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Jane Archer is one of the UK’s leading cruise experts. She spends much of the year on ships, big and small. She likes the Caribbean in particular for the warm weather, calm seas, different cultures and wealth of attractions.
Caribbean cruises are synonymous with fun in the sun – blue skies, turquoise waters, sandy beaches. But there’s plenty to see and do too. There are the remains of the once burgeoning sugar industry, natural trails, the forts built by the British and French as they battled for control of the islands’ wealth, the architecture left by both nations, and the Dutch as well. And what better way to see it all than on a cruise, unpacking once and island-hopping around the region, waking up in a new country each day.
Here are five of my favorite ports for a touch of culture:
Basseterre, St Kitts
Hop on the scenic railway and ride the only train in the Caribbean. It was built to transport sugar, which was big business here for 300 years, and is a fun journey through history, the rainforest and past old sugar cane estates. The train has five carriages, each with two decks, the top one open to the elements, and your hostess serves rum punches as the train rattles and sways its way along the 18-mile 30-inch gauge track. On your way back to port, look out for the only other Downing Street in the world and Brimstone Hill Fortress, the biggest fort in the Caribbean, built by the British to keep out the French. Given the name of the island’s capital, you’ll gather they weren’t always successful!
Castries, St Lucia
Fancy learning about exotic plants and going into the Caribbean’s only drive-in volcano? You can on St Lucia. The plants are at Tet Paul, where guides take you on a nature trail, past guava and avocado trees, bamboo and pineapple, that leads to the best views of the majestic Pitons. Then it’s on to the volcano, which smells terrible, but stick with it because it’s fascinating to see the caldera bubbling and steaming – just as it has been doing ever since it erupted in 1766. Or head north, to beautiful Pigeon Island, and climb to Fort Rodney. You guessed it! Built by the British to keep out the French. In fact the island changed hands 14 times between the two nations over the course of 150 years, leaving an intriguing Franco-British culture.
It’s known as ‘the nature isle’ on account of the abundance of rare plant, animal and bird species found here, not to mention the beautiful dense rainforest covering two-thirds of the island. Of course, you don’t get that without quite a bit of rain so be prepared with a coat. The top tour visits the botanical gardens (look out for the weird cannon ball tree), the twin Trafalgar Falls – one is 75 feet, the other 175 feet – and the Emerald Pool. Both entail a gentle walk, when you’ll learn more about the flora of the forest.
Waking up in Willemstad, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have ended up in Holland. The waterfront is lined with brightly-coloured buildings built by Dutch traders in the 1600s to remind them of their homes in Amsterdam, the harbour is called Schottegat and streets are a ‘Straat’ or ‘weg’. Take a guided walk to learn about the city’s history and architecture, or amble alone but be sure to tick off the Jewish museum, which houses a Torah scroll dating back to 1492, and the floating food and veg market.
If Willemstad is a piece of the Netherlands in the West Indies, then Barbados is definitely like being back in the UK – except for the weather! – with its statue of Lord Nelson opposite the Parliament, in what used to be Trafalgar Square. Oh and English is the official language and Bajans drive on the left. The beaches are lovely, but culture vultures should head to the Georgian mansion built by pirate Sam Lord, who made his fortune luring ships onto the reefs around Barbados, Morgan Lewis Mill, the only intact sugar mill on the island and the underwater world of stalactites, stalagmites, lakes and waterfalls in Harrison’s Cave. If all that leaves you thirsty for more, how about a taste of the local tipple at Mount Gay rum emporium?
This post was written in association with P&O cruises. To find out about their Caribbean cruise itineraries click here.