Ship’s log: Costa Rica on the Wind Star

By Bob Schulman

Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises.

Imagine cruising the waters of the South Pacific under the billowing sails of an old-time clipper ship. Then think of going ashore to flake out on talcumy white, palm-lined beaches looking pretty much like they did when Europeans first spotted these parts hundreds of years ago. Throw in posh staterooms, heavenly chow and around-the-clock room service – all in a laid-back ambiance – and you might wonder if this is just some kind of fantasy.

Well, see for yourself. There's a modern-day clipper that plies ports of call along the sands of the 350-mile-long western coast of Costa Rica. Called the Wind Star, the four-masted vessel (below the decks it's really a modern cruiseliner) knifes through the whitecaps at speeds of up to 18 miles an hour.

While thousands of sightseers from the big cruise lines are jamming the duty-free shops of St. Thomas and Cozumel, passengers from the Wind Star's 74 cabins are soaking up the rays on the beaches of such hidden gems as Playa del Coco, Curu and Tortuga Island.

The Wind Star's week-long Costa Rican run starts and ends at Puerto Caldera, the country's main port on the Pacific. Passengers typically get there by flying to Costa Rica's inland capital at San Jose, then taking a two-hour cab or bus ride to Puerto Caldera.

Day 1 (Saturday): Departure day

Getaways overlook the beaches of Guanacaste. Around 6 p.m., Vangelis' “Conquest of Paradise” from the film 1492 blasts over the P.A. as our ship pulls away from the pier. It's the Wind Star's signature departure music, and I've heard it before on the line's cruises to other places. But as the immense sails unfurl and the first salty gusts of wind slap me in the face, the music never fails to get my juices flowing for another adventure.                  

The passengers' oohs and aahs start a few hours later as the ship heads north to skirt the popular resort area of Guanacaste. Here, white beaches stretching as far as we can see share a stunning panorama of condos, backpacker lodges and luxury hotels poking out of the hillside trees. “That one's the Four Seasons,” a crewmember tells us as we zip past some resorts on the Papagayo Peninsula a little south of Nicaragua.

Day 2 (Sunday): At sea

         The first stop on the Wind Star's itinerary is just across the border at           

         the colonial city of San Juan del Sur. But we never get that far. Late  

         Sunday night, our little ship runs smack into a patch of heavy winds

         (most passengers sleep through it, thanks to a special stabilizing

         system on the ship). So we turn around and head back down the Costa  

         Rican coast.

Day 3 (Monday): Playa del Coco

Paintings by local artists are big sellers. Our first shore excursion is at Playa del Coco, near Papagayo. There must be some kind of time warp here, because we find ourselves in a sleepy Old West frontier town. Only here, the Mangy Dog Saloon is a thatched-roof cafe serving up gallo pinto (a zingy combo of black beans and spicy rice) washed down with ice-chilled Imperial beer. And Calico Jane's Dry Goods store is a tony art gallery flanked by dozens of touristy souvenir shops and a couple of casinos.                        

A few hours later we head back to the ship loaded down with T-shirts, bags of coffee, porcelain mugs, hammocks, wrap-around dresses, knockoff Rolexes, stuffed iguanas and carved monkeys. We join other returning passengers who skipped the shopping spree to go ziplining over the jungle at a close-by nature reserve. Others who've been out river-rafting come back with tales of spotting crocodiles basking along the shore and trees full of white-faced capuchin monkeys.

Day 4 (Tuesday): Playa Flamingo         

           Today's stop was added to the itinerary to make up for the day

           originally scheduled in Nicaragua.

We sail 20 miles further down the coast for a stop at the little resort enclave at Playa Flamingo. Our options for the day are: work on our tans around the pool of a ritzy hotel, do likewise on the ship, or enjoy world-class birdwatching in nearby Palo Verde National Park. Later, the birdies dazzle the tanners with close-up zoomed images of scarlet macaws, white ibis, water-skimming anhingas, great curassows and five-foot-high jabiru storks.

Day 5 (Wednesday): Quepos

Back on our original schedule, our next port of call is about two-thirds of the way down the coast at Quepos – the biggest town (population: 20,000 or so) we'll see on our trip. Here, we tender into port to disembark on a long pier, then take a short taxi ride to town. Unlike our earlier stops, at Quepos we find ourselves rubbing elbows with hordes of other tourists, mostly on day-trips from San Jose.

The big draw around here is the 4,000-acre Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited park in a country full of parks. Along its trails are armies of tree-dwelling sloths, monkeys, iguanas, basilisk lizards, toucans, potoos, quetzals, motmots and scads of their friends and relatives.       

A number of passengers go horseback riding through a rainforest or take boat rides through mangroves alive with crocs and crabs. A dozen or so anglers climb aboard fishing boats to go after big gamefish like marlin, tuna, sailfish and mahi-mahi.

Another option: a quick stop at the Macrobitica at the Hotel Sanchez, a sort of all-in-one clinic offering treatments for everything from tummy problems to rheumatism (at a fraction of the cost back in the states).                         

Day 6 (Thursday): Drake's Bay

“Doc, I've got gas.”Further down the coast, about 30 miles from the Panamanian border, we get a chance to see what English privateer Sir Francis Drake saw in 1579 when he first landed at what later became known as – you guessed it – Drake's Bay. We can either wander around the beach, hike through a mangrove forest, go horseback riding or take a boat ride to Isla de Cano about 12 miles away. The latter is a 600-acre island that does double-duty as an archeological site and a biological reserve. Snorkelers look down on reefs full of eye-popping trumpetfish, angelfish and puffers darting around the haunts of rays and sea turtles.

It's a bit hard trying to imagine Drake's swashbucklers lining up at the Port-o-potties around these parts, but it's pretty easy to share what must have been their amazement when they first saw the bay's seemingly endless stretches of golden beaches.

Day 7 (Friday): Curu and Tortuga Island

Our last day on the beach.We head back up the coast toward Puerto Caldera. There are two stops today. The first is at the Curu Wildlife Refuge for a last chance to get close to the country's monkeys, iguanas, sloths, coati, raccoons and about every kind of tropical bird you can think of. (“Oh look, there's a motmot.” “No it's not, it's a potoo.”)

 

Just before noon, we up anchor for a short sail to Tortuga Island, the last stop of the trip. Here, we splash ashore from rubber rafts for a barbeque on the beach, after which there's time for serious diving on a volcanic reef said to be the best underwater site in the country. Among the reef's homies are swirls of king angelfish, morays, porcupine fish, needlefish, spotted eagle rays and so many other varieties that Tortuga draws divers from around the world.

We get back to Puerto Caldera early Saturday morning. Most of the passengers catch the Wind Star bus back to the San Jose airport. Others stay on the bus to go on to the capital city to spend a few days checking out the colonial-style government buildings and poking through the shops there. Others head off to tours of the rainforests, volcanoes, eco-lodges and coffee and flower plantations elsewhere in the country.

The two-hour ride to the airport includes a far-too-short 20-minute stop at the  mother of all T-shirt stores.

More info: Check out the Costa Rica Tourism Board's site at www.visitcostarica.com.

Doubletree Hilton PuntarenasGetting there: Nonstop flights to San Jose's Juan Santamaria International Airport are operated from major U.S. hubs such as Denver, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Atlanta and Miami.

From the airport, passengers can either run into the capital city for a few nights before the cruise or take cab rides directly to the cruise port.

Another option is to spend some time before the cruise in resort hotels in the general area of Puerto Caldera. Taxi rides from the airport – it's best to use orange-colored cabs licensed to haul airport passengers – to the beach hotels cost around $55 per person (U.S. dollars are happily accepted all over the country).                                

Among recommended hotels near the port is the all-inclusive Doubletree Hilton Resort (doubletree1.hilton.com) on the Puntarenas Peninsula. Other tourist-class properties can be found scattered around Puntarenas and further down the coast at the Jaco resort area.

About the ship

Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises    

Seattle-based Windstar Cruises operates the Wind Star and two sister ships: the nearly identical Wind Spirit, like the Wind Star a little longer than a football field, and the larger (123 regular staterooms, 31 suites) Wind Surf, some 535 feet long.

Besides the Costa Rican winter run, the line features sailings to popular as well as off-the-beaten-track ports around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.  

Windstar cruises aren't cheap, but savvy shopping on the Internet can turn up hefty discounts. Another way to shave the tab is to make your bookings through travel agents who do a lot of business with Windstar. Special discounts are offered to repeat customers as well as for early bookings, such as those for this coming winter's Costa Rican sailings.

More info: www.windstarcruises.com.