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TravelEastern Caribbean vs. Western Caribbean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?

Eastern Caribbean vs. Western Caribbean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?


Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean cruises might sound similar when you start researching them. Just about wherever you go, you’ll enjoy sunny days, sandy shores, sparkling seas and balmy breezes. But the reality is that Caribbean islands’ personalities can vary as widely as those of regions of the U.S.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean refer to cruise ship route types rather than literal descriptions of locations on a map.

So, which Caribbean itinerary is your best choice? Read on for our evaluation on how to make the right choice for your next cruise.

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Embarkation ports

Typically, you sail to the Eastern Caribbean from ports in Florida — in most cases, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral, the port on the coast near Orlando — as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a few Eastern Seaboard ports, such as New York City. For Western Caribbean sailings, you can depart from Florida ports, as well as Galveston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans.

So, which embarkation port is best for you? There’s no secret to it: whichever one you can get to the fastest and the cheapest.

That said, if you see an itinerary that embarks in the Caribbean, know that you’ll get a little extra time in the islands in exchange for that longer flight. On the flip side, itineraries that embark in the Northeast require you to sail the oft-rough seas of the Atlantic to get down to those pale blue Caribbean waters. You will also need longer than a week to sail from more northern home ports to destinations beyond the Bahamas.

Itineraries

Grand Turk cruise port in Turks and Caicos. MIKOLAJN/GETTY IMAGES

Weeklong, round-trip cruises are common in both parts of the Caribbean, but you can also find shorter and longer options.

Common ports in the Eastern Caribbean include both big, crowded, touristy options and some smaller, sleepier islands, which are typically only accessible by small ships or during shore excursions. Itineraries might include visits to Grand Turk, St. Maarten (the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin), the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix), the British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda), Puerto Rico and ports in the Bahamas — including the cruise lines’ private islands. Small vessels (and some larger vessels) might also call in Antigua, Anguilla and Dominica, as well as the tony island of St. Barts.

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In the Western Caribbean, you might call on Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize and Mexican ports such as Cozumel, Costa Maya and Progreso. Some of these ports — in the thick of a strong Caribbean cruise season — can be lined up with large cruise ships; for example, you can find as many as seven ships calling on Cozumel on a busy day.

Related: A beginners guide to picking a cruise line

Beaches and water sports

If your fantasy is stretching out in the sun and splashing in the surf, you’ll want to pick your Caribbean itinerary carefully so you can live the dream. When it comes to beaches, the Eastern Caribbean islands have the Western ones beat in most cases, but you can find sandy shores on most Caribbean itineraries.

With just a short cab ride from the cruise port, you can escape the throngs and find a quiet, sandy strand to call your own. After a few hours in the sun, you’ll agree it was worth the effort, especially in Grand Turk and the Virgin Islands.

When it comes to water sports, some of the easiest opportunities to paddleboard, sail, kayak and parasail are available on the cruise lines’ private islands, mainly located in the Bahamas. At Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, Holland America’s Half Moon Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye and Great Stirrup Cay, Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay and Labadee, and MSC Cruises’ Ocean Cay, you’ll find more opportunities to get out on the water than you could take advantage of in a day.

You can find visits to cruise line private islands on many weeklong or longer Eastern or Western Caribbean itineraries.

Related: Visiting a cruise line’s private island? Don’t make these 11 mistakes

Shore excursions

The Kukulkan pyramid at the Chichen Itza archaeological site. MARCO BOTTIGELLI/GETTY IMAGES

Where the Mexico ports of Cancun, Costa Maya and Progreso in the Western Caribbean shine is in historical sites, especially when it comes to the spectacular pre-Colombian Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza and Tulum. You can tour Mayan sites from Belize as well.

Equally impressive, though a totally different experience, is a day spent snorkeling or diving around the reefs off the Western Caribbean coasts of arid Grand Cayman (known for sea turtles and rays), Jamaica (known for underwater cliffs and unusually colorful coral) and Belize (where you might even get to see whale sharks).

That said, you’ll have your pick of island tours, water-based activities and boat rides of all kinds on any itinerary you choose.

Shopping

In both the Eastern and Western Caribbean, you’ll find ports that are designed for shopping, with a mix of luxury boutiques and knickknack stores spread out around the cruise ship terminal.

In Nassau, Bahamas, the famous straw market sells everything from cheaply made souvenirs to local crafts, T-shirts and designer knockoffs. St. Thomas and Grand Cayman also offer a mix of jewelry shops and bric-a-brac, as well as duty-free liquor stores offering rum tastings.

If you luck into an itinerary with St. Barts on the roster, you’ll find small French-Caribbean boutiques full of chic resortwear and elegant sandals, as well as rum made with Tahitian vanilla beans.

Bottom line

Canoes on a beach at St. Thomas in U.S. Virgin Islands. CDWHEATLEY/GETTY IMAGES

While every cruise line has its own personality and a type of traveler that would find it ideal, so does every itinerary. You’ll want to choose your route carefully and research the individual islands to make sure you are picking not only a ship but also a sailing that plays to your preferences.

That said, our advice is that if you’re a beach lover who is looking for peace amid the palm trees, the Eastern Caribbean is the way to go. Those who sunburn easily and are looking for other entertainment than just the joy of their toes in the sand — including history buffs and divers — should consider the Western Caribbean their ideal choice.

If you’re looking for a fun-in-the-sun vacation, with a mix of active and relaxing days, you’ll be happy no matter where your Caribbean cruise takes you.

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