10 spectacular natural wonders to explore on a Caribbean cruise

John Wilmott
Ocellated gecko, endemic to Tobago, just one of many natural wonders in the Caribbean - This content is subject to copyright.

Soft-sand beaches, powder-blue seas, rustling coconut palms… that’s the quintessential picture of the Caribbean. Yet among the tropical landscapes are a clutch of natural wonders, many of them deliciously hidden from the eyes of the coach-trip hordes and requiring a little effort to reach. Tangled rainforests, sparkling waterfalls and kaleidoscopic coral reefs can add an extra dimension to any cruise.

Surprisingly, not every cruise line that calls at the nearest port to these attractions offers a suitable trip, so double-check if you have a particular place on your wishlist. Having said that, an excursion booked through your cruise company will often be the best way to see some of these gems because of the lack of reliable public transport in many Caribbean destinations.

The alternative is to use a recognised independent tour company, though it also can work out cost-effective for four people to share a taxi. Do note that at some attractions independent visitors may be approached by unofficial ‘guides’ who can be quite persistent. Here’s our choice of spectacles with suggestions on who can take you there…


1. Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

Possibly the best-known natural wonder in the Caribbean, Dunn’s River falls in a 600ft series of cascades, then empties directly into the sea. It is understandably popular, with chains of visitors holding hands to negotiate their way up the ‘staircase’ of slippery rocks, taking breaks to cool off in one of the pools. A guided trip takes about 90 minutes. The port of Ochos Rios is close by, allowing a half-day trip; it’s quite a long drive from other Jamaican ports, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.

Dunn's River Falls Credit: AP

Independently: A short taxi ride from Ocho Rios port. Entry fee about £14; official guides are strongly recommended.

Cruise lines:

  • MSC Cruises
  • Princess Cruises
  • Carnival Cruise Line
  • Holland America Line
  • Costa Cruises
  • Cruise & Maritime Voyages
  • Norwegian Cruise Line 


2. Sulphur Springs, St Lucia

One of the world’s few “drive-in” volcanoes, now known as Sulphur Springs Park, offers a fascinating – if smelly – geological insight. A bumpy but pretty 90-minute drive from the port of Castries brings you to this semi-active volcano where steam hisses from vents and boiling mud bubbles in various groundholes, viewable from safe platforms. Nearby is a manmade bath where you can wallow in the mud, which is said to have therapeutic qualities including making you look 12 years younger! Reckon on a five-hour tour.

Sulphur Springs Credit: AP

Independently: Only by taxi. Entrance fee about £8 with mud bath.

Cruise lines:

  • Carnival Cruise Line
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Seabourn
  • Saga – though most Caribbean operators visit St Lucia

3. Harrison’s Cave, Barbados

It’s undoubtedly touristy – a glass lift takes you down to the entrance and a little road train pulls you around inside – but Harrison’s Cave is well worth a visit. Set in a ravine in Barbados’ central hills, the caves boast the usual stalagmites ’n’ tites, but the best features are the subterranean pools, streams and waterfall. A three-hour excursion from the cruise port at Bridgetown allows about an hour’s guided tour of the cave, including some fairly easy walking.

The ultimate guide to Barbados

Independently: Guided tour about £21. Worth combining the cave with a visit to one of Barbados' beautiful botanic gardens on a private taxi tour. Hunte's Garden and Flower Forest (both about £11 entry) are within a couple of miles.

Cruise lines:

  • Viking Cruises
  • Cunard
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Disney Cruise Line - though almost all offer this trip


4. Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Tobago

Up in the steep, foliage-smothered hills of Tobago is the western hemisphere’s oldest protected rainforest, untouched (except by a 1963 hurricane) since 1776. Narrow trails penetrate deep into the dense jungle, home to elusive birds such as blue-crowned motmots and sabre-winged hummingbirds. Expert guides will explain the ecology on a five-hour round-trip from the port of Scarborough, in the south-east of the island. It’s possible to combine a rainforest walk with a visit to 175ft Argyle Falls, the pool of which invites a swim.

Independently: Local naturalists will pick you up from the ship – arrange before you travel. Argyle Falls entry fee about £6.

Cruise lines:

  • Princess Cruises
  • Fred Olsen Cruise Line
  • Oceania Cruises
  • Windstar Cruises 


5. Barrier Reef, Roatán

There are plenty of good snorkelling spots in the Caribbean and among the best is at the Honduran island of Roatán. Part of the world’s second-largest reef system, the 70 species of coral here harbour several hundred different types of fish as well as turtles. The water is clearest from February to summer. A five-hour excursion from Port of Roatán including guided kayaking along the shore as well as snorkelling is a popular choice. All equipment is supplied and no experience is necessary.

Barrier Reef Credit: Getty

Independently: Best to use an operator (your cruise line’s or locally-booked) to get to the prime spots.

Cruise lines:

  • Marella Cruises
  • Holland America Line
  • MSC Cruises
  • Regent Seven Seas
     

6. The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Distinctive smooth boulders, numerous shore caves, little beaches, rock pools, coral – The Baths on the British Virgin Island of Virgin Gorda is a miniature world that begs to be explored (and photographed). Clambering among the rocks and dipping in the seas with a snorkel is great fun. The Baths – which are also accessible on a day-trip from neighbouring Tortola, if your ship stops there – were damaged by Hurricane Irma but are now open again.

The Baths Credit: AP

Independently: A short taxi ride from Virgin Gorda’s port; if coming from Tortola, the largest British Virgin Island, an organised excursion is best. Entry fee is about £2.20.

Cruise lines:

  • Windstar Cruises
  • Princess Cruises
  • SeaDream Yacht Club
  • Star Clippers
  • Noble Caledonia
     

7. El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico

The USA’s ‘own’ Caribbean isle, Puerto Rico, also boasts the only true rainforest looked after by the US National Forest Service. Up in the damp, misty El Yunque, 23 species of tree are found nowhere else; wild orchids, tiny free frogs and tropical birds are also in abundance. From the modern visitors’ centre, hiking trails lead through the twisted trunks – you’ll see the post-Hurricane clear-up results as well as the impressive flora and fauna.

El Yunque Credit: AP

Independently: El Yunque is about a 40-minute drive from the port of San Juan, so a taxi is possible, but you’ll benefit from a guide. No entry fee.

Cruise lines:

  • Silversea
  • Viking Cruises
  • Holland America Line
  • Oceania Cruises
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • MSC Cruises

8. Whale watching, Dominica

The self-appointed “eco” island of Dominica is one of the lushest in the Caribbean and many visitors will seek out rainforest beauty spots such as Trafalgar Falls and the Emerald Pool. However, the island is also a top whale-watching destination, with sperm, humpback, pilot and false killer whales (larger dolphins) all making appearances in the peak winter season. Seeing them involves a three-hour boat trip to deeper waters.

At a glance | Everything you need to know about booking a Caribbean cruise

Independently: Easy – trips depart from the port at island capital Roseau, on the south-west coast, and the £35 fee will save you at least £20 on cruise-ship prices, but you must book in advance – they do not run every day.

Cruise lines:

  • Princess Cruises
  • P&O Cruises
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Norwegian Cruise Line
  • Cunard

9. National Marine Park, Bonaire

Whether seen through a mask when diving or snorkelling, or through the window of a glass-bottom boat, this vast spread of coral encircling the island of Bonaire is visually stunning. The reef begins almost at the beach and stretches hundreds of feet out to sea. It has pretty much every type of soft and hard coral, attracting more than 300 types of fish along with nesting turtles, pelicans and frigatebirds. Expect an organised trip from Bonaire cruise port to last about three hours. It is also possible to kayak out to the uninhabited satellite isle of Klein Bonaire.

Independently: Several local boat-trip operators near the port. £7 fee if you go it alone.

Cruise lines:

  • Fred Olsen Cruise Line
  • P&O Cruises
  • Marella Cruises
  • Crystal Cruises
  • Hapag-Lloyd 

10. Laguna Guanaroca, Cuba

There’s far more to Cuba than old American cars, cigars and salsa. How about flamingos? About 200 of the bright pink variety live at Laguna Guanaroca, a mangrove-hemmed lake in the corner of the same bay as the World Heritage-listed cruise-port town of Cienfuegos. Walkways and platforms allow observations of not just flamingoes but about 170 other birds and even manatees. Two-hour guided trips usually include a boat ride.

Laguna Guanaroca Credit: Getty

Independently: A seven-mile taxi ride from the dock at Cienfuegos. Entrance fee about £7.

Cruise lines:

  • Azamara Club Cruises
  • Viking Cruises
  • Holland America Line
  • Oceania Cruises