The best ports of call around the Caribbean Cruise: A ship's hotel manager, who ought to know, lists the hot spots and top spots.

March 23, 1997|By John Bordsen | John Bordsen,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Keith Bunton simply can't get away from work for six to nine months at a stretch. Lucky man.

He's hotel manager of the Fascination, the Carnival cruiser that has been plying the Caribbean. Bunton's responsibilities are similar to those of a landlubber hotel manager at a resort: Make sure the employees do their jobs, so the guests can have the fun they paid for.

In four years with Carnival, Bunton has made stops at such Caribbean ports as San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands; Cozumel, Mexico; Key West, Fla.; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Caracas, Venezuela; and such free-standing hot dots as Aruba, Guadeloupe, Grand Cayman, St. Maarten, Aruba and Grenada.

We asked Bunton to size up the top Caribbean ports of call.

Most frequented

St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. It's next to to St. John, which is considered to have one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. It's probably the most popular off-ship excursion because of the beaches and the underwater park there. St. Thomas is very Americanized, but it has some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean.

Most popular

Aruba. The main city, Oranjestad, is a very friendly town. Visitors are not hounded by peddlers as they are in several other ports, but it is a little more expensive. Combined with friendliness and the level of hospitality is the newness of stores, restaurants and casinos. The beaches are among the best in the Caribbean.

It also has a different type of climate: Think about Arizona surrounded by an ocean. There are a lot of divi-divi trees and cactus.

Most star-studded

Aruba. Stars enjoy the beaches and laid-back feeling of the island. Again, there's the climate. It's kind of like the West, but surrounded by an ocean.

Most action-packed

St. Maarten has a Dutch and a French side; it's split right down the middle, and this makes for an extremely interesting diversity of culture. And the island has very beautiful beaches.

But Cozumel is wild and crazy -- a party island. You feel as if you're stepping into Mexico. At other islands, you step into other cultures, but not as dramatically. Cozumel, where the ship actually docks, is an island. Whenever you go to Cozumel, you stop and refuel at Playa del Carmen, on the Mexican mainland, and anybody who wants to can get off there. You can buy tickets to side trips from there to the Tulum ruins and other pre-Columbian ruins, like Xel-ha. Xel-ha gives you the chance to swim with dolphins and stingrays.

Most dramatic approach

San Juan, Puerto Rico, because of El Morro, the old Spanish castle right at the port. It's quite impressive. You can see it from two or three miles offshore, depending on time of day and the weather.

Best shopping

St. Thomas, if you're talking about jewelry and watches. You can buy diamonds, necklaces and so on in Charlotte Amalie (the principal city) -- a very wide selection at the best prices.

Best bargains

Grenada or Cozumel.

Grenada is a spice island, and the main thing you buy as a souvenir is a spice. It's a less touristy island -- it has not developed to that stage yet. The people on Grenada are not yet at the point where everything will cost you an arm and a leg. What kind of spices? Nutmeg, cinnamon, bay leaves... Then again, you can get spices at Guadeloupe -- saffron and other stuff.

At Cozumel, you can buy a Mexican blanket for $5. Also, people will try to sell you silver in the streets, but it's not the high-quality silver you can find in the stores there.

Look for a marking that says "925" -- this indicates that it is a high grade of silver and won't turn different shades of brass.

Another good buy is leather goods. Though Cozumel is just a little island, they have the same stuff you'd find elsewhere in Mexico.

Biggest surprise

Caracas and La Guaira are a big disappointment if you don't take a tour. Caracas is a huge city, and there's a lot of poverty and not much to see. It takes a 40-minute ride to get from La Guaira to Caracas, and once you're there, you can see a city.

For a different kind of awakening, try Aruba or St. Maarten: Folks are always surprised at how the islanders are really laid-back and cool. There's a nudist beach on the French side of the island. Some people come back to the ship very surprised at having wandered into that.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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