As spring beckoned following an unusually long and nasty Montana winter, my roommate Shaun and I decided to celebrate the end of snow season by finding a nice warm beach somewhere. We considered a number of possibilities, including a traditional cruise, but the idea of dressing up for dinner and watching second-rate floor shows sounded more silly than relaxing. We had both heard about Windjammer, though, and the warm, laid-back lifestyle it advertised sounded like just what we needed. A couple of queries on the Internet and CompuServe brought an avalanche of glowing recommendations, and we were hooked. We chose a week on Windjammer's POLYNESIA, in part for the diverse islands on its itinerary (and since the Poly was supposedly more likely to have single women aboard!).
We made arrangements through our local travel agent, and booked the necessary flights ourselves, since the Windjammer "fare share" proposed a horrible flight itinerary which they were unable to change. As it was, our flights ended up costing roughly as much as the cruise itself (because of the short notice, presumably). The trip down was grueling, beginning with a long drive to the Salt Lake airport (in a blizzard!), followed by successive flights to Atlanta, San Juan, and St. Maarten. It was well after 10PM when our flight landed in St. Maarten, and an exhilarating taxi ride got us to our hotel in Philipsburg about 11. We were both exhausted, but the excitement of the trip made sleep impossible, so we wandered the streets of Philipsburg absorbing the sensations of our new, exotic surroundings. After losing a few bucks in the local casinos, we followed the blaring sound of reggae music to an impromptu street parade (a preliminary to the annual Carnival), which sucked us along for several blocks. It was pretty exciting ... we were fully immersed in an unfamiliar culture, our first night out.
The sun woke me the next morning, and I hurried to the window for my first daytime glimpse of the Caribbean. It was beautiful, all right ... an incredible shade of blue that I had never seen before. And out in the harbor, there it was: our four-masted schooner, looking tiny and exotic anchored between two hulking cruise ships. I instantly wanted to be aboard, but we had the day to kill in St. Maarten first, so I headed out in search of coffee and a rental car. Successful on both counts, I returned to the hotel to pick up Shaun, and we headed off to explore.
St. Maarten is a small, hilly island, half of which is Dutch territory, and half of which is French. Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch half of the island; it's a busy, diverse town, where growth and too many tourists have cost it much of its charm. We decided to head over to the French half of the island, and its capital, Marigot, which was a charming and inviting town. After a late breakfast at a sidewalk cafe there, we explored the town and wandered up to Fort Saint-Louis, an abandoned 200-year-old fortification with great views of the island and sea. Then, time to find a beach. We settled on the infamous Orient Beach, on the French side of the island. It was easy to kill the afternoon lying in the sun, browsing the beach vendors, and people-watching (it _is_ a topless beach, after all!). I even made a brief foray to the beach's clothing-optional area. Yep, Montana was very, very far away! I loved it.
We wandered back to Philipsburg a little after 5, returned the car, and headed for the wharf. A tender from the POLYNESIA was waiting at the dock, quietly chuffing away; in a couple of minutes our bags were loaded and we were headed for the ship. We pulled alongside, ropes were secured, and a jovial man (who I later learned was the captain) helped me climb aboard. My first memory of the ship was an unabashed "cool!" ... I was on a real ship! There was varnished wood everywhere. I immediately fell in love. We were quickly checked in, handed a couple of rum swizzles, and shown to our cabin. The shoes came off, and--swizzle in hand--I went exploring.
By cruise ship standards, the POLYNESIA is small--248 feet long--and my tour was quick. The top deck is nearly all open, with a teak floor and wooden railing all around. The ship's wheel and a small chart room are at the rear. Built-in benches--of varnished wood--are scattered along the deck, and neatly-coiled ropes seemed to be everywhere. The masts and booms tower above. The curve of the ship was very pronounced, with the bow and stern noticeably higher than midships. The next deck down includes the upper-category staterooms (near the bow), an open-air bar (midships), and the dining room (at the stern). The dining room has a stone floor and large built-in tables and benches surrounding the room. A wooden buffet, shaped like a ship's bow, is in the center. Again, everything is varnished wood.
The standard-category cabins occupy the remaining two public decks of the ship. Shaun and I were in cabin 31, which I guess was typical. The cabin was fairly small, even by cruise-ship standards. Upper and lower bunks occupied the far wall, and one of the side walls included an open closet and shelf area. The floor was carpeted, but everything else was wood. The bathroom was an all-in-one unit, with toilet, basin and shower all in the same space. (The shower temperature can't be adjusted -- and it varied quite a bit depending on what the ship's engines were doing at the time!) The beds were comfortable, and even though I'm 6'4" I fit fine. The room included a bottle of wine chilling in an ice bucket when we arrived.
The rest of our stowaway evening was spent socializing. Windjammer helped us along with a buffet dinner and some entertainment ("the limbo queen of the Caribbean"). There were about 90 passengers aboard for our sailing (the Poly's capacity is 126). There was one elementary-school aged kid and a couple of 18-year-old women; the other ages ranged from about 25 to 70, with the average age probably in the late 30s. About a quarter of the passengers were singles ... and luckily for us, most of them were women! The passengers "clicked" as a group very quickly, despite the diversity of ages and backgrounds. Nearly everyone was outgoing, congenial, and unpretentious. Dancing in the bar ended the evening, but nearly everyone was tired enough to go to bed fairly early.
I set my alarm for 6:30 the next morning, to get my share of the promised bloody Marys and sticky buns. I was one of the first up, and sat topside watching the water and marveling at where I was. The "regular" breakfast followed at 7:30. (Each day's breakfast included fresh fruit, cereal, and one hot entree--pancakes, eggs, or whatever.) Then came the required lifeboat drill and and the first daily "Captain's Storytime." This is a morning get-together where the captain briefs everyone on the day's activities. It always begins as follows:
Captain: "Good Morning, Everyone!"
Captain John told us that we were sailing for St. Barts at lunchtime, so most of us went back into Philipsburg for a couple hours of shopping. Wandering the town's narrow streets, I observed the hoards from the big cruise ships, and felt very superior. Soon, though, it was back to the ship ... to set sail!
Raising the sails on a Windjammer ship is quite the experience, steeped in company tradition. The ritual begins with the firing of the ship's cannon. All hands take to the ropes, accompanied by the sounds of "Amazing Grace" (on the bagpipes!) coming from the ship's sound system. Within a minute or so, the sails are up, and everyone quietly watches the sails catch the wind as the bagpipe music continues to softly play. Watching it all is a moving experience, and more a few of the passengers got misty-eyed each time it happened.
We spent the afternoon slowly sailing towards St Barts, finishing off the last of the lunch buffet and beginning work on our sunburns. In late afternoon we anchored in a quiet bay off the north end of Barts; the ship's diving board was lowered, and several of the passengers went for a swim in the sea. (I watched from topside, in order to stay nearer to the rum swizzles and hors d'oeuvres.) Then dinnertime. (Dinners are served in two open seatings. There were two choices of entree every night, one of which was generally local seafood. Meals were very good, although nowhere near as exotic as on the big cruise ships.)
The evening's activities began with "hermit crab races," another Windjammer tradition. Lisa, the ship's very vivacious activities director, served as emcee. The racers are ten tiny crabs, placed in the center of a circular "track," drawn in chalk on the floor of the ship's bar. First crab to the edge of the circle wins. There was a full race card for the evening, complete with cash betting and posted odds. Much money changed hands ... I managed to lose two bucks! It was a pretty raucous evening, and everyone seemed to have a great time. After the crabs returned to their stables, the barroom floor reverted to the dancers, and we rocked the night away. That night, Shaun and I made friends with a couple of the single women aboard, giving us a foursome for the rest of the week.
The next morning the Poly drifted around the corner of the island to Gustavia, the capital of St. Barts. The ship's tenders brought us to shore, and we had the day to play tourist. Barts is a French island, with a "rich and famous" reputation, and there did seem to be a fair number of Beautiful People around. The town and the island were beautiful, and the beaches were great. We wandered the town for a while, visited nearby Shell Beach, and had cheeseburgers at Le Select (a sidewalk cafe where Jimmy Buffet supposedly wrote "Cheeseburger in Paradise"). Afterwards, we climbed the nearby hills for views of our ship, and of Gustavia's famous airport. Back at the ship there was a chance to visit "Sea Chest," the Windjammer ad hoc gift shop which Colleen, the purser, set up in the dining room most afternoons. (Sea Chest had a variety of items, although most were articles of clothing with Windjammer logos.)
There was a late afternoon wine and cheese party on the Poly that day (with the passengers supplying French wine from the shops in Gustavia). That evening, a few of the passengers went ashore to sample the local nightlife, while most stayed aboard for another evening of dancing. A few of us rode the Poly's tenders over to the FANTOME, another Windjammer ship which was anchored nearby. The FANTOME is slightly larger than the Poly, and has been heavily refurbished within the past couple of years. Its passengers seemed (slightly) older than those on the Polynesia, with a higher percentage of couples. It's a beautiful ship, but I decided I preferred the Poly.
The Poly sailed from Gustavia late that night, and when I awoke the following morning we were sailing along the western shore of St. Kitts. Kitts is a green and mountainous island, very lovely. Formerly a British possession, it is now independent; much of the land is occupied by sugar cane farms. We anchored at Basseterre, the island's capital, about 9:30 and once again boarded the tenders for shore. There were several organized excursions available for the Poly's passengers at Kitts, including island and rainforest tours, sea kayaking, and scuba. We decided to hire a cab to explore on our own. Albert, our cab driver, took us through town and then north to Brimstone Hill, a very impressive eighteenth-century British fort. The view from the old fort was breathtaking.
Back in town, we grabbed lunch on the Poly and then joined a group of passengers for a scuba dive. This was a "resort" dive (for newcomers to the sport) ... a good thing because I'm definitely a landlubber. A speedboat took us to a reef a few miles south of town, we received a quick lesson (much _too_ quick), and we were in the water. The reef was wonderful, and if I'd known what I was doing I would have probably had a great time. Back at the ship that night, there was a steel-drum band on deck, and more dancing and socializing. The Poly was tied up at the Basseterre dock for the evening; I went ashore for a bit and (after much peer pressure) allowed a local woman to put a braid in my hair. (As you might guess, that was quite a hit back in Montana!) Being docked for the evening also allowed Hobie--the ship's cat--a brief chance to get his land legs and socialize with the local felines.
The next morning found the Polynesia approaching Saba, a small Dutch island. Saba is an amazing place; an extinct volcano, nearly all the land on the island seems vertical, with tiny villages clustered on the steep hillsides far above the sea. I joined a taxi tour of the island, and as we wound along Saba's narrow mountain road the island instantly became my favorite. The island's towns are incredibly picturesque, with tiny, red-roofed houses clustered along narrow, winding streets, and with wonderful views everywhere. I wandered around the towns a bit, and walked partway up the famous trail to Mt. Scenery. The ship's crew brought lunch ashore, and served it poolside at a small inn in the town. I really hated to leave Saba; it's a wonderful, unspoiled place.
Back on the Poly that afternoon, there were more opportunities to snorkel, as well as another scuba diving expedition (much better, reportedly, than the diving at Kitts). On the ship, Lisa hosted Team Trivial Pursuit, and the ship's head steward (a real character named Popeye) earned a bit of extra cash by weaving ankle bracelets onto many of the more fashion-conscious passengers. A good part of the ship (including me) sported Popeye's handiwork by the end of the week ... a perfect (and permanent!) souvenir. After dinner, it was time for another Windjammer tradition: the PPP party. This is a costume affair, where one is supposed to dress as something beginning with the letter "P." Shaun vandalized our bathroom, came as a Porta Potty, and grabbed second place. It was a great time.
The Poly's last stop for the week was Anguilla, a low-lying and somewhat desolate island. Once again, the Poly docked in mid-morning, and we boarded the tenders for shore. Anguilla's prime attraction is its wonderful beaches, and most of the passengers spent the day lying on the sand, snorkeling, and soaking up sun. We returned to the ship in late afternoon, and just before dusk the Poly set sail for the last time. The cannon was fired, Amazing Grace was played, and all hands took to the ropes. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
The Captain's Dinner--another shipboard ritual--was held that evening. In typical Windjammer fashion, recommended dress for the evening was "a clean T-shirt." I managed to comply, but I'm glad they didn't ask us to wear shoes! After dinner, most of us gathered in the bar for another evening of dancing. I alternated between the dance and walking the deck topside, watching the moon and the sails. I took the ship's wheel for a while (as passengers are encouraged to do). By midnight we were coming back into Philipsburg, and my greatest vacation was nearing an end.
And the next morning it was over. Shaun and I caught an early breakfast and packed. After a long round of goodbye hugs, about fifteen of us boarded the first tender for shore. No one said a word as we watched our ship slowly slip away. Then it was a series of taxis and long, long airline flights as our little group of newfound friends scattered across the country forever.
But ... I think most of us will be back.
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