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
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.
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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,
- 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