The classic cruise experience is all about glistening white ships heading for balmy, sun-drenched ports with great beaches, seaside cafes, and enticing shops. From the bands of sand in Grand Cayman to sexy St. Barts, we cover the best ports for sun-worshippers in Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, and more.
1. French Polynesia
The waters of French Polynesia are dotted with motus, tiny coral islets ringed with palm trees and covered in sugary sand At least one of these often nameless beaches are included on French Polynesia cruise itineraries. Cruise lines typically set up a barbeque-style buffet and arrange for local entertainment to set the mood on the powdery-sand stage. Grab a cold drink, lean up against a palm tree and pinch yourself -- you're really not dreaming. You'll be mesmerized by the way the teal water contrasts with the bright white sand and cloudless blue. You'll likely be equally entranced by how the traditional Polynesian dancers shake their grass skirts and coconut-shell bras in perfect time to the folk songs and ukuleles.
2. Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
One of the world's most beautiful cruising regions, the British Virgin Islands offer a glimpse of what the Caribbean was like 75 years ago. Laid-back, off-the-beaten track, and sun-drenched without the crowds or commercialization, the BVIs attract true-blue yachty types. All three islands -- Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke -- have hidden coves and small bays dotted with sail boats. Mountainous Jost Van Dyke is the most remote and covers just four square miles, with the sands of White Bay as the best beach spot. Tortola is the largest and busiest of the three, (relatively speaking) and boasts crescents of white sand along its northern coast, including Cane Garden Bay and Smuggler's Cove. Virgin Gorda is famed for its giant boulder-strewn beach called the Baths, a photogenic spot for a swim.
This quiet British isle harbors some of the Caribbean's best beaches, not to mention some of the friendliest locals. A drive around Barbados is worthwhile to explore the rolling hills and flatlands, but it's the coastline that deserves top billing. Grab a taxi and go beach hopping -- from the rough waves that meet the sand along the southeastern coastline (the highlight here is the cliff-framed Crane Beach) to the calm and sheltered waters in the southwest's Gold Coast, the preferred spot for swimming and playing. The best beaches here are Payne's Bay, and also Brighton Beach, Brandon's Beach, and Paradise Beach.
4. Mykonos, Greek Islands
On the sea approach to the port town of Hora, white-washed homes and chapels with their brightly painted doors come into view along with island's sandy coastline. The best beaches near Hora include Paradise (the island's original nude beach and a party scene), Kalafatis, and Aghios Stefanos beaches. Besides sunbathing, the best thing to do in Mykonos is stroll. Wend your way around the cobblestone streets to snap pictures of the blue-domed churches, windmills, and the ubiquitous outdoor cafes. Settle down at a table and let the ocean sounds and views set the scene for an excellent Greek meal of fresh seafood, juicy red tomatoes, feta cheese, eggplant, kalamata olives, phyllo pastries, and great local wines.
5. Phuket, Thailand
Phuket is quite possibly the most recognizable beach destination in Asia. It's also a port that promises a great beach day, plus some local culture. Patong Beach is where all the action is. Many megaships anchor just offshore, and restaurants, bars and shops line several streets behind the beach. Spread out your towel, sip the cool water from a freshly cut coconut, or order a chilled bottle of Singha beer from a local vendor. Try your hand at parasailing, or just chill out and relax. Kata and Nai Harn are other appealing beaches in Phuket, but they're about a 30-minute taxi ride from Patong. Definitely make time to check out the island's most noteworthy temple, the Wat Chalong monastery, with its gilded spires, golden buddhas, and other ornate details.
6. Cairns, Australia
When ships call in Cairns in northwestern Australia, there's really just one place to go: the Great Barrier Reef. Sign up for an all-day catamaran excursion and head for one of the world's richest marine habitats. Sit back on the deck and soak up the sun on the 90-minute ride out, then hop overboard and check out the marine life. You might see giant clams, seahorses, sea turtles, porpoises, humpback whales, or examples of more than 1,500 species of fish, from clownfish to coral trout. Diving here is thrilling too, but even the snorkeling is incredibly illuminating.
Unlike much of the Caribbean, there's an old-time Caribbean feel to Grenada that's very appealing. Ships dock or anchor off the capital town of St. George's, set around a tiny horseshoe-shape harbor filled with colorful skiffs. The two-mile long Grand Anse Beach set just a few miles from the docks is an idyllic broad arch of white sand that meets the calm seas. A few bars and restaurants along the beach make it the perfect place to spend the entire day. Save time to head up to Fort George for 360-degree views of the harbor area, and make sure to walk around historic St. George's before heading back to the ship.
Glamorous Monaco is built into a rocky promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea just a few miles down the coast from the French Riviera towns of Cannes, Nice, Villefranche, and St. Tropez. The tiny Principality of Monaco is a perfect place for strolling and people-watching. Take in views of the yacht-filled harbor, the frilly Beaux-Arts architecture of Monte Carlo Casino and sumptuously ornate Hotel de Paris, the flower gardens, the hilltop Prince's Palace, and all those beautiful people -- there really are playboys zipping around in million-dollar red sports cars. Sip a drink at an outdoor cafe or do some sunbathing at Larvotto Beach. But remember, it's not the sand you come here for -- the beaches are narrow and pebbly for the most part. You're here for the scene and sheer beauty of the place that has inspired painters for centuries.
Iconic Miami Beach is America's answer to Acapulco, Rio, and Monte Carlo, and it's a great town to spend a day or two in before or after your cruise. The South Beach strip of hip Art Deco hold-outs, fancy schmancy new hotels, a happening art scene, and hot nightclubs all conspire to create a definite buzz in Miami. There's no better place to imbibe it all than along the expanse of sand stretching for about 10 miles along South Beach and beyond. Lay your towel in the powdery sand or stroll the wooden boardwalk that runs between 21st to 46th streets. For the best people-watching and model-spotting, head to Lummus Park Beach in the center of the Art Deco District around 10th Street. Family-friendly South Pointe Park is also a fine place for watching the cruise ships come and go.
10. Cruise Line Private Islands
Last but not least, the big cruise lines have private beaches or whole islands in the Bahamas or Caribbean dedicated to fun in the sun. Water sports are offered, lunch is provided, and bars dispense plenty of cold beers and frosty cocktails. Most offer massage services, activities for kids, and beach chairs to call your own for the day. Some of the best beaches include Disney's Castaway Cay, a Bahamian paradise with its own dock, bike rentals, a hair-braiding shop, parasailing, and a 12-acre snorkeling route. There's a teen beach with volleyball and soccer; a drop-off area for kids (ages 3-12) with an excavation site for an archaeological dig; and an adult beach called Serenity Bay, with seaside massage cabanas. Holland America's Half Moon Cay also earns top honors for its kiddy water park, the air-conditioned, beachfront cabanas for rent, horseback riding on the beach, and swimming with tame stingrays. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity's CocoCay gets big points for its kiddy aqua park and battery-operated mini race cars for young cruisers as well.
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