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The Globe and Mail
Taking The Young Sailors Ashore
Savvy Excursion Choices Can Beat Boredom. Here Are Some Of The Best Caribbean Ports Of Call For Kids
By TOBY SALTZMAN
November 1, 2003
Choosing the right ship for your family is one thing. Choosing what to do in port is quite another. Parents who play the excursion card right can provide meaningful experiences that cultivate sensitivity to nature and illuminate school lessons about famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon.
Some activities snorkelling houseback-riding and kayaking, for example are available on most islands.
Many offer introductory scuba diving, submarine tours and underwater viewing in semi-submersible boats.
If the cost of excursions starts to add up, independent touring may seem economical. But it pays to be cautious, especially if travelling to remote locations. For example, ships depart right on schedule and can leave lingerers behind. So gauge distances and travel time, book recommended guides and pre-book taxis for round trips (and pay only upon returning).
Anyone who's travelled with a child knows that boredom can be deadly. With this in mind, here are some of the most intriguing kid-friendly options among Caribbean ports of call.
At Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, a massive underground aquarium dubbed The Dig exposes a phantasmagorical array of fish, sharks and coral.
The Pirates of Nassau exhibit, meanwhile, showcases Blackbeard and other swashbucklers who terrorized 17th- and 18th-century seamen. Kids will love the weird pirate paraphernalia in the souvenir shop.
In Freeport, head to gorgeous Our Lucaya Beach. The adjacent Sheraton and Westin properties have water-sports facilities and eateries galore, and there's a neat straw market across the road.
If your ship loops from Puerto Rico, consider a pre- or post-cruise stay to take in the rich Spanish-African culture.
A walking tour of the cobbled lanes of Old San Juan leads to statues of Ponce de Leon and Sir Francis Drake. At the historic San Felipe El Morro Fortress, kids can explore tunnels and dungeons.
A guided nature trek through the lush, tropical El Yunque rain forest reveals rare species of trees dripping with wild orchids, parrots, the singing croqui tree frogs and the Coca Waterfall that Ponce de Leon took to be the fountain of youth.
See the Earth's underworld at Rio Camuy Cave Park, where a trolley traverses ramps and bridges through a towering cavern of shimmering stalagmites and stalactites.
Join a night tour to Vieques to experience the spectacular and rare bioluminescence phenomenon. Millions of dinoflagellates the "fireflies of the sea" generate a neon-blue glow and seem to dance in the sea.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Besides shopping or lounging at Magens Bay in St. Thomas, take the Planet Aqua excursion, where you don an oxygen-supplying bubble-helmet that allows you to follow an underwater path through coral gardens teeming with fish. (Participants must be at least eight years old and weigh a minimum of 80 pounds.) Or you can follow a short, uphill path to a historic synagogue.
St. Croix is dotted with remnants of history: sugar plantations, 19th-century buildings and archeological sites. Driving the Heritage Trail is interesting, but this is a wonderful place to explore the waters. Sea kayaking in tranquil Salt River Bay leads to ancient village sites where Columbus landed, and to mangrove-fringed estuaries that illustrate the interdependence of plants and sea life.
Snorkellers, meanwhile, will find big thrills at Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected 360-hectare coral ring where a well-marked underwater trail meanders through grottoes teeming with rainbow-hued fish.
In 1503, Columbus called the island Las Tortugas after the sea turtles. In 1568, they filled the beaches when Sir Francis Drake arrived. You can see them now on a tour that takes in a freakish, crusty patch of pitch-black earth (referred to as "Hell") and the Turtle Farm. Sheltering about 15,000 turtles, from eggs to huge loggerheads, it has displays that explain their breeding and life cycle.
By far the most exciting excursion, however, is to Stingray City, a shallow sandbar where divers have "tamed" a school of stingrays by feeding them handfuls of squid. As you snorkel, the winged fish slither around you like giant, grey butterflies.
If the sugar-white swath of Seven Mile Beach beckons, park yourself at the edge of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman for access to its eateries and water sports.
Harrison's Cave is a world-renowned attraction. You descend on a tram into the depths through a cathedral-like cave to a thunderous waterfall. The trip can inspire future spelunkers, never mind artistic and sci-fi imaginations.
British Virgin Islands
It's worth traversing the stony path to The Baths, where huge boulders, lying helter-skelter as if tossed by a giant, form caves, grottoes and pools. You walk through narrow passages in water as iridescent as in the grottoes of Capri, to splash in a calm, rock-protected sea.
The climb through moving water and up slippery boulders to the 100-metre-high Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios may be alluring, but keep in mind that it's meant for strong, agile children who know there's no turning back. Water shoes are essential.
St. Martin/St. Maarten
The most thrilling event hosted by this French and Dutch island is the sailing regatta on the America's Cup course. Three yachts, such as the famed Stars & Stripes, True North and Canada Cup II, are outfitted with spirited crews who grind winches, trim sails, punch stopwatches or just relax.
Nelson's Dockyard National Park is a prime nautical site. The panoramic view from Shirley Heights, combined with the fortifications and commentaries by knowledgeable guides, offer insights on the international quest for maritime supremacy.
In Aruba's arid climate, lolling on white beaches dotted with wind-bent divi-divi trees is tempting. But it's worth taking the bumpy, Land Rover safari that runs from sand dunes to wild ocean shorelines.
On a guided nature tour through Arikok National Park, you'll learn how the Arawak Indians valued the medicinal potencies of the flora and fauna.
Or join an underwater marine odyssey while wearing an oxygen-supplying bubble-helmet.
Circled by reefs teeming with brilliant sea life, Bonaire is ideal for novice scuba divers. And calm, shallow Lac Bay is a watery playground for young snorkellers, windsurfers and kayakers.
Nature-enthusiasts will love Washington-Slagbaai National Park, a pristine bird sanctuary. A stunning yet poignant tour includes the Solar Salt Pans, in which thousands of pink flamingoes wade in water where salt, mined from the sea bottom, is dumped into white "mountains."
A cluster of airless adobe huts that housed slaves in the 1800s is located nearby.
Built for the cruise industry, Marida/Progreso lacks enchantment. However, it's worth walking the pier for the free cultural dance performances.
And if you've never seen Mayan ruins, there are some nearby that are on the cusp of a major excavation.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
For a bird's-eye view of Braullio Carillo National Park's magnificent rain forest, take the aerial tramway. It escalates from the forest floor, blanketed with giant ferns, to trees dripping with orchids, to the sun-dappled canopy thriving with birds and monkeys.
Less intimidating for little tykes is the narrow-gauge jungle train and jungle pontoon.
For the physically fit, white-water rafting on the Reventazon River's class III rapids is extreme fun.
If you go
Atlantis Resort: (242) 363-3000 or (888) 528-7155; www.atlantis.com.
Pirates of Nassau: (242) 356-3759; www.pirates-of-nassau.com.
Our Lucaya: (877) 772-6471; www.ourlucaya.com.
Planet Aqua: www.coralworldvi.com.
Synagogue: (340) 774-4312; www.usvi.net/usvi/syngogue.html.
Buck Island Reef National Monument: www.nps.gov/buis.
Turtle Farm: www.turtle.ky.
Stingray City: www.caymanislands.ky/to_do/
Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman: www.grandcayman.hyatt.com;
Harrison's Cave: barbados.org/hcave.htm.
The Baths: www.b-v-i.com/baths.htm.
Dunn's River Falls:
ST. MARTIN/ST. MAARTEN
America's Cup Regatta:
Arikok National Park:
PUERTO LIMON, COSTA RICA
Rainforest Aerial Tram: (506) 257-5961 or (866) 759-8726;