Many cruise ships, especially the small ones, are avoiding the cliche ports of call and creating fresh and imaginative itineraries in the Caribbean that include many of the less-visited islands.
What these ports may lack in sophisticated shopping or shore excursions, they more than make up for with untracked sandy beaches and unspoiled settings. Here's a thumbnail guide to a baker's dozen of the best:
Antigua (pronounced An- tee -guh rather than An- tee -gwa) is an independent, English-speaking nation with 365 beaches, most of them, unfortunately, a long, expensive cab ride on bumpy roads from the deep-water port at St. John's. The ship-arranged excursions are the best bet here, with restored 17th-Century Nelson's Dockyard the main attraction; Admiral's Inn is a popular lunch stop.
Shoppers can find cotton batik fabric or garments at the West Indian Sea Island Shop or Coco Shop on St. Mary's Street in St. John's, a short fixed-fare cab ride from the pier; be sure to dress modestly in town. The Eastern Caribbean dollar equals about 40 cents U.S., but greenbacks and credit cards are accepted in many places. Always ask if the marked price on an item is in E.C. or U.S. dollars.
Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, the ABCs of the Netherlands Antilles, are often visited during South America or Panama Canal sailings. Aruba is noted for its powder-sand beaches; Bonaire for its flamingos, coral reefs and diving; Curacao for the port of Willemsted with its row of pastel 18th-Century Dutch buildings, many of them duty-free shops.
All three are desert islands, drier than the rest of the Caribbean, flat and cactus-studded and dotted with oil refineries. The currency is the Netherlands Antilles florin, but dollars are generally acceptable. Besides duty-free goods, you can bring home the fine orange liqueur of Curacao.
The British Virgin Islands, quieter and more pristine than their American cousins, number somewhere between 40 and 60, but only 16 or so are inhabited. Virgin Gorda is probably the most beautiful, Tortola the largest. U.S. currency is generally used.
For beach lovers, The Baths at Virgin Gorda is splendid for swimming and snorkeling; a glass-bottom boat ride at Salt Island over the wreck of the Rhone, a Royal Mail steamer smashed onto the reef by a hurricane in 1867, is unforgettable.
Grand Cayman, largest of the Cayman Islands south of Cuba, is famous for spectacular diving among 325 shipwrecks, beaches of sugar-white sand and huge sea turtles. Day trippers from cruise ships tender into shore at Georgetown and can visit a turtle farm, go snorkeling, take a ride on a glass-bottom boat, a submarine dive or a Kon Tiki party cruise.
Conch and turtle dishes are Cayman culinary treats, and shoppers will find exquisitely-styled black coral jewelry at Richard Barile's shop on Harbour Drive in Georgetown, as well as seashells and straw crafts. A Cayman Islands dollar is worth $1.25 U.S.
Grenada was rarely heard of in the United States before our 1983 military intervention, but this fragrant spice island is becoming a favorite of cruise ships, which tie up or anchor in the pretty port of St. George's.
Island tours are by taxi, and the emphasis is split between spice crops and America's role in the recent power struggle. Street vendors selling spices in small straw baskets are polite but persistent; the "saffron" they market is actually turmeric. Nutmegs, cloves and cacao beans are good buys, however, and the rum punch at The Nutmeg on the waterfront Carenage packs a wallop.
Two-mile-long Grand Anse Beach is a $1 water taxi jaunt from town. Although the official currency is the E.C. dollar, worth about 40 cents U.S., greenbacks are accepted everywhere.
Guadeloupe, like Martinique, is French, but less bustling and sophisticated than its sister island. Your ship will probably dock at Pointe-a-Pitre; if it's morning, head for the colorful marketplace near the waterfront that spills over a four-block area, with fish sellers vending from their boats.
The general island tour usually includes the scenic Natural Park, a glimpse of the semi-active volcano La Soufriere and a stop at a rum factory or coffee plantation. The resort hotels and tourist beaches are at Gosier a few miles south of Pointe-a-Pitre. If you're setting out on your own, you need a basic command of French.
St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is beginning to see more and more cruise ships sail into its deep-water port at Frederiksted. Taxi fares over to the larger city of Christiansted are $4 a person, where even avid shoppers should take time out to note the graceful butter-yellow 18th-Century public buildings, part of a National Historic Site.