by Lee Foster
As the Wind Spirit cruise ship eases into the tiny port of St. Elizabeth, on the small island of Bequia, I ponder why the Caribbean-Bahamas is the world’s favorite cruise destination. This year the region will attract about 50 percent of the more than 5 million North Americans who will cruise.
Some aspects of the answer:
*Predictable sun and warmth. I think of my cruises to Alaska, in the brief warmth of summer, or my exploration of the Baltic, also in summer. In any other season those areas either close to cruising or remain barely available, as along the coast of Norway, where vessels carry mainly cargo, with some passengers, in the chilly “off” season.
*Proximity, making the Caribbean affordable. Tahiti and Bora Bora have their appeals. But it costs a hefty plane ticket to get there. Even the furthest point in the Caribbean, Barbados, where I started this cruise, is only three hours from Miami.
*Plenty of island variety. It is said that there are some 28 “governing units” in the 2,000-mile Caribbean island community, when you add all the independent island nations to those affiliated with European countries. This makes for diversity, with plenty of English, French, Dutch, and Spanish cultural legacies present, representing the historic, seafaring powers of Europe. Variety makes a cruise to Caribbean islands intriguing, luring back travelers to “do” more islands, both for their cultural and natural attractions. Visitors remember the sensuality of the region–the flavor of ripened papaya, the fragrance of jasmine, the bright red flowers of the flamboyant tree, the white satin beaches, and the turquoise sea.
*All the major cruise players are present. As a result of these favorable conditions, all the styles of cruising can be experienced in the Caribbean–the mega-ships, the medium-size vessels, and the smaller ships. Companies that are major players in the cruise business position at least one of their ships here.
For this cruise, I decided to sample one of the high-end, small ships, Wind Spirit, of Windstar Cruises. My goals were twofold: to experience what a small ship was like and to see islands that only a small ship could explore.
CRUISING ON THE WIND SPIRIT
Part of the pleasure of the Wind Spirit became apparent shortly after I deplaned in Bridgetown, Barbados. The taxi took me right to the ship. I walked up the gangplank, shook hands with the officer of the moment, quickly signed a couple of documents, and was shown to my room. Cruise passengers who have spent a few hours in a warehouse with 1,500 other passengers, sipping rum punch and listening to an excedrin-headache steel band, while jet lag suffuses the body, will appreciate this speedy check-in. On the Wind Spirit I could walk right to my room, as if this were my own private yacht.
An hour later that evening the Wind Spirit sailed unobtrusively from port. Sailing out occurred without fanfare. There were no tugs. What I saw, however, was the majesty of the ship gliding over the dark sea, relatively silently, with a sky full of intense stars. Then the Wind Spirit slowly unfurled its six, huge sails, all computer-controlled, of course. This ultra-modern cruise ship has 150-foot sails. Eventually, the captain cut the motors, so the passengers sailed and slept quietly through the night. About fifty percent of the week’s cruise would be under full sail, which can push the ship at 14.5 knots, even faster than under motor power. Whether there are more beautiful cruise ships afloat than the sleek, white, sail-powered Wind Spirit (and her two identical sister ships) is debatable.
The next morning I went to the Veranda for breakfast. The style aboard this ship is casual, but elegant. You don’t dress up, even for dinner. You can sit with whomever you like for any meal. You can take your meal at any time within a two-hour time slot. This kind of freedom is possible on a small ship, but would, of course, create chaos on a mid-size or large ship. The Wind Spirit has only 74 cabins, making the total passenger load 148, at double occupancy. There are 91 crew, so there’s plenty of attentive service.
After breakfast, the ship anchored off St. Elizabeth in Bequia, a place I’ll discuss in more detail later. Suffice to say, this small ship could go where the large ships wouldn’t venture. The entire shipload of passengers interested in the excursion went ashore in two tenders. These two small vessels did not overwhelm the community, though a larger ship would, which is why no large ships call at Bequia. As the week progressed, I learned that one of the special attractions of the Wind Spirit was that it allowed a traveler to make discoveries at small, out-of-the-way ports and some of the loveliest natural settings in the Caribbean, such as Tobago Cays, with its clear, blue water.
Later that day I check out snorkel equipment and determined what shore excursions I would take for the week. As in all my experiences aboard the Wind Spirit, the small scale was pleasing. You are not part of a herd. You are not regimented. You can immediately do what you want to do. The paperwork is minimal. The contact with the crew is direct and personal. Within a few days, you seem to know everyone on this friendly ship. You can even snorkel right from a platform on the back end of the ship. Try doing that on a megaship.
At any time, you can venture up to the bridge and have a chat with the captain or the officer of the watch. Do that on the Queen Elizabeth II and they’d call in the security people. Late in the week, as we sailed from Carriacou, Captain Andrew Walsh steered the ship from an outdoor wheel in the aft, the “flying bridge.” Thrilled passengers were allowed to take charge of the wheel and guide the vessel, turning it right and left, as we sped along under full sail on the open ocean.
The Wind Spirit ranks as an upscale small ship, with a posted fare of about $2,895 per passenger per week, though there are sometimes deals, as any cruise passenger with a good travel agent soon realizes. Considering that price, I expected (and received) some deluxe service.
The cabins are little masterpieces of nautical architecture. All the cabins are identical on the Wind Spirit and all face the sea, creating a style that might be called upscale egalitarian. It’s a marvel to see what a skilled naval architect can squeeze into a small room space. The built-in storage drawers, the super-efficient, circular bathroom, the mirrors that seem to double the space, and the teak-wood feel of the decor combine to make the Wind Spirit special.
The cuisine is memorable. Chef Paul Condron came up with new creations every night. One might start with the lobster, proceed to the rack of lamb, and dwell on the sea bass, as the week proceeds. The fresh seafood and produce picked up in the Caribbean was particularly tasty. Cooking for only 148 people allows for a creativity that a huge operation couldn’t match. An Indonesian buffet, for example, had exquisite subtlety in the curry sauces. Mercifully, there was no Baked Alaska hoopla on the final night.
In fact, it takes a few days to realize what the Wind Spirit doesn’t have. No shipboard photographer is constantly snapping at you. There’s no pressure to buy anything. No obtrusive messages comes over the ship’s loudspeaker system. No frenetic tipping ritual occurs at the end of the voyage. The ship has a quiet pace, except when you want some excitement, such as the evening a local band from Bequia played on the pool deck. About half the ship’s passengers were dancing.
The average age of a passenger looked fairly low, for cruising, probably 50 rather than 60. There was a range of passengers from all ages, including the honeymooners in their 20s who had made this ship their getaway.
Wind Spirit is also a high tech ship. In-room video and CD capability allow you to catch up on favorite movies or music, which you can either bring or check out from the ship’s video/audio library. Phone communication from the ship is easy–if you want to check in with the outside world.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Wind Spirit, however, was that it took me to four places only a small ship could go.
This small island in the Grenadines fascinated partly because of its whaling culture, yesterday and today. The people of Bequia are still sanctioned by Greenpeace and the International Whaling Commission to take a maximum of two humpback whales a year. Whaling has been their subsistence livelihood, their island heritage, for hundreds of years.
I met Orson Ollivierre, the man now building the next whale boat, rib by rib, from the native white cedar trees of the island. Orson throws the harpoon for this ritual killing, which all the islanders and their guests participate in. The new whale boat, like the old one, is a small, nine-meter row boat with a sail. Orson thrusts the harpoon by hand. It’s not an assured kill by any means. Though Orson usually gets his whale, this past year he didn’t even get close to one. The Ollivierres have been the traditional whaling family, so they are permitted to continue this honor, with Orson now taking over from his aging uncle. When a whale is killed, all the islanders converge on the cooking scene and celebrate the ritual act. The whale meat cooks in its own fat. All the islanders eat at this feast.
Beyond the whaling interest, Bequia has a tropical lushness, colorful fishing boats, and a lonesome out-of-the-way feel. The 6,000 inhabitants are poor, but not impoverished. With little arable land and no major industry, beyond some tourism, the people will probably continue to be relatively poor. The high cost of importing food, clothing, and building materials puts many of these small islands on a stressful trajectory. Low-impact, sustainable tourism from small cruise ships is seen as a potential salvation.
After Bequia, we anchored for a day at an uninhabited cluster of islets in the chain of islands called The Grenadines. Our destination was Tobago Cays, which many argue is as close to paradise as a cruise passenger is likely to get on this planet. Tobago Cays has all the elements of a tropical dream–a cluster of remote islets protected by a horseshoe reef, white satin beaches fringed with palm trees, and abundant coral with colorful reef fish awaiting the snorkeler.
To intrude on this pristine environment with a large cruise ship would have been a desecration, but the Wind Spirit slipped in, anchored, and soon passengers were whisked to a small island in a speedy zodiac rubber boat. The island served as a base for snorkeling. Fish life proved abundant, especially for the tiny silver fish that are the base of the aquatic food chain. I saw blue angelfish, green parrotfish, and red grouper. Elkhorn, fan, and grooved-brain coral provided protection for the fish. The wondrous shapes of the coral provoked meditative delight in the ingenuity of nature.
In late afternoon, as the Wind Spirit departed, again under full sail, the multicolored waters beguiled, ranging through a spectrum of color–bright turquoise above the white sand, brown above the sea stacks of coral near the surface, and dark blue as a signal that deep water was again present.
Though the large cruise ships can go to Grenada and its main port, St. George, only a small ship can venture to its outlying island dependency, Carriacou, 23 miles northeast of Grenada. Carriacou is 13 square miles in size and has a small harbor town, Hillsborough.
Carriacou ranks as one of the most engaging Caribbean islands because it is so lush and fertile, good for both grazing cattle and producing crops. The volcanic and limestone soil has broken down to become a rich, tillable land supporting corn, peas, potatoes, and fruit trees. The 7,000 people of Carriacou enjoy a more assured wellbeing than their comrades on other islands because they have both an abundant sea and a rich agriculture for support. Boat-building and fishing are island specialties.
Engage a taxi driver/guide for a couple of hours to get a sense of the island. One interesting stop is at Tyrrel Bay, where a master shipbuilder named McLaren constructs the large wooden vessels that are the mainstay of interisland trade. Several of these working craft were loading at the main pier in Hillsborough, transporting the goods that support day to day life on the islands, ranging from sacks of rice or beans to cases of Heineken beer or stacks of plastic lawn chairs. These vessels are equipped with motors for assured forward motion and sails for free use of the wind.
The best view of the harbor is from steep Hospital Hill, an area that was once a prime sugar cane production site. From high points along the road you can see the nearby island of Petit Martinique, a further step into remoteness.
A small museum in Hillsborough provides one of the few opportunities a traveler will have to see some interpretive displays and actual objects from the Arawak and later Carib Indians who inhabited the region before Columbus arrived. The museum exhibits shards of their pottery, stone and shell scraping tools, and jewelry with which they adorned themselves.
Carriacou meant “island surrounded by reefs” in the earlier Indian language. The name is an apt description. Within Hillsborough harbor I snorkeled at Sandy Island, an idyllic sand spit with palm trees, surrounded by coral. The snorkeling was some of the best I have experienced, with plenty of variety in the coral, complemented by an extraordinary assortment of fish, including some large parrotfish and grouper.
“I like it here because it’s so peaceful,” said my driver/guide on Carriacou, Manuel Williams. “You can leave your door unlocked, and no one will ever steal from you. What I don’t like is our bad roads, which make maintaining my taxi so expensive.”
One road crosses the airport runway, which suggests how few planes come in here. The island is said to have one gas station and over 100 rum shops.
Even in a tropical paradise there is danger. The week before my cruise visit to the small island of St. Lucia, Hurricane Debbie swept through, uprooting the banana plantations, toppling trees across roads, and killing five people in land slides. The Caribbean may not have the earthquakes and fires of California or the terrifying tornadoes of the Midwest, but the islands do suffer the annual threat of hurricanes, especially in September. Fortunately, the cruise ship was able to make its scheduled visit.
As we sailed into the small port of Soufriere, I looked up at two of the most famous landmarks of the Caribbean, the Pitons, or “peaks.” These twin volcanic towers rise dramatically to more than 2,400 feet.
St. Lucia is a lush island whose pastoral beauty was interrupted 14 times before 1814 as the French and English forcibly exchanged control of the terrain. The English finally triumphed, though the locals still speak a French-based patois.
The two most interesting aspects of Soufriere are its volcanic heritage and its remarkable flora.
A taxi/guide can take you to the bubbling sulfur baths, testimony to the thermal activity that remains present throughout much of the Caribbean. When Mt. Pelee on neighboring Martinique erupted in 1902, some 30,000 people in the adjacent city of St. Pierre were gassed to death. St. Lucia does not anticipate an eruption, but the thermal presence makes itself felt. The boiling water bubbles out in sulfurous pools near the town. You can walk to an overlook near the pools. The French King Louis XVI was sufficiently impressed with the chemical analysis of these waters that he financed, in 1784, the building of sulfur baths for recuperating soldiers. At the Diamond Botanical Garden it is possible today to immerse yourself in these sulfur pools, whether your intent is sybaritic or medicinal.
The other pleasure of the botanical gardens is the superb walk through labeled Caribbean flowers and fruit trees. Yellow allamanda flowers, various orchids, red anthuriums, and heliconia aptly named crab claws delight the eye. The end of the walk features a waterfall of modest size. Many fruiting plants enjoyed in the Caribbean, such as breadfruit, coconut, cacao, papaya, and nutmeg, can be seen here. The taxi driver/guide can show you the manor house of the original Soufriere Estate, including the ancient wheel that squeezed the drops of sugar water from the cane.
Soufriere is a lively fishing village where you can watch the social life and produce selling of the morning market, along the shoreline street. The island soil is thick and fertile, growing everything from peppers to squash, with bananas the main commercial crop. Fishermen in brightly-painted boats arrive with their catches, which are sold on the beach. The fishermen then spend the afternoon mending their nets.
A cruise traveler, sampling the options, will eventually want to consider the satisfying experience of a small ship and the adventuresome places that only a small ship can explore.
WIND SPIRIT CRUISING IN THE CARIBBEAN: IF YOU GO
Windstar cruises, and most other cruises, are sold only through travel agents rather than direct. Your agent can provide Windstar literature. The company: Windstar Cruises, 300 Elliott Avenue West, Seattle, WA 98119, 206/281-3535, www.windstarcruises.com.