The Best Island Cruises

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Caribbean Dream Follow in the same trade winds of the adventurers who shaped the new world. By Susan Moynihan

Sunlight and motion woke me early, and I scrambled up on deck of the Star Clipper. As four stripe-clad crewman pulled lines and trimmed sheets, the ship shifted beneath my feet, responding to the wind and waves. The night before I'd fallen asleep snug in my cabin as we motored out of the port at Dutch St. Maarten. But now with 15 crisp white sails taut against the breeze, we were really sailing. I come from a Navy family, and spent my youth sailing with my dad. The intimacy you forge with nature when navigating the wind is a feeling like no other, and one I hadn't expected to find on a ship carrying 170 passengers. "Quite a beauty, isn't she" asked someone next to me, and next thing I knew I was involved in a four-way debate over wind speed (turns out we had 30 knots of wind, which explained the heel). I'd forgotten the camaraderie that exists between sailors, and in that moment, with the early morning sun on my skin and my bare feet on the teak deck, I knew I'd chosen well. This week-long Caribbean cruise that would take me to smaller ports on islands that came into their prime during the 18th-century days of the sugar trade. Experiencing them by sail would offer the kind of glimpse back into those days that I could never get on a modern megaliner.

The Star Clipper tied up to a small pier at Cabrits, a secluded town on Dominica, situated on the opposite end of the island from the capital, Roseau, where other cruise ships dock. There I found a Caribbean village going about its daily routine as it has, I imagine, for centuries: ramshackle wooden houses painted in a Crayola-box hues, laughing schoolchildren in blue-plaid uniforms and a man leading a goat down the center of the main road, vainly attempting to avoid the potholes.

I experienced a similar simplicity on the island of Terre-de-Haut in Les Saintes, part of the six-island archipelago of Guadeloupe. After spending the day on a perfect curve of beach surrounded by French-speaking sunbathers, I strolled back through the main town of Le Bourg and took my seat at a nearly empty café. I sipped my icy cold beer and watched as people who had come for the day from Guadeloupe's larger islands boarded the ferry. A few nearby shopkeepers closed up and headed home, leaving me to enjoy the sunset in peace.

Life onboard the Star Clipper was equally serene. Passengers spent most of their time topside, reading in chaises on the top deck or swapping travel tales over drinks at the open-air tropical bar. Each night after dinner, I'd go up to the top deck to take in the stars, brilliant against the black-velvet night sky. As I scoured the heavens for constellations, I felt connected to all the adventurers who had sailed these same waters before.

Clearly, our captain loved his job. Although he'd just taken over the helm of the Star Clipper a few weeks before, he'd been sailing tall ships for decades. Throughout the week, he was a regular sight on the bridge, relishing the hands-on attention that sailing requires. The wind kept its brisk pace all week, averaging force 7 on the Beaufort scale, and we maintained a steady 10- to 12-degree heel. Passengers laughed as they momentarily lost footing and grabbed for a rail or were hit by a splash of water that tipped out of the low side of the pool. It was a lively ride.

A few days later, as we neared Antigua, the captain got the chance to test the ship's limits when we crossed paths with Star Clipper's sister ship, the 227-passenger Royal Clipper. We all gathered on deck to take in the show. The Royal appeared on the horizon under motor, as we were. She passes across our bow and then circled behind us and came parallel along our starboard side. As both captains called commands, the respective crews began unfurling sails, one by one, to the cheers of the passengers gathered on both decks. The sails billowed in the wind, and before we knew it, the race was on.

Faster we sped for 20 glorious minutes, the ships racing. As the captain edged our smaller ship slightly ahead, the opposing ship fired a cannon blast; we responded with a solid bellow of the horn and kept our pace. All too soon it was over, and we waved as the Royal fell off behind us, continuing along its own journey to its next port.

Our ship set course for Falmouth, just north of the English Harbour, a port on the south side of Antigua that was headquarters to Admiral Horatio Nelson's British fleet during the late-18th century, when hundreds of tall ships would have filled the harbor. While I was looking forward to touring the Georgian remnants of Nelson's Dockyard, I realized that what we had just experienced had brought us much closer to the past than any port of call ever could.

Caribbean Cruising You don't have to travel far to enjoy some of the world's best beaches, sugar cane rums and distinctive island personalities. By Tim Jacob

Four Cruises We Like:

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' Panama and San Blas Islands Loot-hungry pirates used the 365 islands off Panama's Caribbean coast as a balmy home base, and this six-day cultural journey under full sail on the Mandalay highlights that history, explores Kuna Indian traditions and stops at deserted islands. Home base is the former private yacht of Wall Street mogul E.F. Hutton built in 1923. Departures through Nov. 3, 2007, from Portobello, Panama. From $1,200. windjammer.com

Silversea Cruises' Caribbean Rhythms In 12 days aboard the Silver Wind, you'll discover unique aspects of 10 islands, including Barbados' sugar plantation history, St. Lucia's lush interior, Grand Turk's colorful architecture and Key West's Conch Republic. Dance to local music, tour abandoned forts and catch the scent of fresh nutmeg in Grenada for a firsthand lesson in island diversity. Departs Oct. 6, 2007, from Bridgetown, Barbados. From $6,695. silversea.com

Smithsonian Journeys' Gardens of the Caribbean All aboard the Sea Cloud II, green thumbs! Smithsonian has obtained special access to private gardens across the Caribbean during this seven-night journey from Antigua to Barbados via Les Saintes, Dominica, Trinidad, Martinique and Grenada. Smithsonian experts lead private tours of restored plantations between rum samplings and snorkeling. Departs Feb. 24, 2008, from Antigua. From $3,995. smithsonianjourneys.org

Azamara Cruises' Bermuda Test-float Celebrity's luxurious Azamara brand on a seven-night jaunt aboard the Journey between New York Harbor and Bermuda. Experience Bermuda's key ports, Hamilton and St. George, and taste the good life onboard before Azamara shifts its focus to South America and Asia in late 2008. Weekly departures from Cape Liberty port in Bayonne, New Jersey, until Oct. 20, 2007. From $1,049. celebritycruises.com

Ports Not to Miss

Nalunega****, Panama (Windjammer) Meet Kuna Indians, who will share their oral traditions, dances and handicrafts. Don't leave without a brightly colored mola, an appliqué cloth decorated with elaborate geometrical patterns.

Fort-de-France****, Martinique (Smithsonian Journeys) Visit to Les Jardins de Balata, an expansive private botanical garden patrolled by purple- and green-throated carib hummingbirds.

Bequia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines (Silversea) See pretty Elizabeth Harbor and Bequia's tradition of model-boat making. Tour Moonhole, an unusual group of houses built in the 1960s out of stone.

Les Saintes, Guadeloupe (Smithsonian Journeys and Star Clippers) Enjoy calm seclusion and quaint architecture. Fishermen don traditional salakos (wide-rimmed bamboo hats) while casting nets at sunrise.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Excursions

Montserrat (Silversea) For a thrilling low-altitude sweep over Montserrat's 3,000-foot Soufriere Hills volcano, hop a "flightseeing" plane while in port at Antigua.

San Blas Archipelago, Panama (Windjammer) Be one of a privileged few divers to explore the reefs of the Kuna Yala territory. Only Windjammer passengers are permitted by Kuna chiefs to dive there.

A Day on Silver Wind

EMBARK and disembark in whichever port you wish: Itineraries are flexible. DRINK Maison Pommery Brut Royal champagne: It's included in your cruise fare (plus, there are no extra fees for 60 varieties of wine, any top-shelf liquor or even cappuccinos). All tips are covered, and there's always free transportation to the town center at each port of call. SAVE your calories for eating ashore by choosing the ship's Zero Zero ice cream.

Exotic Cruising Run away to another world where aqua lagoons and volcanic peaks on thousands of islands (many still unexplored) converge with tradition-rich indigenous cultures. By Tim Jacob

Coral Princess Cruises' Vanuatu Somewhere between the nighttime glow of Ambryn island's two active volcanoes, the discovery of Maewo's waterfalls, and meeing the Namba tribes on Malakula, you'll realize that this five-night cruise on Oceanic Discovery through the archipelago of Vanuatu is the stuff of dreams. Departures on Nov. 23 and 28, 2007, and Dec. 3 and 8, 2007, from Port Vila, round-trip. From $3,150. coralprincess.com

Blue Lagoon Cruises' Fijian Gold Club Spend seven days island-hopping on the Fiji Princess through that country's remote Mamanuca and Yasawa Group archipelagoes, where untouched coral cays make for electric snorkeling and prime beach-side barbecues. Weekly round trip from Lautoka on Viti Levu. From $3,179 per cabin. bluelagooncruises.com

Aranui's Freighter to Paradise Stow away in style aboard the double-duty Aranu 3, which delivers supplies throughout the remote Marquesas Islands and brings passengers from Papeete to 17 remote ports via the Tuamotu Archipelago over 16 days. World-renowned specialists lead explorations of mysterious ancient ruins and present-day island culture. Departs monthly. From $2,079. aranui.com

Princess Cruises' Hawaii and Tahiti Spend 11 days aboard the Pacific Princess, cruising in two of earth's most seductive archipelagoes. Highlights include crossing the equator, surfing off Kailua-Kona, a waterfall hike on Kauai, snorkeling the lagoon of Bora-Bora and picnicking on Moorea's barrier islets. Limited departures go back and forth between Honolulu and Papeete from September through December, 2007. From $1,199. princess.com

Ports Not to Miss

Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands (Aranui) See Gauguin's grave and the most significant tikis outside Easter Island.

Ambrym Island****, Vanuatu (Coral Princess) Here you'll find culture, temperamental volcanoes and sorcery. Nanuya Lailai****, Fiji (Blue Lagoon) Explore the island's cinematic aquamarine cove. The high chief of the Yasawa Group makes his home nearby on Nacula, granting visitors permission (often with a kava ceremony) to dive the surrounding reefs.

Taoihae Bay, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands (Aranui) See this cute port town's cafes, crafts center, coral church and Herman Melville statue. Wander out of town to the 1,200-foot Ahuii waterfall for a quintessential island dip.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Excursions

Christmas Island****, Kiribati (Princess) Join international anglers in the quest for bonefish in the 250 square miles of shallow flats surrounding Christmas Island. Keep an eye out for prized silver-lipped pearl shells, which you can take home in the form of jewelry made by local artisans.

Moorea, French Polynesia (Princess) Trek deep into Moorea's lush, mountainous interior, catching the scent of vanilla, pineapple and coffee farms en route to ancient, deep-jungle Polynesian ruins. An octagonal church built in 1822 is the oldest operational European structure in the South Pacific. Cool off later with a swim in the seductive shallows of Cook Bay.

A Day on Fiji Princess

CHECK into your home on this 197-foot catamaran that clips along at 15 knots and limits itself to four hours of sailing per day. PEER out of your sizable stateroom windows at Fiji's landscapes STARGAZE on the open-air deck bar.

Mediterranean Explore ancient cultures and experience the finest custom of all: "La Bella Vita." Linger in cafes over cappuccino, tapas or vino. The Romans and Greeks have perfected the art of enjoying life. By Kelly Lack

Four Cruises We Like

Travel Dynamics International's Islands of the Gods On this 11-day program, the 17-stateroom yacht Callisto shepherds you to seven Greek isles, where you'll marvel at the antiquities and soak in the culture. Explore shrines, visit a village priest on Karpathos and watch an onboard performance of local dance while in Simi. Departs on Oct. 25, 2007, from Athens. From $6,995. traveldynamics__intern__ational.com

Princess Cruises' Mediterranean Collection This 12-day route sweeps across the Mediterranean's palette of islands, pulling into smaller ports like Malta, France's Corsica and Greece's Corfu, and offering creative onshore options. Departures are from Venice on Nov. 16, 2007, on Royal Princess; or on Pacific Princess June 13, 2008 and July 31, 2008. From $1,899 in 2007; price increases to $2,690 in 2008. princess.com

Odysseus Cruising's Turkish Coast The Odysseus, a timber-built 75-foot Turkish gulet, truly gives you "freedom of the seas" (not to knock Carnival), accessing intimate sites along the Turkish coast. Charter the yacht (10 passengers), craft your own route, or choose a set itinerary, such as the seven-night "Sailing the Ceramic Gulf." Departs May to October 2008 from Bodrum. From $1,978. odysseuscruising.com

P&O Cruises' Iberia & the Canaries A little bit of the Mediterranean can be found in the Atlantic, namely in Spain's Canary Islands and on Madeira, a Portuguese island. They are key stops on this 12-night circuit on the Oceana. Expect pretty harbors, mosaic-tiled promenades, stretches of bright sand and forests of pine, juniper and laurel. Departs Sept. 22, 2008, from Southampton, England. From $3,540. pocruises.com

Ports Not to Miss

Santorini****, Greece (Travel Dynamics) Enjoy the view as your ship approaches the island: Daunting reddish-brown slabs of rock capped by whitewashed villages jut upward from the sea.

Malta (Princess) Get ready for a concentrated dose of history. The capital of Valletta, a UNESCO site, was ruled by the Knights of St. John from 1530 to 1798 and beautified by artists such as Caravaggio, Mattia Preti and Favray.

La Palma, Canary Islands (P&O) Here you'll find nature at its finest: rumpled green mountains, black-sand beaches and an immense six-mile-wide volcanic crater, La Caldera de Taburiente.

Madeira (P&O) With botanical gardens; forested hiking trails that follow old levadas, or mini water canals; and Funchal, a capital city packed with discoveries, the island behind the wine tastes just as nice.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Excursions

Sicily (Princess) Here's an offer you can't refuse: Trail The Godfather landmarks around Sicily to Bar Vitelli, a home in Savoca which appeared in The Godfather, Part II. There you'll have a snack of lemon-flavored granita, a dessert ice, before moving on to Forza d'Agro, a village whose piazza and Baroque church, Chiesa Madre, were captured in the original Godfather and in Part III.

Sedir Island (Odysseus) Laze upon sands said to have been imported from Egypt on Cleopatra's Beach on this Turkish island in the Gulf of Gokova. As the story goes, Cleo refused to stand upon any land that wasn't Egypt, so Marc Anthony shipped sand from her homeland. The beach, with a shallow shore and clear waters, is gorgeous.

A Day on Odysseus

RELAX on the sun bed on deck as you cruise around Turkey's offshore islands. SNACK on börek (filo pastry stuffed with feta cheese, minced meat or vegetables), first created during the time of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. CHARTER the entire yacht. Ask the captain if he'll anchor in a cove so you can dive in and cool off.

Expeditions Cruising Heed the call to tarmac-less lands where undisturbed wildlife, intact indigenous cultures and virgin landscapes make you feel like Thor Heyerdahl (with a safety net). By Tim Jacob

Four Cruises We Like

Norwegian Coastal Voyages' Artic to Antarctica The Fram departs from Reykjavik, Iceland, on a 67-day journey that spans 44 ports (Britain's Isle of Man, France's Sainte-Pierre and Miquelon, and Columbia's Isla de San Andrés, for starters), 17 countries and more than 132 degrees of latitude en route to Tierra del Ruego. Departures: Sept. 18, 2007 and Sept. 23, 2008. From $10,999*. hurtigruten.us

Lindblad Expeditions' Galapagos Join a 10-day cruise on Polaris with Lindblad Expeditions, a company at the forefront of conservation in the Galapagos Islands. This eco-adventure is enriched by a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center, onboard geologists and ornithologists and a collection of gadgets, including a hydrophone (for listening to singing whales) and an underwater camera that transmits video to the ship. Departures year-round from Guayaquil, Ecuador; special photo expeditions are also available. From $4,150. expeditions.com Heritage Expeditions' Western Pacific Odyssey Ornithologists and amateur birders alike will flock to this 33-day expedition from New Zealand to Japan for once-in-a-lifetime glimpses of rare Rennell shrikebills or majestic Solomon sea eagles (among other endemic species) at remote Pacific atolls. Departs April 2, 2008, from Auckland. From $6,385. heritage-expeditions.com

Orion Expedition Cruises' Melanesia and Solomon Islands Spend 17 days onboard Orion exploring brilliant Coral Sea reefs, World War II bunkers and rich indigenous cultures that define these two archipelagoes between New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Multilingual guides lead Zodiac-based expeditions to islands such as Santa Ana in the Solomon Islands, as yet untouched by tourism. Departs Feb. 28, 2008, from Auckland. From $9,667. orioncruises.com.au

Ports Not to Miss

Northern Mariana Islands (Heritage) Observe rare birds, such as the Micronesian megapode, a species known to use warm sand to incubate its eggs. Heritage has special permission to visit these islands about 500 miles north of Guam.

Utupua****, Solomon Islands (Orion) Be dazzled by its turquoise lagoon and multi-peaked volcanic landscape that earn Utupua the name, "small Bora-Bora."

Isla de San Andrés, Columbia (Norwegian_)_ Immerse yourself in this island's pirating history. Henry Morgan's loot may still be hidden deep within a cave. Arrr!

Ile des Pins, New Caledonia (Orion) Visit the home of Kunie tribes, which still have a high chief. Plus, the water is worth splashing into – Oro Bay is a natural swimming pool.

Once-in-a-Lifetime Excursions

Isla Floreana, Galapagos Islands (Lindblad) Snorkel in the Galapagos with not-so-shy sea lions. Sink your toes into the olivine crystals that give Floreana's beaches a green hue, or leave a piece of mail (sans postage) at Post Office Bay, where tradition obligates visitors to leaf through the mail and deliver letters to addresses in their future ports of call.

Espiritu Santo****, Vanuatu (Orion) Plunge into an underwater 1940s junkyard filled with Jeeps, crates of rifles and thousands of Coke bottles at Million Dollar Point, where departing American troops ditched their World War II gear. Definitely dive the world's largest intact sunken troopship from that era, the President Coolidge.

A Day on Fram

BROWSE the onboard library's extensive collection of books on the polar regions. Any of them would be a perfect companion topside as you soak in a hot tub while icebergs choke the horizon. DINE in the panoramic lounge and restaurant.

GET front-row seats to the polar world from the observation terrace or glass-enclosed bridge.