I've always loved Frank Capra movies, where the underdog hero triumphs in the end even though he comes from a small town, and his family isn't rich, and all the high-powered bankers and businessmen are against him.
It's the same kind of thing with me and cruises: I tend to prefer small ships, as well as the smaller, less flashy ports they can take you to, where everything runs at half-speed and there's a fair chance a chicken will wander across your path at some point. Many small ships will stay into the evening when visiting many of these islands, so you can enjoy their small-scale but large-fun nightlife.
Take Jost Van Dyke, for instance. About three miles east of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, it's a Walter Mitty version of a Caribbean pirate's lair -- which isn't so far off the mark, since back in the 16th century the BVIs were a haven for Blackbeard and his ilk. Today, it's burnt-out urbanites like me who tend to visit, coming for the unspoiled beaches of White Bay and the unrivaled party scene at Foxy's (www.foxysbar.com/home.html), a classic thatch-roofed nightspot in neighboring Great Bay, which offers pounding music, powerful drinks, and more positive vibrations than Bob Marley. Jost Van Dyke only has about 300 residents, but you'll find that many people at Foxy's on almost any given night, locals and visitors alike. My favorite Foxy's moment? Drinking painkillers with a dozen friends as the tropical breezes blew and the women in our group took turns dancing with a washboard-stomached local stud. Time just seemed to drain away, no one worrying about making it back to the ship on time. Why worry?
About 450 miles to the south, I've had similar blissful evenings in Bequia (pronounced "BECK-we") in the St. Vincent Grenadines. In the island's main town, Port Elizabeth, restaurants and cozy bars line the Belmont Walkway, a path that skirts so close to the calm waters of the bay that at high tide you have to skip across rocks to avoid getting your feet wet. On Thursday nights the outdoor bar at the Frangipani Hotel (www.frangipanibequia.com) hosts the Frangi Barbecue and Jump Up, with a barbecue buffet and music from the excellent Elite Steel Orchestra steel band. It attracts yachters, locals, passengers from small cruise ships in port for the night, and, usually, a pack of friendly local dogs. Just south of town, Princess Margaret Beach is a little chunk of paradise backed by waving palms and fronted by yachts bobbing at anchor, while on the northeast coast the beach at Industry Bay is windswept and gorgeous, a scene straight out of a romance novel.
If you want even more remote, Union Island, about 30 miles south of Bequia, provides about as deserted and peaceful a beach scene as you'll find: There are few facilities, few people, and nothing more to do than relax, swim, snorkel, and visit the several small bars set up around Chatham Bay, where small ships usually tender passengers to shore. Oh, and of course there are conch shells in their hundreds courtesy of the local fishermen, some of whom offer the better specimens to tourists for a couple bucks.
In fact, you could make a habit on your cruise of shopping only for natural products, locally found or locally fashioned. If so, you definitely want to make a port call in Dominica, which is home to 3,000 Carib Indians, the last remaining members of the people who dominated this region before Europeans arrived. The traditional baskets they weave from dyed larouma reeds and heliconia leaves are a gorgeous and ridiculously inexpensive keepsake of the pre-Columbian Caribbean. A small, 12-inch basket will cost you about $10 to $15, and you can get much larger ones for $30 or $35. You can find the baskets for sale in the island's main town, Roseau, and at other frequented spots such as the trailhead to the Emerald Pool, a totally mindblowing tree-shaded hollow where a 50-foot waterfall crashes down into a deep pool. Splash in the refreshing water. Float on your back to see the thick rainforest canopy and bright blue sky above you. It's almost religious.
Things fall more on the charming rather than life-altering side at tiny Les Saintes (pronounced "Le Sawnt"; aka Iles des Saintes), a collection of eight tiny islets located about 10 miles south of Guadeloupe. Only two of those islands are inhabited, but only lightly, with about 3,000 real residents total. The more populous of the two is Terre-de-Haut, whose main village, Le Bourg ("town"), is the destination for most visitors. Think quaint and nautical, on the order of a French Martha's Vineyard. Above the town's bay, Fort Napoléon was built by the French between 1815 and 1867, after they regained the islands from the British. Inside, you'll find exhibits on the islands' history, including its pre-Columbian people -- and I mean pre-Columbian literally: Christopher Columbus himself named these islands ("Los Santos") when he arrived here on All Saint's Day in 1493. If you'd prefer to hit the beach, try picture-perfect Plage de Pompierre, located only a 15-minute walk from the dock. Or you could hike: The highest point on Terre-de-Haut, Le Chameau, can be reached via a tough though shaded 30- to 60-minute climb, and lets on to views of Les Saintes, Guadeloupe, and Dominica.
North of Les Saintes and south of the Virgin Islands, the two-island Federation of Saint Christopher (aka St. Kitts) and Nevis is the smallest country in the Americas. Not long ago, both of the country's islands ranked among the Caribbean's more unassuming port islands, but that was before St. Kitts opened a major cruise ship center and started attracting the likes of Carnival and Princess. Today, travelers seeking the quiet side of things will want to concentrate on Nevis, two miles to the south. The island's laid-back capital city, Charlestown, is a focal point, offering some surprising small-scale historic opportunities. Just a quarter mile north of the docks you'll find the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, one of America's founding fathers, while about the same distance south of town you'll find a 17th-century Jewish cemetery and the small, very homemade-looking Admiral Horatio Nelson Museum, which is far more interesting than you'd imagine from the outside. I spent over an hour wandering among its displays, which trace Nelson's career in the Caribbean through ship models, paintings of his battles, a scrap from the Union Jack under which he was shot, a miniature of his casket, and an actual ticket to his funeral, with wax seal. Hand-typed index cards identify many of the items, including a tiny birdcage that bears this message: "In a number of letters written to Fanny Nisbet [Nelson's wife], Nelson mentioned his search for a traveling birdcage. This bird cage, though not the one Nelson finally procured, is from that period."
You can have your big ports, with their big attractions, big crowds, and big hullabaloo, but for my money it's this kind of small, personal detail in a small, personal place that gives me the sense of actually having traveled, and if travel isn't about learning something about life, what is it?
Next time I head out to sea, I plan to look for a traveling birdcage of my own.
Ships That Go There
For the most part, ships that visit the Caribbean's smaller ports tend to be small themselves, whether luxury carriers or small sailing-ship cruises.
Luxe line SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadream.com) and the motor-sail vessels of Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com) are the most commonly sighted at the islands covered in this article, visiting nearly all of them with some regularity throughout the winter Caribbean season. Ditto for sailing line Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com), whose Royal Clipper is visiting some combination of Dominica, Les Saintes, and Bequia nearly every week this season, and hits Jost Van Dyke during a pair of British Virgin Islands cruises in March. (It's smaller Star Clipper will also hit these islands next season.) High-end sailing-ship line Sea Cloud Cruises (www.seacloud.com) calls at Les Saintes, Bequia, Union Island, and Jost Van Dyke during its Caribbean season, while new low-key sailing-ship line Island Windjammers (www.islandwindjammers.com) calls regularly at Bequia and Union Island, year-round.
Luxe line Seabourn (www.seabourn.com) visits Jost Van Dyke and Les Saintes on some itineraries, while luxe competitor Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com) makes occasional calls at Bequia, Dominica, and Jost Van Dyke.
Among the big-ship lines, only two -- Princess (www.princess.com) and Azamara Club Cruises (www.azamaraclubcruises.com) -- have any real presence at most of these islands, with Princess's smallish Royal Princess calling at Nevis this month and next, and Azamara's similarly sized Azamara Journey calling at Dominica and Bequia during its Caribbean runs. Many other lines, including Holland America, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Oceania, hit Dominica on their southern Caribbean itineraries -- which means I cheated a bit by including it, but it's just such a pretty spot, I couldn't resist.