updated 9/28/2005 7:36:52 PM ET 2005-09-28T23:36:52

Of all the regions in all the world, the Eastern Caribbean offers the most choice for cruising. Nearly every cruise line, major or minor, offers some type of itinerary that either concentrates on the region or at least touches a port or two. Voyages not only depart from the region's major jumping-off points (Miami and Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades) but also other East Coast ports ranging from New York City to Charleston. Is time an issue? Eastern Caribbean trips range from perfect-weekend three- or four-night jaunts to ten nights and beyond. And, finally, travelers can choose cruises that represent all budget ranges, from cheap-cheap-cheap to ultra luxury (and moderate in between).

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Technically, cruising's Eastern Caribbean region encompasses the British and American Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the two-nation-one-island St. Maarten and St. Martin. We also include the Bahamas -- which, just as technically is not part of the "Caribbean" -- because stops there are such a major part of so many Eastern Caribbean itineraries.

Veteran Caribbean visitors may, these days, yawn at the thought of yet another call at an Eastern Caribbean stalwart like St. Thomas or St. Maarten or Nassau for the same reason that this region is a first-rate choice for first-time cruisers. That's because these ports-of-call, which also include San Juan, are among the Caribbean's most tourist-developed. There are plenty of well-organized activities, from duty-free shopping to watersports to historic sites -- and, in many cases, a visit to these destinations may not feel all that exotically Caribbean. Don't be fooled, however; an effort to look beyond the obvious will reveal lots of surprises, from desolated beaches to hip restaurants.

Best Time To Go
"High" season in the Eastern Caribbean typically begins in December and runs through April, luring numerous "snowbirds" who want to flee winter in the U.S., Canada and Europe. While many cruse lines then deploy ships to other destinations for warmer weather cruising, some stay put, offering year-round itineraries.

The only major difference between winter and summer in the Eastern Caribbean is a slightly warmer clime -- but it's not as searingly hot in summer as you might expect. Another tip for summer and fall travelers: that's when cruise lines offer the best bargains. We must include a caveat, however: Hurricane season runs from June 1 - November 30 and, particularly in the traditionally oh-so-busy months (for storms) of August, September and October, can wreak havoc with your cruise vacation.

Choosing An Itinerary
The biggest challenge is not so much in determining which islands you'll visit -- cruise lines offer fairly minimal variety aside from the same-old same-old stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau. More important to determine: When will you go (which has a direct bearing on choice of ships) and what is your ideal debarkation port?

Short Cruises:

If you are planning a short cruise (and season doesn't matter): Carnival and Disney offer a year-round selection; these ships (which include, respectively, Carnival Fantasy and Fascination and Disney Wonder) limit calls to the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress offers a three-night itinerary from San Juan that calls at St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

Traditional Eastern Caribbean Itineraries:

If ports of call tend toward the predictable, passengers on Eastern Caribbean cruises at least can pick from a wide range of ships that serve the region on its traditional (seven-night) voyages departing from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Port Canaveral (near Orlando). The options abound year-round. These include Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas (Port Canaveral), Carnival Victory (Miami), Celebrity Century (Ft. Lauderdale), Golden Princess (Ft. Lauderdale), and Holland America's Zuiderdam (Ft. Lauderdale).


Trendy Eastern Caribbean Itineraries:

In a relatively recent development, cruise lines have been tapping ports along the Eastern Seaboard (Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston and Jacksonville) as home-bases for seasonal Caribbean trips. Itineraries range wildly, from seven-night "greatest hits" ports to more unusual, timing-wise, trips that take eight, nine, 10 and 11 nights as these ports, being a further distance from those in south Florida, are a further distance.

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life Baltimore is one city that's benefited: Celebrity's Galaxy is sailing 11-night Eastern Caribbean cruises from Baltimore and seven-night trips to San Juan. Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas is offering 11-night itineraries. Holland America's Rotterdam has 11-night voyages. New York is another major port to pick up a new style assignment -- that as a home port for seasonal Caribbean; among the lines offering service include Carnival Legend, which will sail eight-night voyages from the "Big Apple." NCL's Norwegian Dawn this year launched a completely unusual itinerary -- it offers seven-night Bahamas/coastal Florida cruises on a year-round basis.

Ports of Call: Hot New Trends
The British Virgin Islands, Tortola in particular, is on an upswing. Once limited to small ship luxury and adventure operators (with the occasional visit by a big ship line), Tortola's easy proximity to St. Thomas -- plus a wide range of things to do, including side trips to Virgin Gorda -- has made it a hot new destination.

Another relatively new "face" on some Eastern Caribbean itineraries is the Dominican Republic. The big draw for this port, located near La Romana, is the 7,000-acre (and quite upscale) resort village of Caso de Campo.

Losing luster on the Eastern Caribbean trend-o-meter is, sadly, St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Crime issues -- and the impact on cruise passengers and crew -- have caused most lines to eliminate this otherwise fascinating island from 2004 itineraries.

Fabulous for Family Cruising
The islands of the Eastern Caribbean are perfectly suited for families because so many ports have invested in kid-friendly attractions. Some ideal day-trips that ships often offer as a shore excursion -- and are just as easy to independently explore:

Nassau, Bahamas:

Take a tour of Atlantis Resort's "Dig," a re-created "Atlantis" for budding archeologists.

St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.:

Head for Coral World, which has an underwater observatory tower; afterward, snorkel and sun at the adjacent Coki Beach.

Tortola:

Take the ferry to Virgin Gorda and snorkel and swim among the prehistoric boulders that make up "The Baths."

San Juan:

Visit Old San Juan's most historic monuments, particularly the eminently "fun" (you can climb and hike, and the surrounding grounds are perfect for picnicking and Frisbee) El Morro, with original sections that date back to the 16th century.

St. Maarten:

For older kids (12-plus), try America's Cup racing aboard Stars & Stripes, Canada II or True North -- it's as hands-on as you want. Younger children will get a kick out of the Butterfly Farm, a tropical garden surrounded by fine wire netting (so the butterflies don't escape) on the St. Martin side of the island.

Offbeat Eastern Caribbean
Few luxury-oriented cruise ships offer all-Eastern Caribbean itineraries (the region is a bit too on-the-beaten-track for these folks) and only in the dead-of-winter. But when they do call in the region plan on visiting smaller, less trafficked islands, where big ships can not typically go. For instance, Windstar's Wind Spirit offers seven-night St. Thomas roundtrip itinerary includes calls at nearby St. John (big ships require passengers to debark in St. Thomas and take a public ferry to St. John) as well as the British Virgin Islands' Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda, as well as St. Martin. SeaDream Yacht Club's two vessels visit the same ports of call.

Adventure-oriented small ship aficionados also have a range of choices. Windjammer Barefoot Cruises offers itineraries that range from four-, five- and eight-day trips to the Bahamas to an all-Virgin islands trip that calls, beyond St. Thomas, Tortola and Virgin Gorda, at Water Island, Jost Van Dyke and Norman Island.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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