If ever there was a destination made for cruising, it is the Caribbean. Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the top of South America, it is a natural treasure chest bound together by the Caribbean Sea and temperate trade winds that hug this corner of the globe in a tropical embrace.
Sprinkled like precious jewels across waters that sparkle in every shade from deep indigo to aquamarine, are thousands of islands, many of which are uninhabited. These small idylls have long caught the eyes of travellers, from the moment the explorer Christopher Columbus stumbled across them more than 500 years ago.
European conquerors who followed in his wake searching for new-world treasures laid the foundations for the English, Spanish, French and Dutch cultures that so clearly define the islands today, while the bitter legacy of slavery brought African traditions that enriched the music and customs flowing across the region.
Such vibrant cultures bring a fitting contrast to cruise itineraries that are finely balanced between bigger, more-developed islands such as Barbados and Antigua – which tend to attract resort-style ships carrying thousands of passengers – to the rustic hideaways of the Grenadines or British Virgin Islands that cater for smaller craft.
Yet the enduring appeal of the Caribbean comes down to its drop-dead gorgeous scenery, from the volcanic peaks and lush rainforest enveloping the likes of St Lucia and Dominica to the mesmerising roll-call of beaches draped around most islands like dazzling necklaces of white powder sand.
It’s no surprise that the Caribbean carries the crown as the ultimate chill-out retreat, but its rugged side also rings adventures by the score – from white-water rafting and volcano trekking to rainforest hikes, all underpinned by the captivating heritage, culture and laidback warmth of the West Indians.
While the constant balmy climate attracts passenger ships year-round, it is during the less humid months from December to April – as Europe shivers in winter – that the Caribbean comes into its own and the cruise season ramps up to its peak.
Rather like its famous rum cocktails, the sweet taste of Caribbean life packs a punch that proves hard to resist. Here is a selection of some of the finest voyages this tropical region has to offer.
Season’s greetings, St Lucia
This festive escape to the welcoming warmth of the West Indies is a Christmas treat that promises to match anything Santa may pull out of his sack. As part of Royal Caribbean International’s first winter season of sailings from Barbados on Grandeur of the Seas, guests can board a replica Spanish galleon to sail past St Lucia’s majestic twin Pitons and kayak along mangrove-filled waterways through a Trinidad bird sanctuary, while Pirates of the Caribbean fans can hunt for locations from the film series on a tour of St Vincent.
Book it: The seven-night round-trip Southern Caribbean Island Hop from Barbados, including calls at Tobago, Grenada and Martinique, departs Dec 26. From £420pp (0344 493 4005; royalcaribbean.com)