The Caribbean and Mexico are the top cruise destinations for families. Why? The weather is always nice; the ports of call showcase gorgeous beaches; the snorkeling opportunities are endless; and the bus tours visit impressive ancient Mayan ruins that transport you back a few thousand years. The cruises themselves often evoke a festive, Caribbean ambience onboard, offering theme nights in the dining rooms with jerk pork dishes and calypso bands.
In 1977, Norwegian Cruise Line, then Norwegian Caribbean Line, introduced the industry’s first snorkeling program, and the “snorkel” was recognized as more than a simple pool toy for kids. Nowadays, snorkeling is a big part of the cruise world. You’d be remiss to find a Caribbean or Mexico cruise without a snorkeling excursion, and families often take advantage of this adventurous, yet tamer than scuba diving, activity.
The most popular time to go to Mexico and the Caribbean is from December through April, offering an escape from the chilly weather in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Families tend to go in the summer, as it is easier to vacation outside of busy school year schedules. The Caribbean is not as hot as you might think during the summer months. Most of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are in the hurricane belt, with the exception of a handful of islands like Aruba and Barbados (which doesn’t mean they’re in the clear as Aruba’s Hurricane Felix proved in 2007). Keep in mind that hurricane season runs from the beginning of June through November, concentrating in August, September and October.
Eastern Caribbean has many islands with kid-friendly attractions. The cruise destination is a good one for first-time cruisers, as there is less of a culture shock, its safe and the port is never too far from the ship. Cruises range from three- or four-night long weekends to 10 days and more with just as much flexibility in budget. These ports of call are the most touristy and developed regions, as opposed to other parts of the Caribbean. Carnival and Disney offer short, year-round trips to the Caribbean. Carnival Fantasy, Fascination and Disney Wonder travel frequently to the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess and Celebrity offer cruises that depart from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale or Port Canaveral. Not until recently, could passengers board cruises up and down the Eastern Seaboard at embarkation points like Baltimore and New York. Of course, these cruises are longer, from 7 to 11 nights, as the extra time is necessary to get to the Caribbean.
Though not officially part of the tropics, Key West is often a first stop in an Eastern Caribbean itinerary. It is the origin of Key Lime Pie and its famous Conch Salad gives passengers a sneak preview as to what Caribbean delicacies are to follow. Families can also tour the homes of Hemingway and Harry Truman. The “Dolphin Playground” is home to a pod of bottlenose dolphins, a great place to swim with dolphins.
Often a second stop is Nassau, Bahamas, offering kid-friendly tours at Atlantis Resort’s “Dig,” made to recapture the imagination of the lost city of Atlantis for young archeological-minded children. One of the most popular ports in the Caribbean, Nassau presents white-sand beaches, coconut palms and clear waters. Families can take a glass-bottom boat ride to see colorful fish or ride in a carriage past pastel-colored houses in town. Freeport is another port in the Bahamas, with more water sports and golf opportunities.
At St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, families can dig deeper into the mysterious ocean world. Adjacent to Coki Beach, families can explore Coral World, offering an underwater observatory tower. Snorkeling often takes place just off the beach. St. Thomas is also home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Magens Bay. An aerial tram ride takes passengers to Paradise Point, where kids can gaze over what used to be roamed by pirates!
Tortola in the British Virgin Islands offers ferries to Virgin Gorda where families can snorkel and swim among famous prehistoric boulders, deemed “The Baths.” The destination also allows guests to yacht across channels to the nearby islands of Norman, Pepper and Cooper. Kids can get excited about retracing the same paths as Christopher Columbus on his famous voyage. St. Maarten of Saint Martin Island lets kids age 12 and older can also take part in yacht adventures in America’s Cup Racing.
San Juan, Puerto Rico presents many historic monuments. El Morro is the best for families. Kids can climb and run around the surrounding grounds of the 16th century ruins. The Castillo de San Cristobal is another colonial fortress built at the very tip of San Juan to protect the city. The town is a meeting place of old and new worlds, offering Spanish cobblestone alleys and modern, designer boutiques.
All-Mexican cruises are rare, as most Mexican itineraries stop in the Yucatan Peninsula at Cozumel and/or Costa Maya — technically part of the Western Caribbean. Deemed “Mexi-Caribbean” cruises, these voyages bop between the Mayan Riviera, Key West, the Cayman Islands and more. However, die-hard, pure-Mexico cruisers can still find Mexican-only cruises that stop in Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, for example.
Located at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas is a Mexican paradise, featuring golf courses at every corner and ships going out to deep-sea fish on the hour. The waters off the coast are some of the richest marine life in the world, so snorkeling is key. Further down the western coast, Acapulco is made up of three different districts: Old Acapulco, the Costera and Acapulco Diamante. Diamante is the area’s ritziest section with all the high-end resorts. The Costera is best for families, offering a buzzing five-mile long strip with shops and restaurants. Don’t leave without seeing the famous cliff divers soar from the jagged cliffs; they perform in the early afternoon and evening.
Off Mexico’s eastern coast in the Mayan Riviera, the island of Cozumel is full of Mayan history. The ancient city of Tulum, a walled, stone city on a grassy cliff by the sea, is arguably the best preserved example of Mayan culture. Its small size makes it perfect, not overwhelming, for small children. Plus, there’s plenty of stuff to climb on! The Temple of the Frescoes displays murals of the gods and sheds light on how the Mayans measured sun rays and moonbeams to calculate the passing of time. After Tulum, head over to Xel-Ha Park, an aquatic park that offers a natural, outdoor aquarium atmosphere. Here kids can meet and swim with hundreds of native species of fish, plants and other marine life. It’s a full-day excursion from the ship via ferry on the Yucatan coastline, but totally worth it. Closer to the port, families who like snorkeling can explore the turquoise waters and deep-blue lagoon of Yal-Ku, named “son of god” in Mayan. A diverse collection of fish and other sea creatures live in the lagoon, and it’s a short ride to Akumal’s white-sand beaches where kids can swim with sea turtles in the ocean.
Costa Maya is home to Chacchoben, the Mayan place of “red corn,” a hidden forest near the border of Belize. This site was the trade center of wood, jade and tropical birds. Guided tours detail restored pyramids, like Stella, where Mayan hieroglyphic writing can be deciphered in the rock. The excursion involves plenty of walking, so comfy shoes are a must.
Scuba diving and snorkeling is offered in the coastal town of Mahahual for kids as young as age 10. Lessons take place in shallow waters first, with later trips to dive sites showcasing barracudas, sea turtles and stingrays. Better yet, the coves of Mahahual were hideouts for pirate Blackbeard in the 18th century. The fishing village offers many family-friendly restaurants. Try Pez Quadro or Oxtankha.
Western Caribbean has many distinct destinations, less touristy than the Eastern Caribbean, that offer something for everyone, from cultural history to shopping to snorkeling. A multitude of excursions please both parents and children, ranging from adrenaline-rushing zip lining to lazy days on the white-sand beaches. Virtually every big cruise line in North America offers voyages to the Western Caribbean. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the most popular, offering trips all year long, as the temperatures consistently stay between 80 and 70 degrees. During holidays and on a seasonal basis, choose from all other cruise lines, such as Princess, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line. Disney Magic also sails to Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel and to Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.
In a sunny sandbar of North Sound, two miles east of Grand Cayman’s northwestern tip, families can get up-close with stingrays, squid and various primordial fish. No need to be afraid of the stingrays; apart from the very public incident with Steve Irwin, the animals are known to be very tame and only use their barbs when threatened. Stay away from their tails if you’re nervous. The excursion also tours Boatswain’s Bay Turtle Farm, a breeding grounds for Green and Hawksbill turtles. Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach offers all the luxuries a Caribbean beach is known for, including white sand and palm trees. The beach has some of the clearest and calmest waters, making it perfect for very young children or kids who enjoy snorkeling. Families can also water ski, surf or parasail. If you’re traveling with a skateboarding kid, check out Black Pearl Skate & Surf — a 62,000-square-foot course with beginner and advanced sections. Don’t miss the Butterfly Farm, where kids can learn about different types of butterflies, from the world’s smallest Pygmy Blue to a huge Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing 11-incher, and witness them in all four stages of the life cycle.
Ocho Rios has some of the area’s most beautiful waterfalls. Dunn’s River Falls is Jamaica’s “Niagara Falls,” displaying magnificent, limestone rocks that you can hike, linked hand-in-hand, and plunges over 600 feet. It’s a good idea to rent the water shoes, available onsite, as they offer more traction on the wet rocks. A parallel path is a dryer option, offering points where you can still get wet in plunge pools. The jungle has over 200 species of ferns, deep-set valleys and ocean views from 2,000 feet in the air at Murphy Hill. If your family likes horses, a horseback riding excursion is for you. You can’t get more “Caribbean” than riding a horse bareback through the warm sea waves. These horses’ ancestors were originally brought to the New World by Columbus. Beginner riders are welcome; children must be at least 6 years old.
Families seeking an adrenaline rush can explore the canopy of Montego Bay. Adventure tours allow visitors to zip line through the tropical rainforest, over lagoons and springs. Kids over age 9 can zip line, and close-toe shoes are a must. Jungle tubing is also common in this area at White River, accessed by an open-air jeep ride up the mountain. Large inner tubes take visitors on a leisurely float down the river, dotted with short sections of rapids that will excite kids. Local guides accompany guests, singing reggae tunes along the way. Be prepared to get drenched!
The largest of the Bay Islands, Roatan, Honduras, offers stunning snorkeling in the world’s second largest barrier reef system. Trek out to the northern tip of the island and lounge at West Bay Beach, with clear, shallow water that stands only five-feet deep and holds many colorful fish. The tour provides snorkeling gear for rent. The Natural Aquarium Snorkeling Trails has Bay Islands Beach Resort guides families through 12 buoy-marked stations with coral and sea stars. Punta Gorda is a Garifuna community on the eastern end of the island. Like stepping into another world, families experience the different culture through rhythmic music, mud stove-baked bread, basket weaving and woodcarving. Ferries transport visitors on a canal covered by red mangroves.
Though technically part of Central America, Belize is often a stop on Caribbean itineraries. Known for its lush rainforests, visitors often drive up the Western Highway to Cave’s Branch of the Sibun River and hike in the jungle. Families can also tube through the awe-inspiring, sacred Mayan caves on this hike. Cave tubing is wildly popular, showcasing limestone caverns with stalactites and stalagmites that wow kids. Barrier reef snorkeling is another favorite, especially for first-timers. There’s no pressure to scuba dive, as families can still witness beautiful schools of fish with a mask and a snorkel in shallow waters off the coast. For more adventure, catamarans make trips to Turneffe Atoll, a shallow reef about 16-miles off the coast with colorful sponges, parrotfish and barracuda.