Popular with the sailing and yachting crowd, Antigua is the largest of the British Leeward Islands (though it's still only 23km/14 miles long and 18km/11 miles wide), and is much more laid back than some of the glitzier Southern Caribbean islands. Most cruise ships dock at Heritage Quay, Nevis Pier, or the more commercial Deepwater Harbour in St. John's, the island's easygoing capital and main town, full of cobblestone sidewalks and weather-beaten wooden houses. A handful of smaller vessels drop anchor at Falmouth Harbour, on the south side of the island, or the even smaller English Harbour next to it. Shore excursions naturally include diving and sailing, both popular here; there's also decent shopping at restored warehouses near the docks.
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As ships get bigger and cruise line fleets grow, some Caribbean ports are more about traffic jams and crowded shopping malls than frosty margaritas on windswept beaches. The antithesis to all of this Caribbean madness, of course, is the cruise line private island, where only one ship or two ships at a time stop for the day. Yes, they still can get crowded but because there's no travel involved to the beach, there's less overall hassle. And, let's be real: These ports are a way for the cruise lines to control more of your travel dollar ( ka-ching, ka-ching ) and you won't be treated to any historic sights. Still, if there's a private island stop on an itinerary you choose, it's shouldn't be a deal-breaker: A pure beach day is not such a bad thing.
Norwegian Cruise Line pioneered this concept developing Great Stirrup Cay, a stretch of palm-studded beachfront in the Berry Island chain of The Bahamas. As other cruise lines jumped on the bandwagon, most grabbed islets in the Bahamas Holland America ‘s Half Moon Cay, known for its ultrasoft sand; Princess Cruise ‘s Princess Cay, which offers tons of water sports; Royal Caribbean/Celebrity ‘s family-oriented CoCo Cay; and Disney Cruise Line ‘s Castaway Cay, which in true Disney style features a barnacle-encrusted ghost ship anchored offshore (a prop from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies). MSC Cruises even went so far as to make its own cay in the Bahamas, Ocean Cay Marine Reserve.
More off the beaten track are Costa Cruise ‘s palm-fringed Catalina Island, in the eastern Caribbean off the coast of the Dominican Republic, and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity ‘s Labadee, an isolated, sun-flooded peninsula along Haiti's north coast. A completely tourist-oriented and sequestered area, it was untouched by the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and in fact provided locals with some much-needed jobs following that tragedy. Top draw The restored 18th-century naval base at Nelson's Dockyard National Park (www.paradise-islands. Org ) was once home base for British national hero Admiral Horatio Nelson; it's surrounded by a lovely national park with lots of nature trails and scenic lookouts. It's 18km (11 miles) southeast of St. John's, or within walking distance of English Harbour. Slice of history Billed as the only still-working 18th-century sugar mill in the Caribbean, Betty's Hope (www.visitantiguabarbuda. Com ) is near Pares village on the island's east side. Iconic sight On the extreme eastern tip of the island, Devil's Bridge is a natural limestone arch carved out over the centuries by powerful Atlantic breakers. Come here at high tide to watch the surf spurt skyward through its blowholes. Top beach Antiguans claim that the island has 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. Our top pick is secluded Half Moon Bay, at the island's southeast extreme, which has good waves for bodysurfing and a quieter side for snorkeling.