By Bob Schulman
Picture yourself among 148 passengers on a small cruise ship looking much like a vintage sailing clipper. It's called the Wind Spirit, and it's docked at the eastern Caribbean port of Barbados, ready to sail to a chain of tiny, unspoiled islands right off the travel posters.
The Wind Spirit – one of three such ships in the fleet of Seattle-based Windstar Cruises – may look like an old timer, but inside it's anything but. One look at its posh staterooms, stylish bars and dining rooms, pools, teak decks and rich wood interiors, and you know you're hardly going to rough it.
The ship pulls away from the pier, and motorized sails unfurl from bars angling off its four 200-foot-high masts. Salty gusts of wind slap you in the face as the Wind Spirit heads out to sea, propelled by a combination of the sails and the ship's diesel power engine.
Your first big decisions on the week-long cruise come that night, at dinner on the 110-mile run to St. Lucia. After making your pick from a half-dozen appetizers – you go with the chilled ginger and pear soup – you face a list of five entrees: mushroom crusted rack of lamb, stir fried Thai shrimps, oven roasted prime rib, wild forest mushroom and truffle risotto, and curried vegetable tagine. You opt for the prime rib. “Excellent choice,” says the waiter.
You'll be wading through different daily menus – all with tough choices like these – for the rest of the cruise. After St. Lucia, you'll zip down to the little-known islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, head further south to Grenada and then sail north back to Barbados.
A log of your trip over the week might read something like this:
We drop anchor in a bay off St. Lucia's eco-park at Pigeon Island. Our what-to-do-there list features a day of sightseeing, shopping, diving, fishing, hiking through a rainforest and otherwise checking out the local flora and fauna. A few of us climb up a mountain trail to an 18th century fort where British Admiral George Rodney spied on French ships buzzing around the neighboring island of Martinique.
That evening we sail down the coast of St. Lucia to soak up the eye-popping view of the island's iconic twin volcanic peaks soaring up to the clouds. Wow, what a shot...no wonder the half-mile-high peaks, called the Pitons, show up in so many brochures of the Caribbean.
From there we leave the beaten cruise tracks to sail through the 32 islands of the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG for short). We bypass the main island of St. Vincent at the top of the 45-mile-long SVG strip and head straight to sleepy Port Elizabeth on the tiny island of Bequia.
Our welcome to the SVG comes the next morning when we awake to find our ship anchored off a Caribbean Shangri-La.
Here on Bequia (pronounced beck-way) there's no cruise dock, no jet airport, no wall-to-wall souvenir shops. Instead, the island's main activity seems to be what the 350 local folks call “liming” – meaning taking it easy, such as flaking out on a powdery white beach, sipping cool ones around a pool or snoozing in a hammock shaded by palm trees.
Some passengers sign up for a tour of the island (you can pretty much see everything on this 7-square-mile speck in a couple of hours) while others set out for snorkeling sites. Still others opt to mosey around the bay's little town looking for mementos of their visit. Several come back to the ship wearing tee-shirts with slogans like “Save water, drink beer” and “Sail fast, live slow.”
Liming tips from the Bequians come in handy as the Wind Spirit slips into an archipelago of five uninhabited islands called Tobago Cays (pronounced keys). We anchor off Petit Bateau, hop on the ship's rubber Zodiac rafts and splash ashore, ready for another hard day of napping on the beach, tossing frisbees around and taking an occasional dip in the picture-postcard waters.
Several passengers head off to the Cays' famous Horseshoe Reef, a long, shallow strip of coral known as one of the best snorkeling spots in the Caribbean. Among homies there are swirls of parrot fish, groupers, snappers and blackfish, together creating a dazzling underwater kaleidoscope bounced around by waving sea fans.
We sail a few miles west from Tobago Cays to Mayreau (my-row), the smallest inhabited island in the SVG group. Here, 300 or so locals go about their business – fishing, diving for lobsters and a lot of liming – while tourists come ashore now and then from private boats and small liners like the Wind Spirit. There's no airport on the island, nor any banks or ATMs.
Three dozen of us sign up for a spin around the neighboring islands on a slick, 65-foot catamaran. Along the way we skirt spots such as Union Island (home to some 3,000 residents, including a good number of American ex-pats) and two privately owned upscale resort islands, Palm Island (named for the palm trees rimming its beaches) and Petit St. Vincent (the SVG's southernmost island).
The catamaran's skipper, “Captain Sam,” tells us we can lime down on a few more Grenadines outside the St. Vincent group. Long ago, we learn, they were all part of one chain, governed by their namesake island of Grenada (Gren-AY-da) 40 miles south of Mayreau. But after centuries of wars between Britain and France, they were split into two sets of islands, one set governed by St. Vincent while the others are still dependencies of Grenada.
Petit St. Vincent is just a quick sail from Petit Martinique, which anchors the northern end of the half-dozen Grenadan Grenadines.
Next morning we wake up docked to a pier at Grenada's popular cruise port at St. George's. Those of us who look out of our cabins' portholes see something we haven't seen before on the cruise: other portholes – thousands of them. They're on a huge cruise ship docked parallel with us on the other side of the pier.
Passengers from our ship join throngs of other tourists jamming the town's wall-to-wall souvenir and spice shops. Others go on packaged sightseeing tours of the island, highlighted by stops at ancient forts, government buildings, spice estates and rum factories.
Just about everyone comes back to the ship with bag or two of nutmeg, Grenada's national treasure.
Back to Barbados
We hook up to the docks at Barbados early in the last morning of our cruise, in time for many of the passengers to catch jet flights back to the U.S. and Canada. Others stay on the island for a few days of sightseeing, shopping and a last chance to lime out on the beaches.
Captain Olivier Marien, the Wind Spirit's skipper, reports our week-long cruise zipped through 474 nautical miles of Caribbean waters. We spent a total of 83 hours at sea, he says, of which the sails were up nearly 85 percent of the time.
“When they get on the ship, it's not unusual for first-time passengers to ask if the sails are fakes, there just for show,” says Marien. “Once we get underway, it doesn't take long for them to answer that question themselves.”
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