large fleet in the Caribbean during the winter sailing season. "Cruising Italian Style" is their motto and Costa does a good job in providing a mostly casual and highly entertaining cruise experience. Because they are a smaller player in the Caribbean they compete by offering very attractive fares. The level of amenities, service and cuisine is on a par with the better-known American lines. Because they have fewer ships in Caribbean service they obviously have fewer itineraries from which to choose.
Crystal Cruises, (800) 446-6620, www.crystalcruises.com. This line comes as close as possible to the luxury yacht class without quite crossing over the border. Their three gorgeous ships are among the smaller vessels serving the major lines in the Caribbean. However, both in size and in style, they are more like mass-market ships than, for instance, the luxury yachts of Seabourn. For that reason, I have included them in this group. You will definitely find that the prices are much higher than the other mass-market cruise lines. But, for your extra dollars, you will get a considerably higher level of luxury and service. Crystal clearly caters more to upscale couples, so families are probably better off looking elsewhere for their cruise. Itineraries are somewhat limited because of the relative size of their fleet. In addition, none of their ships remains in the Caribbean for the entire year.
Disney Cruise Line, (800) 951-3532, www.disneycruise.com. Probably "the" cruise line for families traveling with small children. Disney's two ships have recently introduced a western Caribbean itinerary to go with their other cruises out of Port Canaveral. But with only two ships and a lot of time devoted to nearby destinations from central Florida, their itinerary choice for southern and western ports is the most limited of the mass-market lines. The emphasis at Disney is on a mostly casual and fun-filled cruise with plenty of activities for all ages. Their ships are both modern and very much in line with contemporary mainstream cruise ships. Their success has resulted in a price scale that is not cheap. Yet, they do have at least some prices that are among the lowest of any major cruise line.
Holland America, (800) 426-0327, www.hollandamerica.com. The most traditional of the major players in the Caribbean market, HAL's fleet has, with the introduction of several new ships, grown to a total of a dozen vessels. They are currently featuring nine of these on a wide variety of itineraries throughout the entire Caribbean. Most of their ships can be considered as mid-size in today's world of cruising. A passenger count of about 1,500 people is their norm, considerably less than the 2,000-plus average in most new ships, but much larger than the thousand-person count found, for instance, on Crystal. The style of their ships and the nature of the service, as well as the overall cruise experience, is somewhat more formal than many of the mass-market lines and is more in keeping with what cruising was like 20 or 30 years ago. For some people that is exactly what makes Holland America such an attractive choice. HAL's fare structure is only a little higher than average.
Norwegian Cruise Line, (800) 327-7030, www.ncl.com. NCL has introduced several new ships in recent years and, although it isn't one of the five largest cruise lines world-wide, it does rank up with the biggies when it comes to offering a huge range of Caribbean destinations. With the introduction of their ninth ship in late 2002, Norwegian currently has seven different vessels serving the Caribbean during at least part of the year (although two of them have very limited Caribbean departure dates and itineraries). Norwegian has an undeniable popularity among the cruise public because it provides a fine cruise experience on lovely ships at a reasonable price. Although only a couple of their vessels are true mega-class vessels, NCL's attractive "Freestyle Cruising" program has a greater degree of flexibility in dining and dress than any other major cruise line. Their prices are generally at the lower end of the scale.
Princess Cruises, (800) 774-6237, www.princesscruises.com. It is a little surprising that, given the size of the Caribbean market, only five of Princess' large 15-ship (and still growing) fleet are slated for these runs during the 2003-2004 season. However, with some switches and additions, this figure is predicted to rise to six ships within a few years. The original "Love Boat" is no longer in service but Princess, which in many ways is responsible for today's great cruise popularity, continues to be an innovator in terms of flexibility regarding such things as on-board dining and facilities. Their sleek and modern ships are all beautiful and the majority are definitely in the mega-liner category. Although Princess developed its following through its romantic appeal to couples, today's line is just as family-oriented as the other true mass-market lines. Pricing is competitive with the rest of this class, although it tends to be somewhat higher than Carnival, for instance. The choice of itineraries and ports is fairly varied but not as extensive as lines offering more ships to choose from.
Royal Caribbean International, (800) 327-6700, www.royalcaribbean.com. There is no denying that Royal Caribbean is, along with Carnival, the giant of Caribbean cruising. Right now they have a 17-ship fleet, with two more coming in 2004. Only one of their ships doesn't spend at least some time in the Caribbean. Thus, you will find an amazing variety of itineraries throughout the Caribbean region. Only Carnival has more ships both overall and in the Caribbean--and then only by the slimmest of margins. They have a growing number of Voyager class vessels, with capacities in excess of 3,000 passengers. These are the biggest cruise ships in the world and are likely to remain so for at least a few years. Royal Caribbean offers a fine and mostly casual cruise experience at a price in the normal range of most mass-market lines. While not quite reaching the sophistication level of Celebrity, there is no reason why the typical cruise traveler should have anything less than an outstanding experience on Royal Caribbean, definitely one of the most experienced and respected names in the cruise business.
Royal Olympia, (800) 872-6400, www.royalolympiacruises.com. Concentrating mostly on the Yucatán coast of Mexico rather than the Caribbean islands, this Greek cruise line has its two newest and nicest ships on these routes. The ships are among the smallest of the mass-market cruise lines but have the style and most of the amenities of the newer and larger ships. Their prices are somewhat higher than many of the larger lines but that has to be expected on smaller ships where economies of scale aren't available to the operator. The cruise experience is on the casual side but is geared more toward couples than families.
Luxury Yacht Lines
There are several luxury lines that offer cruises on smaller vessels. These can range in size from as few as 150 passengers to a high of around 650. But even the largest of this group of ships provide a level of service and luxury that is well above the mainstream cruise operators. Because of the more limited appeal of these very expensive lines, the individual ship details will not be included for this group. The ships of these lines tend to have different itineraries throughout the season, thereby providing travelers with a choice that is greater than one would expect from their generally smaller fleets.
Radisson Seven Seas, (800) 285-1835, www.rssc.com.
Seabourn Cruise Line, (800) 929-9391, www.seabourn.com.
Silversea, (800) 722-9955, silversea.com.
Another more expensive alternative to regular cruising is to see the Caribbean on a sailing ship. These luxury or near-luxury cruises offer romanticism and a bit of the past. Some of the ships have motorized back-up while others are true sailing ships like the tall ships of a bygone era. Passenger counts range from about 100 to 200 in most cases. Sailing ships are, of course, not as fast as motorized vessels so some of these cruises may visit fewer ports. This is especially true in the southern and western regions of the Caribbean where the ports aren't as close as in the Antilles island group. As a result, the available selection of cruises is more limited. Again, ship details for this group are not included here.
Star Clippers, (800) 442-0551, www.starclippers.com.
Windstar, (800) 258-7245, www.windstarcruises.com.
Windjammer, (800) 327-2601, www.windjammer.com.
The "small" ship cruise experience is provided by a number of operators. These vessels usually carry fewer than 150 people and, although attractive, they have few facilities. They are more for the person who seeks an in-depth shore experience rather than a true luxury cruise. The small ship concept, which began in earnest in Alaska, has now spread to many parts of the world. Once again, however, the majority of these cruises ply the eastern Caribbean. Two popular operators who do offer southern and western itineraries are:
American Canadian Caribbean Cruise Line, (800) 556-7450, www.accl-smallships.com.
xxx Clipper Cruise Line, (800) 325-0010, xxx www.clippercruise.com. xxx
Another option in the small-ship category is to travel on a private yacht. People with sufficient sailing experience can rent the vessel and be their own captain and crew. Non-sailors can also rent a crew along with the boat. Either way, this is a very expensive way to travel and is not practical for the vast majority of travelers.
Some Other Cruising Options
The numerous cruise lines discussed to this point are not the only ones with Caribbean itineraries, although they certainly do represent those with the greatest choice. However, here are a few more alternatives that you may wish to consider.
Cunard, (800) 728-6273, www.cunard.com. The grand-daddy of all cruise lines, Cunard has only limited itineraries to the Caribbean for a part of the year. They are a more expensive operator and cater to the well-heeled traveler who prefers traditional-style cruising. The long awaited debut of their new flagship, the Queen Mary II, which is slated to enter service in late 2003, will be the largest ship in the world. It has been designed mainly for ocean cruising so its Caribbean service will be rather limited, as with other Cunard vessels.
First European, (888) 983-8767, www.first-european.com. Known as Festival Cruises in Europe, this Italian company has a small number of southern and western Caribbean itineraries during the winter season using mostly their newest and best ships. These are referred to as their "Premium" class vessels and are on a par with ships from the mass-market lines. It's unlikely that non-Premium ships will ever be used in the Caribbean but, if they are, I suggest avoiding them.
Fred. Olsen, (800) 843-0602, www.fredolsencruises.co.uk. A British company with Norwegian heritage, Fred. Olsen operates several smaller and more traditional-style vessels. Their Caribbean itineraries tend to be longer than a week and visit many unusual ports, some of which are unique to this line. The cost definitely isn't low. Unfortunately, most of their ships are showing their age.
MSC Italian Cruises (MSC), (800) 666-9333, www.msccruisesusa. xxx [run-in] com. An Italian company formerly called Mediterranean Shipping Cruises (thus, MSC), they are best known in Europe for their older and smaller ships. MSC does have a decent selection of cruises that get as close to "budget" as any ships, for those who don't necessarily desire a luxury experience or require the facilities of the larger ships. MSC, in trying to keep up with the Joneses, now has several new ships under construction. These will be introduced over several years beginning in late 2003.
Regal Cruise Line, (800) 270-7245, www.regalcruises.com. Their one ship, the Regal Empress, is a somewhat older but nice mid-size vessel that offers a variety of Caribbean itineraries at reasonable prices. It's a throwback to the more traditional era of cruising and that will appeal to some.
Sun Cruises, xxx www.simplon.co.uk/airtours.html. xxx With affordable cruises on a pleasant mid-sized ship named Sunbird (embarkation and disembarkation at Aruba), this British tour operator offers an option that the budget traveler might wish to consider. Information and reservations are available through Vacation Express, (800) 309-4717.
Finally, for those with time and budget constraints, there are a number of ship operators offering overnight cruises from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Freeport or Nassau in the Bahamas. Some people extend these into longer vacations by staying overnight in the islands. Various package deals offered by the ship line can also be used to turn a five-hour cruise into a longer vacation.
Setting Priorities: Selecting Your Dream Cruise
The Caribbean is the number one destination for cruising in the world. As you would thus expect, there are more cruise lines and cruise ships serving all of the Caribbean than anywhere else. That means itineraries almost too numerous to count. So, how does one go about selecting the best cruise? "Best" means different things to different people. It all depends on what is most important to you. Let's take a look at the three main factors that will determine the right cruise for you.
The Cruise Line
Each line has a cruise style or personality that is reflected in all of the ships of that line. Do you want a sophisticated luxury experience or a more fun-oriented cruise? Do you like refined elegance in the ship's public areas or is glitz more your style? Is this a romantic getaway for two or a family affair? These and many other questions can help narrow down which cruise lines are in the running for your dollars. And, to a large degree, your available budget will also help determine what line or lines to consider. Obviously, Silversea is a lot more expensive than Carnival, for example. You have to judge how much certain features of a cruise line (and the ship) are worth to you.
Many of the features of the ships are determined by the line that owns them. However, even within specific cruise lines, there can be great variation in age, size, facilities and even style. Again, you must ask yourself what is important to you.
The Ports of Call
Very simply, which ports do you most want to visit? Look for an itinerary that hits more of the places you want to see than other itineraries. Evaluate the time spent in ports for their sufficiency in allowing you to cover the points of interest and activities that you want to accomplish. Also evaluate the amount of port time vs. time spent at sea. If you like port-intensive itineraries as opposed to spending leisurely days on the great blue sea, then pick an itinerary that has ports closer together and spends less time getting from one to another.
Wrapping it all up and weighing the relative merits of these three factors isn't always easy. Keep in mind that Caribbean cruising is different than cruising to, for example, Alaska. There, the cruise is often the thing because you can't get to many of the important places of interest except by ship. Poorer weather conditions also means the ship is less of a floating resort. In the Mediterranean, as another example, some of the great cities of Europe are the draw in addition to the cruise. While the islands and ports of the Caribbean have their own unique charms and are worth seeing, a Caribbean cruise is just that--a cruising experience. Therefore, when choosing a Caribbean cruise, the ship itself is more important and the ports less so, as compared to Alaska or the Mediterranean.
There are many sources for general information on the cruise lines and on cruising itself. The cruise line brochures are a necessary piece of literature before you make any decision, but always keep in mind that these are, first and foremost, marketing tools for the cruise lines. As a result, they're far from objective. Many web sites about cruise ships exist, although here, too, many are travel agencies looking for business or feature only certain cruise lines. As a result, they often find it difficult to be critical. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is an industry organization composed of most of the major cruise lines. Their web site, www.cruising.org, also paints the experience in a purely positive light, as you might expect. However, a wealth of information, statistical and otherwise, can be found there. You can also call CLIA at (212) 921-0066.
Watch Out For Those Glossy Brochures!
The brochures published by each cruise line contain lots of useful information. However, these slick marketing tools can also contain a lot of "stretching the truth," if not outright lies. Others stress features that are largely irrelevant. That shouldn't surprise anyone experienced with the techniques of Madison Avenue. I'm not pointing fingers at any one cruise line since all are guilty. So, without mentioning any names, here are a few of my favorite examples of the nonsense often found in the brochures:
+ "...the youngest fleet in the Caribbean." With the way new ships keep coming on line, almost all the major lines have the youngest fleet.
+ "...over 500 staterooms with private balcony." What difference does it make to you how many rooms have balconies? If you want a balcony and you get the one room that has it, do you really care who else has the same thing?
+ "Our staterooms are more than 25% larger than other cruise lines." Or 50%. How about 100%? I have no idea where they get these statistics.
+ "...big ship with an intimate feel." Sure, especially when 2,500 people are all trying to get off at the same time. Big ships are big. Period. Here's a surprise that the cruise lines may not realize--lot's of people like big ships because of all their features!
+ "Our guests have more fun than anyone!" If that were true than every line would copy this formula and there would be no variation. Different people like different things.
Don't get me wrong--I absolutely love cruising. And all the major lines each have their own variations on a fine product. But it's still a good idea to read those brochures with a hefty degree of skepticism.
Ship descriptions will be organized by cruise line. Each line's listing will begin with information on the nationality of their ship's officers (that is, the uniformed "bridge" personnel) and then the rest of the crew. As there has been a trend toward mixed nationalities in recent years, ships having such a crew will be designated by the term international. The country or countries where the line registers their ships will also be shown. While I don't personally consider the registry to be of any great importance, many cruise travelers seem to want this item of information. The introduction for each line will conclude with a description of features common to all ships in their fleet. It will also give you some insight into the style of the cruise by providing information on such things as the dining experience, the service, and so forth. This last part will be omitted for Disney Cruise Line and Royal xxx Olympia xxx Cruise Line because each of these has only two sister-ships in Caribbean service. Thus, the ship descriptions themselves will provide cruise-style information.
Then, for each ship (or class of ships) there will be statistics, followed by a narrative ship description. Most of the statistics are self-explanatory; however, a few items do require clarification.
Year Built refers to the year that the ship was first placed in service. A second date in brackets will indicate the year of the most recent major refurbishment. However, this will only be shown if the ship was originally placed into service prior to 1995 since any refurbishment on newer ships were either minor in nature or, most likely, not necessary in the first place!
Beam is a nautical term that simply means the maximum width of the ship.
Passengers is the number of guests the ship can carry, based on double-occupancy. Since many ships have at least some staterooms that can accommodate a third or fourth person, the actual capacity is usually higher and you may see larger capacities shown for any given ship in other sources that you might come across. However, the cruise lines themselves usually list the number of passengers on a double-occupancy basis.
Stateroom Size is the range of sizes (from smallest to largest) in square feet of all accommodations, including suites. Keep in mind that, even on ships with the largest regular staterooms, ship rooms are much smaller than hotel or motel rooms. While land-based accommodations are rarely less than 300 square feet (and 500+ is the norm in better accommodations), a ship is said to have good-sized staterooms if they measure about 160 square feet or more. Non-suite staterooms on any ship rarely exceed 225 square feet, except on some of the high-luxury ships.
Choosing the class of stateroom is not only the single most important price determinant for your cruise, but it is also an essential factor in how much you will enjoy the cruise. If the room isn't to your liking, you are not going to have as good a time, even though you will not find yourself in your room for much more than sleeping. The two key factors to consider when selecting a room are size and location. The bigger the room, the higher the price, with the top category, of course, being a suite. You'll need to determine if the extra space is worth the cost. Keep in mind that even in the non-suite category the best regular stateroom will be two or more times as expensive as the lowest priced cabin. Cruise ships don't offer hotel-sized rooms. Be sure you know what size room you are looking for and avoid disappointment. There will be more about costs in the section of the book titled A Practical Guide to Your Cruise, page **.
Today's larger cruise vessels and almost all of the smaller cruise ships have the greatest number of rooms located on the outside, which means you wake up to beautiful scenery passing by your window or balcony each morning. However, if you're not squeamish about sleeping in a windowless room, an inside stateroom can save a great deal of money and will probably do just as well from a comfort standpoint. Inside rooms aren't always smaller, contrary to what a lot of people believe. In fact, many of the contemporary ships have inside rooms that are the exactly the same size as outside staterooms (less the balcony, if any). The typical design in use today has a much smaller range of room sizes than on older ships. This, of course, doesn't apply to suites, which begin at sizes only a little larger than regular staterooms (especially if referred to as mini-suites), but can be as large as a house in some cases. Most new ships no longer have portholes but, rather, large picture or even floor-to-ceiling windows. A few rooms in the extreme fore or aft sections of the ship may still feature port holes.
The middle section of any ship gives, in theory, the smoothest ride. However, in reality, a rough passage is rarely a problem unless you're unfortunate enough to encounter a major storm or unusually heavy seas. Rooms on the higher decks also offer more stability and are, therefore, more expensive. However, on the huge ships that are so common in the Caribbean, the difference in the "ride" from one room to another isn't all that great.
The "Passenger/Crew Ratio" isn't shown, but all you have to do is divide the number of passengers by the crew size to come up with a figure. For instance, if a ship has 2,400 passengers and a crew of 1,000, then its passenger/crew ratio is 2.4:1. Most of today's larger ships will fall in a narrow range between 2.4:1 and 2.8:1. You won't notice any difference in the level of service based on numbers like that. Ratios of 2:1 or lower are generally seen only in smaller luxury vessels. Of the ships described in this book, your only encounter with that kind of ratio will be on Crystal Cruises.
I haven't included two other commonly listed statistics because their importance is dubious at best. These are the ship's speed, and space ratio. The speed, which is always measured in knots, doesn't vary all that much from one cruise ship to the next and, again, means little since itineraries already have factored the speed into account when showing arrival times in each port. Finally, "space ratio" is a measure of available square footage per passenger. Despite seeing this figure with increasing frequency, I have not found that it is a reliable way of predicting whether or not a ship will feel crowded. The ship's design and layout are far more important and that can't be quantified.
Meal arrangements and the style of cruise (i.e., the degree of formality) are also important considerations in choosing a ship. The individual ship descriptions will give you some feel for this, but also refer to the Dining and Dress discussions in the A Practical Guide to Your Cruise chapter, page **.
Not every ship is in the Caribbean all of the time. And, even when in Caribbean service, many ships change itineraries from one part of the season to another. So, you should be aware that the ship you first select as your dream vessel may not have a western or southern Caribbean itinerary when you are ready for your vacation.
Carnival Cruise Line
Officers: Mostly Italian but some have international backgrounds
Ships' Registry: Bahamas or Panama
The entire Carnival fleet features a striking all-white exterior, except for the mostly red-and-blue Carnival logo and their distinctive funnel--which is shaped more like the tail of a jet liner. Although this last xxx little feature xxx may seem relatively unimportant, it definitely adds a graceful flair to all of their ships. When it comes to cruise style, you can count on Carnival ships providing certain features. For instance, the main showroom always puts an emphasis on rather lavish Vegas-style entertainment. Activities are geared toward the fun side as opposed to cultural enrichment. All Carnival vessels offer a wide variety of dining choices. They are known for good food, but it won't break any new culinary ground. The style is mostly casual and the service is friendly and efficient, but certainly not at a "white glove" level. The Carnival experience is equally good for couples and families with children. Carnival is definitely an innovator in the world of cruising. They can be said to have introduced the mega-ship category into contemporary cruising. They also offer a great deal of flexibility regarding embarkation ports, dining and activities.
ELATION, FANTASY, FASCINATION, IMAGINATION,
INSPIRATION, PARADISE & SENSATION
Year Built: See below Passengers: 2,052 Length: 855 feet Passenger Decks: 10 Beam: 105 feet Crew Size: 920 Gross Tonnage: 70,367 Staterooms Size: 173-410 square feet
The year that each of these ships was placed into service is as follows: Elation--1998; Fantasy--1990 ; Fascination--1994 ; Imagination--1995; Inspiration--1996; Paradise--1998; Sensation--1993 .
These seven sister ships represent Carnival's initial entry into what can be termed the "mega" ship category. The only differences in the ships of this class are the names given to public areas and their theme and color scheme. For example, the bar space called Cleopatra's on Fantasy is occupied by Rhapsody in Blue on Inspiration.
The ships have a fairly easy-to-navigate layout of public rooms which begins four decks above the lowest deck with cabins. An attractive and often glitzy central atrium rises five stories and provides a focal point for public rooms. There are two separate dining rooms separated from one another by the galley. This arrangement means each room is somewhat more intimate than if they had been combined into a single room. Many experienced cruisers prefer the less crowded feeling associated with a smaller dining area.
The dining room at the stern end can be the most confusing part of the ship to get to since you have to use the stern elevators or stairs to get to it--no access is available from the front section of the deck it's on. There's a very attractive two-level main theater.
All of these ships have many colorful and comfortable bars and lounges as well as all of the usual facilities one would expect on a large ship. The sports deck has excellent gym and other health facilities and a jogging track is available at the top of the ship.
Accommodations on Fantasy-class vessels are spacious (a strong point of virtually all Carnival ships). There is a certain sameness to the rooms on all of this lines' vessels, but that is offset not only by the amount of room, but by the pleasant color schemes and well thought-out layout. One important thing to be aware of is that Paradise is a totally non-smoking ship and this regulation is rigidly enforced. It seems to have been well-received by a significant segment of the cruising public and word is out that Carnival is planning to make one of their upcoming ships smoke-free.
LEGEND, PRIDE & SPIRIT
Year Built: 2002/2002/2001 Passengers: 2,124 Length: 963 feet Passenger Decks: 12 Beam: 106 feet Crew Size: 930 Gross Tonnage: 88,500 Staterooms Size: 160-388 square feet
The new ships of the Spirit class are, in the Carnival fleet, exceeded in size but not in passenger count only by the even newer Conquest class. xxx In the cruise line business the class of ship is often--but not always--named for the first ship in that series. Land lubbers and less experienced cruises more commonly refer to ships in the same class as "sister" ships--so it is a term I still frequently use. xxx
There are even bigger ships sailing the Caribbean, but these are huge. Even more importantly, they hold their own against the most spectacular ships of any line. xxx[run in] The gorgeous atrium lobby spans nine decks and is topped by a glass ceiling with the top two decks connected by a glass staircase--what a view when walking down! Decks 2 and 3 contain most of the public areas, including a beautiful two-level dining room, what seems like countless bars and lounges and a gracefully curving "street" of shops and boutiques.
The bow section of the ship houses a huge three-level theater that, regardless of the particular ship's theme and décor, is nothing short of marvelous. One of the unique features of Spirit-class vessels is a long and narrow area that surrounds the outer edge of theater on Deck 3. Because it isn't the easiest place on the ship to find, it tends to be a secluded and quiet area where you can go to take a little walk or just sit and sip a drink. It is beautifully decorated on all of the ships and usually has a garden-type theme. It is also along the somewhat tricky route one has to follow to get to the arcade and child-care facilities. Perhaps an even more lovely area is the smaller and more intimate entertainment lounge on Deck 1 directly beneath the theater.
The top four decks of the ship contain the other public areas, including three swimming pools (one of which can be covered by a retractable roof). Recreational facilities are extensive and even include a water slide. The Lido Deck is the place to go for a buffet meal, snacks, pizza, ice cream and whatever else your taste buds decide. That includes a chic and fabulous alternative restaurant spanning two decks at the very top of the ship--certainly a most spectacular place to dine. There is an extra fee for eating at the Golden Fleece (Legend), David's Supper Club--based on Michelangelo's "David" (Pride), or Nouveau Supper Club (Spirit).
The accommodations are similar in size, décor and style to the previous class of ships. However, the Spirit class features a much greater percentage of outside rooms with private balconies. In fact, four out of five outside rooms boast a balcony. This has become a common and very popular feature of almost every new mega-ship, regardless of cruise line.
TRIUMPH & VICTORY
Year Built: 1999/2000 Passengers: 2,758
Length: 893 feet Passenger Decks: 13 Beam: 116 feet Crew Size: 1,100 Gross Tonnage: 101,509 Staterooms Size: 180-483 square feet
Two more almost brand new ships, these sisters aren't much different in physical size than the preceding group. However, they add one more deck, much of which is devoted to cabin space. That height, by the way, does help to make the superstructure of the ship even more impressive. Likewise, their slightly greater beam allows for a larger number of interior staterooms. Both have a nine-story atrium and have many features that are somewhat similar to the Spirit class. These include a fabulous three-level theater and a host of other cheerfully and colorfully decorated lounges. Even the dance club covers two levels. There are two dining rooms, each of which is two levels. Thus, it combines the elegance of the Spirit class with the somewhat less crowded approach of the Fantasy class. Access to the stern-located dining room is, however, easier on these two ships because the upper level can be reached from other sections of the ship without taking a different bank of elevators.
Although the public areas are splendid on both ships, I have a slight preference for the interior décor on the Victory. It's Seven Seas Lobby and atrium is a dazzling splash of color and the Mediterranean casual restaurant/buffet is like being in Europe. Speaking of casual dining, I like the deli option on both ships (the New York Deli on Triumph and the East River Deli on Victory). Multiple pools, water slides and even a gymnasium/spa complex spanning two decks completes the snapshot of the facilities.
A very positive attribute of both ships is the over-sized rooms. The smallest (at 180 square feet) compares to mid-category or higher on many other ships. These sisters do have a somewhat smaller percentage of outside rooms with private balconies, but there are more than enough for those who are seeking this type of accommodation.
CELEBRATION & JUBILEE
Year Built: 1987 ; 1986  Passengers: 1,486 Length: 733 feet Passenger Decks: 8 Beam: 92 feet Crew Size: 670 Gross Tonnage: 47.262 Stateroom Size: 185-420 square feet
I can't help but like the names of Carnival's older ships--they're so much more "fun"-oriented. Their newest ships carry more regal-sounding names. Maybe that's why the newer vessels have the Carnival prefix in front of them, because in the past if it had a name like Celebration you almost immediately knew it was a Carnival ship. Anyway, these identical twins were among the first large ships with what could be termed "contemporary" styling. That includes such design features as having the superstructure closer to the bow of the vessel, and more picture-sized windows in outside rooms in lieu of the more old-fashioned porthole. What they lack, however, when compared to most Carnival ships is the overall architectural extravagance. For instance, they don't have the typical atrium design. As a result, the entry area on the Main Deck is less than eye-catching compared to most other vessels in the fleet. But don't be discouraged. These are very nice ships that are well equipped (gymnasium, spa, shopping, theater, and plenty of bars and lounges, and children's facilities).
There are two main dining rooms, although alternative dining options are more limited than on the larger ships. The layout is extremely easy and convenient. Public areas on the Promenade Deck are all on a cheerful "street" that runs along the port side of the ship. Even the corridors on the decks with cabins are easier to negotiate than on many ships because they are straight as an arrow and don't have many confusing side corridors or turns. Again, the only possible area of confusion is access to the stern-located dining room.
All staterooms feature typical Carnival spaciousness and attractive décor. Except for 10 large suites on one of the upper decks, all accommodations are stacked on the four lowest decks.
Year Built: 1985  Passengers: 1,452 Length: 727 feet Passenger Decks: 8 Beam: 92 feet Crew Size: 660 Gross Tonnage: 46,052 Stateroom Size: 185-190 square feet
The oldest ship in Carnival's fleet, Holiday is still looking pretty darn good thanks to a recent refurbishment. It is almost identical in size, layout and design to the Celebration and Jubilee, being only slightly smaller in just about every measurement. The public facilities have different names, of course, but the nature of them is the same so you can do anything on this ship that you could on the aforementioned twins. When it comes to the size of accommodations, the Holiday is quite an egalitarian vessel. Except for a few smaller rooms with upper and lower berths and an equally small number of suites, all of the cabins are virtually identical in size and layout.
Year Built: 1996 Passengers: 2,642 Length: 893 feet Passenger Decks: 12 Beam: 116 feet Crew Size: 1,050 Gross Tonnage: 101,353 Stateroom Size: 180-483 square feet
This ship is very similar in both size and nature of the public facilities to Triumph and Victory. Even the rooms are of the same size and the percentage of inside versus outside and balcony versus non-balcony is like the others. Clearly, Destiny served as the prototype for the other two ships and all of the subsequent classes of Carnival mega-ships. In fact, Carnival considers the Triumph and Victory to be Destiny-class vessels, but there are just enough differences that I've chosen to list it separately. It also features the central atrium that spans nine decks. This is called the "Rotunda" and is one of my favorites. While many of the newest ship atriums feature large murals, this one is bathed in a subdued blue light and has dark marble on the atrium walls. It makes for a more sophisticated and elegant atmosphere than the exotic or glitzy ambiance of many other ships. The base level of the atrium, like all ships of this type, is the place for a huge bar. Called the Flagship, it was the first of its type in the industry. Have a few drinks, look up and you'll probably pass out! Just kidding, of course.
CONQUEST & GLORY
Year Built: 2002/2003 Passengers: 2,974 Length: 952 feet Passenger Decks: 13 Beam: 116 feet Crew Size: 1,150 Gross Tonnage: 110,000 Stateroom Size: 185-430 square feet
These are the newest and biggest ships in the Carnival fleet. The Conquest made its debut in mid-November, 2002 and Glory wasn't set to sail until the summer of 2003, so the information on both ships is limited to what was provided by Carnival. These are the first two vessels in the soon-to-be-expanded Conquest class. In effect, they are enlarged versions of the Spirit class. Although slightly shorter, they have a wider beam and, like the Triumph and Victory, have an additional deck, which allows for the additional passenger count. Still, these ships are smaller than the world's largest vessels--Royal Caribbean's Voyager class.
The smooth and straight lines of the exterior are matched by a generally straight and easy-to-navigate deck plan. Any curves in the route are intentionally there to break up overly long views and to add some visual style. Most of the public decks (other than the usual Lido and sports-related decks) are the middle decks, sandwiched between accommodation decks above and below.
The nine-level atrium is similar to Spirit ships as well but has two balcony levels instead of one, which will give it an even more spacious look and more vantage points from which guests can be dazzled with the interior view.
There are two main dining rooms, each with two levels. The stern-located room is, however, easy to get to as you can reach it without having to go find a bank of elevators that will get you there. In fact, you can get to it either on the inside of the ship on the balcony level or via an outside promenade on the main level.
The wonderfully varied alternative dining, entertainment, and recreational facilities are much on the style of the other two classes of Carnival super-liners. There are four swimming pools, one of which can be covered by a sliding glass dome, and one for children only. The latter is located in the larger and even better-equipped children's center perched high up on the Sun Deck. The so-called "Children's World" covers more than 4,000 square feet and will be Carnival's largest and best-equipped facility for children of all ages.
Accommodations are varied but feature a large number of outside rooms with private balconies. Size-wise, the Conquest-class vessels happily continue Carnival's policy of providing spacious staterooms in even the lowest-priced categories (with even the smallest room being somewhat larger than on most other Carnival ships). The furnishings and color schemes are also similar to other recent ships in the fleet; that is, attractive and comfortable without breaking any new ground.
Carnival Ship Names
What's in a name? Carnival for one thing. Many of Carnival's vessels (especially the newest and biggest) are preceded by the name "Carnival," such as Carnival Destiny as opposed to the Celebration, which is never referred to as the "Carnival Celebration." In these listings I have only used the surname of the ship, so to speak. However, for your information, here's the full listing of ships that bear the "Carnival" first name: Carnival Conquest, Carnival Destiny, Carnival Glory, Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride, Carnival Spirit, Carnival Triumph, and Carnival Victory .
Crew: International with emphasis on European
Ships' Registry: Liberia, except for Mercury, which is registered in Panama
Celebrity's ships, like most other cruise line fleets, has certain distinguishing exterior characteristics that make them easily recognizable. The majority of their vessels are mostly white but have broad bands of dark blue across the bottom and upper sections of the hull, with additional blue trim on portions of the superstructure, including their hallmark funnel with the huge white "X" across it. The overall effect is one of, not only beauty, but sleekness.
Excellent cuisine is another Celebrity hallmark and the sophistication of the food preparation, its appearance and service is higher than many of the mass-market lines.
While all Celebrity ships have the usual array of amenities and facilities of a large cruise ship, the AquaSpa is a Celebrity feature that warrants special attention. This is among the most well equipped facilities of its type anywhere on the sea and, in addition to the usual gymnasium and spa facilities, it has sauna, steam, aromatherapy and other goodies for those who appreciate the finer things in life.
No one would ever claim that Celebrity is quite on the same level as Crystal, but they are known for providing a high level of service that goes beyond industry norms and that results in an outstanding cruise experience. Additional facilities for children have extended the appeal of Celebrity beyond just couples.
GALAXY & MERCURY
Year Built: 1996/1997 Passengers: 1,870 Length: 866 feet Passenger Decks: 10 Beam: 106 feet Crew Size: 909 Gross Tonnage: 77,713 Stateroom Size: 171-1,514 square feet
There is no doubt that these are large ships but, by today's new standards, not super-sized. That is true of many of Celebrity's ships and will be welcome to those travelers who feel a bit overwhelmed by some of the biggest of the big vessels. Although they are twin sisters, the décor in public areas is so different that, unless you are very observant, you might well think that they are not the same. While most sister ships just opt for different colors or themes to differentiate themselves, Galaxy and Mercury take it a step further. For instance, Galaxy's Orion Restaurant and Mercury's Manhattan Restaurant use different types of columns, ceilings and even staircase arrangements. Both of these two-tiered dining rooms are fabulous to look at, with each fanning out in a circular pattern from the center.
The four-story Grand Foyer is the foca