Time to re­think Caribbean itin­er­ar­ies

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - LOUISE GOLDSBURY

Last year, more than 28,000 Aus­tralians took a cruise in the Caribbean; this year, the re­gion has been dev­as­tated by a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal hur­ri­cane sea­son. Four mas­sive storms thrashed the is­lands last month, with lit­tle breath­ing space in be­tween, and the ef­fect on Caribbean cruis­ing is un­prece­dented.

The most de­struc­tive was Hur­ri­cane Irma, which forced about 150 cruises to be can­celled or al­tered and 25 ports shut down. Some ar­eas re­main un­in­hab­it­able and cruise ships won’t be back any­time soon. Among the hard­est hit were St Thomas, St John and St Croix in the US Vir­gin Is­lands; St Bart’s, Tor­tola, Vir­gin Gorda and Jost van Dyke in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands; the twin na­tions of St Maarten and St Martin; the Turks and Caicos; and most of Puerto Rico and Do­minica.

But the Caribbean is al­most three mil­lion square kilo­me­tres, so there are plenty of places that suf­fered no dam­age. A ben­e­fit of the mov­ing na­ture of a cruise ship is that it can eas­ily sail to al­ter­na­tive ports in­clud­ing Ja­maica’s Mon­tego Bay, Ocho Rios and Fal­mouth; the so-called ABC is­lands of Aruba, Bon­aire and Cu­ra­cao; Mex­ico’s Cozumel and Costa Maya, as well as Grand Cay­man, Belize, Roatan, Labadee, St Kitts, St Lu­cia, Gre­nada, An­tigua and Bar­ba­dos. It was much tougher dur­ing the storms when Car­ni­val was an­nounc­ing changes and can­cel­la­tions within 48 hours of sail­ing. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Hol­land Amer­ica, Ocea­nia, Wind­star, MSC, Dis­ney Cruise Line and Nor­we­gian Cruise Line also switched ports or can­celled cruises. This left many trav­ellers, es­pe­cially Aus­tralians, stranded as they had flown in days be­fore their cruise.

Many Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber cruises are still im­pacted and some ships have been re-routed through to the end of the year. MSC Div­ina has re­vised voy­ages as far ahead as Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary and the new MSC Sea­side, sched­uled to launch in De­cem­ber, is sub­sti­tut­ing St Maarten un­til March. (Princess Cruises, Sil­versea, P&O, Cu­nard, Regent Seven Seas, Costa, Crys­tal, Vik­ing, Se­abourn and SeaDream have not yet an­nounced long-term plans.) When book­ing a fu­ture cruise, the best op­tions are East­ern and South­ern Caribbean itin­er­ar­ies from Bar­ba­dos, West­ern Caribbean from Gulf ports, and some de­par­tures from South Florida. In the US, ships have re­sumed call­ing at Key West since Hur­ri­cane Maria and at Galve­ston af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey ham­mered the Texas coast. The Ba­hamas and Cuba are op­er­at­ing nor­mally. While many Caribbean des­ti­na­tions have seen min­i­mal dam­age to tourist at­trac­tions, it would be wise to lower your ex­pec­ta­tions in case some ac­tiv­i­ties are un­avail­able or the is­landers are not quite so care­free. Un­der­stand­ably, some peo­ple may feel un­com­fort­able hav­ing fun where the lo­cals might be strug­gling. It’s re­as­sur­ing to know that the tourism-de­pen­dent places want you to visit and spend your cash at their busi­nesses. Cruise lines and ports are work­ing to­gether to en­sure tourists do not ob­struct re­cov­ery ef­forts. Cruise ships were also used to evac­u­ate res­i­dents and de­liver sup­plies to bat­tered is­lands.

Trav­ellers can as­sist by do­nat­ing money or school sup­plies; ask your cruise line or travel agent what you can do to help at your ports of call. Every pas­sen­ger can do their part in sup­port­ing these com­mu­ni­ties, and it can be done in your lunch break. Don’t go back to the ship to eat the free food. Stay ashore and buy some jerk chicken or a pina co­lada.

Louise Goldsbury is the se­nior edi­tor of cruise­critic.com.au.

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