Port Canaveral, in the center of Florida’s east coast, is not only the surfing capital of the Atlantic. It is also home to rocket and shuttle launches, the largest sea turtle nesting area in the country, the largest scallop fishery on the planet and a national refuge with more endangered species than any other.
Even with all of these superlatives, most cruise passengers associate Port Canaveral with Orlando, just 45 miles west — and with Walt Disney World, Universal theme parks and SeaWorld so close, it would be difficult to find a cruise port anywhere that offers access to more theme parks and family-friendly tourist attractions.
The port bills itself as Orlando’s closest beach with dolphins, manatees, loggerhead turtles and miles of pristine sand — minus the crowds that are typical of South Florida. A mile and a half of bike paths run throughout Port Canaveral, as well as three parks, including Jetty Park where camping and fishing opportunities abound. The bustling Cove at Port Canaveral features a variety of restaurants and shops.
But, with Port Canaveral smack in the middle of what’s known as Florida’s 72-mile Space Coast, the premier attraction is the Kennedy Space Center, where guests can meet and talk to actual astronauts. The U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, six miles from the visitors’ center, houses the world’s largest collection of astronaut memorabilia, as well as displays, exhibits and tributes to the heroes of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
St. Maarten, like many other Caribbean islands, was spotted by Christopher Columbus in 1493. But the island’s real history began with French and Dutch settlers who divided the island in 1648. They have lived side-by-side ever since. St. Maarten, governed by the Netherlands Antilles until 2010, is now a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (along with Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands), while St. Martin is part of the French West Indies. What’s particularly fun is that you can easily swing back and forth from the Dutch to the French sides and enjoy the best of both. On either side of the mountainous island, lovely beaches — including the famed clothing-optional part of Orient Beach — rival the best in the Caribbean. Plus, duty-free prices for electronics and liquor in Philipsburg might be the best deals around.
Although the official language is Dutch for St. Maarten and French for St. Martin, virtually everyone speaks English.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and San Juan is its urban hub. The city, by and large, is divided into new and old. The new includes a business district and outlying neighborhoods, concentrated with hotel chains like Isla Verde. The old is, of course, the historic city within ancient walls.
Of all America’s Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico offers the most exotic aura. The melange of indigenous Taino culture, combined with European and African influences in San Juan (and all of Puerto Rico, for that matter), is one major factor. Add to that its own unique influences in areas ranging from cuisine and music to history and art.
For those who visit San Juan as a day-stop on a Caribbean itinerary or embark or disembark there, the island’s biggest appeal is the old city. Most cruise ships dock right in the heart of Old San Juan, which dates back to the 16th century. The old, walled city has been exquisitely preserved, and its sprawling forts, cobblestone streets, antique shops and art galleries make it an ideal first stop. Its mainstream attractions include the imposing El Morro fort, which dates back to 1539; the Cathedral of San Juan, where the island’s first governor, Ponce de Leon, is buried; La Fortaleza, the oldest governor’s mansion on U.S. soil; several colonial plazas; and the triumvirate of Calle del Cristo, Calle San Jose and Calle Fortaleza for shopping. Calle del Cristo, in particular, is chock-full of art galleries, artisan studios and distinctive boutiques.
Royal Caribbean’s Labadee is a 260-acre private beach resort carved out of Haiti’s rolling, densely forested north coast. It’s located some six miles from Cape Haitian, a city of 190,000 that’s played a prominent part in Spanish and French colonial history. According to RCI, Labadee was discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus — but it wasn’t until 1986 that the line leased the peninsula of property from the Haitian government. Today, as in the 15th century, the geography — an undulating coastline creating a series of lagoon-like bays, all protected by a reef — sets the scene for the visit. A typical day in port may include snorkeling, filling up a plate or two at the all-you-can eat BBQ, zipping across the water on the 2,600-foot-long Dragon’s Breath Flight Line or snoozing soundly in a beach chair.