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Highlights of the Caribbean: My cut-price cruise in paradise (part 1)

In the first of a two-part special, Mark Evans cut-price cruises around some of the Caribbean's most picturesque islands

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Eastern Caribbean: St Thomas panorama from Mountain Top

Eastern Caribbean: St Thomas panorama from Mountain Top

Stephen and Veronica Evans with the ship in Puerto Rico

Stephen and Veronica Evans with the ship in Puerto Rico

Mark and Stephen Evans in La Factoria in San Juan

Mark and Stephen Evans in La Factoria in San Juan

Caribbean idyll at Sapphire Beach in Saint Thomas

Caribbean idyll at Sapphire Beach in Saint Thomas

The Danish Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie

The Danish Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie

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Eastern Caribbean: St Thomas panorama from Mountain Top

With 7,000 islands in the Caribbean, you could visit every single one for a day and only finish up 20 years later.

And even if you had that amount of time, you'd need a deep wallet to get around. But you can see the best of the Caribbean - well, my favourite parts - in a week, taking in the diverse cultures and sights of the most beautiful part - the eastern Caribbean.

And the cost? Surprisingly good, I found as I coughed up the cash for our family holiday of a lifetime. With deals from just over a grand apiece through Tour America (all revealed in part two, next week), you get bang for your buck.

MSC Cruises are competitive on price, with a balcony cabin and all-inclusive drinks all part of the package.

In a bad start, a late flight meant that the first part of the trip last August - an overnight stay in the Intercontinental Hotel in Miami - had to be ditched as we rushed from the airport to the cruise port to make our ship, MSC Seaside. But that was the only downside to a week of discovery and adventure.

The embarkation terminal is new, so while the lines were long we were onboard in no time, wowed the CSI-style views of the Miami skyline from the ship's Shine Bar, taking advantage of the all-inclusive drinks package as we waited for our cabin to be ready. We shared as two adults and one teenager (he got the pull-out bed) in a balcony cabin, which is essential for those beautiful sailings into ports.

MSC Seaside is enormous, but the great thing is that it's built for the sun, so there's plenty of al fresco dining and drinking options. The ship departed the US in the evening, and it would arrive at the first stop, Puerto Rico, two days later, with a full day at sea in between.

Sea days are a great way of getting your bearings. The ship has - wait for it - 20 bars and lounges, nine dining spots and four themed restaurants, so there's plenty of places to use the drinks package and stuff yourself silly.

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Caribbean idyll at Sapphire Beach in Saint Thomas

Caribbean idyll at Sapphire Beach in Saint Thomas

Caribbean idyll at Sapphire Beach in Saint Thomas

From one of our favourite spots - the open-area Miramar Bar, all the way up on deck 19 - we got a bird's-eye view of the port of San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico. It's a pity that we see the US protectorate of PR, as it's known for short, through an American lens, and much of it is negative. Our expectations weren't high, but the port is breathtaking, with MSC Seaside gliding into port past the historic Castillo San Felipe del Morro, whose construction began in 1593.

Arriving in the evening, there wasn't time to visit sights like North America's only rainforest, but there was an advantage: getting to embrace the intoxicating nightlife of old town San Juan, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Cobbled streets are lined with bars and restaurants. To me, it's part Havana, part Valencia, a pinch of New Orleans, with a bit of a Canary Islands feel thrown in. We had great chats with fellow cruisers from America over a cold beer at our first stop, Douglas bar, before hitting a dive bar (I've a soft spot for them) - El Batey around the corner.

Nearby Nonos is an atmospheric bar, the kind of place where you'd expect to find Ernest Hemingway penning a novel, while for food and coffee, Hecho en Casa had a nice old-world ambience. Don't worry about addresses - all are within a few minutes' stroll from one another, and walkable from the ship too. The best bet is to wander through the beautiful cobblestoned streets, grab a spot and a stool and order a mojito or two (prices are very reasonable).

You mightn't think it, but PR has major links to Ireland. The first Irish influx, the Wild Geese, escaped English rule here in the 16th Century, and the Irish were to the fore in establishing the island's sugar industry.

In more recent times, politician Pedro Albizu Campos was asked by Eamon de Valera to help with the Irish Constitution; he in turn based his struggle for the island's independence from the US on the Irish rebels' campaigns.

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Stephen and Veronica Evans with the ship in Puerto Rico

Stephen and Veronica Evans with the ship in Puerto Rico

Stephen and Veronica Evans with the ship in Puerto Rico

Sadly, a cruise shows you so much, but there's always too little time. Last stop for us was La Factoria, a bar and nightclub where we tried to keep up with the salsaing locals before heading off. Hopefully we'll return some day.

A new day, and a new island. While it's just 125km from San Juan, Charlotte Amalie, capital of Saint Thomas, is a different world, with Spanish giving way to the English language (with plenty of French Creole too) on an island of stunning beauty.

We all know about the British, the French, Spanish and the Dutch in the Caribbean. But the Danes? Saint Thomas has the same old rulers as Dublin - except while we were settled by much earlier Vikings, the Danes took control here in 1672 through the Danish West India Guinea Company, before it was fully annexed in 1754. Nowadays it's part of the US Virgin Islands, having been sold to the States in 1917, but has had full home rule since 1970.

First impressions? You'd expect to bump into Ardal O'Hanlon here, as lush and tropical Saint Thomas is straight out of BBC's Death In Paradise crime comedy (without all the drama, though). The big draw here is the beaches. From the port you can hire taxis or organised excursions to drop you to one, with the likes of Magens Bay and Sapphire Beach rated among the best in the entire Caribbean. Charlotte Amalie's a pretty town, with plenty of shops and restaurants for day trippers. Dronningens Gade, one of the main strips, is full of jewellery stores. Shop around, but prices are said to be keen and without a US-style sales tax.

The island is also home to St Thomas Synagogue, which has the longest continuous service (since 1792) on what is US soil.

The nearby imposing Fort Christian is the standout site - a Danish lookout from the 1670s that, the locals will tell you, was built too low to be much use for spying on approaching enemies or pirates. Around it are mazy historic streets, and a must-stop for photos: the pretty 99 Steps street stairs (there are actually 103, but who's counting...)

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The Danish Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie

The Danish Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie

The Danish Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie

We were on a whistlestop tour with friendly local man Joseph Hodge, who runs taxi services and tailormade island excursions with Prestige Taxis (prestigetaxivi.com). And it's definitely recommended. The best views are from outside the town - you'll see your ships and surrounding islands, including the neighbouring British Virgin Islands, from the likes of Mountain Top and Drake's Seat. The beaches are a must. We took the short journey to Sapphire Beach Bar (sbbvi.com), where it's simply a case of grabbing a cabana and a beer and admiring the gorgeous kaleidoscope of sea and air blues.

You can rent out snorkels and flippers for a few dollars on the beach, and the shallow, protected bay is full of marine life. Although you'll overlook Shark Island, don't worry - there aren't any big predators in these parts.

If you don't like swimming with the marine life, you might want to try some on your plate. Our final stop was The Greenhouse Bar and Restaurant. Fabulously Caribbean, the food here is the best I've tried in the Caribbean, and some of the best I've tried full-stop. Conch fritters, crab rolls, Basa Vina fish tacos - the food is incredible and, to boot, there's a three-hour happy hour in the afternoons.

Again, it was a taster, but I can see St Thomas as a beautiful honeymoon spot, or idea if you want a laidback beach hotel.

You can find out more on visitusvi.com

This article originally appeared in The Herald.

Herald