Sunset beach of Barbados with clouds in the sky, a large palm tree in the foreground on a sandy beach

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Not one culture, but many

Because the Caribbean is made up of so many islands, each with different roots and histories, it’s impossible to summarise culture for the region as a whole. Though there are some common threads, such as famous Caribbean hospitality, each and every island community is very different, with their own customs, festivals, flavors, and sounds. One of the best things about a Caribbean cruise vacation, compared to a single-island break, is that you can experience all of this in just one trip.

Languages in the Caribbean

Many families in the Caribbean rely on tourism and hospitality, so English is widely spoken. However, due to the various settlers that have populated and influenced the islands over the years, you’ll encounter a wide variety of languages and dialects in each region. See how many you can hear on your voyage, from Spanish, French, Dutch, or Creole, or a mishmash of all of the above. Creole itself has many variants, depending on which island you’re on. Many islands use European languages as their base, but some island creoles might be built on Arabic, Hindi, or even Chinese. The ABC islands – ArubaBonaire, and Curaçao, – are known for speaking Papiamento, a Portuguese-based creole.

Caribbean music

It’s likely that one of the first things to come to mind when you think of the Caribbean – apart from sandy beaches – is music. Music is a core part of Caribbean life, and the perfect soundtrack to your visit. Steel bands, known as the true sound of the Caribbean, put on regular performances, with groups reaching dozens of members. Percussion comes in the form of the maracas – pick up a pair in the local markets and give them a try – and the guiro, played by scratching a hollow gourd with a stick or tines.

 

Caribbean music can’t be discussed without mentioning reggae and its Jamaican affiliation, thanks to Bob Marley and other artists. Reggae is uplifting and catchy, with lilting rhythms and lyrics that reference themes from the Caribbean’s past, such as slavery and freedom. Other local genres such as calypso and ska are often written around similar themes.

Caribbean festivals

Like Brazil, further south, the Caribbean is known for its party atmosphere, with traditional music, colorful costumes and decorations, and swaying Caribbean dancing. Once again, every island has its own specialty, from lobster festivals to music festivals, parades to regattas, art to street food. Check local websites before you sail to see what you can experience. And, with the main religion being Christianity, a cruise is the perfect opportunity to experience Christmas the Caribbean way; with street parties, local festive treats, light festivals and, in St Lucia, a noisy tradition known as ‘bamboo bursting’!

Caribbean sports

Although many sports are enjoyed across the Caribbean, one is celebrated above all others: cricket. Originally a British invention, cricket arrived in the Caribbean in the early 1800s and was a way for all communities to come together. The sport took root, and today’s West Indies cricket team is one of the best in the world, competing regularly in global tournaments. Most of the islands host cricket in some form, and you may see locals playing in parks and beaches, no matter where you dock.

Caribbean food and drink

Caribbean flavor is known around the world and discovering, tasting, and cooking these vibrant dishes brings a different kind of joy. Here, we’ve summarised just a few of the favorites you can sample on your cruise.

 

One of the more recognisable Caribbean dishes is Jamaican jerk: chicken or pork marinated or rubbed with a mouth-watering combination of spices and chilli. For best results, cook over an open flame – no ovens allowed! Although you can purchase jerk seasoning from the supermarket at home, nothing can compare to the true jerk taste found fresh in the Caribbean. For the perfect accompaniment, try rice and beans cooked in coconut milk, commonly known as “rice ‘n’ peas” or roti, a flatbread filled with Caribbean curry.

 

If you’ve ever visited a Caribbean fish market, then you’ll know how varied the seafood offering is in this part of the world. From shellfish to shoaling fish, stews, chowders, and skewers, every Caribbean port has stalls, cafés, and restaurants abundant with locally-sourced fish for you to sample. 

 

Drinks in the Caribbean can be summed up in a single word: rum. You can find distilleries on almost every island – browse our Shore Experiences if you want to take a tour or have a tasting – each with its own style and nuanced flavors. From the Bacardi factory in San Juan to smaller, local distilleries in St Lucia, St Maarten, and Grenada. If neat rum isn’t for you, try a delicious rum punch with fresh tropical fruits, a refreshing mojito, or a classic daiquiri; perfect when enjoyed on the beach.

Caribbean architecture

A melting pot of different cultures, the Caribbean boasts architecture with Spanish, Dutch, French, and English styles. From rows of colorful seaside houses to old stone forts, every port is unique in its architecture, and picking your favorite building becomes something of a game with each new stop. The best way, of course, to see local buildings is with a tour, whether walking, driving, by bike, or by other means. Here are just a few of our favorites:

 

Take a 40-minute bus journey to St John’s from English Harbour port, during your visit to Antigua, and explore the island capital for a few hours. A highlight is St John’s Cathedral, built in 1845 and designed by an English architect in the baroque style. As the cathedral was built on a hilltop, its towers can be seen for miles around.

 

Visitors to San Juan in Puerto Rico can explore Old San Juan, all winding cobbled streets and colorful homesteads. Discover the forts of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal, and stroll along the city walls, spotting Spanish architectural features such as callejón (alleyways) and traditional doors.

 

The southern Caribbean island of Curaçao is home to the Willemstad Trolley Train, which takes you on a delightful tour of the city. Stop at the golden-walled, Dutch-influenced, Pietermaai Cathedral, and Fort Amsterdam, current home of the island’s Governor and previous headquarters of the Dutch West India Trading Company.

 

Visitors to St Lucia can visit the 150-year-old Pink Plantation House out of Castries, a beautiful French Colonial property by the sea. The tour includes the house’s tropical gardens, a famous ceramics collection from Michelle Elliot, and a refreshing rum cocktail on the veranda.

Religion in the Caribbean

Being a blend of cultures, it may not surprise you that religion is wide and varied across the Caribbean. Christianity is the largest religion, with churches and cathedrals of varying styles found on many islands. If you visit on a Sunday you may well see locals in their Sunday best heading to church – why not join them and see what a Caribbean church looks like inside? You are sure to find a warm welcome! Even if you don’t join in, the churches themselves are spectacle enough: Pietermaai Cathedral in Curaçao, St Johns in Antigua, and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in St Kitts are just a few examples.

 

Aside from Christianity, the Caribbean is home to Islam, Hindi, voodoo, and Rastafarian practices, among others.

Shopping in the Caribbean

Browsing colorful Caribbean market stalls is a wonderful way to pass time on shore during your Caribbean cruise. Cast your eyes over a sea of souvenirs and mementos, discover local crafts and cuisine, or try a new rum cocktail at a local bar. Whether you choose to visit a market during an island tour with one of our Shore Experiences, or explore the local streets at your own leisure, you’re sure to spend a happy hour or two in these bustling community spaces.

 

Stop by a local produce market and sample familiar tropical wares, and others you’ve never seen in the shops at home. From jackfruit to guava, soursop to starfruit, you’re sure to find some old favorites and new things to try. Why not go on a taste test and try as many as you can?

 

Being on the coast means you’re also likely find a few fresh fish markets on your travels, many of which offer stalls where you can sample fresh lobster, fish stews, and conch fritters.

 

For a truly Caribbean souvenir, visit a spice market. Several islands boast these, but the largest, known as Spice Island, is in Grenada. Purchase an enviable selection of spices to take home and perfect newfound Caribbean dishes in the comfort of your own kitchen, bringing back memories of your cruise.

 

Even shopping is fun at a market – haggling is the norm here, so you can try your hand at getting a competitive price. Once your buying is complete, sit in a local open-air café or bar for a drink and people-watch: these places are hubs for locals to socialize and gossip.

Caribbean etiquette

One of the reasons the Caribbean is so well-loved as a vacation destination is the welcoming people and friendly, laid-back approach to life. Caribbean communities are very used to tourists and are likely to be forgiving of any accidental mishaps. As a rule of thumb, we have some top tips to avoid causing any offence or misunderstanding with locals during your visit.

 

Religion is widespread across the Caribbean isles. Whether you encounter Christians, or followers of Buddhism, voodoo, or others, it’s important to show respect around religious topics. When visiting religious sites, be aware of those who may be praying or worshipping nearby, and dress modestly and mindfully. The same goes for visiting some government buildings.

 

Caribbean people are very welcoming and may literally greet you with open arms. Don’t be surprised by this but try to welcome it as a gesture of hospitality. People often greet each other with a smile and a ‘hello’ as they pass by.

 

Elders are given high levels of respect in the Caribbean and are often addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ accordingly. Be ready to put this into action – or, if you’re above a certain age, receive it!

 

Some islands, such as the Bahamas, value punctuality. If you agree to meet a local guide at an appointed time, make every effort to meet it, lest you risk appearing rude! This ties in with another local value: trust. Caribbean people value trust in all its forms, so keeping your word, no matter how small the matter, will go a long way.

Explore the Caribbean with Cunard