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Most large-ship cruises are designed to offer a diverse selection of ports, rather than allow extended time to explore. Ships may call for a few hours, allowing time for one or two frenzied activities and perhaps some frantic window-shopping before it’s time to re-embark.
That model works well for many popular cruise ports. However, for some islands in the Caribbean, that’s simply not enough. Some islands gain their charm from serene mornings and quiet evenings before and after the ships are in port; others have vibrant culinary scenes many cruise passengers miss entirely as their ship sails off into the late afternoon sunset. Even while overnight port calls are increasing in popularity, there’s still a different atmosphere to be absorbed by planning a trip to the island for longer periods than a port call.
Here are three Caribbean islands that are popular as ports of call but better explored for a few days as an independent traveler.
BonaireThis sparsely populated island in the southern Caribbean is nearly twice the size of neighboring (and much more visited) Aruba, and on par with Curacao — but with a fraction of the population of either. The license plates here proclaim “Divers Paradise,” and the sheltered reefs anchored in crystal-clear aquamarine water do little to dispel that claim. For the non-PADI-certified crowd, snorkeling is as easy as pulling over to the side of the road and stepping into the water.
When cruise ships are in port, excursions are typically limited to a small handful of the island’s 22 beaches. Sorobon Beach, on the windward side, is popular with windsurfers and has scenic views of the fishing boat docks. When clients aren’t relaxing on a secluded beach, they can head to Kralendijk for abundant Dutch charm. Evenings here are languid, slow-paced affairs perfect for intimate cocktails and dinners at cozy establishments.
Klein Bonaire is often popular with cruise passengers, but while its name suggests it’s a diminutive islet (in Dutch, literally “Little Bonaire”), there’s really room enough for everybody. Services are limited, because the island and its surrounding waters are an eco-preserve, but barbecue picnics are permitted.
Grand CaymanShore excursions on Grand Cayman tend to follow a well-trodden path, and many local tour operators know exactly how to time experiences to avoid crowding when ships are docked.
As a result, local guests can visit popular shore excursion stops at their most tranquil. Sip an original mudslide where it was invented at Rum Point, or snap photobomb-free selfies with juvenile green sea turtles and stingrays at Cayman Turtle Centre or Stingray City. After the ships depart, there’s dazzling gastronomy to be had in new developments such as Camana Bay, where restaurants focus on locally sourced ingredients that are often purchased direct from the weekly on-site farmers and artisans’ market.
Seven Mile Beach is exactly as the name suggests, with white sand and turquoise water fronting the west side of the island. Each hotel stakes out its own space for beach chairs, but even when there’s a ship in port, there’s plenty of real estate to go around.
RoatanSituated off the coast of Honduras, Roatan is a rainforest paradise. Even when the cruise ships are docked, they’re isolated to two purpose-built cruise villages, so the rest of this sprawling island remains almost unencumbered by crowds. Like Grand Cayman and Bonaire, there’s excellent diving, but Roatan’s rainforest is a different draw compared to those of the other two desert islands.
Zipline through a forest canopy or drop into Arch’s Iguana and Marine Park or Gumbalimba Park to see iguanas, macaws and capuchin monkeys in their natural habitats. The waters just beyond the reef are also well-known for sport fishing, particularly marlin, mahi mahi, wahoo and tuna.
Lovers of robust nightlife will also find plenty of varied (and generally open late) establishments here, notable for a Caribbean island of its size. As a generally up-and-coming destination, Roatan’s pricing hasn’t quite reached the astronomical levels it can at some of the more oft-visited islands in the region.