ABOARD THE WINDSTAR WIND SURF—Joanne and Martin Heller of Toronto took a three-day cruise years ago and decided that mega-ships weren’t right for them. But a small ship such as the Windstar Wind Surf with only 300 passengers was ideal.
“We don’t like crowds and lineups and we love the low-key atmosphere of a small ship,” Joanne says. “It’s fun getting to know everyone. You build a camaraderie with other passengers, the crew and captain.”
Windstar has three ships of 150 to 300 passengers (the Spirit, Star and Surf) and lots of people say that sailing on one is like having your own yacht. Small ships can navigate ports that are too small or remote for larger ships, immersing you in unspoiled locations.
About 10 cruise lines specialize in small ships (those carrying fewer than 500 passengers), but Windstar and the Star Clippers line are unique because their ships have sails.
The Wind Surf sails the Caribbean in winter from Barbados to ports such as Basse Terre on St. Kitts; Marigot on St. Martin; Gustavia on St. Barts; Iles Des Saintes in the French West Indies; Bequia, Grenadines; Roseau, Dominica; Kingstown, St. Vincent; St. Georges, Grenada and Pigeon Island in St. Lucia. In summer, Windstar sails to equally offbeat ports in the Mediterranean.
Most of these ports don’t get swamped by thousands of passengers from the behemoth ships. In some ports, you and your fellow passengers are the only tourists in town.
You can be as active or as lazy as you like. Windstar offers about four shore excursions at each port ranging from about $50 to $150 (Cdn.), with options such as jungle ATV tours, zip-lining above the rainforest, scuba, snorkelling, sailing a catamaran, jeep trekking, horseback riding, kayaking and more.
“We like to explore on our own and see the real markets where the locals shop, rather than the duty-free shops of large ports,” says Joanne. “But sometimes a shore excursion is the best way to see an island and cheaper. For example, St. Barts is really expensive — a taxi to and from the beach is $40 and a Coke is $6 U.S.”
St. Barts has boutiques such as Hermès, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Cartier and Prada. Affluence is everywhere because the island is hard to get to, and not well known. So it attracts celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Elton John, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mariah Carey.
In Basse Terre on St. Kitts, Shelley Grist of Acton, Ont., decided to take an ATV tour.
“There isn’t much of a town, so we took a three-hour trek through the jungle,” she says. “We saw monkeys, spectacular views of the valleys and coastline, and visited a plantation. You travel along dirt and grass paths. It was dirty, dusty and really fun.”
Iles des Saintes is a tiny town of about three blocks along the main dock, but the four beaches offer shady palm trees, powdery sand and great snorkelling.
“You immediately realize this is a quiet place to enjoy the beach, snorkel or sail a catamaran,” Shelley says. “When you’re visiting such offbeat places, you have to plan your days and shore excursions carefully — one day for shopping at the largest port, beach days at the small islands and a special activity at another port.”
On board, the high crew-to-passenger ratio of a small ship means service is much more personalized.
“The crew gets to know your name and anticipates your needs. There are four restaurants on the Wind Surf and the service was almost too fast,” says Joanne. “The food was good and we tried everything from the steaks to seafood.”
An entertainer came on board one night, but small-ship passengers aren’t usually looking for shows.
“Getting to know the other passengers and sharing what you did that day is the entertainment,” says Joanne.
Wind Surf’s amenities include a small casino, gym, spa, two pools and two hot tubs. The back of the ship opens up into a mini marina for kayaking, waterskiing and a water trampoline.
“There were about 25 of us out there one afternoon. If they could just float drinks out to us that would be even better,” says Joanne.
Sailing a small ship also means the captain can adjust the itinerary quickly.
“If weather is a problem, we’ll find a safe harbour somewhere else,” says John Clark, captain of the Wind Star. “There were nine-foot swells on one side of St. Lucia so we went to the other side.”
As the ship sails away from port at sunset each day, the masts are raised to the song “Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis played over the speakers. Sometimes you are under motor power, and other times under sail. The dramatic effect contributes to the camaraderie and reminds everyone that this is no ordinary cruise.
• For more information, visit http://www.windstarcruises.com or call 1-87-STAR-SAIL.