Four ports, 14 lines, and more than 90 ships: welcome to the cruise capital of the world
Four cruise ports, 14 cruise lines, more than 90 ships from which to choose and virtually guaranteed sunshine? It’s no wonder that Florida, gateway to the Caribbean, is the world’s favourite cruise hub.
Miami in the south remains the most popular city for departures, with 42 ships sailing from the port – but Fort Lauderdale, blessed with wonderful beaches, is another good twin-centre option. The 12 theme parks of Orlando are only an hour away from busy Port Canaveral.
Despite having lived in the state for many years I had neglected Martin County.
It has dozens of parks, great beaches, galleries, museums and what is claimed to be the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern hemisphere.
Queen Mary 2 arrives at Fort Lauderdale Credit: 2004 Getty Images/Tom Ervin
Equidistant from Orlando and Miami, the town of Stuart on the east coast has a growing reputation for offering an “alternative” Florida experience.
“This is a small town and we don’t like change,” said our trolley driver, Bob, as we toured the county’s hub on our first morning. “Things haven’t changed here in more than 50 years – and folks like it that way.”
In the case of Stuart, that is a good thing. Its biggest building is the four-storey Lyric Theatre, its 1926 façade comfortably at home on Flagler Avenue, one of the two streets that constitute the heart of downtown. Florida’s ubiquitous chain hotels are noticeably missing, along with the high-rise condos that sprawl for miles further south.
In the absence of a big-name hotel we stayed at the charming Inn Shepard’s Park, a bed-and-breakfast with a view over Frazier Creek, a tributary of the St Lucie River where dolphins and manatees were often in evidence. We looked for them at breakfast, taken on the porch while enjoying fresh fruit, warm-from-the-oven muffins, yoghurt and waffles.
The inn offers its guests the use of kayaks for a morning paddle on the river and bicycles for the short pedal into town. Some of the 23 miles of beaches on Hutchinson Island were only 10 minutes’ drive.
Stuart may cling to its Twenties sensibilities but it boasts almost 30 restaurants and cafés. There is the fine Italian cuisine of Eighteen Seminole Street, the excellent seafood of the riverfront Boathouse and the bistro-style treats at The Gafford, where the pineapple martini was heaven in a glass.
But Martin County has more to recommend it than great cocktails and laid-back charm. Whether you seek coral reefs, wildlife-filled swamps, oyster beds, unspoilt beaches or bird sanctuaries, you will not be disappointed.
Miami is the most popular city for cruise departures Credit: AP
St Lucie Inlet, which lies at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway and the St Lucie River, is where we found the remarkable ecosystem.
A two-and-a-half-hour boat excursion revealed the delicate balance of the estuary ecosystem (as well as more dolphins), then a hike through the 400-acre Barley Barber Swamp in the company of naturalist Chuck Barrowclough took us back in time to a pre-settlement era of pristine freshwater wetlands.
Barrowclough pointed out plants the Seminole Indians used for traditional medicine as well as the environmental value of the wetlands, which feed into the Florida Everglades to the south.
Sadly, short-sighted drainage projects in the early 20th century badly affected this vast ecosystem, but conservation efforts are slowly restoring the balance.
On our way back from the swamp, our progress was halted by a local. About five feet long, fairly juvenile and still as a cat about to pounce, the alligator sat in our vehicle’s path for several minutes before deciding to head back to the creek.
In this part of Florida, nature still has right of way.
The best cruise and stay holidays in Florida
For families: Combine an all-action Orlando stay with a Disney Cruise Line sailing. Virgin Holidays Cruises offers a package mixing seven nights at Disney’s Pop Century Resort with a three-night Bahamas cruise on board Disney Wonder. From £1,418pp including flights, departing February 23, 2017 (0344 488 3084; virginholidayscruises.co.uk).
For low season: September and October are off-peak months for Caribbean holidays, when prices can drop considerably. Royal Caribbean’s feature-packed Oasis of the Seas sails from Port Canaveral; from £593pp for a seven-night cruise, excluding flights, departing October 22, 2017 (0844 493 4005; royalcaribbean.co.uk). For a beach break, nearby Daytona Beach is ideal. Virgin Holidays Cruises offers a 14-night package including a week at Wyndham Orlando Resort and a Caribbean cruise on board Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas from Fort Lauderdale. From £1,149pp, departing September 20, 2017 (0344 488 3084; virginholidayscruises.co.uk).
For nature lovers: Book any Florida cruise and chart a course for Stuart afterwards. A double room at the Inn Shepard’s Park costs from £140 in February (innshepard.com). A pontoon-boat estuary cruise with Sunshine Wildlife Tours costs from $51pp/£41 (sunshinewildlifetours.com). Barley Barber Swamp tours are free from October to May but must be booked in advance (barleybarber.org). For more on Martin County visit discovermartin.com.
For luxury: Choose Miami's South Beach, where luxury hotels and restaurants are strung along a nine-mile stretch of white-sand beach. Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, Norwegian Escape, sails seven-night Caribbean cruises, with year-round departures. From £649pp, cruise only (0333 241 2319; ncl.co.uk). Try the chic Presidential Hotel in South Beach from £107 per night in April (presidentsouthbeach.com).