From the high top deck of one of those massive Caribbean cruise ships as it sits at the dock of a tropical island, you usually look down on shopping run amok. Anchored to a pier at Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, or in a seaside Jamaican port, or in countless other former ocean villages, the view is one of large, shabby warehouses converted into shopping malls, and featuring the goods of Calvin Klein, Eileen Fisher and Victoria's Secret.
No wonder many passengers never leave the ship. They prefer curling up with a mystery novel to being fleeced at these frantic markets. Or they doze on the deck rather than engage in another round of repetitious, familiar shopping.
That's why it's vital to do advance planning for a Caribbean cruise. The islands you visit have experienced centuries of momentous history, they have a culture and an educated, English-speaking population, and they possess extraordinary natural attractions or unique farming activities or crafts manufactured in small factories. The point is to seek out those unusually interesting places, people or attractions, as my daughter, Pauline, did by advance planning for a recent weeklong Caribbean cruise.
Jamaica: By contacting the various offices of the Jamaica Tourist Board in the United States about two weeks in advance of the cruise, Pauline was able to arrange (as you also can arrange) a unique and free-of-charge port-stop visit with Jamaican counterparts, via that island's "Meet the People" program (operated for some 41 years).
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By making that contact, U.S. schoolteachers are taken to visit Jamaican schools. U.S. doctors are taken to visit Jamaican hospitals. Pauline opted for a visit to a highly qualified but amateur Jamaican chef in her own home, who proceeded to instruct her in the preparation of Jamaican specialties (which turned out to be remarkable dishes). You even can arrange to be taken by a Jamaican to one of the island's standard sightseeing attractions, which instantly gives greater meaning to those places.
Cozumel: Rather than take the canned and expensive bus tours offered by the ship lines themselves, smart travelers make use of the several independent companies like ShoreTrips.Com, Port Promotions.Com and PortCompass.Com that will arrange for a smaller van with driver to pick you up at the dock where passengers disembark and take you on a different sort of tour, to what is, after all, an important Mayan site, regarded as holy by ancient people.
In Pauline's case, she was driven overland through the jungle on an all-terrain vehicle, taken to large caves, where the guide loudly announced, "This is the home of my grandparents," taken to swim in a geological underground pool and brought to a bat cave of unique interest (and at least 1,000 bats). The tour, a memorable one, cost much less than the cruise line charged for its 45-passenger motorcoaches, even though it was conducted for only four participants.
Cayman Islands: Because of a torrential rain most of the day when she was there, touring was limited, but it was undertaken by private taxi for much less than the cruise line charged. An excellent taxi driver provided a sophisticated commentary (including frank comments on the islands' controversial industry of offshore banking) and the small group that hired the taxi was taken to a famous turtle farm, which raises those animals not only for food, but for preservation of the species. An impressive scientific lecture was delivered for the occasion.
A private island: A private island was the only forgettable stop: Like many Caribbean cruise ships nowadays, Pauline's vessel visited Labadee in Haiti, a large private beach, where no alternative existed to the cruise lines' overpriced activities: $35 for a roller coaster, $85 for a zip-line ride.
In sum: By arranging for alternative methods of touring the various stops made on a Caribbean cruise, my daughter transformed three of the cruise's five island visits (two days were spent simply at sea) into valid cultural experiences of depth and interest.