The 10 best Caribbean cruise itineraries

The Caribbean Sea is the world's fifth largest body of water and is home to more than 7,000 islands. While you can't sail a major cruise ship to every nook and cranny of the Caribbean, you do have an abundance of choices when it comes to picking an itinerary.

Feeling overwhelmed? No worries, mon! I've pared down the cruise line's offerings to the top 10 Caribbean itineraries. This list will give you a sense of what the different voyages have to offer, and help you decide where you want to go on your next island cruise.

Western Caribbean

New to Caribbean cruising? The basic seven-night western Caribbean cruise is one of the best itineraries for first-timers. You can depart from a variety of homeports and get a mix of Central American and island ports, as well as days at sea. Princess' cruise on the Grand Princess departs from Ft. Lauderdale and calls at the quintessential western Caribbean ports of Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and Princess Cays (Princess' private island in the Bahamas). Activities range from snorkeling and scuba diving off Grand Cayman, exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico, and climbing a waterfall in Jamaica. Plus, you get two days at sea to enjoy the ship.

Eastern Caribbean

The sister itinerary to the western Caribbean is the seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise. Many ships alternate between the east and the west each week, creating opportunities for back-to-back two-week sailings. Such is the case with one of the largest ships on earth: Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas. Its eastern Caribbean itinerary stops in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten with three days at sea. You can enjoy shopping, lying on the beach, and exploring rainforests on the islands, and spend the remaining days rock climbing, ice skating, and boxing on this gargantuan floating resort.

Southern Caribbean

Experienced cruisers who've sailed the Caribbean before look to the southern Caribbean for more exotic and less crowded islands. Most week-long itineraries depart from Puerto Rico or Barbados because the islands are too far to reach from the U.S. mainland. To cruise in style, try Silversea's eight-night voyage out of San Juan on the Silver Wind. With only one day at sea, you can visit Grenada, Barbados, Bequia, Dominica, Antigua, and the exclusive St. Bart's. Look for unspoiled beaches, spice plantations, and romantic settings.

The deep south

No, I'm not talking about a cruise through Mississippi and Alabama, but a voyage to the southernmost reaches of the Caribbean sea: the ABC islands and the northeast coast of South America. These off-the-beaten-path itineraries aren't offered by every line, but they can be especially good choices during hurricane season because most storms don't strike that far south. Regent Seven Seas'11-night cruise on the Seven Seas Voyager out of Ft. Lauderdale visits not only Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, but St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, and Grand Turk as well. You'll experience the Caribbean from tip to toe.

Short Caribbean cruises

The great thing about the Caribbean is that it's so close to the southern ports of the U.S. If you don't have a lot of time for your vacation, consider a short cruise. You'll definitely feel like you escaped the office without taking too many days off work. Celebrity offers a top-notch five-night cruise on the recently renovated Century. You'll depart from Miami for Jamaica and Grand Cayman, spend two days at sea, then return refreshed and tan from your short break.

Long Caribbean cruise

Retirees and other lucky folks with lots of vacation time can choose to explore the entire Caribbean on one two-week cruise. With so much time to sail, you can save money by departing from a U.S. homeport, yet still see a great deal of destinations. Holland America's14-night southern Caribbean cruise aboard the ms Veendam takes you to ports in the southern, eastern, and western Caribbean, as well as South America, with just four days to spend at sea. You'll depart Tampa for St. Thomas; Dominica; Barbados; Grenada; Isla de Margarita, Venezuela; Bonaire; Aruba; Grand Cayman; and the line's private island, Half Moon Cay.

Central America

Not every Caribbean destination is an island. Recently, cruise lines have been experimenting with their western Caribbean itineraries, adding more calls in Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Panama. These "exotic Caribbean" cruises, as they're sometimes called, give you the opportunity for more adventurous activities ashore. Try Norwegian'sseven-night cruise out of New Orleans with stops in Roatan, Honduras; Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala; Belize City, Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico. Or, for a few more days at sea, check out Carnival'seight-night itinerary from Ft. Lauderdale to Colon, Panama; Limon, Costa Rica; and Belize City, Belize.

Private islands

A favorite destination for many cruisers is their cruise line's private island. You can experience pristine beaches without the hassles of paying for lounges, changing money, and avoiding locals hawking their wares. Plus, the cruise line will set up barbecue lunches, water sports, and cabana massages for guests. Sound good? Now imagine an itinerary with two days devoted to one of these exclusive paradises. Disney Cruise Line has recently added a new voyage on the Disney Magic complete with two stops in Castaway Cay. The seven-night sailing departs from Port Canaveral/Orlando and also calls in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico.

Short Bahamas cruise

OK, so the Bahamian islands are technically in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean. But given the island nation's warm weather and oceanfront attractions, I think cruisers considering a Caribbean voyage shouldn't rule out a Bahamas cruise—especially if you're short on time. Several cruise lines offer three-night itineraries for the perfect long weekend or midweek escape. Carnival'sthree-night cruise on the Sensation departs from Port Canaveral, overnights in Nassau, and spends the final day at sea before heading home. You get a taste of both the Bahamas and onboard life before you have to return to your normal routine.

Long Bahamas cruise

If you'd prefer to explore several Bahamian islands, a longer Bahamas cruise is the answer. These sailings can visit several ports within the Bahamas or include an overnight in one port so you can experience the island's nightlife. Norwegian's seven-night Bahamas and Florida cruise on the new Norwegian Gem is a convenient getaway for East Coast residents. The voyage departs from New York and stops in Port Canaveral before spending three days in three Bahamian destinations—Nassau, Grand Bahama Island, and Great Stirrup Cay.

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