A portion of the world's cruise ship fleet is on its way to Florida and things are about to get crowded. The imports from across the pond will be joining ships that spent the summer serving the Caribbean and Mexico. At one port, Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades, 15 ships will depart mostly for the Caribbean and Mexico in just one week in January.
Most are heading to the familiar ports -- St. Thomas, Belize, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Nassau. At any of these stops, you may find three to five ships in port at the same time. Newbies and regulars don't seem to mind.
While I have hopped to many of these popular islands, and will again, I've gained a passion for some of the more authentic smaller ports in the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. I haven't been to them all but I expect to cover more this winter.
Claudius Docekal of Azamara Club Cruises is a fountain of country and port information when it comes to cruise ports around the world. Thanks to him, Azamara was a pioneer in adding overnights and longer stays in port and he is an expert on these lesser-known islands.
One of Claudius's favourite small islands is Nevis and, of the large islands, we both have a fondness for Barbados with its British heritage and its eclectic cultural mix, which includes a giant Digicel Reggae Festival in April. Oh yes, there's also the rum!
Lines like Oceania, Windstar and Azamara are among those that linger in the Windward and Leeward Islands in places like St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, Bequia, St. Barts, Nevis, Montserrat and Guadeloupe.
Many of these islands offer an authentic, inviting experience. In Bequia, a mother and daughter shared some local fruit with me. When I asked about possible B&Bs, the mother said she had one on the water. When I asked about contacting her, she said: "Oh just call the local tourist office; they will find me and give the message."
In Roseau, Dominica, two matronly ladies who owned a small outdoor shop cajoled, laughed, told many stories and told me how handsome I looked in each of the Rasta hats I tried on and, yes, I did buy one. How could I turn them down? You're always happy to buy when the experience is that much fun.
It's a good idea to Google each of the islands so you know what to expect. Azamara, for example, has a cruise in March from Miami that goes to many of the less-travelled islands (details below), and you'll want to know more about them before your ship docks.
Barbados is among the bigger countries in the Lesser Antilles, and it's where Windstar has its deluxe masted flagship, the Wind Star, cruising this winter. The seven-day cruises are from Bridgetown (return) to islands in the Grenadines, Grenada and St. Lucia.
From San Juan, larger lines like Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Carnival also visit some of these islands, where you'll discover rain forests, uncrowded beaches and towns and small cities with a more laid-back pace of life.
Phil's Pick of the Week
Azamara's deluxe ship Quest leaves Miami on March 16, 2014, for an 11-day tour of the Caribbean. Ports are St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands; Terre-de-Haut, Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe; Roseau, Dominica; Gustavia, St. Barts; Charlestown, Nevis; Virgin Gorda, BVI. Prices start at $3,147 per person based on double occupancy. For more information, see a cruise travel agent or Azamaraclubcruises.com
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