As naval history buffs and Disney movie fans well know, the Caribbean Sea was once home to the world's most notorious criminals. Pirates -- from the fearsome Blackbeard, captain of the Queen Anne's Revenge, to Mary Read, a rum runner and rare female buccaneer -- roamed these waters in the 17th and 18th centuries, raiding merchant ships and terrorizing the islands' early colonies. Slave traders, another scourge of the Caribbean, worked here well into the 19th century.
But this region, blessed by sugar-white sands and crystal-clear waves, owes much of its heritage to early European explorers. Christopher Columbus is credited for "discovering"? the Caribbean in 1492 when his ship first sighted the Bahamas (though indigenous tribes -- including the Carib people, for whom the sea is named -- have made their home among the islands since 4500 BC). England, Portugal, the Netherlands and Spain, Columbus' all-powerful employers, have had a foothold in the region for nearly 600 years.
An enchanting mix of cultures -- the result of diverse native and colonial influences, as well as an adventurous air lent by the islands' infamous historical figures -- makes the Caribbean what it is today: a sun-soaked melting pot perfect for tourism. Creole cooking, Latin music and colorful Dutch architecture are just a few of the international treats in store for visitors. On the verdant island of Martinique, the "France of the Caribbean,"? trendy cafes and upscale boutiques line beautiful beaches. In Jamaica, jerk cuisine and reggae beats lure visitors to waterfront barbecues. And cruises that stretch west to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula will find shore excursions anchored by Mayan ruins and spicy dishes.
As varied as their backgrounds might be, modern Caribbean people do have one thing in common: a love of the water. Whether fishing, surfing, swimming or sailing, the locals spend a fair amount of time on the beach and in the waves -- as do cruise ship passengers, whether relaxing with an afternoon of sunbathing or taking part in organized shore excursions. Those looking to connect to the pirate within should explore this latter option, as many cruise lines can help their customers hit the high seas in style.