Steve and Ann’s guide to the ultimate Caribbean cruise

Steve and Ann’s guide to the ultimate Caribbean cruise

[well]While informative and true, we want you to know that this post was written as an entry for Celebrity Cruises Ultimate Caribbean Cruise Itinerary contest. Winners of the contest receive a cash prize, social media recognition, and a guest post on the Celebrity Cruises blog. Opinions expressed are our own and are based on our actual cruising experiences.[/well]

If you’ve followed our blog for any time at all, you know that we’re a middle-aged, married couple from rural Nebraska, smack-dab in the middle of the United States and about as far from water as you can get. So yes, we dream about cruising often, which makes us experts in imaginary cruise itineraries. With this in mind, we offer our guide to the ultimate Caribbean cruise itinerary.

At port while cruising on the Celebrity Constellation.

Let’s face it, everywhere we’ve been in the Caribbean has included a beautiful island, crystal-clear water, warm temperatures, golden sand, lush palm trees, and friendly locals. But we have to start somewhere, so Steve will start in Key West, the heart of the fabulous Florida Keys.

Key West, Florida

STEVE: Ahhh….sunny Key West. I’ve been going the Keys and Key West to visit family since I was a boy, so feel that I know it well. But that isn’t why it makes our list. I include it because it is one of the most laid-back, relaxing places I know. It’s a place where no one takes anything too seriously, and everyone, including the chickens that populate every corner, just wants to have a good time.

Our view of Key West from the Celebrity Constellation.

Key West offers something for everyone, including an actual passport from the not-so-actual Conch Republic and fresh seafood that makes even the most entrenched landlubber drool. The shopping is divine, offering everything from high-end, luxury boutique items to natural sponges collected from nearby waters.

We loved shopping for sponges in Key West.

In Key West you can be literary and tour Hemingway’s home, or historical and visit Truman’s Little White House and then learn about Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. But whatever you do, don’t be too serious — this is the town where they throw stale Cuban bread at a U.S. Navy ship once a year, after all.

The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory housed 50-60 species of live butterflies.

A day spent in Key West can be action-packed with activities like parasailing, snorkeling and wave running, or laid back with a cocktail on the beach or a visit to the Butterfly Nature Center and Conservatory. By the time the sun sets on Mallory Square, visitors to Key West feel a sense of deep relaxation, the tensions of everyday life forgotten. For these reasons, I think that any traveler to the Caribbean should set their sights on Key West. 

Travel Tip: Take the Conch Train tour. It’s a great overview of the island and its history, and it’s only 90 minutes long so it won’t take up your entire day.

Basseterre, St. Kitts & Nevis

ANN: My ideal Caribbean cruise would have to include a stop in beautiful Basseterre St. Kitts and Nevis. I fell in love with this perhaps lesser known island a couple of years ago and we wrote about it HERE. As soon as I set foot in Port Zante, I was immediately attracted to the island – the iridescent waters, the lush flora, and blue skies made me feel like I’d died and gone to Instagram heaven. #nofilterneeded

Arriving at the port in Basseterre St. Kitts.

In addition, everyone there was so nice and legitimately seemed happy. And why wouldn’t they be? Kittitians share a 65-square mile island surrounded by pristine beaches, beautiful gardens, and all the mangos they can eat. Oh, and there are cute little monkeys everywhere!

That’s the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caribbean Sea on the right.

We would recommend a visit to Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park where you’ll learn about the island’s history and take in one of the most gorgeous views you’ve ever seen.

The incredible view from the top of Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts.

An excursion to the Caribelle Batik Factory at Romney Manor is also a must. Artists there demonstrate this unique Indonesian method of resisting dye with wax to create beautiful designs on fabrics. 

Batik fabric in St. Kitts

And don’t head back to the ship until you’ve stopped at a local eatery and tried salt fish and provisions. This dried fish dish is a local favorite and is served with salad and “provisions,” including a coconut dumpling, sweet potato, white potato, dasheen and yam.

Travel tip: Find your way to Timothy Hill Lookout for a stunning, iconic photo of St. Kitts and Nevis surrounded by both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Phillipsburg, St. Maarten

STEVE: St. Maarten is one of those beautiful Caribbean islands whose palm trees, soft breezes, warm sand beaches, friendly inhabitants, and slow pace of life connect to your inner being in way that makes you happy to be alive. More importantly, for airplane fanatics like me, it is also home to Princess Juliana Airport and Maho Beach.

It was surreal to watch these planes land literally yard from where we standing on the beach.

Have you ever watched one of those YouTube videos where people are standing on a beach and they are so close to a huge jet landing that they look like they could almost jump up and touch it?

That’s Maho Beach.

The government in St. Maarten has actually put up warning signs telling people not to get too close to the end of the runway. And they mean it. Jet blast from arriving and departing planes is very dangerous. But if you stand off to the side of the runway, you have an amazing view of planes taking off and landing.

We had a great table at the Sunset Bar and Grill where we could enjoy a sandwich and guava berry colada while watching airplanes come in for landing.

And if you go a little further to the side you can find a nice little bar where you can relax with a cold beverage and take in this fantastic aviation experience. 

Travel Tip: Check the flight schedule for Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten to make sure you’re there when the BIG planes come in.

Costa Maya, Mexico

ANN: Although we haven’t been to Costa Maya … yet … It makes our ideal Caribbean cruise port list because there’s so much to see and do there. You can lounge on the beach, shop for tourist favorites like pure vanilla, serapes, and tequila, and even explore ancient Mayan ruins.

Neither one of us had ever seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World until we visited the pyramid at Chichen Itza in 2017.

Neither one of us had ever seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World until we visited the pyramid at Chichen Itza in 2017.

We also highly recommend strapping yourself up in a bright orange life jacket and jumping off a rock into a cenote.

Swimming in the crowded cenote.

Swimming in the cenote.

Steve and our daughter, Meghan, checked this off on their bucket lists a couple of years ago while in Mexico and loved the experience. (I took photos) They loved floating on their backs and enjoying the view of the vines and vegetation above and both said they would do it again.

Meghan and Steve ready to swim in the cenote.

Our daughter, Meghan and Steve ready to swim in the cenote.

Costa Maya is a planned port on a 7-night Western Caribbean sailing on Celebrity’s new Edge, and we are beyond excited to board that ship in early 2019.

Tip: Book your excursion through the ship, especially if you don’t know the language. Their tour operators will get you to and from your destination easily, and you’ll have a wonderful experience.

Don’t forget a few sea days

Of course, our ideal Caribbean Cruise would also include a few sea days. We’ve found plenty to do  when our ship’s at sea and wrote a blog post about it called “21  things to do on a sea day besides eat.” Here’s look at how each of us would spend the ideal sea day:

Let’s face it, the truly ultimate Caribbean cruise would have a stop at every port Celebrity Cruises visits. Most importantly, you would never have to dread the day when your disembarkation luggage tags arrive, because this ultimate Caribbean cruise would go on forever!

Cruising the Caribbean: St. Maarten

Cruising the Caribbean: St. Maarten

I’ve always loved airplanes and flying, so I was really looking forward to our stop in St. Maarten. Situated at the end of the runway of St. Maarten’s Airport sits Maho Beach, a wonderful spot to take in some rays and bob in the waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is also a prime spot to watch airplanes as they come in to land on the runway which is located right across a narrow street from the beach.

Because of this unique location, you can get an amazingly close view jets landing and taking off. And while many of the planes that land in St. Maarten are small planes that hop around the islands of the Caribbean, there are also some really big planes that arrive from as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.

To give you an idea of just how close you are to the runway, as you approach the airport you’ll see this sign: “Danger. Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death.” They aren’t kidding.

This sign warned people of the dangers of the aircrafts taking off and landing but people didn’t seem to care.

Check out this video taken by someone named PilotDynan who was willing to stand in the jet blast of a departing Air France A340. We don’t have one of those videos nor do we advise standing where he stood! As soon as we confirmed that we were taking this cruise, I started planning our trip to Maho Beach to see the planes.

It was surreal to watch these planes land literally yard from where we standing on the beach.

Shortly after our ship docked in St. Maarten, Ann, Meghan and I headed off the ship with a plan of finding our way there. It should be noted here that the day we were in St. Maarten, there were six ships in port, (four of them from Celebrity!) meaning that there were something like 16,000 extra people on the island. We headed past the visitor’s center and found our way to the crazy-chaotic taxi stand. Seeing that the price to Maho beach was $9/person each way but $8/person if you had more than six in your group, we promptly found another family headed the same way and made our way into the “Maho Beach” line at the cab stand.

The reality, though, was that the cabs were 15-passenger vans, the lines were more like fiefdoms run by cab stand “managers” who would argue with each other, and they just stuffed people into the cabs from what they perceived to be the front of the line. Apparently, the front of the line was determined by who could weasel themselves closest to the curb. Vans were stuffed until they were overflowing with humanity.

People swimming in the Caribbean Sea would stop every once in a while to watch planes come in the landing just above their heads.

As we drove to the beach, I chatted with the driver (as I was wedged-in up front) while Ann and Meghan, crammed in the back, chatted with some folks from England. I learned a lot about the island–it is divided into two halves, the French side and the side belonging to the Netherlands Antilles. There are two official forms of currency there, the Euro and the Netherlands Antilles Guilder, although the reality is that the U.S. dollar is the only one that anyone uses. Finally, due to a treaty signed between the French and Dutch about 350 years ago, people on the island can pass between the two countries and do business anywhere on the island at any time. This was a good idea then as well as now as the island is only 37 square miles and is the smallest land mass in the world to be shared by two countries.

We got to Maho Beach, paid the cab fare, and made our way out to a prime spot just to the right of the end of the runway. The beach was remarkably narrow but incredibly packed with people; only about 15-20 feet of sand separated a narrow road from the beautiful blue water.

We didn’t get in the ocean at Moho Beach, but we did enjoy soaking in the sun and people watching.

On the other side of the narrow road was a fence, and the airport’s runway went right up to that fence. At each end of the beach there was a bar/restaurant to serve the flocks of tourists who came each day for the plane spotting. One of them even had a board with the projected arrival times of the bigger jets.

We found a spot to sit on the curb by the road and waited for airplanes. We watched a few small planes land and a few small planes take off. The sun was strong, and we knew we probably didn’t want to sit and wait over an hour for the next bigger plane without having some shade, so we headed to one of the restaurants, stepping carefully to avoid stepping on anyone as virtually every square foot of the beach was covered by someone.

We had a great table at the Sunset Bar and Grill where we could enjoy a sandwich and guava berry colada while watching airplanes come in for landing.

We grabbed a bite to eat, watched some folks snorkeling off a boat nearby, and saw several smaller airplanes make their final approaches to the airport. It seems so matter-of-fact as I type it, but it was an amazing, unique place. Where else can you eat a chicken wing while seeing planes close enough on final approach that you can make out the people in the windows? We picked our way out onto the beach in time to watch the arrival of an A320 from the U.S. It was a very cool (and surprisingly loud) experience to be that close to a commercial jet in flight.

After that, the next bigger plane wasn’t due for over an hour, so we headed to a nearby gift shop, bought a postcard and t-shirt and then found a cab (with with 12 complete strangers) back to the cruise port.

Once back at port, we took a moment to wander around and look at the other ships in port. It isn’t common that one cruise line will have so many of their ships in the same port the same day. On this particular day, Celebrity Cruises hosted a concert by Demi Lovato exclusively for the passengers on their ships. We didn’t go to the concert, but we did sit high up on the back deck of our ship, (Celebrity Summit), and listen to what we could while sipping cocktails.

Demi Lovato performed on the stage with the black cover in the center of the this picture.

If you visit St. Maarten and Maho Beach, I’d recommend that you know the arrival schedule of the planes you’d like to see. The big planes take off and land more frequently on YouTube than they do in real life. Waiting in between those planes could be a hot proposition in the Caribbean sun, so wear a hat, bring plenty of sunblock, and maybe a bottle of water. Still, it is impressive to be that close to a working runway even if you see only smaller planes. For me, it was an item checked off my bucket list — although if I ever return to St. Maarten I’d go there again.

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Checked another item off our bucket list when we went to Maho Beach in St. Maarten to watch planes landing just just yards from the beach.