The Caribbean is all about beaches, and it’s where you’ll find the most coveted strands of sand in the world. The classic image of the region — blue skies, clear water, and palm-fringed beaches — is synonymous with the ideal vacation for many sun-worshipping Americans.
In the Eastern Caribbean, you’ll find those things in ports bustling with thousands of other cruisers, sometimes more than 10,000 at a time. (In comparison, the Southern Caribbean, for example, is full of smaller, quieter spots.) In addition, convenience is a key factor for many cruisers when they choose the Eastern Caribbean route — most cruises depart from Florida and are easily accessible by air from all over the country.
If you count every sandbar, there are thousands of islands in the Caribbean Sea, but just 40 make it onto most maps. About a dozen are included on cruises to the Eastern Caribbean; the rest fall into the Western or Southern Caribbean regions. Weeklong itineraries include some combination of the U.S. Virgin Islands (particularly St. Thomas), St. Martin (French and Dutch sides), British Virgin Islands (Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Tortola), Puerto Rico, and Antiqua, plus the Bahamas.
While technically outside the Caribbean basin, visits to Nassau, Grand Turk, and the cruise lines’ private Bahamian beaches are part of many Eastern Caribbean routes. Key West, on the southernmost tip of Florida, is also a frequent port. Some ships — mostly the smaller ones — visit tiny islands like St. Barts, Anguilla, and Les Saintes, places where jet-setters and celebrities the likes of Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Jennifer Aniston go to get away from it all and hide from the paparazzi in private villas and chic boutique hotels.
Besides sunbathing, snorkeling is a top pastime on Eastern Caribbean cruises, and one of the best spots is in gorgeous St. John, a small island comprised mostly of U.S. National Park land. Although ships don’t call there, you can easily take a ferry from St. Thomas and enjoy the gorgeous crescents of white sand and the marked snorkeling trails offshore at Trunk Bay. Snorkeling is also good at Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay. History buffs will appreciate the grand 16th-century El Morro fortress in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and for shoppers, St. Thomas and St. Martin (French and Dutch sides) are full of jewelry and souvenir stores.