There is absolutely nothing wrong with Cozumel or the Bahamas.
But once you've seen them, it's time to branch out.
Cruise lines are experimenting with all kinds of interesting Caribbean itineraries that expose travelers to a broader swath of the region. Some feature islands that are hard to visit on your own. Some mix exotic with familiar, giving travelers a taste of wildly different cultures.
"The thing is, these islands represent different regions, and many are more European," says Carnival Valor Capt. Luigi De Angelis, who has captained ships throughout the Caribbean. His favorite islands are Aruba and Roatan, Honduras. By visiting more exotic islands with Dutch, French, English or Spanish roots, "you get a taste of all these different places on the other side of the ocean. That is why it seems to me it is more culturally interesting."
More sophisticated than your basic western Caribbean or Bahamas itinerary, cruises labeled "southern Caribbean" or "exotic Caribbean" usually are at least eight days long. Most leave from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or San Juan, Puerto Rico. And most cruise distances of 4,000 miles or more.
Admittedly, the exotic Caribbean isn't super-trendy. Right now, the in-the-know cruise folks are flocking to the Mediterranean. But that's all the more reason to go now. Exotic Caribbean cruise prices are as low as $600 to $900 per person for a week or more. It's easy and cheap to get to departure ports like Miami. So seek your best deal.
I like these itineraries for their breadth, combining the familiar with the exotic -- especially those that stop in Curaçao; Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos; Saba; Bonaire; St. Barts; St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; Tortola, British Virgin Islands; Dominica or Guadeloupe.
Most of these cruises are offered on more than just these dates. Prices shown are per person based on double occupancy (the prices are from Expedia.com, Silversea.com and Seabourn.com as of June 2012).
Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas: Departs Dec. 3 for 11 nights. Fort Lauderdale; Antigua; St. Vincent and the Grenadines; St. Lucia; Barbados; Bonaire; Aruba, Fort Lauderdale ($1,019 ocean view).
Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas: Departs Dec. 29 for seven nights. San Juan, Puerto Rico; Tortola; St. Maarten; St. Kitts; Guadeloupe; Barbados, San Juan ($1,249 ocean view).
Carnival Valor: Departs Aug. 18 for seven nights. Miami; Grand Turk; La Romana, Dominican Republic; Aruba; Curaçao, Miami ($979 ocean view).
Celebrity Summit: Departs Dec. 8 for six nights. San Juan; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; St. Croix; St. Kitts; Dominica; Grenada, San Juan ($598 ocean view).
Seabourn Spirit: Departs Jan. 13 for 13 nights. St. Maarten; Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands; St. Barts; St. Kitts; Guadeloupe; Martinique; St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Barbados; St. Lucia; Antigua; Saba, St. Maarten ($5,022 ocean view).
Norwegian Star: Departs Oct. 21 for 14 nights. New York; St. Thomas; Antigua; Barbados; Curaçao; Aruba; Cozumel, New Orleans ($2,199 balcony; ocean view sold out).
Silversea Spirit: Departs Nov. 30 for nine nights. Fort Lauderdale; Grand Turk; St. Barts; Antigua; St. Kitts; Tortola, Fort Lauderdale ($4,199 vista suite).