As the cruise ship sailed toward the Caribbean on the first day at sea, a woman hurried into the theater for a scheduled lecture on the ports of call.
"Excuse me," she said breathlessly, "is this the place where they tell you where to shop?"
For her and many like her, a Caribbean cruise is the most comfortable route to a multi-island shopping spree to stock up on duty-free items from liquor to perfume, jewelry to cameras.
For others, it is a handy sampler of beaches and resort hotels to check out for future vacations, or coral reefs and clear turquoise and cerulean water for diving or snorkeling, or a multicultural dip into a dazzling variety of languages, currencies, architecture and tropical foods.
Most cruise ships offer several basic shore excursions for sale for each port of call--a general island tour that will include scenery, history and a shopping stop; a boat ride that may be anything from a rum punch party raft with a steel band to a yacht cruise to an uninhabited island; and a beach, snorkeling or resort visit. Occasionally, golf, tennis or helicopter sightseeing are available.
An Independent Tour
Per-person prices for basic island tours and beach excursions may range from $10 or $15 up to $30 or more, so a large family or group of three or four traveling together might find it cheaper and more convenient to negotiate an independent tour with a taxi driver or hire a cab to go to and from the beach. Be sure to agree on a set price before getting into the vehicle; on many islands the fares are fixed and posted.
On the other hand, passengers making their first trip outside the mainland United States or who are uneasy or uncomfortable about striking out on their own will probably prefer the shore excursions sold on board in order to travel with a group from the ship and have the services of an English-speaking guide.
Because the weather can be hot and humid, choose excursions carefully to avoid overtaxing yourself. Never take a full-day tour if a half day will do, and don't commit yourself for all of them unless you're a tireless trouper. Carefully consider your choices before signing up, because they are usually not refundable if you change your mind.
Here are some shoreside tips on special sightseeing, shopping and getting around the islands most frequently visited by cruise ships:
Barbados shore excursions set out in mini-vans from the pier; tours are varied and well-run. The port is a longish stroll or short cab ride from Bridgetown, where air-conditioned department stores vend fixed-price bargains in English china and woolens and Irish crystal.
For well-designed crafts, look for the Best of Barbados shops; for Bajan cooking, try the buffet lunch at Brown Sugar near the Hilton, where there's a lovely beach. Buses (35 cents) and taxis go all over the island. The Barbados dollar equals about 50 cents U.S., and everyone speaks English in this independent Commonwealth nation.
Cozumel/Cancun, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, tops the list for divers who want to explore Palancar Reef and its submerged shipwrecks and for sightseers making excursions to the ruins of the ancient Maya cities of Chichen Itza and Tulum.
Disembark Excursion Groups
Shoppers can find black coral, hand-embroidered clothing and hemp hammocks at bargain prices with more than 900 pesos to the dollar. Some ships call briefly at Playa del Carmen to disembark excursion groups, then go on to Cozumel's new deep-water port, a $3 cab ride from the town of San Miguel.
Jamaica's major cruise ports are Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, both on the island's lush north coast near plenty of white-sand beaches. Dunn's River Falls is the No. 1 shore excursion (wear your swimsuit if you intend to climb the falls), followed by river rafting and plantation great house tours. If you decide on an independent tour, set the price before getting into the vehicle.
Shop for crafts, duty-free articles and reggae tapes; if you want Blue Mountain coffee beans, scrutinize the label carefully before buying. The Jamaican dollar is worth around 20 cents U.S.
Martinique is part of France, so the language is French and the currency the French franc (around 6 to the dollar). From the piers it's a longish stroll or a $5 cab fare into Fort-de-France, where shoppers will find the lowest perfume and cosmetics prices in the Caribbean at Roger Albert's famous emporium.
If sun, sand and topless sunbathing are more appealing, take the ferry across the bay to the hotel beaches at Trois Islets, birthplace of Napoleon's Josephine. The top shore excursion here is a drive up to St. Pierre to the Pelee Museum, a fascinating collection of artifacts from the terrible volcanic eruption in 1902 that wiped out the entire town of 30,000. If the Grand Ballet de Martinique performs on your ship, don't miss it.