Cruising with kids

 

Best Caribbean excursions for kids
More than just sun and fun

BY TOBY SALTZMAN

Choosing the right ship to suit your family is one thing, choosing what to do in port is quite another. Parents who play the excursion cards right can provide meaningful experiences that cultivate sensitivity to nature and illuminate school lessons from explorer legends like Columbus and Ponce de Leon to the history of slavery and marine life ecosystems. With a little advance planning, astute parents can top the sun-fun delights with dollops of education.

Everyone who's ever traveled with a kid - from tot to teen - knows it's all about the kid. Parents just pay to pave the way. Boredom can kill, as can unbearable bus rides to irrelevant (in their eyes) sites. I've highlighted the Caribbean's most intriguing, kid-friendly options.

Some activities - snorkeling, kayaking, horseback-riding - are offered on every island. Many offer introductory scuba diving, Atlantis Submarine tours and underwater viewing in semi-submersible craft. If excursions add up, independent touring may seem economical. But it pays to be cautious, especially if jaunting to remote locations. Ships depart on schedule, leaving lingerers behind. So gauge distances and travel time; book recommended guides; book taxis for round trips and pay only upon returning to the ship.

Bahamas
Nassau offers fantasies of fish and pirates. At Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, walk through "The Dig." The massive underground aquarium exposes a phantasmagorical array of fish, sharks and coral. Visit The Pirates of Nassau where exhibits showcase Blackbeard and other swashbucklers who terrorized 17th and 18th century seamen. Kids will love the weird pirate paraphernalia in the souvenir shop.
In Freeport, head to gorgeous Our Lucaya Beach. The adjacent Sheraton/Westin properties have water sports facilities and eateries galore and there's a neat straw market across the road.

San Juan, Puerto Rico
If your ship loops from Puerto Rico, consider a pre- or post-cruise stay to imbibe the rich Spanish-African culture. A walking tour on the cobbled lanes of Old San Juan leads to statues of Ponce de Leon and Sir Francis Drake. At historic San Felipe El Morro Fortress, kids can explore tunnels and dungeons. A guided nature trek through lush, tropical El Yunque rainforest introduces rare species of trees dripping with wild orchids, parrots, the singing croqui tree frogs and the Coca Waterfall that Ponce de Leon assumed was the "fountain of youth." See the earth's underworld at Rio Camuy Cave Park: a trolley traverses ramps and bridges through a towering cavern of shimmering stalagmites and stalactites. Join a night tour to Vieques to experience the spectacular and rare bioluminescence phenomenon. Millions of dinoflagellates - "fireflies of the sea" - generate a neon blue glow and seem to dance in the sea.

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, USVI
Besides shopping or lounging at Magens Bay, take the Planet Aqua (Sea Trekkin') excursion where you don an oxygen-supplying bubble-helmet that allows you to follow an underwater path through coral gardens teeming with fish. (From 8 years and minimum 80 pounds weight.) On your own, follow a short, uphill walk to the historic Synagogue.

St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
St. Croix is dotted with remnants of history, sugar plantations, 19th century buildings and archeological sites. Driving the Heritage Trail is interesting, but this is a wonderful place to explore the waters. Sea kayaking in tranquil Salt River Bay leads to ancient village sites where Columbus landed, and to mangrove fringed estuaries that illustrate the interdependence of plants and sea life. Snorkellers will find big thrills at Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected, 880-acre (? Hectare) marine park where a well-marked trail meanders through coral grottoes swarming with rainbow-hued fish.

Georgetown, Grand Cayman
In 1503, Columbus called the island Las Tortugas after the sea turtles. They filled the beaches in 1568 when Sir Francis Drake arrived. You can see them now on a tour that takes in the pitch-jet terrain of Hell (yes! Hell) and the Turtle Farm. Sheltering some 15,000 turtles, from eggs to huge loggerheads - it has displays that explain their breeding and life cycle. By far the most exciting, Stingray City is a shallow sandbar where divers have "tamed" a school of stingrays by feeding them handfuls of squid. As you snorkel, the winged fish slither around you like giant grey butterflies. Real butterflies flutter around the Butterfly Farm. This tropical garden has exhibits explaining the miracle of metamorphosis. If the sugar-white swath of Seven Mile Beach beckons, park yourself at the edge of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman for access to its eateries and water sports.

Bridgetown, Barbados
Harrison's Cave is a world-renowned attraction. On a tram, you descend to the earth's mystic underworld, through a cathedral-like cave sparkling with sword-like stalactites and stalagmites and to a thunderous subterranean waterfall. Incredibly awesome, it can inspire future spelunkers, never mind artistic and sci-fi imaginations.

Virgin Gorda, BVI
It's worth traversing the stony path to The Baths where mammoth boulders - lying helter-skelter as if tossed by a giant - form a phenomenon of caves, grottoes and pools. You walk through narrow passages, in water iridescent as in the grottoes of Capri, to splash in a calm, rock-protected sea.

Montego Bay or Ocho Rios, Jamaica
While mastering the climb through currents and up the slippery boulders leading to the 600-foot-high (? Metre) Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios may be alluring, it's meant for strong, agile children who know there's no turning back. Parents take note: water shoes are essential and be wary of the throngs hustling souvenirs and illegal stuff at the exit.

St. Martin/ St. Maarten
The most thrilling escapade of this two-nation (French and Dutch) island is the sailing regatta that runs the America's Cup course. Teams on the famed Stars & Stripes, True North and Canada Cup II are assigned tasks. Guided by spirited crews, participants grind a winch, trim a sail, punch a stopwatch or just relax.

St. John's, Antigua
When Christopher Columbus discovered Antigua in 1493, little could he imagine it would become a strategic British port in the sugarcane heydays of 18th and 19th centuries. Nelson's Dockyard National Park is a prime nautical site. The panoramic view from Shirley Heights combined with the fortifications and commentaries by knowledgeable guides give insight to the international quest for maritime supremacy.

Oranjestad, Aruba
In Aruba's hot, arid climate, lolling on sugar-white beaches dotted by wind-bent divi divi trees is tempting. But it's worth taking the bumpy, Land Rover safari that runs from sand dunes to wild ocean shorelines. On a guided nature tour through Arikok National Park, you'll learn how the Arawak Indians valued the medicinal potencies of the flora and fauna. Or join an underwater marine odyssey, wearing an oxygen-supplying bubble-helmet. (From 8 years and minimum 80 pounds weight.)

Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles
Circled by reefs teeming with brilliant sea life, Bonaire invites novice scuba divers. And calm, shallow Lac Bay is a watery playground for young snorkellers, windsurfers, and kayakers. Nature-enthusiasts will love Washington-Slagbaai National Park, a pristine sanctuary for myriad bird species. A stunning yet poignant tour includes the Solar Salt Pans and nearby, airless adobe huts that housed slaves in the 1800s. Here, thousands of pink flamingoes hover in water where salt, mined from the sea, is dumped into white "mountains."

Willemstad, Curacao
Willemstad is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its18th and 19th century structures. Take the trolley tour to the floating market, Fort Amsterdam, and the historic religious edifices: the Pietermaai Cathedral, the Protestant Fort Church and the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue. Visit the Museum Kura Hulanda (John: accent egu on "a" in Kura) for the Caribbean islands' most provocative history of slavery.

Cozumel, Mexico
Ever since Jacques Cousteau raved about the crystalline waters of this island 11 miles (? Kilometres) off Mexico's coast, tourists have flocked to dive and snorkel. Guided tours are advised: some bays have hazardous undertows or jellyfish. (Their bites are irritating.) After a ferry-ride to Playa del Carmen, ships offer day trips to ancient ruins of the Mayans who vanished in the 16th century: the cluster at ocean-side Tulum or the sprawling megalopolis at Chichen Itza. Xcaret-EcoArcheological Park offers lagoons, pools and a rainforest experience.

Marida/Progreso, Mexico
Built for the cruise industry, Marida/Progreso lacks enchantment. However, it's worth walking the pier for the free cultural dance performances. If you've never seen Mayan ruins, one nearby is on the cusp of major excavation.

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
For a bird's eye view of Braullio Carillo National Park's magnificent rainforest, take the aerial tramway: it escalates from the floor blanketed with giant ferns to trees dripping with orchids to the sun-dappled canopy thriving with birds and monkeys. Less intimidating for little tykes: the narrow-gauge jungle train and jungle pontoon. Whitewater rafting on the Reventazon River's class III rapids is extreme fun for the physically fit (from 12 years).

Essentials for cruising the Caribbean with kids
For each child, pack a light knapsack with these essentials:
- a bottle of water
- goggles, swimming shoes and snorkelling gear.
- a T-shirt to wear while snorkeling to protect from sunburn
- a plastic zip-bag with first aid supplies: bandaids, insect repellent, antihistamines, sunscreen.
- binoculars and a rain slicker

Best reliable information
Official website for reliable information on all cruise ships:
Cruise Lines International Association: http://www.cruising.org/

Copyright Toby Saltzman 2003

 

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