The southern, eastern and western compass points in relation to the Caribbean reflect common cruise itineraries rather than any useful geographic designation. Different cruise lines mix them differently, but generally speaking, a southern Caribbean cruise visits the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles or the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, while the eastern Caribbean includes the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Antigua. Western Caribbean itineraries tend to encompass the Mexican Caribbean and the Cayman Islands and may include stops in Jamaica, Belize, and Honduras.
Eastern itineraries offer the shortest trips from the eastern United States, with three- and four-day cruises to Grand Turk or the Bahamas. Week-long cruises may include three or four ports of call in the Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
Western itineraries likewise range in length from several days to more than a week but generally include more time at sea for travel between the more widespread islands in this part of the Caribbean. They also frequently include Mexico and occasionally Central American destinations as well.
Southern Caribbean cruises tend to be the longest, partly because these islands sit the farthest from the U.S. and partly because southern itineraries seem to stop at more ports of call. They often encompass both eastern itinerary destinations plus more southern ports such as Dominica, Martinique, and Grenada.
Though good snorkeling and diving exist throughout the Caribbean, the islands in the western cruise itineraries hold a slight edge with their locations closer to the Mesoamerican Reef. The western Caribbean itineraries also tend to include more outdoor adventure, while eastern Caribbean destinations tend to focus more on a luxury experience with world-renowned shopping. Cruises to the southern points let you experience the European flavor that remains from the French, British and Dutch colonial powers, while also enjoying a unique island style and nearly pristine scenery in the region with the fewest number of visitors.
Different cruise lines feature different types of onboard activities, but if you like the idea of recreation at sea, it makes sense to find a cruise with longer stretches between ports of call. Conversely, if you prefer daily shore excursions, an eastern itinerary makes the most sense for you.
Cruise Embarkation Locations
Eastern Caribbean cruises typically embark from the east coast of the U.S. in locations such as Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; and Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Florida. Western itineraries often start from U.S. port cities on the Gulf of Mexico, such as Galveston and Houston, Texas; New Orleans; and Mobile, Alabama. They may also embark from eastern locations such as Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Southern Caribbean itineraries usually start in Puerto Rico, Barbados or Miami, though depending on the cruise line, it's possible to find itineraries from any of these starting locations to destinations throughout the islands.