Seek out these irresistible attractions
on your next Caribbean cruise
By Van Sheridan
Frank Elias/Flavors of San Juan
Here are eight out-of-the-ordinary experiences to consider as you explore ashore. You can search for deeply discounted cruise itineraries that visit these alluring spots with the help of the Find a Bargain tool at www.CaribbeanCruiseDiscounts.com, a website from national cruise discounter Vacations To Go. To speak with an agent, call (800) 338-4962.
Food and lore in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are passionate about music, dancing and food. Restaurant after restaurant line the streets of Old San Juan, the capital's inviting historic district, and deciding which to try is a little like flipping a coin -- you might love it or hate it. Former CNN staffer Leslie Padro takes the guesswork out of satiating your Criollo cravings with her Flavors of San Juan excursions. Her tours lead people to places where the locals dine. The tantalizing forays highlight signature dishes -- such as garlicky mofongo, a mashed-plantain favorite -- that anchor the Puerto Rican meal.
A two-hour, progressive lunch stroll winds along the cobblestoned lanes of Old San Juan, allowing participants to sample three restaurants. Slightly longer dinner outings visit four eateries and are tasty options for vacationers spending the night in Puerto Rico before their cruise departure. Interspersed among dining stops are photo opportunities and colorful anecdotes.
Culinary tours are $69 per person for lunch and $79 for dinner, and cooking classes and rum tastings also are available. Learn more from Flavors of San Juan, (787) 964-2447 or www.SanJuanFoodTours.com.
Butterfly safari in St. Martin. France and the Netherlands share this tiny island in the Lesser Antilles. On the French side, St. Martin, visitors can explore the world of papillons at the Butterfly Farm near Orient Bay. British owner William Slayter opened this luminous attraction in 1994 to give tourists an up-close look at these ethereal creatures. He cultivates hundreds of species from around the world.
Here, visitors will try their hardest to get the striking blue morpho butterflies from the rain forests of Latin America to land on their hands or perch on their shoulders. If not one of these iridescent insects, then perhaps the swallowtail, with its vibrant emerald-colored wings, or the orange tip, which resembles a black-and-white print until your eyes rest upon its Technicolor-edged wings.
The farm is open daily, and the best time to photograph is in the afternoon, when the winged beings move a bit slower. However, morning is ideal for catching new butterflies as they emerge from their cocoons.
Tickets are $14, and cruise ship visitors get a $2 discount. For more information, visit the Butterfly Farm's website, www.TheButterflyFarm.com.
Cigars in the Dominican Republic. One of the largest handmade cigar factories in the world is based near the town of La Romana on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic. It is a quaint town ripe for exploration with rows of charming cafes, art galleries and amber shops. The folks are friendly and so are the souvenir prices when compared to capital Santo Domingo, about two hours west. The cruise port is sandwiched between La Romana and Casa de Campo, a resort for jet-setters with a penchant for golfing, deep-sea fishing and horseback riding. En route to the five-star complex, you'll pass lush sugar fields and makeshift stands with broad tobacco leaves browning in the sun.
Just outside Casa de Campo, Tabacalera de Garcia (aka TdeG) offers informative tours of its roughly 40-year-old factory, including demonstrations of how leaves are blended and rolled by hand. You can even purchase a couple. The factory produces more than 60 brands, including such well-known ones as Don Diego and H. Upmann.
Snorkeling haven in the Cayman Islands. Grand Cayman is the largest of three Cayman isles and a scuba-diving and snorkeling mecca. Most newcomers head to Seven Mile Beach, blessed with sugar-soft sand, palm trees and Australian pines. It's lined with tony resorts, and the people-watching couldn't be better. But for snorkeling, locals prefer shaded Rum Point, where easy shore diving makes boats unnecessary. The clear waters at this spot on the northern tip of the island are calm for swimming. It's about an hour's drive from George Town, where cruise ships drop anchor.
Coral formations encircle Rum Point, making it ideal for witnessing marine life like swaying sea fans and brightly hued fish. The beach is anchored by the Wreck Bar and Grill, a watering hole for residents from nearby condos (try the famous frozen mudslide cocktail, allegedly invented here), and there are changing rooms and showers.
High tea in Jamaica. Jamaica is the land of coffee and, once upon a time, sugar. In the 18th century, the island was the world's largest producer of raw sugar. Slavery and sugarcane made British plantation owners wealthy, and they built sprawling mansions. One of the greatest fortunes was that of John Tharp, who acquired the Good Hope estate, built in 1755, as well as thousands of acres of neighboring land.
Today, visitors can get a taste of life in colonial days on the 2,000-acre grounds, which are about 20 minutes from Falmouth. Along with a potter's studio, tours of the Great House and horse-drawn carriage rides across the rolling slopes of Queen of Spain Valley, Good Hope hosts three-course lunches designed by Al Pacino's former chef, Tammy Hart, who uses distinctive spices to showcase Jamaican fare.
In addition, the estate serves high tea, a British tradition once reserved for the wealthy. Now, everyone can savor freshly baked scones with fragrant brews. Royal Caribbean International provides both lunch and tea excursions to Good Hope during calls at Falmouth.
Market scene in Antigua. About 108 square miles, diminutive Antigua boasts 365 beaches -- one for each day of the year, claims the tourism board. One thing is certain: This tropical haven provides abundant diversions. Folks can relive a dramatic (and romantic) era in the history of the Caribbean while visiting Nelson's Dockyard, named after Britain's greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson. There also are water sports, restaurants and plenty of shops.
But to really capture the island's flavor, you'll need to make a beeline to the vibrant public market near the West Bus Station in St. John's. Here, you'll find a fish and meat market, bustling on Friday and Saturday, when Antiguans do most of their shopping. The vegetable and fruit stalls are nearby and loaded with bananas, sugar apples, breadfruit, eggplants and gourds. And just around the corner is the craft bazaar, where vendors show off handmade wares such as leather sandals, baskets and soaps.
Beach bar in Turks and Caicos. Rimmed by blue-green seas and emerald cliffs, Turks and Caicos is a place where people come to dream. The views are sweeping, flecked with blazing violet bougainvillea plants and swathed in azure seas and sun-bleached sands. Quaint villages sparkle in the light.
Grand Turk is an ideal launchpad for superb lounging, diving and snorkeling. Many visitors also enjoy a leisurely bike ride across this small island dotted with salt pans. Afterward, they can unwind and stare at the waves at the popular, open-air Sandbar Restaurant on Duke Street in Cockburn Town. Removed from the tourist traps, the unpretentious Sandbar is an afternoon respite of hamburgers, conch and fries. Here, the Canadian owners, sisters Tonya and Katya Vieira, don't require shoes or shirt. Cockburn Town itself is a laid-back charmer of 18th- and 19th-century Bermudian architecture. It's within a short ride of the cruise terminal, where plentiful taxis await.
Shore time in St. Thomas. Crowned by verdant hills, this haven in the U.S. Virgin Islands has one of the busiest cruise ship harbors in the West Indies. It also boasts gorgeous beaches around capital Charlotte Amalie. About 20 minutes away, Sapphire Beach is a hidden gem favored by locals any time of the day and perfect for people seeking room to spread out their towels. Windsurfers and kiteboarders appreciate the light water traffic as well.
The Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina provides easy access to the beach, and there is a full-service dive shop. The snorkeling here is excellent. Lounge chairs and umbrellas are available to rent. There are changing facilities, and sodas and light snacks are sold at refreshment stands. You'll see artists displaying their works, but because this is a family environment, there is no pushiness, just good ol' fun.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2012. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.