Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rediscovering the Caribbean on Windstar

When our kids were young, we cruised every year and sometimes twice a year in the Caribbean. But since Esther bought the travel agency almost five years ago, the Caribbean was not really a destination we sought out – been there, done that.  Our franchise owner annual conference cruises have been in the Caribbean, and we did one wedding familiarization (fam) trip to Secrets in Jamaica, but we felt like we had been to all the islands multiple times and so we sought out new and more distant destinations.

However, in March, we flew to Barbados for a three-night stay at Sandals, the adults only all-inclusive resort, and then boarded the Wind Star, one of Windstar’s sailing yachts for a 7-night cruise.  We had never been on Windstar before, which has been voted the World’s Best Small Ship Cruise Line.  They promise casual elegance and incredible personal service, and we have to say they delivered on all levels. 

Once again, I got in a little trouble with the Boss - believe it or not, I left the camera at home, which doesn't bode well for my next performance review!  We had to make do with cell phone camera pictures, so you may notice a little drop off in quality and some odd pictures.

The Wind Star is a four-masted sailing yacht with a capacity of 148 guests.  There are four main decks, with staterooms on the lower two, the AmphorA dining room, reception, gift shop, casino and lounge on deck 3, and the Veranda restaurant, pool, bar and open seating and lounging areas on deck 4.   The outdoor decks are all teak, which is nice, but they are showing their age.

The main dining room - just as nice as on much larger ships.
The food in the dining room was consistently good.
The Verandah restaurant is buffet-style for breakfast and lunch, but you can also order off the menu and they will serve you inside or outside .
This is the main outdoor area in the aft of the ship, with the pool and hot tub, and teak decks.
Staterooms were not large, but were efficiently laid out, and we had more than enough storage.  Although Windstar is not all-inclusive, the stateroom had a refrigerator with sodas and water, which is complimentary, as well as beer and wine, which is not.  Our room on the first deck was apparently next door to the engine room, however, and we enjoyed our only really quiet nights when we were anchored and not sailing.  I got used to the whine of the engines after a couple of days, but I’m not sure the boss did. 

No balconies on the Wind Star, but the bed was comfortable.
Plenty of storage and decent bathroom and shower.

The view from our stateroom - when the seas were a little rough, a lot of water splashed up against the portholes.
Boarding is painless, since only 145 of us had to get on, and we were quickly checked in and taken to our stateroom by Saka, our attendant.  Saka, like everyone else in the crew, only had to ask our name once, and he called us Tom and Esther the rest of the trip.  The stateroom attendants, dining room staff and bartenders were primarily Indonesian and Filipino, and provided wonderful service with a smile and a great sense of humor throughout the voyage.   We became fast friends with Noel, Joel, and Ace, our Filipino bartenders starting right after the muster drill.  

Windstar is not all-inclusive, so we had to decide if we wanted the beverage package or not.  We were advised by the bar manager that if we had five drinks per day each, the package was a good deal. Not only did we buy the package, we drank a little more than usual just to make sure we got our money's worth.  Not having to sign a chit every time you order a drink, and having them just keep filling your wine glass at dinner instead of ordering one at a time makes the package even more attractive.

Drink of the Day?  Sure, we have the beverage package.
Our first night sail-away from Barbados established the pattern for the rest of the cruise – most people gather on the top deck for the unfurling of the sails and the playing of "Conquest of Paradise," the soundtrack from Ridley Scott’s film 1492: Conquest of Paradise.   The music is quite majestic and feels appropriate as you sail into the sunset.
As "Conquest of Paradise" plays, the sails are unfurled for the evening sail-away.  Much different feel than a large cruise ship.

The obligatory sunset picture on our first night aboard - this may have been the best one.
This was followed by our Welcome Aboard orientation in the lounge, where we met our Captain, Belinda Bennett.  Captain Belinda, who became captain of the Wind Star in January of 2016, has the distinction of being the first black female captain in the commercial cruise industry.  I guessed incorrectly that she was from Australia – she is actually a British citizen from the island of Saint Helena, located in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean, 1200 miles west of South Africa.  She was very friendly and had a great sense of humor, and she even participated in the line dancing dressed as one of the Men at Work during the inevitable singing of “YMCA”.

Captain Belinda Bennett, the first black female captain in the commercial cruise industry, and the Boss, the first female dictator in my house.
We also met our Voyage Leader, James, who gave the nightly port talks.  We nicknamed him James, the Teenage Voyage Leader, and you can guess why from his picture.  Esther found out that he had only been with Windstar for 16 days, but had spent 12 years with Cunard.  He tried hard, but his inexperience showed.

Teenage Voyage Leader James - apparently 12 years older than he looks.
On most evenings, after cocktails on deck, we headed to the dining room, where we asked to be put at a large table so we could meet fellow cruisers.   Meeting people on a small ship like this is easy, and you see everyone all the time.  Compared to our last cruise on Crystal (see previous blog), the passengers were much younger on average, typically in the 45-65 range, with one large family that included some kids.  We enjoyed meeting and hanging out with Doug and Mona from Florida, Raymond and Deborah (everybody loves Raymond!) from Vancouver, Patrick and Anne-Marie from Australia, and Terry and Michael from Texas, and Jim and Sadie, who were unbelievably from Wilmington, NC, our new home.

The food was consistently good, both in the Veranda restaurant for breakfast and lunch, and in the AmphorA dining room for dinner.  The wine list was not expansive, but the Boss found a cabernet sauvignon she liked on the first night and stuck with it.   All guests are allowed a reservation for Candles, a dinner outdoors on deck, once per cruise, as a more romantic dining experience for two.
The prettiest woman on the ship for our Candles dining experience.
Veal chop with seafood skewer.
It was no problem to add a lobster to your steak if you wanted.
On the 4th night, we were treated to a BBQ dinner under the stars, prepared by the Executive Chef, Budhi.  The outdoor buffet on deck included roast pig, BBQ ribs, paella, lobsters and more, and it was all delicious.  The lobsters were pretty small, so I had four.   The BBQ was followed by line dancing with the crew on deck.  It looked like they were having fun as I continued to eat.

This is just a sampling of the tasty menu items for the BBQ on deck.
Windstar also does a nice job recognizing special events. Our friend Mona had a birthday on board and got a cake which she generously shared with us on BBQ night.

Mona gets a birthday cake.
As you might guess, the entertainment options on a small sailing ship are somewhat limited.  The music duo “Duality” played every night in the lounge, and they were pretty good, but the crowd was typically less than a dozen people.  The casino has two tables, one for blackjack and one for three-card poker, and 11 slot machines.  The Casino Manager Sean admitted to being a bit bored most nights, as there were even less people in the casino than in the lounge.  Of course, the Boss and I frequented both places pretty much every night.

In addition to the casual, intimate feeling on the ship and the outstanding service, we absolutely loved the itinerary.  Because of its size, the Wind Star can stop in all the tiny ports, and aside from Barbados and St. Lucia, all our stops were islands we hadn’t been to before.  The small islands are a bit less commercial and the people were so friendly.

The first night of the cruise we sailed from Barbados to St. Lucia.  We skipped all the shore excursions and just walked around the town of Castries for a while.  Since it was a Sunday, a lot of shops were closed, but we did pick up the obligatory magnet and a T-shirt or two.  We sailed away as usual in the evening, but only a short distance to anchor overnight at Pigeon Island.  The next morning, we sailed past the Pitons, the two mountains that St. Lucia is best known for, before spending the day at sea.

The Wind Star at the pier in Castries, St. Lucia.

Obviously, we didn't do much in St. Lucia, cause this is the best photo I brought back from there.

Esther enjoys one of her favorite beverages as we sail out of Castries. 

The happy couple with the Pitons in the background.  The Gros Piton on the left, and the Petit Piton on the right.  

Sunset at sea - somehow it seemed more beautiful on a smaller sailing ship than on a big cruise ship.
Our next stop was Grenada, and the port of St. George’s.  James the Teenage Voyage Leader said this was his favorite island, and we were impressed that he could determine that after 16 days with Windstar.   But we also enjoyed it – we walked up to the fort, and through the tunnel before lunch.  After lunch, we shared a mini-van with our new friends Raymond and Deborah, from Vancouver, for a tour with Pappy.  He drove us into the mountains to see spices for sale, to a lovely waterfall, and then to Grand Anse Beach, one of the most popular in St. George’s.

The cannons at Ft. George, 175 feet above St. George's harbor.

A view of St.George's harbor from Ft. George.
We walked from the fort down the stairs on the left to the downtown area, then went through the tunnel to walk back to the ship.  The tunnel is used by pedestrians and cars and there is barely room for both at the same time.

Pappy gave us a brief lesson on the spices in Grenada - nutmeg, ginger, tumeric, cinnamon, bay leaves, and cloves.  We bought chocolate instead.

This waterfall drops 50 feet.  Locals offered to dive in for $40, but we passed.
The flag of Grenada, with a nutmeg symbol on the left, showing the importance of this spice to the country.
At Grand Anse beach, we found this.  We will not stop traveling until we find the other five!
Day 4 took us to Tobago Cays, a small group of islands that belong to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  We bought the Windstar snorkeling excursion here.  The Wind Star will fit you with a mask, snorkel and fins that you can use for the entire cruise.  We boarded a large catamaran with about 50 other guests for a short sail to the snorkeling site.  It was windy and the water was rough, so the snorkeling was a bit strenuous, and not all that exciting. We moved to another spot known for sea turtles, and sure enough, Esther and I spotted a bunch of them and swam with them for a while.  Very cool.  After lunch back on board, we took the Zodiac boat to the beach and enjoyed some great snorkeling right off the beach.  The island was small, gorgeous and unspoiled.

We snorkeled and saw turtles near Baradal; the Pirates of the Caribbean island is Petit Tabac, and we went to the beach at Petit Bateau.   If you look above Petit Rameau, left of the white arrow, you can see what looks like a Windstar sailing ship. 
The ship anchored offshore and we took rubber Zodiac boats to the catamaran and the beach.

The catamaran for our snorkeling excursion held 50 people quite comfortably, plus we got rum punch after snorkeling.
This beautiful little island not far from our snorkeling spot was where Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was marooned in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean - Curse of the Black Pearl

The beach where we snorkeled after lunch - an island paradise.  You'll never stop here on a Carnival cruise!

Mayreau, our next destination, is only a couple of nautical miles from Tobago Cays, so we just sailed in a circle for a while before anchoring off this next Grenadine Island.  Mayreau was the site of the Wind Star beach party.  Although this is not a private island owned by Windstar, the beach was pretty much exclusively for the ship’s passengers.  Mayreau is the smallest inhabited island in the Grenadines, at an area of 1.5 square miles.  No airport, no bank, no taxis, no buses, and only one road used to walk from the beach to the top of the hill for some spectacular views.  Our day included (of course) an open bar, a delicious buffet highlighted by fresh grilled mahi mahi and chicken, music by a steel drum band, an abundance of loungers and umbrellas, excellent snorkeling off the beach, and beautiful clear water.  

Fruit skewers from a waiter in tails, swim suit and flip flops.  Gotta love Windstar style.

Our own tropical paradise waiting for us.
First we climbed the hill to see the views.  Every other building on the way up was a bar.
The view was worth a tough 25-minute walk up the hill.

The Wind Star anchored off shore.
After our walk, we had to see Noel at the bar!
I had to suck in my gut for this shot with my coconut drink!

The Caribbean ambiance wouldn't be complete without a steel drum band.
Grilled mahi and chicken and rice.  Yum!
A  beautiful buffet on the beach

I would rate this higher than any of the private island stops we have had on other cruise lines.  Everything we love about the Caribbean was represented here!

A lot of boats were in the water at this great spot, but our event was private.

The entertainment that evening on the ship was the crew show, “Windstar’s Got Talent,” which included songs, dances, and some comedy and magic from members of the crew.  Our stateroom attendant Saka and our favorite waiter Yusuf both performed.  The Dining Room Manager, Abdul, did some good magic tricks, too.  It was a lot of fun.

Abdul does another magic trick for us on the way into the dining room.
Our final destination before returning to Barbados was another little gem of an island, Bequia (pronounced Beck-way).  Bequia is the largest of the Grenadine islands, with a population of 5,000 people. We may have enjoyed this day the most because we explored together with Doug and Mona, and Raymond and Deborah.  After tendering ashore, we strolled the main street for a bit while the ladies shopped, then decided we should see the island.   This required serious negotiation with the driver of one of the many covered pickup trucks used as taxis. I approached Ramzey, determined not to be cheated.

Me:  How much for an island tour for 6 people?
Ramzey: $7 each, for two and half hours.
Me:  OK.

The rest of our party was pretty impressed at the deal I secured. We had a fantastic time seeing the island.  Ramzey took us to the “fort,” for a view of Port Elizabeth, then drove us inland to some scenic overlooks, followed by a trip to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary.

The main drag in downtown Port Elizabeth.
While the ladies shop, we pose.  Raymond was peeking.

Here I am bargaining fiercely with Ramzey....
....while my wing men ponder the mysteries of life.
Ramzey had a pretty awesome cap.
The "fort" was not much more than 4 cannons and a short stone wall.  Doug and Mona are looking for the rest of it.
We did have a great view of Port Elizabeth from the fort.
The view of the ship from another scenic overlook.
An incredible view from the road on the way to the turtle sanctuary.

Orton King, the founder of the sanctuary, gives a turtle talk.

We ran into James the Teenage Voyage Leader, who was with the Wind Star shore excursion.  We're pretty sure they paid more than $7 per person.
When we finished with the turtles, Ramzey drove us to Princess Margaret Beach, where Wind Star was making Zodiac boat runs to drop off and pick up passengers.  The six of us settled in at Jack’s Beach Bar for a couple of beers before getting back on the ship.  It was a perfect end to a great day with new friends.

Jack's Beach Bar, our final stop on Bequia.
Princess Margaret Beach - this was our view from Jack's.  
The beer always tastes better at the beach.
Our farewell dinner with new friends - Deborah, Esther, Raymond, Tom, Mona and Doug.  Good times.

We departed Bequia, enjoying one last sail-away.  When we arrived in Barbados the next morning, we got off the ship and joined a Wind Star tour of the island, since our flight didn’t leave till 3:30 PM.  We literally drove completely around the island with stops at an old parish church and a plantation house, where we had a mediocre lunch.  This tour wasn’t up to Windstar standards, but we didn’t want to spend the whole day at the airport.  

A pretty view of the Barbados coast, but overall the tour was below average.
By the way, the Barbados airport is awful. After we checked in, we stood in line for almost an hour to get to the security line.  As we got close, we noticed there were two aisles, and nobody was in the other line.  We asked a guard and he said we could use either line!  The other 400 people in line didn't know that.  Our overall impression of Barbados was not great, as the food and service at the Sandals we stayed at before the cruise were not good at all, but that's another blog.

Windstar, on the other hand, was a delightful experience and we would do it again in a heartbeat.  The combination of the small sailing ship feel, the casual elegance atmosphere (never wore a tie), the good food, and the amazing service makes it worth the price.  Who wants to do the Greek Isles with us on Windstar?

Please feel free to comment or ask questions.  After the camera fiasco on this trip, I need a little evidence that someone is reading these things to justify my continued inclusion on these wonderful journeys!