When ships visit a port of call, they either tie up alongside a dock or they anchor offshore and tender everyone to town via shuttle boats. The difference can add on an hour or more to the time it takes you to start exploring the port of call and the time it takes to get back to the ship at the end of the day.
Some ports have multiple docks to support numerous mega ships at one time; others have one or more docks, but only for smaller ships. If there's a dock, you can trot right off the ship; the main port town may or may not be within walking distance. Some ports don't have any docks at all for cruise ships because the water isn't deep enough to accommodate their draft, because there's no space to build a dock, or simply because a dock and its infrastructure is too expensive to build, especially for smaller developing island nations. As ships get larger and longer, it's more challenging than ever for some ports to accommodate them. In many cases, today's super giant ships (for example, ships more than about 1,000 feet long, such as Royal Caribbean Voyager-class ships, the QM2 and Royal Caribbean's planned Genesis-class ships) are not, or will not be, able to visit certain ports simply because of their size.
For ships that drop anchor offshore, the tender ride into town can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 40 minutes, and that's not counting the time spent lining up at the gangway to wait for the next tender boat to depart. Often ships use their own tender boats as shuttles (those orange life boats attached to the sides of the ship); though in some cases they are required to use the port's local shuttle boats. Though it varies, one cruise ship tender holds anywhere from about 30 to 120 passengers at a time (local tenders, like the ones at Cozumel, can carry 200+).
If you're on a small ship, say one of the 110-passenger Sea Dream yachts or a Windjammer Barefoot tall ship, a tender ride is fun and efficient. There's rarely much waiting and the small ships can typically anchor pretty close to shore. With a 3,000- or 4,000-passenger ship it's a different story. The megas are often anchored further out and during the morning rush to get to shore for tours, passengers are often given numbers and told to wait until theirs is called before heading for the gangway and the tender boat. Once at the gangway, there may be more queuing, before being packed onto the shuttle boat with nary a seat to spare. Same story coming back to the ship.
If you have trouble walking or use a wheelchair, tendering may not even be option for you. Though tied with ropes to a small platform at the side of the cruise ship at the gangway, tender boats typically rock up and down in the surf making it challenging to get on and off if you have mobility problems or have infants in strollers. A few lines, like Holland America, have special lifts that can transport wheelchairs between the tender boats the cruise ship.
Here's a rundown of where big cruise ships can dock in the Caribbean/Bahamas -- and where they can't. Typically, if there's a dock or a tender pier, you'll find a terminal with shops, eats, and phones too.
Most cruise ships dock at Heritage Quay or the Nevis Pier, or if both are occupied, the commercial pier at Deepwater Harbour. All are located in St.John's, the island's only town of any size, located on the island's western coast. The three piers have a total capacity of six ships. A handful of smaller vessels drop anchor at Falmouth Harbour, on the English Harbour main road in Falmouth, on the south side of the island. This anchorage is also used for overflow if the St. John's piers are all occupied. Heritage Quay was upgraded in December 2006, and renovations are planned for the Deepwater Harbour pier in late 2007. Long-term plans include a new cruise facility to handle the super mega-ships.
Cruise ships arrive at the Port of Oranjestad. The three recently renovated terminals can handle three mega-cruise ships and two smaller ships; one of the three terminals is a container berth a short walk from the main terminal. From the pier it's a 5-minute walk to the shopping districts of downtown Oranjestad and a 10-minute drive to the beaches.
The cruise ship docks at Prince George Wharf are in the center of town at Rawson Square, in the middle of Nassau's shopping hubbub. The main docks can accommodate six larger cruise ships and one smaller one.
Ships docks at Lucayan Harbor, an industrial looking area; you must take a taxi to anything worthwhile. The docks can accommodate three larger ships, or several smaller ones.
About a mile from the capital, Bridgetown, the main cruise terminal has docking capacity for five cruise ships. A sixth can tie up at a nearby commercial pier, a five-minute shuttle ride from the terminal.
Shallow waters mean ships must anchor offshore and tender passengers in to the multimillion-dollar pier called the Fort Street Tourism Village -- a 20-minute-plus trip. Four cruise ships can be accommodated on a given day.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Anchor and docking
Many ships dock right in Road Town Harbor or may anchor offshore and tender in passengers. Two mega ships can tie up at the Cruise Pier, while smaller ships or tenders may dock at nearby Road Town Jetty or the West End ferry terminal. Sopers Hole is a popular tender destination as well.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
Virgin Gorda doesn't have a pier to suit any of the large ships. Most vessels anchor in Gorda Sound and tender passengers to a pier at Spanish Town, which can accommodate smaller cruise vessels. Ferries from Tortola also berth here.
Hurricane Wilma did a number on Cozumel's cruise piers when it hit in October 2005. The Puerto Maya pier, about 3 miles south of tourist hub San Miguel, was completely destroyed and is currently no where close to reopening, while the busy International Pier, a bit closer to town, and San Miguel's centrally located Punta Langosta cruise pier fared best of the three, and are now back in commission. Up to four mega ships can dock at these two piers, the rest must anchor off shore.
Playa del Carmen
Some cruise ships anchor offshore or at the pier of Cozumel, and then send passengers over to Playa del Carmen by tender. Others dock at the Puerto Calica Cruise Pier (which doubles as a dock for cement freighters), 8 miles south of Playa del Carmen and basically in the middle of nowhere.
Costa Maya is a self-contained port stop; ships dock and drop passengers right at in the center of the action.
One large cruise ship at time can dock at the recently upgraded megapier just beyond the bridge at Rif Otrobanda, in the heart of Willemstad. Three to four smaller cruise ships may dock inside the entrance channel at the St. Annabay Wharves; there is no anchorage for passenger ships. A second megapier is being planned adjacent to the other, with a targeted completion date of 2010.
Dominica has three cruise ship ports that can each handle one ship at a time. The most frequented is the Roseau cruise ship berth in the heart of Roseau, the country's capital and largest town. The Woodbridge Bay Port is about a mile north of Roseau, and the other is the Cabrits cruise berth, near the northwestern town of Portsmouth, with a tourist welcome center and quick access to Fort Shirley and Cabrits National Park. Additional cruise ships must anchor offshore and tender passengers to the terminal (about 5 minutes).
Up to nine cruise ships can anchor off George Town and ferry their passengers to a pier at the new cruise terminal on Harbour Drive, right in the midst of George Town's shopping district. Some tour and dive operators have their own water-shuttles that come out to greet the ship and take booked passengers directly to their activity, eliminating the tender ride to shore.
Set on the south side of Grand Turk, the Grand Turk Cruise Center can handle two megas ships at a time; a third must then drift (ships may not anchor) and tender passengers ashore, usually no more than a 10-minute ride.
Dock and anchor
Two ships at a time can dock at the modern Melville Street Cruise Terminal and one more at the main quay. Up to four vessels can anchor in the picturesque St.George's harbor and send their passengers on a short tender ride to the pier.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Most cruise ships dock at the Ocho Rios Cruise Terminal, near Dunn's River Falls. The normal docking area has space for three ships; mega-ships occasionally use the adjacent industrial pier which is a short walk from the terminal. Additional vessels must anchor and tender passengers for the short 15- to 20-minute trip to the terminal.
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Montego Bay has a modern, recently expanded cruise dock for 3 to 4 ships, with a large terminal.
Medium-sized ships dock at Mallory Square (Old Town's tourist central), while larger ships pull alongside at the nearby Westin Resort's Pier B and at the U.S. Navy base's Â?Outer MoleÂ? pier. All are on the Gulf side of the island and all can accommodate one ship at a time. Passengers arriving at the Navy pier must take an official shuttle bus the short distance to and from Mallory Square, as individuals are not permitted to transit the base on their own. Additional ships can anchor for the short tender ride to shore.
Most cruise ships dock in the heart of Fort-de-France, at the Pointe Simon Cruise Dock, which has quays for two mid- to large-sized vessels. On heavy traffic days, one mega ship, or two smaller vessels, may also wind up docking at the Tourelles Passenger Terminal at the main harbor, a 5-minute cab ride from Fort-de-France. Expansion of the Pointe Simon area is underway, including construction of additional berthing for megaships. When all cruise piers are full, additional ships can dock across from the Tourelles terminal at a commercial pier, about a 5-minute shuttle ride from Tourelles.
Dock (only for small ships)
Only small ships can dock at the Charlestown Port, right in the center of Charlestown. Larger vessels must anchor off the coast of Pinney's Beach.
Just about all cruise ships dock at historic Old San Juan, but during periods of heavy volume, you may get stuck at one of the much less convenient cargo piers across the water from the Old Town, requiring a taxi ride.
Cruise ships anchor off Gustavia, the main town, and ferry passengers to the dollhouse-size harbor and town via tenders.
In the town of Basseterre, Port Zante's cruise pier can accommodate two megaships. Additional vessels may dock at nearby commercial Birdrock Deepwater Port, about two miles from downtown.
Most cruise ships arrive at Pointe Seraphine, within walking distance of the center of Castries. Two mid-to-large sized cruise ships can be handled. If more ships are in town, they will dock at Port Castries, an industrial terminal on the other side of the colorful harbor. Some smaller lines, such as Star Clippers, Seabourn, and Clipper, visit other sites around the island, anchoring off Rodney Bay to the north or SoufriÃ¨re to the south and carrying passengers ashore by tender.
St. Martin/Sint Maarten
Cruise ships usually dock on the Dutch side, at Dr. A. C. Wathey Pier, about 1 mile southeast of Philipsburg. The majority of passengers are then tendered to the smaller Captain Hodge Pier at the center of town, but others choose to walk or take taxis. The pier can accommodate up to four vessels; any more than that may anchor in Great Bay, a quick tender from the Captain Hodge Pier. Smaller vessels sometimes dock on the French side of the island, at Marina Port la Royale, adjacent to the heart of Marigot.
Most cruise ships anchor at the bustling West Indian Dock/Havensight Mall. Located along the southern end of Charlotte Amalie Harbor, 2½ miles from the town center. The dock can accommodate three to four large ships, or one to two megaships. If Havensight is clogged with cruise ships, you'll dock at the Crown Bay Cruise Ship Terminal, to the west of Charlotte Amalie. The two piers can accommodate three ships of varying size, although unlike Havensight, it cannot dock the megaships. If both options are at capacity, ships anchor in Charlote Amalie Harbor.
Cruise ships cannot dock at either of the piers in St. John. Instead, they moor off the coast at Cruz Bay, sending in tenders to the National Park Service Dock, the larger of the two piers. Most cruise ships docking at St. Thomas offer shore excursions to St. John's pristine interior and beaches.
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