When I was a young boy, I spent many a summer afternoon listening to the cricket with a transistor crackling next to my ear, savouring the smoky dialects of West Indian commentators, repeating the players' exotic names and marvelling at their nonchalant genius. Thus my first bucket list item was created. It only took 50 years but last summer I finally got to tick it off.
There are almost 30 island nations dotted around the Caribbean, and we are visiting them aboard the Viking Star. The Viking line launched into ocean cruising only two years ago with a fleet of three intimate, luxury vessels (capacity 900 passengers). It has now expanded its aquatic footprint into this part of the world with a mouth-watering itinerary which I call "around the world in eight islands": one a day for just over a week, lapping up the colonial legacies of the US, England, Spain, France, Holland and Africa.
We start in Puerto Rico, an American territory since the Spanish-American war of 1898, whose capital San Juan has a jewel of an old city, a maze of brightly coloured buildings crammed into blue cobblestone streets. Old San Juan is encircled by a fortified wall that dates back centuries to its Spanish origins, with a scenic path around the outside affording sweeping vistas of the ocean.
Inside the walls lies a juicy mix of Spanish-Creole colour and American reliability. Cosy restaurants are squeezed into improbable spaces, decorated with eye-popping Carnevale masks that remind you that you're a long way from Europe. When the sun falls, I am off in search of salsa, and find a nightclub where a mighty sound emanates from the back room. I drag my wife in for a dance and she bounces out, almost rejuvenated.
Apart from the American dollar, the other major currency here (and across the Caribbean) is rum. You can enjoy a cool mojito or margarita at several open-air bars clustered down at the dock. We catch a ferry across the harbour and visit the Bacardi factory, which offers an entertaining history tour of the famous rum, complete with free cocktail.
Bacardi's success serves as a counterpoint to the country's economic difficulties. The locals have US citizenship but not enough money to move to the mainland. Puerto Rico is almost bankrupt, its economy has no agriculture and depends heavily on tourism. It's a tale of hardship that will be retold often on the other islands.
Next port of call is Tortola, largest of the British Virgin Islands. Its population is 18,000 and the largest industry is politely described as "offshore banking". It's a beautiful spot to launder your money; reclusive mansions dot the lush hillsides which roll into idyllic beaches. Our cruise includes a daily tour of each island, which we take in the morning to allow us time for an independent wander afterwards. In the afternoon we catch a taxi to Canegarden Bay and saunter up the white sand wondering how much the suntanned expats have salted away.
In the absence of any beach cricket, we head for a small distillery recommended by our tour guide, whose accent is so heavy I can barely understand him. But I do catch the word rum clearly as we wander down a bush track and discover, well, a cave. Inside, a young man stands at a bar made of driftwood with a handwritten sign: four shots of rum for $1. It's an offer we can't refuse.
On to Guadeloupe, ruled at various times by the Spanish and British but a French territory since 1814, although the British have tried to reclaim it by filming the television series Death in Paradise there. Guadeloupe comprises two main islands shaped like butterfly wings which are joined by a bridge that spans a short strait. The western island, Basse Terre, is volcanic and mountainous, and endowed with natural beauty. It rains every day for at least 15 minutes, nourishing a huge national park, a marine park and waterfalls.
Sadly, we don't get to sample its charms this trip. Instead, we explore the eastern island, Grand Terre, which is dry and flat, save for some rugged beaches on its southern tip. However, a short drive from the capital, Pointe a Pitre, stands the remarkable Morne a l'eau cemetery. Built after slavery was abolished in 1848, it's a necropolis of crypts made of striking chequerboard black and white tiles. Black is the western colour of death and white is the African colour.
The starkness of this scene is contrasted by the vivid colours of the spice markets we visit further along. But we are not cooking on this trip, so instead we return to our floating hotel where, after a spot of high tea by the pool, we can meander down to one of the gourmet restaurants for dinner. If we didn't already know it, we learn from a passenger of another cruise line that Viking is reputed to have the best food. He asks, "Is it as good as they say?" "Yes," we nod.
The neighbouring island of St Lucia was ruled by the French and English seven times each until the English took control in 1814. Their cricket pedigree is slight (only one Test cricketer of any note) and it's no wonder the locals feel closer to the French, who made a far greater effort to develop the island than the English; every community and town on the coast has a French name.
A day trip around the island brings us to its major scenic attractions: twin volcanic peaks known as the Pitons, a "drive-in" volcano (you park near the crater) at the southern town of Soufriere, and sulphuric mud baths at the adjacent Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens. After a session of gooey body painting, we finish our tour with a majestic catamaran ride back up to the capital, Castries, during which the staff ply us with rum cocktails. Not that we need it; a flying visit into Marigot Bay (described by American novelist James Michener as "the most beautiful" in the Caribbean) is enough to put us in high spirits.
Every trip should include one day that stands above the rest, an experience to make your friends jealous. For us, that day occurs on the island of St Kitts, where the French did the heavy colonial lifting before the British blew them away, renamed the main square Pall Mall and introduced cricket. Part one of our day to remember is an afternoon of kayaking and snorkelling on the glassy green waters of Whitehouse Bay, with a handful of friendly young guides who give me high fives when I pair their first names with famous West Indian cricketers of the past. For the next three hours I stroke along the water with my wife, stopping occasionally to snorkel with turtles and stingrays. When we reach our destination at Friars Bay, munching snacks on the beach against the setting sun, it feels like a postcard moment.
Yet I am only half way to heaven. During our absence, the capital Basseterre has been transformed from sleepy town into sensory circus. They are celebrating Carnevale – two months out of Lent but who cares? The Brits won the last battle but I think the French won the war. Every street is packed with people shuffling along in outrageous costumes, or parading atop double decker buses blaring music so loud you can feel it pound in your chest.
One of the benefits of our itinerary is that we can stay in port till late. This evening, we don't leave until well after 10pm, which gives us plenty of time to lap up the festivities on shore. The smell of barbecued meat wafts through the air; my wife and I are intoxicated with excitement. Forget Rio and New Orleans. This is the real thing, raw and unrehearsed. We run around like headless chooks, chatting up locals and clicking our phones at everything that moves. We won't forget this, ever.
I am still on a high when we wake up in Antigua, home of Sir Vivian Richards, the "Master Blaster" of world cricket, who has the local stadium named after him. It's the first thing our guide tells us on the bus and I want to put up my hand to tell her how much more I know. We whiz past the ground, and sample an impressive array of British forts and ports, but I am champing to visit one of Antigua's famous beaches. Top of the list is Valley Church Beach, just south of the capital, St John's. The water is rich turquoise, made milky by finely crushed shells that settle into sand, and the air is thick with Spanish and Russian accents. It's hard to stop taking photos.
While most islands are governed by one nationality, our next destination St Maarten has the distinction of being shared: one half is French, the other half Dutch. The island is a playground for the wealthy and is renowned for a beach where international flights roar just metres overhead. The French side looks like an outpost of the Riviera, with designer shops and cafes facing a marina of seriously large yachts. To demonstrate the scale of wealth, our Dutch driver tells us there are 280 private jets at the airport.
But his most interesting tidbits relate to the standoff between the Dutch and French. You have to make an international phone call from one side of the island to the other. Mobile phones are scrambled if you try to call direct. The French side allows cockfights but try it on the Dutch side and you'll go to prison. They celebrate Mother's Day on different dates. The list goes on. Old rivalries never change.
Our last day is St Thomas, jewel of the US Virgin Islands, bought by the Americans from the Danish, whose names still grace some old streets. Through a historical anomaly, they drive on the left side of the road but the cars are left-hand drive, which makes overtaking awkward. However, we have only one concern: get safely to legendary Coki Beach, 20 minutes from port. Once we set eyes on it, all our fears melt away.
It is, without doubt, the most beautiful beach we have ever seen. The water is so clear you can see the bottom from five metres, it's a colour no photo can truly capture. We rent snorkelling gear and glide out into a marine wonderland surrounded by vibrant fish. Before we have even left, my wife is furiously sending photos to our daughter, planning her return visit.
All too quickly, our tour is over. I have not been a cruise kind of person up until now. But for island-hopping, I can't think of a better way, or more enjoyable vessel. After adventurous days on land, we returned each night to plush bedrooms, attentive staff, cabaret and classical music and quiet lounges. Did we see the world in eight days? That and more. We visited heaven and earth. I was lured here by cricket but bowled over by cultural riches and nature's bounty. I have unscratched the Caribbean from my bucket list. We will come back, and soon.
FIVE MORE WAYS TO GO CARIBBEAN
San Juan is a mecca of salsa; the music is an essential part of Puerto Rican culture. You can sweat up a storm with lessons at Triana, a tapas and flamenco restaurant down near the dock, then practise your moves with live bands at the back of cocktail bars like La Factoria or the Nuyorican Cafe, which also has poetry readings. trianapr.com; nuyoricancafepr.com/; facebook.com/lafactoriapr/
The islands are home to vibrant marine life, and abundant opportunities to see it up close. St Thomas has Turtle Cove and Cas Cay, Antigua has Cades Reef and Carlisle, Deep Bay and Pigeon Point, St Lucia has Anse de Pitons, just under the volcanic peaks, and Chastenet beach.
Every island in this part of the world has their own Carnevale. Held at different times of the year, they are raw and more intimate than Rio de Janeiro. Each has a unique character and exuberance. Check out when they're on and make your visit coincide with at least one Carnevale. You can even join in their celebration, buy a costume and share a meal with the locals if you want to.
CHOCOLATE ON ST LUCIA
Renowned for its chocolate, the St Lucia Island Growers 100 per cent bar has the highest recorded reading of flavanols of any chocolate, according to research by Leeds University. St Lucia even has its own Hotel Chocolat, where you can have a cacao massage or detox body wrap. But you can enjoy chocolate anywhere, cheaply, on the island. True aficionados can take chocolate tours of the Caribbean. hotelchocolat.com; tobagococoa.com; violetta.vpweb.com
HILLTOP RUM BARS
One of the pleasures of the smaller volcanic islands such as Tortola and St Lucia is their hilltop rum bars, little more than shacks with open sides. Stop in on your drive and enjoy a drink while you survey majestic scenery. They also do great things with banana and pineapple in this part of the world. On St Lucia we discovered banana ketchup and BBQ sauce, spicy mango sauce and spicy coconut sauce.
The West Indies Explorer 11-day cruise runs from October to February, starting at $5549 a person, and includes a daily shore excursion, all on-board meals, beer and wine, and Wi-Fi. See www.vikingcruises.com.au for the full range of Caribbean itineraries, dates and pricing.
Qantas flies daily to Dallas/Fort Worth. American Airlines has direct connections to San Juan.
There are direct flights from Miami to many Caribbean islands, including St Thomas, Guadeloupe, St Lucia, St Maarten, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago.
Varies from island to island but everyone takes the American dollar.
Most of the tours and experiences are offered through companies contracted by the cruising lines so it's not easy to book your own private tours in advance. Once you arrive, there are plenty of operators on the ground.
Michael Visontay visited the Caribbean as a guest of Viking Cruises.