While cruising is a great way to sit back and watch the world and the waves roll by, it also presents wonderful opportunities to see parts of the world you might never get to otherwise. Cruise line reps will work hard to sign you up for their varied pre-packaged "shore excursions." Many travelers don't mind being packed into a bus like a sardine and driven to a list of tourist traps for photo ops and "unique" souvenirs. Still, the experience leaves much to be desired. There is a better option.
If you've planned a cruise that includes ports of call in a part of the world you want to explore--and I mean really explore--you owe it to yourself to rent a vehicle other than the one hyped by the cruise line.
Keep in mind that for every rental the cruise line signs up, the company gets a large percentage of the rental price. It's cheaper to do it on your own. If you're a solo cruiser like me, invite your new on-board friends to join your expedition.
Nearly every Caribbean island has car rentals available at a modest cost. Using the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas as an example, these include such well-known companies as Budget Rent A Car and locally owned companies like Dependable Car Rental and Discount Car Rental.
If you telephone these companies directly for your reservation (see sidebar), most will arrange either to pick you up at the dock and take you to the rental office or have the vehicle waiting for you when you disembark. Some Caribbean car rental companies even have Jeeps and 4X4s available for less than $100 per day.
Hard-core island trekkers can thus skip the tour-bus routes in favor of the roads less traveled. With that in mind, I suggest getting in touch with the tourism board of the Caribbean island you plan to visit and asking specifically for suggested driving routes, especially those taken by the locals.
Explain that you want the locations of local eateries and beaches the cruise-ship passengers never get to see--that your goal is to absorb the essence of the island, not to be directed to the closest straw market. Ask the representative to email any suggestions, along with maps and information about local driving laws.
Don't be deterred by the fact that you'll be driving on the left-hand side of the road on many Caribbean islands. It's an experience you can share that evening at dinner with everyone who opted for the cookie-cutter tour bus.
When planning to rent a car in the Caribbean, verify ahead of time whether your U.S. driver's license will suffice. You should also ask your insurance company representative if they will cover you while driving in the Caribbean. If not, you will need to purchase added insurance.
I have been to St. Thomas several times and love the beauty of this 31-square-mile oasis. Unlike many islands, this Virgin Island is not flat. Crown Mountain, the highest peak, reaches 1,556 feet and offers breathtaking views.
Although it is a tourist spot, Megan's Bay is also a must-see destination on the island of St. Thomas. Get there early to swim or snorkel, then relax over lunch at a local beach bar. If time permits, drive along Skyline Drive for more beautiful views. Just make sure you leave enough time to get back to the car rental office and onto the ship.
Most cruise ships that go to St. Thomas also go to St. Maarten/St. Marten. This paradise is another "must-drive" island. Its claim to fame is that it is the smallest island inhabited by two countries: St. Marten is part of the French West Indies, while the Netherlands Antilles governs St. Maarten. Like St. Thomas, this island paradise is not flat, its highest peak reaching 1,358 feet.
St. Maarten boasts numerous car rental companies, including Avis, whose representatives will pick you up at the pier.
Cruising is a great way to get to these Caribbean islands, and renting a vehicle is the best way to see how the locals live. The Carnival Victory travels to both islands for as little as $309 per person (double occupancy) for currently scheduled sailings in September and October 2011. With what you'll save on such a value-priced cruise, you can splurge on your own custom shore expedition for an island adventure to remember.
Budget Rent A Car
Dependable Car Rental
Discount Car Rental