By David Hughes
Caribbean cruising can take many different styles. For some it can take the form of a short three-day hop from Port Everglades, Miami, to Nassau or Freeport, Bahamas, and back again. For others possibly a longer week's vacation to St Thomas or St Maarten with a day at sea to and from Miami.
However, South Africans have a much longer way to travel to reach Caribbean waters. The shorter trips are fine if added on to complement say, a coach trip around the US. Otherwise it may seem somewhat tiring and a waste of time to fly all the way to Orlando or Miami to board a cruiseship for just a three-day break.
I recently flew via London and on to Barbados to join the P&O liner Victoria for a two-week cruise around many varied and different Caribbean ports of call. (Yes, my own holiday, nothing sponsored!).
South Africans generally speaking do not flock to the Caribbean in droves because of the distance. Other folk say the islands are too similar to the Indian Ocean islands - how wrong they are!
My two-week voyage from Barbados called at a range of ports. First up was St Lucia, then Guadeloupe, Antigua, St Barts, Tortola, Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, Bonaire, Grenada, and finally a return to Barbados to fly back to London and the connecting flight to South Africa.
I've singled out two of the islands will give two complete contrasts of life in the islands. Standard trademarks for sure are the usual steel bands, and plenty of rum punch (strong stuff that!).
Ocho Rios, Jamaica, is a beach resort with a small pier where cruiseships dock. There are naturally beautiful beaches, a pleasant town with shopping possibilities (not forgetting the rum) and a botanical garden worth a call.
Further out of town we visited the home and last resting place of the famous British playwright, Sir Noel Coward - quite the colonial thing to do when in Jamaica. He really did pen the song A Room With A View from here and his simple tombstone pays justice to his lifestyle at the bottom of the garden.
The interior of the bungalow is surprisingly not luxurious considering his flamboyant life. The lounge is full of his memoirs, including a well-stocked library and his grand piano where he composed and entertained.
A visit to his bedroom is perhaps a little creepy with some of his Nawaan shirts still hanging up in the closet. It's nevertheless a fitting tribute to a grand gentleman of England.
St Barts is French and, in fact, still part of France, so you need a visa to call there if you are travelling on a South African passport. The atmosphere ashore is truly French chic with millionaires' yachts in evidence everywhere.
Stylish boutiques and café bars abound along the waterfront promenade, so much so you could easily imagine yourself someplace along the French Riviera. But Caribbean it is and a purchase of a Carib Beer (the local brew) or yet another Rum 'n Coca-cola and you will be ready for the whole Carmen Miranda fling.
Shopping in the Caribbean islands is easy and fun - the keynote rules are to haggle, have fun and listen to those fascinating different Caribbean accents of the shopkeepers.
In some fleamarkets and town areas you may need to be a little more persistent and do some hard work to ward off barter-hungry T-shirt and curio sellers, but such is life in any tourist-trap situation. The locals are hungry for the "US dollar" - the currency most acceptable in all Caribbean islands, to improve their often impoverished and third-world lifestyles.
My P&O liner called at each island with the ease of running a bus service. With an island on the horizon almost every day of the two-week voyage, it surely makes sense to book a sea cruise. No hassles of all that packing and unpacking if you were say flying inter-islands.
The ship is your home from home for the duration of the cruise and a most welcome one at that on return from a day at the beach or to recover from all that shopping!
Standard time of arrival is 6am at each island only sailing again at 6 in the evening, so there is plenty of time to explore what each island has to offer. Taxi drivers are on the quay every day looking for instant business, so transport is no problem either, which seems to be the general motto of Caribbean life. Just be prepared for a little slower way of life.
And, at the end of the day, as your cruiseship slips the mooring ropes and sails off into the sunset and you sip another rum punch, gazing at the island scenery on deck - it may be considered life is great!
Your local travel agent will have details of P&O cruise holidays.