Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Winter Cruise

“I want to go someplace where it’s warm.”

This plaintive request from my wife started a search for a cruise in the Caribbean. As a result, on the days when snow and sleet were falling in Greensboro, we were lying in the sun, temps around 80 every day, with a balmy breeze. We initially booked with a mid-price line, but after we started adding up all the extras we would have to pay for (such as wines with meals, other drinks, “premium” coffee) we started investigating “all inclusive” fares. We wound up changing our plans, selecting the “7-Day Caribbean Hideaways” itinerary on the Seabourn Legend.

The fare really does include everything onboard ship, although you can select some high end wines at extra cost. We like good wine, but we never found it necessary to stray from the “complimentary” offerings. On the contrary, if what they are serving doesn’t appeal to you, the sommelier will provide alternatives at no extra charge. One example: the “house” Champagne is Nicolas Feuillatte- seriously good, retailing for about $30/bottle locally. Tipping is “neither required not expected,” according to Seabourn.

This cruise embarked from St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We were pleased to find that airfares to that location were not significantly higher than fares to Miami, the point of departure for many other cruises. Change planes on U.S. Airways in Charlotte, and you’re in the Virgin Islands in a little over 3 hours- very convenient, easily in time for dinner. (There is a time zone change, however.) U.S. Virgin Islands vehicles drive on the left side of the road, using standard U.S. left side drive cars. On our first trip to U.S.V.I., we rented a car. After driving to the hotel and hearing my wife scream every time I entered one of the frequent roundabouts, I drove back to the airport and returned the rental. My advice: take a taxi in the islands. Prices are reasonable (about $25 from airport to most hotels for two people with luggage), and all the drivers we met were personable.

In order to secure a taxi license, drivers have to be qualified to provide a tour of the whole island ($25 per person, two hours). We’ve done that twice, and I would definitely recommend it. The views from Mountaintop go all the way to several surrounding islands, in addition to Magens Bay Beach. An introduction to paradise.

The Caribbean is famous for shopping. Some jewelers (for example, Ajanta- a small shop a little off the main street, our favorite) will pay for a cab to pick you up at your hotel. Jewelry, liquor (especially rum, but not wine), and other luxury goods are duty and tax free in the Caribbean, and in most locations, prices are quite a bit lower (30-40 percent, maybe more) than in the States. But know local prices before you go. Some goods are much more expensive, and prices vary somewhat from one island to another.

We embarked on a Saturday afternoon. Boarding ship was easy and convenient. Porters transported luggage to our cabin. We booked one of the lowest-priced accommodations on the ship. For another $1000 per person, we would have had a few more inches of windowsill and a window that opened. We found the non-opening window just fine, and very quiet. There are no “inside” cabins on Seabourn; all have large windows. This is a small (barely over 200 passengers), all-suite ship. We had a queen bed, a sitting room with sofa and two chairs, plus a dining table, a walk in closet, and a home-sized bathroom.

The ship travels at night. You explore a different island every day. Motion on the first night and one other was noticeable, but not uncomfortable. More like being rocked to sleep. A sunset view on the horizon the first night set the tone for the week.

Ship staffers leave a brief guide to each island in your mailbox each evening. It offers prearranged tours, watersports, and other activities (shore excursions are not included in the cruise fare), unique to each location. An announcement regarding the dress code for dinner, along with the evening’s menu, is also included. Jackets (but not ties) and resort casual wear are required several nights in the main dining room; other nights are casual; one is formal. On the formal night, tux was not required, although you could wear one if you wanted to dress up. If you don’t want to “go out,” a room service menu offers everything from casual- burgers, sandwiches, small plates- to the entire restaurant menu. (No delivery charge.)

We had breakfast in our room each morning. Room service is prompt, a full menu available. Servers always offered to set up a white tablecloth, but we opted for casual.

On day one, we docked in Marigot, St. Martin/St. Maarten. A beautiful rainbow greeted us as we entered the harbor- another kind message from Mother Nature. Judging from the size of the yachts in the harbor, somebody else had already found the pot of gold, though.

One side of this island is French, the other Dutch. Marigot is on the French side. This was a Sunday, so all the shops were closed. In a way, that worked to our benefit. Seabourn provided a bus (no charge) to the Dutch side, where everything functioned on a regular schedule, so we got a free tour of the island as we drove across. The ship also provided a shopping guide who travelled with us. She was quite knowledgeable about gems, although stones and other kinds of shopping weren’t part of our plan. As we wandered around, we observed frequent Sunday services in small churches that welcomed visitors. Several streets were lined with duty free shops. Although the churches and a few other structures looked picturesque, most of the buildings were pretty drab, often shabby. A lot of trash littered streets and sidewalks.

That morning’s experience introduced a recurring theme: on most Caribbean islands, scenery and ambience is mostly a function of lush green land and pristine sea, not the structures that humans built. Cab drivers offered to take us to Orient Beach, famous for its “clothing-optional” policies. At my age, that’s nowhere near as inviting as it might have seemed years ago. I had this mental picture of a bunch of Dirty Old Men hoping to see naked women, but just seeing each other. Not too inviting! We went back to the ship for lunch, and we wound up following that schedule for the rest of the trip.

We really came to enjoy the ship and its services. At lunch, one buffet featured chilled seafoods, all excellent and fresh-tasting. Another offered several hot dishes, including a meat, several seafoods, and a couple of pastas. We vowed not to look at the desserts. Daily specials were prepared to order. Champagne and lightly chilled wines are poured freely. We enjoyed seating on the rear deck, which provided great views of the harbors and the islands.

The ship has several venues for dinner. We ate most nights in the main dining room, which is large enough to seat just about everyone on the ship. Even when full, noise level is fairly low. We never had a problem hearing conversation. There are no assigned seats, and any arrangement is available, from a deuce table to a large group, reserved for your party or mixed to facilitate socializing. Servers are very attentive, the menus varied, and quality wines match anything you order.

Day two took us to St. Johns, Antigua- smaller and more colorful than the white and grey that had characterized the previous day. “Da Vibez,” a steel band, provided lively music all day, from the dock. Restoration of a beautiful, historic church is underway; it is visible from the bay.

Daytime ship activities include yoga, stretch classes, shopping consultations, bridge or other card games, plus afternoon tea. A few samples from the dinner menu: First courses- Seared Spice Crusted Tuna with coriander puree and saffron, Spring Chicken Cassoulet, Herb Seared Shrimp with Meyer lemon cream. Entrees: several steaks, Cuban Spiced Veal Loin with okra and black bean puree, Braised Veal Osso Buco, Pan Sauteed King Salmon filet, Rosemary Roasted chicken Breast. Myriad desserts. Healthy preparations are always available.

Terre de Haut, Guadaloupe, on day three, turned out to be a favorite. Bright and colorful houses and shops, aromas from fresh spices and fresh baking breads, and waterfront strolls along narrow streets reveal the French influence. A walk up the mountainside reveals panoramas looking down on the bay, eventually leading to an old fort on the mountaintop. More yachts, but mostly sailboats here.

In addition to the main dining room at dinner, a separate, smaller “Restaurant 2” offers a different menu each evening. Seating is by reservation only (no extra cost). One night followed an Indian Spice Market theme: Chicken Kebab Masala, Potato and ChickpeaTikki, Coconut Shrimp Curry, Lamb Chettinad, naan breads. Another night followed a steak house concept: Roasted Tomato and Goat Cheese Tian, Dungeness Crab Cakes, Roasted Garlic Soup, several steaks, Salmon Filet. Seeking the full ship experience, we dined in Restaurant 2 one night. A little more intimate, but service was so good in the main dining room, I would be hard pressed to rank one over the other. It’s just the variety that is appealing. Day four, on St. Kitts, turned out a little disappointing. We took one of the prearranged tours (we had an onboard spending credit provided at no extra charge by our travel agent), so we took the Sugar Cane Train tour. It’s kitschy- clean cars with enclosed seating below, open up top, a couple of singing groups moving from car to car, and a lively narration through what used to be sugar cane fields- lush and green, but now overgrown. The finest diesel engine Romania had to offer a few decades ago chugs along up front. Views from bridges and hillsides look down to nearly transparent seas rushing into bays. Again, nature provides the ambience. Several historic buildings, mostly in ruins now, can be viewed from the train.

We found the level of visible poverty and the dreary sameness of government housing unsettling. In much of the Caribbean, you’re in a Third World country, and here, it confronts you more than in other locations. On the other hand, a new shopping center has been constructed recently alongside the docks, and we found the cleanest shops and best prices of the trip here (even though we didn’t buy anything).

St. Barts (day five) is in an entirely different league, in comparison to other islands. The only poverty here would be us, relative to everybody else. This is one of the world’s most prosperous playgrounds. Plenty of yachts decorate the harbor and bays, as they do elsewhere in the Caribbean, but in St. Barts, private ships are common. I looked up a brokerage and found prices of $10-$20 million almost commonplace, with charters going for around $75,000 or more (often a lot more) per week. A small group tour in a van revealed beautiful homes, boutique hotels, and hillside restaurants.

Back in the town, Gustavia, my wife and I peeked into a very different genre of shops. They may be duty free, but these are major league luxury boutiques, comparable to what you might see in the high end neighborhoods of Paris, but with even higher prices. We inspected several cafes, lured by aromas and visual presentations we could usually see from the sidewalk. We calculated that a lunch comparable to what we were getting onboard (at no extra charge) would have cost $200-$300. (That estimate is not strictly based on what a meal in St. Barts would cost- we could have dined for less- it’s a comparison to the strong quality and value of Seabourn’s inclusive fares.) So, back to the ship again!

We wanted to experience all the ship had to offer, so we had room service deliver dinner toward the end of the cruise. Could we have our meal delivered in several courses? No problem! A different wine with each course? Certainly, that’s what we usually do! This time, we let the waiter set up the table with the full treatment, converting our small suite into a white tablecloth dining room. A little cognac to conclude the evening. A view of the sea sliding by. I like this. I want to do it again.

Due to the small size of Seabourn Legend, evening entertainment opportunities are smaller scale than the Broadway shows and other extravaganzas that characterize big ship night life. My wife and I enjoyed the cabaret style performances- four really talented singers with impressive resumes, backed by a five piece jazz-rock combo. A theater offers a full film experience onboard. TVs in rooms offer several movies as well as regular programming.

I asked for a tour of the kitchen one day at lunch. The Executive Chef met me and guided me through, delighting in describing how they do things. Fresh, local seafoods and vegetables are loaded every day in port. All breads (including 1,800 fabulous breadsticks per day) are prepared from scratch. Two huge cauldrons reside in gimbals, to allow for motion at sea, constantly reducing stocks and constructing soups. When I inquired about some dishes we especially liked, he volunteered the recipes, delivered to our suite later in the day. The entire kitchen is stainless steel. I have visited a lot of restaurant kitchens. I have never seen one this immaculate.

On the last full day, we anchored off Prickly Pear Island, in the British Virgin Islands. The ship’s staff prepared a picnic lunch on the beach, complete with grilled Caribbean lobster, chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, and lots of chilled salads and vegetables.

When we reflected on the experience, my wife and I both rated the food 5 Stars and service 5 Stars. (For readers who are not familiar with my restaurant columns, I have awarded 5 Star ratings 8 times in 30 years.) I would rate the ship’s ambience and the overall experience 5 Stars, too, although we decided that we want to try a larger ship with more entertainment sometime in the future. Value? This is about the most expensive thing we’ve ever done, but we thought the money was well spent, and I will be looking for another “all inclusive” fare again. I would rather know the total cost in advance, even if I pay a bit more up front, instead of having a big surprise on my credit card at the end of the week. Adding in the perks we received by working with a Virtuoso travel agent, I actually think we saved a little money by booking the inclusive cruise, and I am confident it was a better value.

Three complaints. Ship’s staff could have provided a better schedule for disembarkation. We began to hear announcements at least an hour before we expected them, and “Report to Immigration and Customs Immediately”! came while my wife was still in the shower. Suffice to say, we did not report "immediately." The cruise brochure promised a laundry, and we found it, but it wasn’t working, and I saw no effort to make repairs all week. Internet never worked at all in my room, and it worked poorly in the Business Center (Slow. Really slow. And there is a fee for use.) But these are fairly small matters, especially in light of the overall enjoyment of the cruise.

Would I recommend Seabourn? Absolutely.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like the trip of a lifetime! I'm so glad you had a wonderful time! We have never been on a cruise, but are looking at going to Italy this summer. You'll have to send me hot spots!