Pinpointing islands that fall under the aegis of the Western Caribbean (Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel) and those considered Eastern Caribbean (St. Thomas, San Juan, St. Maarten) is an easy enough task. But when we asked even seasoned cruise line executives (and we don't mean to scare you here), "Which islands fall under the Southern Caribbean region?" you'd be surprised at the answers we got. Tortola? Nope, it's firmly lodged in the east. Jamaica? Alas, no. "Would that be St. Barthelemy," one responded, fairly tentatively. And this time ... yes.
The results of our pop quiz for cruise executives proves that ambiguity about which islands make up the Southern Caribbean isn't necessarily limited to the geographically challenged. One major reason for the confusion is that many Southern Caribbean itineraries include Eastern Caribbean islands -- most notably St. Thomas, San Juan and St. Maarten -- while Eastern and Western routes in the region pretty much stick to the same old same old (San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Maarten for the former; Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios/Montego Bay, Jamaica, for the latter).
For the sake of clarity, we're defining the islands of the Southern Caribbean as those first south -- and then east or west -- of St. Maarten. The list includes Antigua, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Barth's, St. Kitts and St. Lucia, along with smaller off-islands that range from St. Vincent to the Iles des Saintes.
Want another definition? Cruise line executives often classify a "Southern Caribbean" itinerary as any cruise that departs from San Juan -- even if it makes a few Eastern region stops along the way. These days, however, Southern Caribbean cruises are also available from more northerly ports, such as Miami, New York, Boston and Norfolk. "The only other way you call it Southern Caribbean," says Carnival's Terry Thornton, Vice President of Marketing Planning, "is if the cruise departs from South Florida but is of a longer-than-a-week duration."
It's exotic. Many of its islands still have strong cultural ties with -- if not direct governmental relationships to -- other countries. Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy are departments of France. Barbados and Antigua feel very British. Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao have definite Dutch influences. St. Lucia and Grenada are multicultural.
Islands, which are very close together and, as a result, can result in a port-intensive itinerary, vary wildly -- both in cultural atmosphere and physical terrain. This means passengers can experience a breathtaking range of activities. There are great beaches in Aruba and Antigua, a gorgeous rainforest in Dominica, fabulous French restaurants and boutiques in St. Barthelemy and Martinique, a drive-up volcano in St. Lucia, and, in St. Kitts, a nifty historic fort and the narrow-gauge St. Kitts Scenic Railway.
Finally, cruise lines are developing genuinely innovative itineraries beyond the usual seven-day voyages from San Juan (and the longer 10- and 11-day cruises from South Florida) to attract new passengers. Carnival has introduced eight-day trips on Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend which enable the cruise line to offer deep-south ports of call (in this case Barbados and Martinique) from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, respectively. Even more unusual is NCL's Norwegian Spirit, which this fall begins 10- and 11-night voyages sailing roundtrip from New York to ports like Dominica and Grenada.
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