Caribbean Cruise Comeback: What's New for Travelers

Just two years ago this fall, Hurricanes Irma and Maria blew through the eastern Caribbean causing significant damage. Among the hardest hit islands were Puerto Rico, St. Maarten / St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although others too had damage. Fortunately, after only a brief lull in cruise ship visits, a cooperative approach between the isles and the cruise industry soon resulted in the return of ships and cruise visitors.

Today, airports, ports, many luxurious hotels, many attractions, shops and restaurants are once again open. While recovery continues, the islands are open, welcoming visitors and launching enticing new experiences and activities. As this year’s peak winter Caribbean cruise season is just months away, here’s a sampling of new options for luxury cruise guests sailing to these islands, as well as voyages that will take them there. 

New Urban Entertainment District 

San Juan, Puerto Rico, serves as an embarkation port for many cruise lines. Highly anticipated later this year is the opening of the Plaza at El Distrito (The District), a hospitality and entertainment district. Anchored by a 50,000-square-foot central plaza best described as “the plaza of the future,” it will be a vibrant enclave for special events and “live” performances. The District’s futuristic, outdoor, covered plaza will have theatrical lighting, sound and multi-media shows; its digital scenery system will feature 14,000 square feet of LED screens, including a humongous horizontal screen.

Cruise guests who visit, depending on time of day, might see digital art, nightly digital fireworks, interactive content, social media feeds and sports broadcasting events. In addition, the plaza has high-wire rigging and hologram effects. Thirsty? The plaza is flanked by two outdoor bars and anchored by a center stage for public performances with daily programming, including DJs, live bands, dance shows, stand-up comedy, fashion shows and more. 

But El Distrito is much more than simply an urban plaza. It also will have a Puerto Rican rum microbrewery, multiple restaurants, an urban zip line experience, a gourmet Puerto Rican coffee shop, a KidzZone activity area, plus a multi-purpose day club (with outdoor lounges, a wading pool, bars and a DJ booth) and pulsating nightclub.  

For those seeking a San Juan embarkation, allowing for time to explore pre-cruise, Crystal Cruises sails an eight-night “Ascent on the Lesser Antilles” cruise, departing December 14 from San Juan to Miami. The 980-passenger Crystal Serenity calls at Philipsburg, St. Maarten for an overnight visit, giving cruisers plenty of time for activities and dining ashore. 

The itinerary also includes two days at sea, plus port calls at Gustavia, St. Barthelemy; Basseterre, St. Kitts and Nevis; St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda; Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos, with the ship arriving in Miami on December 22. Crystal Serenity also sails other Caribbean itineraries, including a seven-night voyage from San Juan to Miami on December 14, 2020.

While in San Juan, we’d suggest luxury cruisers who desire to dine ashore consider Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar (317 Calle Fortaleza). It serves delectable four- to six-course tasting menus with wine pairings. This restaurant has received Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” in 2018 and previous years, as well. Don’t miss the tiny white bean soup with scallions, black truffle oil and pancetta “dust.” 

Alternatively, many vessels make port calls at San Juan, including Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ (RSSC) new 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor on its 15-night “Jewels of the Tropics” voyage from Miami to New York on April 1, 2020. This itinerary also features calls at Bonaire, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Kitts, the Dominican Republic, and Charleston, SC. The line’s Seven Seas Explorer also has multiple voyages this winter that call at San Juan and St. Maarten, among a slew of other Caribbean ports. 

Recently, RSSC introduced several new included Caribbean tours, among them a “Culinary Walking Tour” in San Juan. Cruisers head out with a guide and stroll cobblestoned streets, discovering gastronomy, history and architecture. They taste up to nine different Puerto Rican delicacies at various stops, sample artisanal coffee and freshly baked treats, locally sourced fruits, meat, fish and more. Along the route, tour participants will see the second-oldest cathedral in the Americas, the oldest governor’s mansion in the Western Hemisphere and San Juan’s impressive fortifications.

A big plus is that by January 2020, Regent Seven Seas will have nearly doubled Internet bandwidth across its fleet, making the line’s complimentary, unlimited Wi-Fi surfing quicker and more enjoyable. The log-in process has also been streamlined. This year, the line also has a new perk of free unlimited valet laundry service for guests sailing in Master and Grand Suites. And starting in October, more than 200 gourmet plant-based, vegan or vegetarian selections will be available on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. 

A good option for luxury travelers desiring a San Juan port call and yet also wanting to venture much farther to the Amazon River is Seabourn’s 15-night “Amazon & Caribbean Isles” voyage. The 450-passenger Seabourn Quest departs Manaus, Brazil on April 5, 2020. En route to Miami, it calls at several Amazon destinations, Devil’s Island in French Guiana and, in the Caribbean, San Juan, the British Virgin Islands, Martinique and Barbados.

Active adventurers arriving in San Juan can set out for the El Yunque Rainforest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service system. It’s biologically diverse with hundreds of species of animals and plants, some only found here. The good news is that some trails, recreation areas and services now are available; that said, trails to the popular La Mina waterfalls remained closed at press time as repairs are under way.  

Silver Whisper and Seabourn Odyssey, both will call at Bridgetown, Barbados, in 2020, where guests will enjoy taking a walk along the  serene promenade. // Photography: Shutterstock / NAPA

Silversea Cruises’ 382-passenger Silver Whisper will visit San Juan on its November 10, 2020 sailing from Port Everglades, FL (Fort Lauderdale) to Bridgetown, Barbados. On this 10-night voyage, guests also can go ashore at Jost Van Dyke, Antigua, Martinique, St. Vincent & the Grenadines (Bequia and Mayreau) and Grenada, before arriving in Bridgetown. 

While in Grenada, cruisers exploring independently can check out a new fusion restaurant, Spice Affair by Red Crab on Lance Aux Epines; dishes reflect Indian, Asian, European and American flavors. Try the “Butter Chicken — Loaded with Love,” the venue’s Tandoori chicken with a special sauce.  

For a truly robust voyage with a culinary bent, Silversea’s newest vessel, the 596-passenger Silver Moon will sail throughout the Caribbean and to Central America, as well as circumnavigating South America on a 69-day journey (combining four roundtrips) roundtrip from Miami between January and April 2021. The new ship will call at 55 destinations in 27 countries, including a call at Puerto Rico near the voyage’s end. Most notably, the new ship will offer S.A.L.T., Silversea’s new “Sea and Land Taste” culinary concept, essentially embracing local cultures through their culinary traditions and specialties. 

While culinary travel is popular with upscale cruisers and Oceania Cruises offers a Culinary Walking Tour for cruisers, we like the line’s “San Juan City and Art Museum” shore excursion; at the museum, luxury travelers can admire Puerto Rican art, dating back 500 years, and stroll through the museum’s lush gardens. Then, the tour heads for Old San Juan, followed by a city drive and free time for independent exploration. Oceania’s Riviera calls at San Juan on its 10-day “Sun and Serenade” itinerary, departing November 15 roundtrip from Miami. 

For luxury travelers who’ve always wanted to celebrate Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and prefer to reserve their cruise further in advance, Azamara offers a 22-Night “Carnival in Rio” voyage on Azamara Quest from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Miami on February 23, 2022. The voyage’s Caribbean calls are at Bridgetown and San Juan.

One exciting Caribbean development for luxury cruisers is that the new Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection will set sail in the first quarter of 2020. On February 5, the line will sail a 10-night cruise from Miami to Bridgetown, Barbados with calls at San Juan and Vieques in Puerto Rico, plus many other Caribbean destinations. 

The 298-passenger yacht will arrive in San Juan at 10 a.m. and stay until just before midnight, providing a long day for exploring and the opportunity to go ashore for dinner and evening activities. Similarly, in Vieques, the yacht will arrive at 8 a.m. and remain until just before midnight. The new line also has many other Caribbean sailings during its inaugural year. 

Silver Whisper will also call at the picturesque island of Bequia, which is the second-largest island in the Grenadines. // Photography: Shutterstock / NAPA

One Island, Two Nations

Many cruises operated by luxury lines also call at St. Maarten / St. Martin, and those arriving this winter will discover new experiences. Thrill-seekers and active travelers can head for the new Pelican Peak, a zipline attraction that’s opened on the Dutch side of the island near Philipsburg’s cruise port. From the attraction’s landing area, guests board a vehicle for a ride up the hill — also home to walking trails — as the guide entertains with cultural, natural history and maritime stories. Then, cruisers take off on the zip line. Several viewing decks provide great views of Great Bay and nearby islands. 

On a hillside within the French side (St. Martin) is Loterie Farm, a nature sanctuary with hiking trails, a pool area with cabanas, zip lining and, now, a new par-three, nine-hole golf course. It’s not mini-golf but rather a full-blown, state-of-the-art course. The average distance between holes is 160 yards; the longest 200 yards. The new course should appeal to die-hard golfers who may have limited time on the island and desire to do other things, such as beach time, shopping, gallery browsing or an around-island tour.

During its 2019-2020 winter Caribbean season, many Silversea vessels sail the region. Among them, the 382-passenger Silver Whisper departs roundtrip from Port Everglades, FL (Fort Lauderdale), on December 6 with a call at Philipsburg, St. Maarten, as well as San Juan and other Caribbean ports. Guests can head out on an e-bike island tour, the line’s “Lagoon Cruise, Marigot [for a visit to the French side of the island] and Island Drive,” or a “Two Capitals and Rum Factory Tour.”

Or, Silversea guests can take the “Soualiga Sky Explorer and Scenic St. Maarten” tour. This is a new St. Maarten attraction on the island. Guests take a half-hour ride up to St. Maarten’s highest mountains, a great spot for snapping selfies with breathtaking scenery; platforms encircle the mountaintop showcasing 360-degree views of the island plus neighboring isles. Then, guests board the Soualiga Sky Explorer for the scenic trip back down the mountain. 

From fall 2019 through winter 2020, Seabourn’s 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey will focus on seven-day voyages between Philipsburg, St. Maarten and Bridgetown, Barbados; they’re combinable for a 14-day adventure, too. The week-long voyages, though, should draw the attention of both new-to-Seabourn guests and the line’s Club members yearning for a quick Seabourn “fix.” 

Another plus for a St. Maarten cruise visit? Throughout the island, hundreds of taxi drivers, tour operators, front-line hotel staff, port employees, immigration officers and others recently completed a customer service training workshop sponsored by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. The goal is to provide friendly service to cruise visitors and keep them coming back.

While Seabourn’s guests are in Barbados, one new — albeit historic — attraction at the St. Nicholas Abbey Great House Plantation and Distillery is the St. Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway, great for train buffs or families. It’s a steam locomotive journey through the plantation fields and mahogany woods, culminating with expansive highland views of Barbados’ East Coast from Cherry Tree Hill. 

St. Maarten is also the site for one of Azamara’s AzAmazing Evening events –– complimentary excursions offered to guests to connect them with the local culture and heritage. Guests can head out for “Modern Caribbean Rhythms,” a seaside night under the stars to listen to local soca (soul calypso), dancehall and reggae performed by The Alternative Quartet, and enjoy a glass of the island’s rum. 

In St. Maarten, hundreds of taxi drivers, tour operators, hotel staff, port employees and others recently completed a customer service training workshop to provide friendly service to cruise visitors. Shown here is the capital, Philipsburg, and the Great Salt Pond. // Photography: Shutterstock / Sean Pavone

BVI, USVI and Beyond

If cruisers prefer a small-ship product that visits not only San Juan and St. Maarten but also the British Virgin Islands, Windstar Cruises’ motorized Star Legend and Star Pride sail multiple voyages in late fall / early winter roundtrip from San Juan. A seven-night “San Juan & the Virgin Islands” itinerary heads from San Juan to such ports as Vieques in Puerto Rico; Gustavia, St. Barthelemy; St. Maarten; and Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda, BVI.

What’s special about this itinerary, too, is that it calls at Montserrat, sometimes described as the “Pompeii of the Caribbean” based on the destructive result of the island’s 1995 volcanic eruption. Cruisers can see a half-buried city, plus lounge and swim at black sand beaches. Larger ships don’t typically call here. 

In San Juan, Windstar’s guests can book a pre-cruise “Windstar Easy Stay,” with premium hotels in preferred category rooms, transportation to / from the ship terminal; complimentary breakfast; Wi-Fi in select hotels; and included taxes and resort fees. 

In St. Maarten, cruisers can opt for Windstar’s “St. Maarten: Soualiga Sky Explorer” shore excursion, which will take them to that new chairlift ride, but they’ll also visit the 18th-century Rockland Estate to learn about Trace Wilson, born into slavery on the estate, and his descendant Emilio Wilson who purchased the property to educate people about the conditions of plantation life and the customs, traditions and history of St. Maarten. 

In the British Virgin Islands, cruisers who want to independently visit BVI’s iconic resort, Rosewood Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda, for a refreshment or afternoon tea, should know that while it’s still closed for a multimillion-dollar renovation, it’s expected to open later this year and its outdoor dining venues will have new concepts.  

Another beloved British Virgin Islands experience, of a very different nature though, is the relocation just this month of the Willy T floating restaurant and bar, a watering hole and eatery, which operated for 35 years, before the original floating structure was destroyed by the 2017 hurricanes; that sunken vessel is now part of the territory’s artificial reef system. A new Willy T vessel was relocated to Great Harbour, Peter Island in May 2018 but, thankfully, for purists who wanted the restaurant and bar back in its original spot, the government is allowing the new vessel to relocate to the original Willy T site at The Bight, Norman Island. 

Golf enthusiasts have an enticing new draw in Ponant’s new 10-night “Golf and Pro-Am in the Caribbean” voyage, a Figaro Golf partnership with participation by French golf legend Bernard Pascassio and other top professional players. It sails from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to Fort-de-France, Martinique on February 11, 2020, with calls at the British Virgin Islands, St. Barthelemy and St. Kitts.  

The 184-passenge Le Champlain has savory French cuisine, high-end suites and a one-of-a-kind Blue Eye underwater lounge with sensory features and views to the marine world. What’s special? There are two options for golf play — a Pro-Am tournament package with five rounds for the more experienced golfers, or a recreational package on five courses with two optional tournaments (one scramble and one stableford). 

This fall, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ international ship, the 500-passenger Europa 2, a luxurious vessel where both English and German are spoken by crew, will sail two roundtrips from Miami that include a call in the British Virgin Islands. One departs November 25, and among its calls are Jost Van Dyke, while the December 8 voyage calls at Virgin Gorda, among other islands. These bilingual cruises offer English shore excursions. 

Sailing into Road Town, Tortola, BVI, this fall is Cunard Line’s 12-night “Eastern Caribbean” sailing roundtrip from New York, departing on December 8. It’s operated by the 2,691-passenger Queen Mary 2. Guests exploring Road Town can head out to visit Cane Garden Bay’s flawless horseshoe of sand, the local botanic gardens or perhaps a local eatery for a lobster, papaya and sweet potato pudding. 

Or from Tortola, Cunard guests can take Cunard’s half-day “Virgin Gorda” excursion to the Baths, which begins with a 40-minute motor-launch crossing to Virgin Gorda’s eco-area brimming with tiny coves, rock basins and sea caves. Cruisers can depart to take a 500-yard trail down to the stunning beaches with extremely soft, white sand. The rock formations were created by volcanic activity resulting in huge boulders being stacked one upon the other; they now form small grottos and natural pools.

The Baths on Virgin Gorda is one of the biggest draws for guests visiting the British Virgin Islands. An area of unusual geologic formations, The Baths comprise huge granite boulders that form sheltered sea pools on the edge of the beach. // Photography: Shutterstock / By BlueOrange Studio

In downtown Road Town, luxury cruisers might head for the Rooftop by Brandywine. A cool, casual eatery, it was created by the folks affiliated with the popular Brandywine Estate restaurant, which closed for repairs after the storms but is now open again. However, in that interim period, Regis Bourdon, Brandywine’s chef, found an empty rooftop in the Cutlass Building and he created a casual eatery with wine barrel tables and lovely mural artwork from Riona Welford, a local watercolor artist. Now a trendy spot, it’s a branch of the main restaurant and serves a mix of Mediterranean fare, tapas, Italian specials and French dishes. 

SeaDream Yacht Club has a variety of Caribbean voyages this coming winter season, including several that embark in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI; San Juan; or Philipsburg, St. Maarten, among other Caribbean ports. So, cruisers who want to experience those isles have many options on the small-ship line’s 110-passenger SeaDream I and SeaDream II

For the eastern Caribbean isles most heavily impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, this fall’s two-year anniversary is a time to celebrate “recovery progress” and to assure cruise visitors they’ll have a fabulous time in the Caribbean. Yes, there is still recovery work yet to be done, particularly in residential / non-tourist areas or remote locales, but cruise lines say their guest satisfaction scores in the Caribbean are tracking high and island residents are eager to welcome cruisers with new activities and experiences.  

Cuba Cruises Cancelled

In early June, the U.S. government announced new travel restrictions for Cuba that negatively impacted cruise travel to that Caribbean nation. After review of the new, more restrictive regulations, Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and other companies canceled all future cruises to Cuba by all their brands. That included calls by such upscale brands as Seabourn, Cunard Line, Azamara, Silversea Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and others. The government’s decision also affected small ship luxury lines. For example, SeaDream Yacht Club, had extensive Cuba voyages scheduled, but those are now canceled. 

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