If your ideal vacation is a strip of sand, a snorkel and a little umbrella in your cocktail, then the Caribbean is where you want your ship to set sail.

The thousands of islands of the Caribbean enjoy year-round sunshine, with the exception of a short hurricane season in late summer and autumn. The Caribbean’s high season begins in the winter and peaks again during the summer when kids are on school holiday. The best bargains can be found during the autumn and spring “shoulder seasons”, especially when hurricanes are a threat.

The Caribbean has long been a cruise hub, with almost every line plying these waters at some point during the year. Ships run from the world’s largest, the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas, to the smallest, the Star Clippers’ 170-passenger vessels that run on manually unfurled sails. The large ships will take you to the biggest ports with the most to do, like Nassau and Cozumel, while the smaller ones will allow you to visit pristine and secluded beaches in the Southern Grenadines and British Virgin Islands.

It is worth skipping the pricey cruise ship excursions that often take you to the same beach you can get to yourself for half the price. Most cruise ports have official taxi stands; these are your ticket to experience a slice of sand that you will not have to share with half your ship.

Ocho Rios, Jamaica
There are lots of great beaches in Jamaica, but for those that want to get away from the throngs in Ocho Rios, take a 10-minute taxi ride to Reggae Beach. It costs $5 per person to spend the day at this private quarter-mile long stretch of sand, but in return you get beach chairs, bathroom facilities and far fewer crowds than at the public beaches. In addition, you will not be bothered by the peddlers for which Jamaica is notorious. The Village Beach Bar serves cold drinks and Jamaican specialties like conch and jerk chicken. You can also rent a kayak to experience views of the lush coastline. True to its name, the beach often has live bands playing.

Always take an official JUTA taxi in Jamaica, and negotiate the fare with the driver upfront. It should not cost more than $40 for the 20 minute roundtrip, for up to four people.

Nassau, Bahamas
The Bahamas is known for its spectacular beaches with soft white sand and clear blue water. Unfortunately for cruisers docking in Nassau, the beaches are also known for crowds. While most cruisers head to popular Cable Beach or pay $30 per person to use the grounds at the famous Atlantis resort, there are several beaches slightly farther away that have far fewer people and are just as beautiful.

One of these is Caves Beach, a crescent-shaped strip of white sand and palm trees seven miles from downtown Nassau on West Bay Street. This beach is never crowded, mainly because it does not have any facilities. Make sure you pick up food and drinks before leaving Nassau, or plan to stop at one of local restaurants near the beach on the way back. A taxi from the port should cost $27 each way for two passengers, while local bus #10 to Orange Hill costs $2 per person and leaves from near the cruise terminal. Make arrangements with the driver in advance to have the taxi pick you up.

Cayman Islands
Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach, really only about five and a half miles long, is where the action is. This beautiful stretch of powdery-white sand and gentle sea has enough beachfront bars, restaurants, shopping and water sports to keep any beach bum satisfied until all-aboard time. The beach attracts the crowds near where the private resorts and hotels are located, but also has a less-crowded, equally beautiful northernmost end. Just beyond is Cemetery Beach, where you will find a reef with some of the area’s best off-sand snorkelling.

To get there, hop in cab or take a minibus from the cruise terminal in George Town. Arrange with the driver to pick you up as well, it should cost you about CI$18 roundtrip. Travellers on a budget should take the West Bay bus, which leaves from the centre of George Town near the town clock, and runs regularly throughout the day.

For cruisers in search of breakers, Barbados, the Caribbean’s outermost island, has some of the biggest waves and best surfing in the region. While most cruisers scurry to calm waters on the island’s west side, surf is up on the southern and eastern shores.

Barry’s Surf School in St Lawrence offers cruisers several options depending on whether you want to have lessons, rent a surfboard, or combine a surf and snorkel trip. It is a 10-minute taxi ride from the cruise port in Bridgetown, and Barry’s will arrange a taxi back for you. A full day of lessons and surfing starts at US$75 per person, but it is only $30 if you just want to rent a board and use the facility’s umbrellas and beach chairs.

St Barts
This upmarket French island experience is reminiscent of a summer in St Tropez, with some of the most beautiful and least crowded public beaches in the Caribbean. Merely eight miles in length, St Barts can easily be explored during a daylong stop. Cruise ships dock right outside Gustavia, the island’s quaint capital, and take passengers to town on small boats.

For the best people watching take a taxi to St Jean Beach and get lunch or cocktails at Nikki Beach, where the scene centres on fashion and celebrity sightings. For a more French experience, hit a local supermarket in Gustavia to grab wine, cheese and a baguette, and head to Saline Beach or Gouverneur Beach. Bear in mind that in keeping with French tradition both beaches are swimsuit optional. An easy and exciting way to experience several parts of the island in one day is to rent an ATV in Gustavia.

Taxis are readily available at the port, and will cost about 15 euros to St Jean and 25 euros to Saline or Gouverneur beaches. Only upscale cruise lines and small ships call on St Barts, sailing out of San Juan, Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale and Miami.