Not finding a good beach in the Caribbean is sort of like saying you can't find any flavor you like at Baskin Robbins. C'mon, they're all pretty good after all. No matter where your ship calls in the Caribbean, there will be an appealing patch of sand to drop your towel.
They're not all the same, of course. Some are secluded and tucked away among picturesque cliffs, while others are wide open bustling places with loud music, wall-to-wall oiled bodies and no shortage of cheap beers and eats.
Here's a guide to a bunch of the best ones, plus the best cruise itineraries to get you where you need to go. Once in port, you can generally hop in a taxi to hit the beach, or in many cases sign up for the ships' beach excursions -- in Cozumel, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, for example -- that include roundtrip transportation and possibly a free drink or similar extra.
- Anguilla -- A tiny hideaway in the Leeward Islands, Anguilla harbors some 33 soft white sand beaches, many tucked into coves and framed by rock formations, including Shoal Bay and Little Bay.
- Aruba -- If your ship is landing in Aruba, you're in luck. This island just north of Venezuelan has miles of near-perfect, sugar-white sand all along the western shoreline, aptly called the Gold Coast. Top beach stops include Palm Beach (where nearby you'll find some great windsurfing).
- Barbados -- The easternmost island in the Caribbean, Barbados has a Gold Coast as well, also skirting the western shores. Paynes Bay, Brandon's Beach, Paradise Beach and Brighton Beach are all good options. For something more scenic, head to Crane Beach to the south; it's all rocky bluffs and palm trees, and surfers dig the rough tides here.
- British Virgin Islands -- Simply put, it doesn't get much better in the idyllic department than the British Virgin Islands. The biggest are Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Tortola, but even they are actually quite small, surrounded by tiny bays, secluded coves and beaches straight out of central casting. In Virgin Gorda, most head for the Baths, where you can explore the many grottos and pools, or swim around the huge boulders scattered along the shoreline like giant beach balls. Sunbathers will appreciate the powdery sand beach. In Tortola, Cane Garden Bay beach is a header turner.
- Grand Cayman -- Just a short taxi ride from Georgetown, where your ship's tender will drop you off, the island's Seven Mile Beach is a stretch of pristine sand and among Grand Cayman's biggest attractions.
- Grenada -- The island's Grand Anse Beach is one of the best in the Caribbean and just a couple of miles from the cruise port of St. George's. This wide two-mile-long stretch of beautiful white sand is a peaceful place to park your towels but also offers restaurants and water sports outlets.
- Jamaica -- Ya mon, if you decide to skip the falls and shopping malls, head for the long stretch of golden sand along Jamaica's western shores, the famed Negril Beach. The strip is prime real estate for sunbathing, watersports and people watching. A great place to be a voyeur is sitting in one of the many beachfront bars and eateries that cling to the cliff tops along the West End.
- Les Saintes -- A favorite of those in the know, this mini French island is as sweet and charming as they come. Last time I was there, an old man in a beret was selling gruyere and baguettes from a cart by the entrance to Plage de Pompierre, a small crescent-shaped beach tucked into a cliff-encircled cove about a 15 minute walk from the dock.
- Nevis -- Count your blessings if your ship takes you here. Among the spectacular beaches is the miles and miles of golden sand at Pinney's, all framed by coconut palms and affording panoramic views of sister-island St. Kitts off in the distance.
- St. Barts -- You're a lucky dog if your ship calls on tiny St. Barts, the king of European chic. And for a reason -- the hilly little spot is über scenic. Great beaches include St. Jean or Grand Cul de Sac. Those seeking more solitude can head to the quieter sands of Colombier on the island's northwestern tip.
- St. Martin -- Bifurcated St. Martin falls under the territorial controls of both France and the Netherlands, with the megaships calling on the Dutch half and the smaller craft coming into port on the French side. Of course you can always hop in a taxi to see how the other half lives. The best strips of sand here include Great Bay Beach and Cupecoy Beach (both Dutch) and Orient Beach and Long Beach on the French side.
- U.S. Virgin Islands -- Just about every cruise ship in the Caribbean calls on St. Thomas (that's why you'll often find as many as 10 ships there at a time), while some of the smaller ones might also visit the quieter and more natural St. John. Both are in the U.S. Virgin Islands (along with St. Croix), but St. John is largely undeveloped thanks the efforts of the U.S. National Park Service. Even if your ship calls on St. Thomas, most lines offer excursions over to St. John, just a short ferry ride away. Head to Trunk Bay, one of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches with its sugar white sand and coconut palms. A big draw is the marked underwater snorkeling trail with plaques describing the sea life you may spot along your way, from angelfish to sea turtles, anemones to octopi. There are many other beaches on St. John as well, including Maho and Cinnamon beaches down the road. St. Thomas has its share of sand too, including Magens Bay, Coki Beach and Morningstar, but most are over-rated and none can compete with what you'll find on St. John.
Choosing the Best Itinerary
When deciding on an itinerary, beach lovers should look for those with lots of ports to get the most beach for your buck. Some of the biggest ships may call at only three different islands, while almost all of the smallest ones will visit five or six in a week. Cruises that depart from a Caribbean island (Puerto Rico, St. Thomas or Barbados, for example), can usually include more ports of call in a weeklong cruise than ships that have to sail greater distance to get to the islands from ports farther to the north (say Florida or New York). Still, the tried and true western Caribbean route that so many big ships ply -- Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel -- does offer great beaches, you'll just have to share them with thousands of other cruise passengers.
Beach-Bound Small Ships
Seabourn (tel. 800/929-9595; www.seabourn.com) High-end and refined, these genteel ships are for anyone with money, taste and a penchant for top-of-the-line food and service.
- Seabourn Legend sails round-trip out of St. Thomas, calling on Guadeloupe, Antigua, St. Barts, St. Martin and Virgin Gorda; also round-trip out Barbados, calling on St. Barts, St. Martin, Nevis, Martinque, and Bequia (Nov thru April).
SeaDream Yacht Club (tel. 800/707-4911; www.seadreamyachtclub.com) Small, intimate and casually elegant, these 110-passenger yachts pack the coolest toys (ski jets, mountain bikes, kayaks -- even Segways). Itineraries are seven nights, and they're all great.
- SeaDream I sails round-trip from St. Thomas calling on Les Saintes, Anguilla, Antigua, St. Croix, Virgin Gorda & Jost van Dyke, BVIs; or St. Barts, St. John, Nevis, Saba, St. Barts and Jost Van Dyke; also between San Juan and St Thomas calling on St. Barts, Saba, St. Martin, and Virgin Gorda & Jost van Dyke, BVIs (between Oct and April).
- SeaDream II sails some of I's itineraries, plus cruises between St. Thomas and Barbados that call on Antigua, St. Barts, St. Martin, Les Saintes, St. Lucia, Bequia, Mayreau and Grenada.
Star Clippers (tel. 800/442-0551; www.starclippers.com) Beautiful and authentic, these tall ships ooze charm and offer an intimate and comfortable encounter with the Caribbean.
- Star Clipper sails round-trip out of St. Martin doing two itineraries, one: Nevis, Les Saintes, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Antigua and St Barts; two: St. Barts, St. Kitts, Jost Van Dyke, Norman Island, Virgin Gorda, and Anguilla (Oct to April).
Windjammer Barefoor Cruises (tel. 800/327-2601; www.windjammerbarefoot.com)For true rum-swigging adventure, these eccentric old sailing ships are simply intoxicating if you're in search of an ultra-casual, let-your-hair-down island-hopping jaunt.
- Mandalay sails 6-nighters round-trip out Tortola with visits to Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda, Norman Island, Cooper Island and Peter Island (April to Sept).
- Yankee Clipper sails 6-nighters round-trip out of Grenada year round, calling on Bequia, Mayreau, Carriacou, Tobago Cays, St. Vincent and Union Island.
Windstar Cruises (tel. 800/258-7245; www.windstar.com) High tech and yachty, these four and five masted sailing ships offer a great split between adventure and comfort, the ships are cushy without being stuffy for a second.
- Wind Spirit, round-trip out of St. Thomas, calls on St. John, St. Martin, St. Barts, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda. (Jan to April).
- Wind Surf, round-trip out of Barbados, with visits to Les Saintes, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, St Barts, St. Martin and Nevis; or Tobago, Grenada, Bequia, Dominica, and Mayreau (Jan to April).
Beach-Bound Big Ships
Carnival (tel. 800/327-9501; www.carnival.com) All around good fun if Vegas and wacky décor are your thing.
- Between November and March, the new Carnival Liberty is doing 8-night cruises out of Ft. Lauderdale calling on Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua, Tortola and Nassau (Bahamas).
Celebrity (tel. 800/437-3111; www.celebritycruises.com) The most attractive mega ships in town, these ship are gorgeous, from their eye-opening art collections to their elegant restaurants and lounges. Plus, the line excels with an ultra innovative entertainment and activities repertoire.
- Between Jan and April of 2007, the Galaxy's 10- and 11-night cruises out of San Juan include calls to Tortola, St. Martin, St. Lucia, Barbados, Isla Margarita, Curacao and Aruba (and Dominica and St. Kitts instead of St. Martin on the 11-nighters).
Holland America (tel. 800/426-0327; www.hollandamerica.com) This line's mid-size and mega ships offer an appealing, low-key cruise for all ages.
- The Maasdam offers 10- and 11-night cruises round-trip out of Norfolk, Virginia this winter calling on St. Thomas, Antigua, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Half Moon Cay, the line's awesome private island in the Bahamas (10-nighters) and also Dominica, Barbados and St. Kitts instead of Antigua and St. Martin on the 11-night routes.
Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) This line's mega ships offer the most flexible dining set up at sea, eat any time, any where in casual ware in as many 10 restaurants.
- Oct thru April the Norwegian Dawn does 10-nighters from New York, calling on St. Thomas, Tortola, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico and Great Stirrup Cay, the line's private island in the Bahamas.
- Between October/November and February, the new Norwegian Spirit will offer 10- and 11-night Caribbean cruises round-trip out of New York calling on St. Thomas, Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Dominica and Tortola (11 nighter) and St Martin instead of Grenada and Dominica on the 10-nighters.
Princess (tel. 800/774-6237; www.princess.com) Big ships that manage to cast an intimate vibe and offer all of the latest dining and entertainment options.
- Golden Princess sails round-trip out of San Juan through April on alternating itineraries that call on five islands: first, St. Thomas, St. Kitts, Grenada, Isla Margarita (Venezuela) and Aruba, or second, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas. Between November and April, the Crown Princess also does the first itinerary, but calling on Bonaire instead of Isla Margarita.
Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com) Big and bustling, these all-around attractive ships have neat amenities like rock climbing walls, miniature golf and lots of entertainment and dining options.
- Serenade of the Seas spends October through April doing 7-night cruises out of San Juan that call on five islands: St. Thomas, St.Maarten, Antiqua, St. Lucia and Barbados.
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