From Miami to distant beaches and back again. The Caribbean is a popular destination for cruises. Ships such as the Starward offer a fun mixture of beaches, snorkeling, reggae music, and bustling ports of call.

The colors of the Caribbean are fresh in memory: bright reds and pinks of tropical blossoms, yellows and greens of parrots' plumes, fluorescent hues of ocean fish. Yet the kaleidescopic colors of the sunsets are what we remember most. We, husband and wife, walked the decks until dusk, and the endless expanse of ocean and sky created a sense of serenity and wonder. We were aboard Norwegian Caribbean Line's (NCL) Starward on a seven-day cruise of the Caribbean. We had chosen the ship for the economical cruise it offered: less than $1,000 per person.

With travel costs rising everywhere, the fixed costs of a cruise seemed an ideal way to vacation. The price included round trip transportation on Delta Air Lines.

Our first stop was Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island in the Bahamas. Skeptical, at first, of such an organized experience, we almost stayed on board. Thankfully, curiosity prevailed, and that day on the beach became a highlight of the trip. The only organized activity was snorkeling, and even that could be pursued individually.

For us, it was a day of swimming, exploring the powdery white sand beach, and listening to the band play reggae.

After a day at sea, we docked in Ocho Rios, on the northern coast of Jamaica. The activity of the bustling, sun-drenched town, full of open-air craft shops and sidewalk peddlers, contrasted with the calm of Stirrup Cay. At Prospect Plantation a tractor-driven jitney took us through acres of breadnut and wild tamarind trees, sugar cane, and coffee plants.

A not-to-be-missed attraction in Ocho Rios is Dunn's River Falls, a tree-shaded cascade that tumbles gently over smooth boulders to form a series of wading pools before flowing on to the ocean. For $2 (US$.40), a local guide will take you from the beach to the top of the falls.

From the ship, we walked through crowds of street vendors to the Parkway Restaurant to sample local food.

``The national dish of Jamaica is akee, codfish, and rice,'' our guide at the plantation had told us. Fortunately, akee was in season. (It's a small fruit that can be poisonous if eaten before it's ripe.)

When the yellow meat of the fruit is cooked, it resembles scrambled eggs and is served with bits of salty codfish. We ate it with such other local specialties as curried goat, spicy Jamaican chicken, rice with red beans, and cooked green bananas.

The next day we anchored off George Town on Grand Cayman Island. Its Seven-Mile Beach is legendary, but the most spectacular sights here are underwater. Great forests of coral rise up from the sandy ocean floor to create refuge for a startling array of brilliantly colored sea life.

Cozumel, an island off the coast of Mexico, was our next port of call, but we first tendered to the Yucatan Peninsula to see remnants of the ancient Mayan civilization. Tulum, once home to 20,000 people, dates from AD 1200.

The pyramids, temples, and royal dwellings are set on a rocky bluff above the ocean and walled on three sides with great limestone rocks.

From here we took a bus to Xel-Ha Lagoon. There is snorkeling in the clear waters full of exotic fish, and even a Mayan sacrificial cave to explore.

Evenings in Cozumel are full of crowds promenading around the plaza, street vendors, and restaurants with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. We took a cab the short distance into town. Many of the best shops and restaurants are within a block or two of the plaza.

At El Portal, an open-air restaurant with muraled walls and giant ferns, we dined on enchiladas moles in a spicy chocolate sauce, fresh broiled lobster in garlic butter, tiny Yucatan tamales, and pork roasted in banana leaves and served with black beans.

Between courses, the restaurant's trained parrot, Pancho Villa, preened, posed, and turned somersaults on command, making the rounds of each table.

Our last day at sea was filled with shipboard activities, and the traditional baked Alaska parade at the captain's farewell dinner was given a new twist as the Jamaican waiters danced around the room to a reggae beat. Indeed the Starward infuses the whole cruise with the flavor of the Caribbean. Calypso and reggae music is featured nightly, and such island specialties as conch fritters, Bahamian clam chowder, and Jamaican chicken with mangoes, bananas, and curry sauce are served in the dining room.

Although this same itinerary is no longer available on this ship (the Starward is now sailing out of Puerto Rico), other NCL itineraries offer similar experiences.

The Starward, built in 1968, carries some 850 passengers, yet the public spaces never seemed crowded, and the cruise staff never failed to give personal attention. The food, while enjoyable, was not exceptional.

NCL's ``Dive In'' program provides snorkeling equipment and instruction for beginning or advanced snorkelers and offers organized dives at each of the ship's ports. In the ``Fit with Fun'' program, a professional fitness instructor conducts exercise and aerobics classes and organizes shipboard athletic contests.

The sun was bright, and white caps topped the waves as we pulled into the channel at Miami to dock alongside the massive SS Norway.

As we drove to the airport for the return flight to Los Angeles, colorful images of the islands remained, but no memory was more vivid than the sunsets of the Caribbean.

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