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Wind Star Cruise Review by Leejnd4

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Wind Star
Wind Star
Member Name: Leejnd4
Email: leejnd@adelphia.net
Cruise Date: March 2006
Embarkation: Puerto Caldera
Destination: Panama Canal & Central America
Cabin Category:
Cabin Number: 112
Booking Method: Internet Agency
See More About: Wind Star Cruise Reviews | Panama Canal & Central America Cruise Reviews | Windstar Cruise Deals
Member Rating   5.0 out of 5+
Dining 3.0
Public Rooms 4.0
Cabins 4.0
Entertainment 2.0
Spa & Fitness 5+
Family & Children Not Rated
Shore Excursions 5.0
Embarkation 5+
Service 5.0
Value-for-Money Not Rated
Rates 5.0
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Ship Facts: Wind Star Review (by Cruise Critic!) | Wind Star Deck Plans
Wind Star - Central America/Panama Canal
GENERAL COMMENTS:

I have separated my cruise review into the ship experience, and the port experiences, as this ship cruises in different regions, and some readers may be more interested in learning about one vs. the other.

About me: I am a 46-yr-old freelance writer and cruise lover who has taken several cruises on a few different lines, including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Radisson Seven Seas (now Regent), and now Windstar. I have enjoyed every one of my cruises, although each cruise line has its strengths and weaknesses. I will attempt to describe my cruise experience from the perspective of offering a comparison between this line and the others I have cruised. However, I should mention that a Windstar experience is truly not like any other cruise, so some things are just not going to be comparable. Also, know that while I was on the cruise itself, I probably spent a grand total of a nanosecond actually thinking about comparing this cruise with any other  I was too busy enjoying myself!

I will try to write an honest and balanced review. There were great things, and not so great things. I want to stress, however, that there wasnt a single not-so-great thing that, to me, was worth openly complaining about. For example, even when I had one really horrible entrEe, all I did was laugh because, well, it was the last night and I was so stuffed full of rich foods that it was actually a relief! I just set it aside and saved myself for dessert  which turned out to be one of the best.

SHIP:

We were on Windstar Cruise Lines Wind Star ship, one of the smaller of their three ships, carrying a maximum of about 140 passengers. The Wind Star is a motor sailing vessel, sporting four tall masts with enormous sails that they leave unfurled most of the time were at sea. Ive read criticisms that these are more for show than anything else, but on our cruise that was not the case  they do in fact USE these sails for power whenever possible, and we were fortunate that the winds were in our favor quite a lot on this cruise, allowing the captain to shut down the engines and sail exclusively under wind power. I must admit that there is something stirring about the huge sails unfurling in the breeze on this majestic ship.

The ship is truly magnificent  lots of wood, very understated and classy, with a strictly nautical dEcor. Those who prefer their cruise ships to look like Las Vegas will probably not like this ship, as there isnt a spec of neon or a flashing light to be found. In fact, the casino is one of the smallest rooms on the ship, consisting of no more than a couple gaming tables and slot machines. There are only four decks  two for passenger cabins, the main deck with the lobby, lounge and dinner restaurant, and the pool deck with the pool aft, and the bridge and Veranda restaurant for breakfast/lunch at the fore. There is also a fly bridge with a few tables and chairs, where I really didnt spend much time as it got kind of windy up there. I wont go into much more description of the ship, as details such as these can be found on Windstars website.

This was our first small ship experience, and we truly enjoyed it. It was definitely a different kind of cruise vacation from larger ships. By halfway through the cruise, you are on a first-name basis with most of the other passengers, as well as the crew. This has its pros and cons  mostly pros as far as Im concerned, but a couple of us commented that you really lose all opportunity for anonymity on this ship. If you want to go hang by the pool and quietly read, you probably wont make it far in your book before you end up in conversation with the folks around you, who all know you by this time. This wasnt a problem for me, as Im a social person. But my husband is much more introverted, and while he enjoys social interactions, he needs occasional time to recharge his batteries alone. He spent more time in the cabin than I did.

One major pro was the lack of lines anywhere. Even at the busiest times at the buffets, you could just walk up to what you wanted and take some. It wasnt a linear buffet, and you never stood behind anyone. The only lines I ever saw were at Tortuga Island, when we got there later than expected and it seemed to take a while to get everyone to shore on the zodiacs for the beach bbq, and on the last morning at the reception desk, when I had a question about my statement and there were a few people waiting ahead of me. Thats it. Welcome to the world of small ship cruising!

One major con was the design of the dining room  at least in terms of the acoustics. No matter where we sat, it always seemed so&so&LOUD in there! . We constantly had to lean forward to hear each other at dinner. And if we were anywhere near a table with folks laughing it up and having a good ol time, we could barely hear ourselves at all. One time we were at a table for six, and the guys were on one side and the gals on the other. It ended up being like a chick and dude bonding experience -- meaning, the chicks mostly only talked to the chicks, and the dudes to the dudes! It was just too noisy to try to talk across the table.

For those who enjoy a jogging/walking track on a ship, you wont find one here. In fact, there really is no easy way to walk around the ship at all. The only deck you CAN walk outside is the pool/Veranda deck, and there is no real path to follow that doesnt involve having to navigate amidst lounge chairs on the pool end, or tables/chairs on the Veranda end.

I never visited the spa or fitness center, although I saw them&they are very small, as would be expected on such a small cruise ship.

EMBARKATION/DEBARKATION

Not much to say about this. We had private transportation, who drove us directly to the ship and literally dropped us off at the bottom of the gangplank. We left our luggage there and walked on board at about 2:30 pm. That definitely ranks as the easiest embarkation of any cruise Ive ever been on.

The check-in process was a little more complex than Ive dealt with in the past  we had to fill out a bunch of forms, and visit two desks  but it didnt take long and soon we were in our cabin.

The muster drill was relatively painless, other than the clunky and rather low-tech life jackets. The two muster stations are in the lounge, and you only spend about ten or fifteen minutes there before you are released to head back to your cabin to get ready for dinner.

Debarkation was equally painless. You were issued colored luggage tags based on what time your flight was and which airport transfer you were on, or if you had private transportation, in which case you got an orange tag. Unlike other cruise lines, you do NOT put luggage out in the hallway the night before. Rather, your cabin attendant came by at around 6:30 in the morning to collect your luggage, which I REALLY liked. First of all, it made sure we got our behinds out of bed early enough to get off the ship by the time they demand (9:00 am). Second, it always seemed a hazard to me to see all that luggage piled up out in the hallways, and I was never really comfortable just leaving it out there where any schmoe passing by could unzip and pull something out if no crew members happened to be around. Not that I would worry too much about this with this passenger load, but the fact is that you are in a crowd of strangers that may very well include some immoral, unethical scuzbag who would have no compunction against swiping something given the opportunity. Bad apples exist among all demographics. Frankly I worried more about this on the RCI party ships Ive cruised on, where I saw some unfettered alcohol consumption, and I wouldnt put it past some of the wilder ones who might be weaving down the hallway on the last night and succumb to a sudden criminal urge. Anyway, not to belabor this  lets just say it seems far more civilized to do it the Windstar way.

Another great thing was that if you had an orange tag, you could leave the ship whenever you wished. This was WONDERFUL, and a huge advantage over RSSC, where those who dont have to get off the ship early basically arent ALLOWED to leave the ship until everyone else is off. I never understood this  I mean, if they dont have to deal with our transportation, why cant we leave when we want? As it was, we got to have a leisurely breakfast in the Veranda, and then we sat on the pool deck and watched for Sandy & Bills truck. The moment we saw it, we waved to them and just walked off the ship.

We heard that on the previous cruise, they didnt let the orange-tag folks off until last. Perhaps this is a new policy. In any case, it sure makes sense to us, and seems much more dignified than making us wait onboard when we have things wed like to do on land.

SERVICE/CREW:

This was a huge surprise to me  the service was truly top notch! Having cruised one of the six-star luxury lines (RSSC), where I found the service to be several cuts above the mass-market lines, I didnt think that I would find this kind of service on a line that doesnt fall into the luxury category. I was pleasantly surprised. The crew members were uniformly friendly, and seemed eager not only to please, but to assure that we were having the best possible time. Everyone was smiling, and appeared to be genuinely happy and having a good time themselves. If this was an act, they deserve Oscars.

The crew members operate in teams  the waiters, the bar staff, and housekeeping. For housekeeping we only had one person, our cabin steward. For everything else we were served by whomever was around, but given the size of the ship there arent very many of them, so you get to know them (and they you) very quickly. We were addressed by name starting the very first night, and they often remembered our preferences. For example, when someone would bring me an iced tea (like when I was sitting at the pool), they would usually bring me one packet of equal. Someone obviously noticed that I always put one packet of equal in my iced tea! That was a fun touch. Also, at breakfast one morning the eggs in my eggs benedict were a bit over-poached, and I asked for a fresh serving with the eggs a little less done. After that, any time Id order poached eggs, whichever waiter took my order would smile and say A little runny, right? And thats how theyd come.

Our cabin steward did a great job. I tend to prefer NOT to get too chummy with the cabin steward  just personal preference. Maybe its something about the fact that this person gets to see my hand-washed panties hanging on the line in the shower  thats about as much intimacy as I want with a stranger. And we didnt actually see our attendant all that much  he was sometimes in the hallway as wed come or go, and hed always politely say hello and wish us a good day or evening. Other than that, he didnt go out of his way to make friends, which was perfect for me. But even if we didnt see him, he had that great, magical quality of somehow knowing exactly when we werent in the room, so that almost every time we returned to it, it was perfect. There were maybe 2 or 3 times the entire cruise when we left the room and came back to find he hadnt been there yet, but in every case we hadnt really been gone long enough for him to have gotten in there anyway.

The bathroom supplies were always kept filled up, and we never ran out of anything. The ice tub was always full of fresh ice. I cant think of a single thing that could have been done better.

As for the makeup of the crew, they were mostly Filipino and other Asian nationalities. I wish to make a comment about this. When RSSC changed last year from a mostly European crew to one that is mostly Filipino/Asian, comments were made on Cruise Critic that they were perceived by some as less desirable or enjoyable as service staff, as they came across as more subservient than friendly. Let me state that I personally am uncomfortable with rating someones job performance based on their race or nationality. But I do want to say that I did not find this mostly Filipino/Asian crew to be at all subservient. They were polite, competent and professional, while also coming across as regular people; never over-solicitous, but always right there and ready to do whatever our hearts desired. After a while, it was like running into a friend who happens to work at the local steakhouse  you never felt like there was any class barrier. They were doing a job, we were on vacation, and we were all having a good time. After I had a&um& Karaoke moment, a couple of them took to good-naturedly ribbing me about it, which I found to be charming.

Now, I understand that not everyone on the cruise had the same great luck with service. I heard that at dinner one night someone asked for a minor change to a dish, or something like that  I cant remember the details, but I recall that it sounded like a simple enough request to accommodate. Im told that the waiter basically said no, firmly, and stuck to it! Whereas I had the opposite experience. On our last night they offered crème brulee, which I prefer with berries or some other fruit. When I asked, the waiter said that it didnt come with anything, but hed see what he could do. My husband asked for the vanilla ice cream, but he wanted peaches with his, even though it wasnt on the menu either. When dessert came, it was served up with a smile, along with generous helpings of berries for me, and peaches for him. I guess we need to remember that human interactions are just not always consistent. But lucky for us, on this cruise it was consistently fantastic!

Regarding other staff members  there was a Costa Rican gentleman by the name of Carlos on board who was a naturalist and local expert, and gave port lectures. He was VERY pleasant and friendly, and I always enjoyed chatting with him. We didnt end up going to any of his talks, but we did get some great advice from him regarding what to do in the various ports. I felt he was a great asset to the cruise!

The cruise host and hostess were a married couple, Wendy and Mike, who were very nice. He mostly handled excursion-related things, and she was more of a hostess, although her role is not to be confused with the traditional cruise director you might find on RCI or other large ships. She was not there for entertainment, but more to make announcements, introduce people at the Captains Reception, and make sure everything ran smoothly.

Speaking of the Captain, Id read a lot about the open bridge. Yes, the bridge was open pretty much the whole time, and early in the cruise we had some interesting times checking out what they were doing in there, especially on the night we departed when there were some complications due to the high winds that necessitated the use of tugs to pull and push the ship away from the dock. The captain, Ian, was pleasant and always had a smile and a hello for us. Other than that, we really didnt see him all that much.

We had a bit of a disappointment when we realized wed never heard the stirring music that we read so much about, that they are supposed to play when they unfurl the sails. For some reason, the sails were regularly unfurled but we never heard the music! This became an issue on the last night, when during the final announcements Wendy mentioned that we would be departing the anchorage at 10:00 pm and the music would play. Well, for some unknown reason we actually departed much earlier, and the next thing we knew, the sails were all unfurled and we hadnt heard the music!

A few of us, at this point feeling in a rather feisty mood, decided to storm the bridge to register our displeasure. We headed up there and laughingly threatened mutiny if we didnt get to hear the music! The Captain wasnt there at the time, but whomever it was that was manning the bridge quickly called one of the bar staff, and then told us to head on back to the pool deck. Sure enough, our good buddy Tata was there, and he started playing it. Yes, it IS quite stirring! It was actually very magical, standing out on that deck under a million stars with our new friends, the wind whipping around us, with this music playing. At the end of it we all called out for more  and Tata played it again&and again! He must have played it four or five times for us. It was really a great way to end the cruise.

FOOD:

The dining arrangement was open seating  you could arrive at any time you liked during the couple of hours the restaurant was open, and sit with whomever you liked, or with no one at all. The restaurant can obviously accommodate the entire passenger load, as we never waited more than a nanosecond for a table. The first night we were seated at a table for four, and they brought over another couple whom we hadnt met yet, which was lovely. After that, wed bonded with some other folks, and we had dinner with them every night, either on our own, or with additional people depending on who we were hanging out with in the lounge before dinner.

As far as when food is available, you can pretty much eat yourself sick on this cruise, although the variety and choices can be somewhat limited. A continental breakfast was put out on the pool deck starting at 6:00 am for the early-riser, available till 11:00 am. Main breakfast was a hot and cold buffet served in the Veranda restaurant from 7:30-9:30 am, along with a small menu from which you could order. The breakfast menu offerings changed slightly every day  there was always eggs benedict, as well as some other egg dish, and some type of pancakes or French toast. There was also always something light and healthy on each menu, with nutritional information for those who might be watching their calories or carbs. I found this to be a nice touch. Lunch was also a buffet in the Veranda, along with a small menu, served at different times depending on the events of the day (usually around 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm). The hot buffet would have some kind of theme  Balinese one day (which was really interesting!), Mexican another day&things like that. Afternoon tea was served at the pool daily from 4:00-5:00 pm, consisting of cheeses/meats and little sweets. Each evening from 6:45 to 7:30 there were appetizers in the lounge  one day was Crepes Suzette, another was crab cakes, and another was a sushi bar.

In general, I found the food to be mostly good to excellent, with a few flashes of brilliance, as well as some spectacular failures. The menu was not hugely inspired or exotic, and the variety was not what youd find on other cruise lines  at dinner there were usually three or four appetizer choices, a couple of salads and soups, four choices of entrees, and a few desserts. But I always found something among the offerings that was enjoyable to eat.

The biggest miss, for us, was the fruit. Now, to really understand this you must know that we have friends who retired in Costa Rica in a lovely town, and their home is right on the edge of a mango farm. Wed spent a couple days with them pre-cruise, and had eaten our fill of the most delicious, flavor-packed fruit wed ever encountered. The mangos in particular were sublime, and the pineapples were like eating wet, juicy sugar. So to then go onboard and discover that the fruit was much like that wed find in our local grocery store (in winter), and was just barely on the green side of ripe to boot, was a huge disappointment, especially after reading about Windstars supposedly sumptuous displays of bountiful fruit. It was there all right, only it was a pale comparison to what wed just enjoyed. We did notice that it started getting a little riper, and closer to edible, towards the end of the cruise. But we mostly avoided it, knowing wed be spending a few more days with our friends post-cruise.

Another miss was the jumbo shrimp dinner, which turned out to be medium shrimps that tasted like they were pre-cooked, then over-frozen. They were served along with something that was called garlic gnocci, which were just lumps of pressed, sticky mush with no flavor to speak of. But, as I mentioned earlier, this was the last night, and at this point I was so full of food I was happy to push it away.

I found the soups to be spotty and sometimes flavorless, but the salads were quite good, and often unique and inspired. I found the rack of lamb on the first night to be excellent, and cooked perfectly to my tastes, unlike the lamb in Signatures on RSSCs Voyager, where they just couldnt seem to make it medium rare. But I heard that several other people didnt like it at all, although Im not sure why.

The evening lounge appetizers were inconsistent as well. I found the crab cakes to be rather flavorless, but other offerings were REALLY good. They had coconut shrimp one evening that were to die for!

As for hits, the biggest one in my mind was the beach bbq lunch on Tortuga Island, where they had the most incredible, tender, melt-in-your-mouth baby-back ribs Ive ever tasted! I could have eaten dozens of them if Id had the stomach space. They seemed to have been prepared with some kind of rub that permeated the meat with a delicious flavor, and then brushed with a savory bbq sauce. They were the meatiest ribs Ive ever seen, without much fat on them, and the meat literally fell off the bone. In fact all of the meat at that bbq was fantastic&so good that I pretty much stuck to being a carnivore, so I cant tell you much about anything else they had there! I did try a couple of bites of the cole slaw, which was crisp and delicious.

The other food hits were the prime rib dinner, which was a very high quality cut of meat served with a fantastic horseradish sauce (not so hot that it caused you to sweat, unlike some other horseradish sauces Ive tried), and the surf-n-turf, which proffered a very tender lobster tail along with a quite good piece of steak. One advantage to being on such a small ship is that you really CAN order your meat the way you want it, and it will come that way! I like my meat somewhere between what restaurants usually serve as rare and medium rare, which is how I asked for it, and it came that way every time.

Id read much about the Thursday night barbecue on the pool deck, and I must say it lived up to its hype! Although the lobster tails werent quite as good as the lobster served with the surf-n-turf. The only real problem with that barbecue was that the ship was at anchor in Quepos and it was hotter than all get-out, and extremely humid that night. Of course you cant control the weather, but I was a bit uncomfortable.

One final hit Ill mention were the desserts. I had a couple of chocolate desserts that were some of the best desserts Ive had at sea! The chocolate mousse cake on the first night, and the mocha thing on another night, were creamy perfection, packing huge flavor wallops. And the crème brulee was very good  especially with the added berries!

For comparison purposes, I would put the Wind Stars food somewhere between Celebrity and RSSC. It had those special, cooked-to-order touches that you expect at a fine restaurant, and that you just dont find on a Celebrity ship with a couple thousand folks on board. But it lacked that WOW factor that I experienced on my RSSC cruise, where there were times when I thought Id died and gone to six-star-food heaven. There was no foie gras, which is abundant on RSSC. They did serve escargot, although it was rather uninspired  just the snails in a basic garlic-butter sauce, as opposed to something a little more interesting involving pastry or whatever. Still, the fact that I cant squeeze into any of my clothes now proves that I had plenty of great food to eat on this cruise. And the desserts actually surpassed those on RSSC.

CABINS:

Yes, the cabins are small. Given that my last cruise was on RSSCs Voyager, on which the smallest cabin is a 350-ft suite, this tiny room took a bit of getting used to. But they really do make the best use of the space, so we had no trouble at all storing our stuff. There is more than ample room under your bed to hide your suitcases  and my suitcase is an enormous one, so if that could fit under there, anything could. The portholes took some getting used to, and I missed having a balcony, but this really was a cruise in which I didnt spend much time in my room. I think my husband would have preferred a balcony more than I, because he spent more time in there, reading and recharging his batteries, and it would have been nice to do that on a balcony rather than on the bed (there is no chair or any other place to sit, other than a small stool). But we knew the specifics of the room going in, so we had no complaints. You can see excellent pictures of their cabins on the Windstar website.

The bathroom was small and tight, but adequate. No bathtub, but were shower people. One problem was that there was little space to put your shower items (soap, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, razor, etc). They really need to put some kind of shelf in there, as I ended up having to leave much of it on the floor, which I hate. I was happy to find that there were no water pressure issues, and although the water temperature occasionally fluctuated, it was not bad enough to bother me. I still have painful memories of our RCI cruise, when the water temp would swing from ice cold to burning hot with no warning.

On the first day while in port the cabin was uncomfortably warm, and moving the thermostat didnt seem to have much effect. Id read that the air conditioning doesnt work well in port, but once we were underway it cooled down considerably, and was very comfortable from then on, even in ports. I did hear from friends who had the owners suite that their cabin was very warm the entire trip, and the thermostat didnt seem to help. I guess we were fortunate.

Its in the area of cabin amenities where Windstar really shines. They apparently have completed their upgrades. The bed was the most comfortable bed Ive slept on at sea  even with the slight dip between the two twins, which I know was there but I never felt it. The mattress was firm, and yet I felt like I was absorbed into it every night, cushioning me like a cloud. Howd they do that?

The flat screen TVs are great. They have a few channels with constantly rotating movies, as well as CNN headlines, and a channel with shows from Discovery or The Learning Channel, things like that. We were so busy that we didnt watch much, although we did spend one quiet afternoon in there watching that Jodie Foster movie Flight Plan, which just recently came out on DVD. You can also borrow from a wide selection of DVDs in the library.

One of the best amenities was the iPod, and the Bose docking system. You could check out an iPod at the reception desk, which was pre-loaded with 500 songs from virtually every music genre you can think of. You could carry it around with you and listen to it with earplugs (a great thing to do when youre at the pool and you want to actually READ that book, rather than get involved in conversation with all of your new friends!) And in the room you could pop it in the docking station and listen to your favorite genre through the speakers. I used this thing constantly.

The bathroom amenities are high-quality LOccitane products, which were amply replenished as necessary. There is a small fridge, which unfortunately was filled with expensive mini-bar items. I removed them and put them in an upper cabinet, to make room for the couple of bottles of Chardonnay Id brought. There is also a little wooden tray filled with expensive mini-bar snacks, which was kind of a pain, and in the way a lot. I should have just asked to have it removed, but I never got around to it.

The cabin was well maintained, and always spotless. I saw no evidence of any wear and tear, even though this is not a young ship.

As for location, we were on the lower of the two cabin decks, and I can see absolutely no benefit to having a cabin on the higher deck. Im not really sure why they charge more for those cabins, to be honest. We did get some splashing on our portholes when at sea, but we could always see out of them. If anything, we though seeing the waves splashing on our portholes was kind of cool!

On this ship, all the cabins are exactly the same except for one Owners Suite, which is really nothing more than two cabins put together, with the extra space used for a sitting area. The couple we bonded with, and spent the most time with, happened to be in the Owners Suite, so we got to see it. Other than the extra space, the only other difference is the flat-screen TV, which is about twice the size. While they felt the extra space was nice, it wasnt an earth-shattering addition, and there were absolutely NO other extra perks or anything that came with being in the Owners Suite. We discussed how we would have thought that they would get SOMETHING for being the only folks onboard in the Owners suite, but in fact there was nothing, not even a bottle of champagne or some flowers or a note from the captain. It certainly was no big deal to them, but we just found it curious. Its something to consider if you are thinking about spending the extra money for the Owners Suite.




NICKEL & DIMING:

This topic is probably my biggest complaint  but then, I also realize I was utterly spoiled on RSSC. Once youve cruised on an inclusive line, its so hard to go back to signing those stupid chits any time you want anything. And yes, our bill at the end was eye-popping. I especially resent having to pay for water, which is a necessity for living, and in my mind should not be charged. While Im sure that the tap water on board was fine for drinking, to be honest it had an odd taste, leaving us stuck with bottled water charged at exorbitant rates. What bothers me is that I know that they can get the huge quantities of bottled water they need at very cheap prices, and to then mark it up 1000% seems like highway robbery for something we absolutely have to have.

When we signed up for our excursions, we were given the option of selecting a bottled-water pre-purchase plan whereby for the discounted price of $1.95 per bottle, theyll put two bottles of water in your room the night before the excursion. What a rip-off! First of all, on most excursions they provide some opportunity for refreshments as part of the tour. Second, and this one really irked me  when we went on our horseback riding tour, the water they gave us was not the normal-sized water bottles, but two tiny bottles of Evian! I suppose that was because it was assumed that it would be difficult to carry the larger bottles, so they made up for the fact that they gave us half the water for the same price by making it the more expensive name brand. Gimme a break.

They had a drink of the day, usually some kind of fruity thing, and a martini of the day. I tried them a few times, and thought they skimped a bit on the alcohol content. Although it was different at the beach bbq  the rum punches were mostly rum, and left you feeling oh-so-relaxed as you sipped them from your lounge chair on the beach!

As a wine drinker, its important to me to have good wines to drink while on vacation, and Id read that their wine list wasnt great. It wasnt. Id gone ahead and brought a few bottles of my own favorites onboard, and had no trouble doing so  I carried them undisguised in my carry-on, and no one seemed to have a problem with it. Id read that they have a corkage fee policy in the dining room, but that hardly anyone had ever seen them apply it. Well, Im sorry to say that they DID apply it  10 bucks each time I brought a bottle of wine to dinner. I have to say I was bummed out about that.

Anyway, if youve never cruised anything but the mass-market lines, youll be used to signing chits all over the place. But if youve enjoyed an inclusive cruise, youll probably find this as annoying as I did. Of course, we knew it would be like this going in, so Im just venting. I do think that Windstar should consider going more inclusive, as it would put them another notch up in category, and I believe they would probably lure more of the luxury cruise passengers who are looking for a slightly different experience, without having to go backwards in service and luxury.

WATER SPORTS

Now THIS was the best part of the cruise! And Id have to say that its because of the couple who run the water sports program, Crispin and Michelle. Theyve got a great program going here, and they run it very well. They are also just fantastic people who clearly get a great deal of enjoyment from watching the fun and enthusiasm of the passengers, some of whom (like me) are trying things for the first time.

The water sports program is run from the aft of the ship, where there is a platform that drops down off the transom right onto the water, opening up a big square hole in the back of the ship, if you can picture that. They offer swimming and snorkeling right from the platform, as well as one or two person kayaks, a little sailboat, and fun stuff you can do off the back of one of the zodiacs, such as water skiing. There used to be a banana boat that carried multiple people that they would pull at high speed with the zodiac, but they got rid of that due to too many injuries. It has been replaced with this hilarious little inflatable contraption called a seadoo, which is a one-person thing that resembles a jet ski -- you sit on and hold for dear life while Crispin drags you at top speed on a rope from the back of the zodiac while making sharp turns and pulling donuts, doing his best to dump you. I laughed so hard I practically drowned from sucking in sea water!

The other part of the program is the scuba diving. Ive always wanted to try this, but just never got around to it. So I signed up for the beginner dive program, which involves a two-hour session on board, followed by a couple of beginner dives. This was the highlight of my cruise! Michelle did the flip-chart instruction, then Crispin tested our basic skills in the pool, and they both were highly competent, professional, caring, and eager to get us inspired. Unfortunately the first beginner dive in Playa del Coco was cancelled due to lack of water visibility. But the second beginner dive, off Curu National Park, did go forward, and it was utterly fantastic. I got lucky  due to an interesting quirk of fate I ended up getting to do two dives, both a deeper one off Curu, and a shallower one off Tortuga Island (long story how this came about). The sea life was abundant, colorful and fascinating, and I am totally hooked. I now plan on getting my certification prior to my next cruise, to Tahiti, in November.

I cant imagine another team doing as great a job as Crispin and Michelle. I felt totally safe at every moment, and they really went out of their way to make sure we got the best experience possible.

Windstar  if you are reading this  give them a raise! They are totally awesome!

ENTERTAINMENT

If the water sports program was the highlight, this was the lowlight. Now let me state right off that this was not a big deal to me  I wasnt on this cruise for the entertainment, Id read that it leaves a lot to be desired, and I didnt spend much time watching them anyway. But if anyone is thinking they are going to be seeing any great entertainment on board, they will be sadly disappointed.

The only entertainment is a couple whose names escape me (I suppose an indication of just how memorable they werent). Oh wait  I think his name was Chico, but I dont know if I ever learned her name. Anyway, he sang, and played guitar and a canned music machine, and she sang and stood around looking generally cranky and dyspeptic. While Chicos guitar playing was actually pretty darn good (especially when he got to doing some flamenco-style tunes), he couldnt sing a note. And she was Simon Cowells worst nightmare  the embodiment of what he expects the worst American Idol auditioners will become if they dont take his advice and stop singing. She dressed like a tired hooker, and they both look as if they spent way too many years in some off-strip lounge in Laughlin, Nevada.

The best entertainment night was the Karaoke, and that was probably because nobody took it seriously. Oh, and also because most of the Karaoke singers actually sang BETTER than Chico and the Woman. Everyone was having a great time, and some of the performances were so hilarious we were falling over laughing. There were also a couple of really great singers, including one gentleman who was a professional singer for 35 years&as well as some, um, really BAD singers who thought they were good! I even got inspired to get up  and I should preface this by saying that I truly cant carry a tune. Next to me, Chico and the Woman sound like Broadway stars! Luckily I chose a song that doesnt require any vocal chops  Wild Thing by the Troggs. I got up and did my best growly microphone-eating, throwing in a few dance moves (forgot to mention  I cant dance either), and the crowd roared. It was the first time in my life I have ever received actual applause. Of course, they may have really been clapping out of relief that it was over. After that I officially became known as Wild Thing by passengers and crew alike. I can think of worse nicknames.

PASSENGERS:

Like many cruise lines, especially the higher-end, smaller-ship ones, the average age of the passengers tends to lean towards the senior side. We are 46 and 48, and we sort of expected to be among the youngest on board. Surprisingly, we werent  even though this cruise line is owned by Holland America, this was not your typical HAL passenger demographic. While the average age was probably mid to high fifties, with a smattering of 60s-70s, there were quite a few folks our age and younger, and even one adorable young honeymooning couple who charmed the dickens out of the entire ship. This was generally an active crowd, and we didnt see any mobility-challenged passengers at all. (This would NOT be a good ship for the disabled  there are no elevators, and there are steps and heavy doors everywhere  not to mention the wet beach landings at a couple of the ports.)

Im a freelance writer and my husband is an Information Systems executive, and we felt completely at ease and at home with this crowd. This is neither a party ship, nor a geriatric retreat, nor an all-you-can-eat-buffet food fest. Its a cruise filled with active, interesting people who love to travel, and much of the conversation initially revolved around other cruises taken, and other exotic places visited. We met some of the nicest folks on board, and thoroughly enjoyed all of our social interactions.

This brings a close to the ship portion of my review. Part two will cover the port stops, as well as our FABULOUS pre- and post-cruise stay with our good friends who live in Costa Rica.

PART 2 - PORT REVIEWS

San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

This is definitely an interesting, although rather odd, choice for a port stop. Im happy we went there, as its probably the only way I would ever actually visit the nation of Nicaragua. But in some ways it was rather depressing, certainly in comparison to all of the stops in Costa Rica. I suppose its best that it came first, as we probably would have enjoyed it far less if it came after the other ports.

We tendered into port, which was kind of a trip because as soon as we exited the tender there was a band playing Latin music for us. It was kind of funny  were in this kind of desolate construction zone with cranes and piles of dirt, and a few buses lined up for our tour, and this band serenading us. Some of us started skipping and twirling on our way to our air-conditioned bused.

The town itself isnt much to look at  its just a little coastal fishing village, rather run-down looking. We didnt spend any time there at all  we elected to go on the 8-hour Granada/Masaya Volcano & Craft Market excursion. Im glad we did it, but one should be aware of what you are getting into. First, its at least a 90-minute bus ride there, and a good two hours back, on some of the worst roads Ive ever seen. Potholed doesnt begin to describe them  they are really just one long series of never-ending potholes, with some pavement in between them. Those buses must have super-duper shocks to be able to withstand all that!

Second, the countryside, while beautiful as far as nature goes, is somewhat depressing in terms of seeing how the people live. Our guide gave us a never-ending talk on the entire history and culture of Nicaragua, and informed us that there is no longer a middle class  there are only the very rich, and the very poor. This is true as far as we could see. There were no suburbs  just strips of hovels, lean-tos and shacks scattered along the road, interspersed with occasional very nice houses behind barbed wire fences.

Once we entered the old colonial city of Granada, things got a bit more interesting. The city was founded in the 16th century, and is named after the city of Granada in Spain (which I visited last year). It even has a palace it calls the Alhambra. But this isnt anything at all like Spains Granada. It appears basically unchanged since inception! Unlike Europes old historic cities, which have incorporated modern life into their ancient buildings and streets, Granada doesnt look very modern at all. In that regard its quite interesting, as you do feel like youve stepped back in time.

We stopped at the town center and visited a very nice hotel, where we rested and used the facilities. Then we headed off to a museum where we learned more about Nicaraguas heritage, and saw some very interesting displays about the indigenous people. We also visited a convent where they house a large collection of stone sculptures from the early indigenous population who lived here before the Spaniards arrived.

Along the way we were ushered to a space beside an old building where there were a bunch of people dressed in traditional garb, and a few musicians. They put on a really great show of traditional dances for us, including this one hilarious piece where a man and woman were dressed up in masks and danced like they were fighting with each other. At one point the woman pulled a guy from our group out to dance, and the man pulled ME out, and then the woman started pretending to beat me, and each chased the others partner away. It was pretty cute.

After this we headed to a restaurant for lunch. It was really an interesting place  all open and airy to catch the breezes, topped with a thatched roof. They had a good buffet of traditional Nico food, including meats and chicken in delicious sauces, sauteed veggies, rice and beans of course, and plenty of fruit. We were also allowed one beer, which tasted heavenly in the heat. A group of Mariachi musicians serenaded us for a while, which was entertaining mostly because the guy playing the wind instrument was horribly off key the entire time! We couldnt help but smile.

After lunch we headed to the craft market in Masaya. This was a pretty large center in the middle of the town  at least a couple city blocks long and wide. They had some interesting things  Charlie got some GREAT leather sandals for something like $12, as well as a very high-quality linen shirt for cheap. I got several things, including a cotton embroidered dress, a doll that looked like the woman wearing the mask from the dance, a leather wallet, and some 12-yr-old Nicaraguan rum.

Then it was back on the bus and on to the volcano. This was REALLY interesting! Its an active volcano with a huge crater that is constantly spewing sulfur gasses, something like tons of it a day.

The ride home seemed to take forever. Along the way we got to see two of Nicaraguas biggest volcanoes, which looked like absolutely perfect cones topped by cloud forests out in the middle of enormous Lake Nicaragua. We also happened to spot a few monkeys in the trees, which our driver allowed us to photograph by stopping along the side of the road. By the time we got back it was time to board, so we had no opportunity to see the village at all, which was fine by us.

A couple comments about this excursion. Nicaragua is a very poor country, and it was somewhat sad to see the hovels and shacks that much of the population live in. However, while I did notice that, I also noticed that the countryside was spectacularly beautiful. And I found it fascinating to see how the people live -- the homes are often open-air, with all available space carefully and ingeniously used. Even the smallest ramshackle huts had decorative touches, and most had big outdoor tables where we saw multiple families congregating for meals and the routines of their daily life. There appeared to be ample food -- there was fruit EVERYWHERE, piles of it. I recall thinking that, to many of these people, this may be all they feel they need -- they may not feel the drive to have all the luxuries that we find necessary in our lives. Many of them smiled and waved to us as we drove by. I enjoyed seeing how another part of the world lives...it was quite different, but certainly no less "worthy".

But on the way back, I heard a few people behind me on the bus talking about how horribly depressing the whole excursion was...how awful it was to see the poverty-stricken state in which most of the population live, and how they felt it was WRONG of the cruise line to subject us to this without warning. They said they wished they'd remained on the ship!

So I guess it's all in how you look at it. I saw a different culture living their daily lives differently from us, they saw people who must be miserable because they don't live in the same lap of luxury as we do.

Playa Del Coco

Wed signed up for the beginner dive here, so we didnt book any excursions, figuring that would be enough. Unfortunately, the sea conditions were not in our favor, and the dive was cancelled due to poor visibility. Left to our own devices, we thought wed take the opportunity to see what the sports platform had to offer.

Crispin and Michelle were there, and offered to take us out on the zodiac for some fun. We thought wed give water skiing a try. Now the rules say you have to have be experienced to do this, but we never got a specific definition of how MUCH experience one needs. Hey, wed water skied before! Okay, so it was 30 years ago&whos counting?

Nobody else was down there, so he took just the two of us. I tried it first. It was not at all the way I remembered it. I remember hanging onto those handles for dear life, and having the boat pull me right up out of the water&and then skimming across the wake, winking at all the cute boys waving at me on shore as I zipped by in my bikini. Boy, that must have been a LONG time ago! First of all, Im now wearing a one-piece bathing suit with a skirt. Second, I dont think any boys would be waving at me from shore (pointing at the unidentifiable lump being dragged behind a boat, maybe). Third, I couldnt hang on to those handles if my life depended on it. The moment Crispin fired up the zodiac, they just rrrrripped out of my hands as if they were greased. I got hoisted all of about six inches out of the water before they were yanked away. After my sixth try I gave up.

Charlie tried it next. On the first go-around he let go too, and I consoled myself with the belief that its just not humanly possible. But then, on the second try, the creep got right up! Howd he DO that? I had a grand time videotaping him as he zoomed along behind us.

Since I was unable to ski, Crispin offered me the chance to be the first Wind Star passenger to go out on the SeaDoo, which I described earlier in this review. This was a total blast! And Crispin made it so much fun by trying the whole time to dump me&quite successfully, I might add. I held onto that thing with all my might, but when hed get to turning those tight figure-eights, the force would be so strong that I just couldnt hold on anymore and&SPLASH! I was always laughing so hard that I swallowed a bit more seawater than Id prefer. One time I landed on the water kind of hard, directly on my ribs. I didnt feel it at the time, but my ribs were definitely sore later.

After this we headed to shore. This port is the first of the wet landings  they take you on a zodiac, and you have to hop out into the water at the beach. Its really not difficult, but you do have to take your shoes off, and expect that your shorts may get wet if a wave comes in. There are a couple local boys who hold the zodiac in place while passengers hop out, or climb in for the return.

Playa Del Coco is a pretty little beach town, Costa Rican style. Theres a very casual, open-air beachside restaurant where several of our shipmates were camped out enjoying Imperials (Costa Rican beer) and margaritas. We headed past that to the town itself, which is comprised of only a couple of streets lined with souvenir shops, cafes and other stores. There was also a little internet cafe where I took the opportunity to check and send a few emails. We bought a few things for our kids and wandered around a bit more, then sat down at the beachside restaurant for chips and Imperials and just enjoyed the sun and heat. It was a quite pleasant way to spend the afternoon.





Quepos

Wed heard that the horseback ride through the rainforest to a waterfall was supposed to be a great excursion, so we signed up for that here. We were not disappointed.

We headed out pretty early, on one of the first tenders. A couple of small buses were waiting for us. There were about 20 of us on this excursion. We rode for about 30 minutes into the countryside, seeing lovely palm plantations along the way. They dropped us off on a dirt road where they had the horses waiting for us. Once they matched us up to our horses and got us mounted, off we went down the dirt path into the rain forest. It was HOT and humid, but the scenery was so splendid that I really didnt mind. I had a horse who clearly liked to run, and our guides had told us that we werent supposed to trot or run. I had to hold mine back the whole time, or hed have taken off like a shot!

We walked along the path for about 45 minutes. The forest was SO thick and tropical. The path took us up and down some pretty steep hills, which was fun riding the horses. Sometimes wed break out of the thick trees and be on top of a hill, looking out over miles upon miles of this rolling green blanket. We eventually reached a stream, where we dismounted. Our guides gave us water and juice, and then cut up and passed around the sweetest, most mouth-watering and delicious watermelon I have ever tasted! Now THIS is what the fruit is supposed to taste like in Costa Rica, not that wooden stuff theyre serving on the ship.

After our little snack, we left the horses behind and our guides took us up a steep, densely-forested hike to one of the most beautiful natural sights Id seen yet on this trip  a lovely waterfall, crashing into a small pool about thigh-deep. Some of us had our bathing suits on, so we took off our clothes (which by now were filthy and sweat-drenched), stripping down to our bathing suits, and stepped into the pool. It was SO refreshing! A few of us sat on the rocks beneath the waterfall, letting the fresh, cool water pour over us. What a treat! It wasnt exactly like swimming, as the waterfall and the pool beneath were not very big, but it was a delightful little spot. Those that didnt go for a dip took a break and sat around on the logs and rocks surrounding the small pool.

On the ride back, we took a different path that brought us to a river. We actually took our horses down this river, walking them in water that was deep enough to reach their underbellies. This was the best part of the ride! We all got splashed and drenched, and the horses certainly seemed to enjoy it. The dense forest created an overhanging tunnel effect, and we frequently had to duck to avoid low-hanging branches. We spent quite a bit of time splashing down that river. I loved it!

We ended up back where we started, and boarded the buses for the 30 minute ride back to town. Many of us wanted to spend some time in Quepos, so we had the bus drop us off in the town itself, rather than at the pier. By this time it was after 1:00 pm and we were pretty hungry, so we asked our guide if she could recommend a good place for lunch. She pointed out a small, unremarkable little open-air restaurant on a corner just down the street, and said that we could get a delicious and very authentic Costa Rican meal there for half the price of the more touristy places closer to the water. Not ones to ignore recommendations from those in the know, we went straight there.

We ordered casados, which is a very classic Costa Rican meal that literally means married. Its called that because it is a marriage of the most popular foods of the region  black beans, rice, and some kind of meat in sauce, along with some type of starch such as fried plantains. We got the casados with chicken, which was scrumptious! We also were fortunate to run into a couple from the ship who hail from Seattle, Mary and (oh gosh Im blanking on the other womans name!), who were just delightful lunch companions. They were along with us on the horseback ride, and enjoyed it just as much as we did.

After lunch we wandered around Quepos, which is a larger town than Playa del Coco, with quite a few shops and stores lining a number of wide streets. There were a LOT of souvenir shops, selling mostly the same stuff, but we enjoyed walking through them, and managed to find a couple things for the kids.

Eventually we decided to head back to the ship. It was a LOOONG walk back to the pier, though, and I was so hot and sticky and icky from riding the horses that I was pretty miserable by the time we got there. We happened to run into Barbara and Charlie at the pier, so at least we had great company while we waited for the tender.

Marenco/Drakes Bay

This was probably my favorite port stop, for a variety of reasons. First of all, its so remote you can only get there by boat. There are no roads  theres this spectacular white-sand beach, and a rustic resort there with a few tables, lounge chairs and hammocks, and thats it. No roads, no vehicles, nothing that doesnt look like it arrived there by nature, not man. Second, this is where we had what, to me, was one of the most amazing experiences on this entire vacation  a canoe ride up a river to the most unbelievably picturesque waterfall I have ever seen  and Ive seen a LOT of waterfalls!

This is also where youll find the Antonio Manuel National Park, which we didnt visit. We decided not to bother with any excursions this day, but to just wander around and enjoy the natural setting on our own. Im glad we did, although I did hear from others that the nature walk was amazing.

This was another wet landing. However, the current and waves are apparently much stronger here, as we had to wear life vests that they handed out before we boarded the zodiac. It was a bit more difficult to exit the zodiac on the beach due to the slightly larger waves, but it wasnt a problem. Nothing wrong with getting a little wet!

We saw Carlos, the Costa Rican port lecturer, on shore, and he told us that there was a very nice walk along a rough path parallel to the shore, which we could take for about 20-25 minutes, passing a couple of lovely little beach coves along the way. Meanwhile, the ship set up a beachside bar for the passengers, which was a very nice touch.

We relaxed at the beach for a little while, then headed down the path. It was a lovely hike, VERY green, lush and tropical. It dropped us into a couple of very picturesque, tiny beaches along the way. Rather than stopping there we decided to keep on going and see where it leads. After about 15 minutes we passed a few other folks from the ship on their way back, and they told us that if we kept going wed encounter an amazing opportunity  apparently a few of the local indigenous people will take you on a canoe up a river, and they raved about the experience. They said to ask for a guide named Avilio, So off we went in search of them.

After another 10 or 15 minutes we saw the mouth of a river meet the ocean, and a couple of little blue rowboats pulled up on the sand. A tarp and a couple hammocks were strung between a few trees, with a couple of guys in shorts lounging around. Their English was about as limited as our Spanish, but we managed to work out that for $5 per person, Avilio would row us up the river for a while. We hopped into one of the boats, and our guide, a young, deeply tanned man with a brilliant, ever-present smile, began rowing us up this river. I swear, the scene was straight out of Skull Island (for those whove seen King Kong). Not a soul in sight, just a river about 30 feet across, dappled with what bright sunlight could filter its way through the incredibly lush, vine-dripping rain forest. The river was full of these enormous blue fish, but I cant remember what he said they were! Anyway, he pointed out some interesting wildlife along the way, including a white hawk eating something, and a sleeping, vivid blue bird that looked like nothing Id ever seen before. It was huge, with an enormous head and a big, flat, rounded beak. It had huge, black eyes like an owl. Avilio said it was a heron, but Ive never heard of a heron like that!

So he paddled us up this river for about 20 minutes. We could hear howler monkeys off in the distance, although we never saw any. At one point the river narrowed into some small rapids, and Avilio had us climb out of the boat and clamber over some rocks to a spot a bit higher up, while he carried the boat over the rapids, and then we boarded again for more paddling. I was just lost in the jungle, amazed at the remoteness, the lushness, the natural beauty of the place.

We reached the end of where he could paddle us, as the river narrowed to a point he couldnt go past. On the way back, we shot the little rapids wed previously walked past, which was kind of fun. Shortly after that he pulled up to a small bank and tied the boat off there, then led us to a path that climbed some rocks. There was a big rope strung there with large knots, to hold onto and help pull yourself up the rocks. It was a bit of a climb, but at the top we found ourselves looking at the most amazing, incredible sight  a waterfall, probably about 25 feet high, pouring into a large pool maybe 50 feet across. The pool was deep, well over my head, and the whole thing was sitting deep down in like a hole in the forest, so that when you looked up, the forest climbed high above you for hundreds of feet. Vines dangled from huge, ancient trees way above your head, and the sound of far-away howler monkeys filled the air, along with the crashing of the waterfall. I was overwhelmed.

Avilio dove right into the pool, so I dove in right after him. We swam up to the waterfall, and he showed me that there was almost a throne-like seat carved into the rocks there, so you could sit there and lean forward and have the waterfall hit you square on the shoulders, giving you the best natural massage on the planet. The water was cool, colder than the ocean, and SO clean and refreshing! I could have sat there in that natural massage chair for hours. I felt like I was in heaven.

We swam and splashed around and played in the waterfall for a while. I could have easily just spent the entire day there, lolling around in perfect harmony with the lushest of nature in this amazing place, Gods most beautiful natural setting on earth. But Avilio surely had other clients waiting back at the beach, and we hadnt had any lunch yet, so we had to climb back down the rocks and head back down the river in the boat. We gave Avilio a generous tip.

On the hike back to the beach we encountered a few other folks walking towards the river. Of course we told them they MUST find Avilio!

Even if everything else on this cruise had gone wrong (which of course it didnt), this entire trip would have been worth it for our trip up the verdant river and our swim in the most stunning, luxuriant, and magical waterfall Ive ever seen.

Curu/Tortuga Island

This was a slightly odd day, in terms of port times. We arrived at Curu Wildlife Refuge at 7:00 am, then everyone had to be back onboard by 11:15 to pull up anchor and make the very sort journey to Tortuga Island for arrival by 12:30. The big event scheduled for this day was the beach barbecue on Tortuga Island, and everyone was looking forward to it.

I, however, was looking forward to something else  finally I was going to get to go on a dive! Having never done it before, I was really excited. They were running two dives this day  the certified divers at 8:00, and the beginner dive at 10:30. The certified divers were going to a spot that is a little more advanced, with a couple of holes down to 70 feet, and a channel with a somewhat strong current, so they normally dont take beginners there. But due to an interesting sequence of events, they ended up inviting most of the beginning divers to go with them on the more advanced dive, and then did a second, shallower dive for a person whod struggled a bit during the skills course.

So I got to do my very first dive in a place that most beginners dont get to go&and it was FANTASTIC! I took to diving immediately, and had no trouble at all with my ears, my breathing, clearing my mask or anything. Charlie struggled a bit with his ears at first, but worked it out and then continued along with us. The sea life was abundant, colorful and amazing! We all stayed together as a group, rather than splitting up into beginners and advanced, so we ended up going to some really cool places. The channel was particularly awesome  it was a narrow passage between rocks, and you had to kind of hold yourself in place while the current was moving against you, then it would switch direction and SWOOSH forward and you just let go and run with it!

We saw amazing sea life. Brilliant colorful fish, moray eels, bright blue sponges, bizarre creeping starfish. I really felt at home underwater, and I felt like I could have stayed there for hours, just staring at the abundant life down there. Unfortunately, the air supply only lasts so long, so after about 45 minutes it was time to go.

On the way back to the ship, I learned that Crispin and Michelle were doing the 10:30 dive strictly for one elder gent whod struggled a bit during class. I thought it was so wonderful of them to be willing to go out on a dive for one person, since the policy is that these kinds of things would be cancelled without enough participation. But they wanted to make sure that everyone got what they wanted, and they were a bit concerned for him, so they worked it out to give him his own dive.

But he only needed one of them to supervise him, and both were going, so they offered to bring me along if I wanted to go. You BET I did! As it turned out, the other diver had had enough after about ten minutes, so Crispin spent the entire rest of dive with me, which lasted almost an hour. It was unbelievable! Crispin knows what to look for, and managed to find the most amazing sea life, much of it hidden in crevasses I never would have seen. We saw one moray eel that had to be a good 2 feet long, and Crispin pointed out that he was so old he had no teeth left!

The ship did its move during the time that we were out on the second dive, so by the time we were done with the dive, we zodiaced to the ship at its new anchorage off Tortuga Island. I freshened up and went up to catch the tender to the beach for the famous beach barbecue. This was the only time we ever had to actually wait for anything  for unknown reasons it just seemed to take a really long time to get the tenders started. We waited for about 45 minutes before we finally got on a tender.

Once we got onshore, they had the whole beach barbecue thing pretty much ready. And THIS was the BEST meal of the entire cruise! I described this in part 1, so I wont go into any more detail, except to say that we had fabulous company to go along with the delicious food. We sat with the couple wed had lunch with in Quepos, along with a couple of their friends, and had wonderful conversation.

After filling up with so much wonderful food, all we could do for a while was relax on the sand and soak up the heat. But I was still so entranced with my earlier undersea experience that after I rested for a while I donned my snorkeling gear and headed back out. Crispin happened to be taking several folks out on the zodiac to a little island just offshore for some snorkeling, so I joined them. Okay, it wasnt nearly as intimate an experience with the sea life as diving, but I still got to see some cool fish and stuff.

I probably spent more time in the ocean on this day than I ever have in my life!

Puerto Caldera

Okay, so this isnt going to be an actual review of Puerto Caldera, because theres apparently not much to see in Puerto Caldera itself. But if anyone is planning on spending the night in the area and has the rest of debarkation day available, there is a GREAT place to go that isnt too far.

Our friends Bill & Sandy picked us up at the ship at about 9:00 am, and we headed straight to Miramar, to the Costa Rica Adventure Park at the Hotel Vista Golfo on Finca Daniel, which was less than an hour drive. Of all the adventures we experienced on our Costa Rican vacation, this day was by far the most spectacular. Here is the link to their website:

http://finca-daniel.com/index.htm

We hadnt done the zip-line tour that the ship offered as an excursion at Playa del Coco, because we knew that we were going to do this one post-cruise based on the recommendation of our friends. Theyd had some other friends of theirs do the same cruise a couple weeks before us, and they did both the ships zip-line and this one, and they apparently said that the one at Miramar far surpassed the other one. All I know is that it was one of the most mind-blowing experiences of my life!

Everything starts from the hotel, which is a lovely little place sitting way high on a mountain with forever views, all the way to the ocean. That makes the zip-lines even more breathtaking, as not only are you high up in the trees, but high on a mountain where you can see for many miles beyond. They have two different zip-line tours  one with 25 cables across waterfalls that includes a horseback ride that takes four hours, and a shorter one with 11 cables. We did the 11 cable one, since we wanted to do the ATV tour later. They did a great job in terms of safety, always keeping you hooked onto a cable when on the platforms, and telling you exactly when to start braking. The highlight is the last cable, billed as the longest cable in Costa Rica. Its an amazing ride  its about a good half-mile long, from the top of a hill above the hotel to a platform below. You zip right past the balcony restaurant of the hotel so that friends can get great pictures of you zooming by. Our friends shot video, which upon review shows that the cable ride lasts more than a minute! And you dont start breaking on this one until right before it ends, so you are riding at full-out speed. What a heart-pumper!

After the zip-line tour we had lunch at the hotel restaurant, where we enjoyed another delicious meal of casados, and then we went for our four hour ATV tour. This was truly indescribable. During this event I just kept thinking that its not normal to have so MANY superlative experiences in such a short time  it was sensory overload!

Although the area has been enjoyed by dirt bikers and ATVers for some time, the hotel just started offering them, so they have a whole fleet of brand spanking new Honda ATVs. Charlie and I had two guides, one a young Costa Rican who looked for all the world like a Latino Jake Gyllanhall, including the vivid blue eyes, and another older gentleman originally from Germany. Our German friend rode an ATV in front of us, and Jake (cant remember his name now) rode behind on a dual sport bike, so we were well cared for.

Before you head out on the tour, they take you to a little training course they have set up, where you take your ATV over rocks, little bridges and other obstacles. They do this because you need to learn that it would practically take a crane to tip one of these things over, no matter how off balance you get! During training you run the tires on one side up over these rocks so that you are listing waaaay sideways, but you have to learn NOT to put your foot out since you will not tip over, and you could get injured. It takes a few tries, but after a couple runs you learn that these things can literally ride over enormous boulders and theyll just keep on going. I remember thinking that nothing we would encounter out there on the road would be this difficult or hairy&but I was wrong!

Once we finished practicing on the course we headed up the mountain along dirt and gravel roads, towards a village up in the cloud forest. This entire region only HAS dirt roads  there are no paved roads anywhere nearby! It was unbelievably picturesque  more views for miles in all directions, across to the mountains one way, and over the land to the sea in the other. We got to one ancient road thats been used by the villagers for centuries  its extremely steep, and over the centuries has been pounded down by horse traffic to just sheer rock and boulders. Its not possible to take a car on this road  it climbs at an impossible angle, and is littered with huge rocks that the ATVs just bounded over. WOW!

Once we reached the mountaintop village, populated by surprisingly lovely mountain homes and very friendly, waving people, we stopped at a little café which just seemed so incongruous out here in the middle of nowhere without a proper road in sight. We enjoyed some fruit juices, and were offered a snack as part of the tour, but we were still full from lunch. They have some chalet-type accommodations dotting the grounds, which I was thinking would be a really lovely, romantic place to stay for a relaxing vacation. There is also a nature path that winds its way for a good mile through the verdant, luxuriant forest there. The path is well laid out and marked with signs along the way giving you information about the various plants, flowers and trees. Given that this is up in a cloud forest, often this spot is socked in with clouds and fog. But this day it was unusually clear and sunny, with just a few thick, eerie wisps of mist clinging to the lush treetops.

Then it was back on the ATVs for more amazing riding through the winding dirt pathways and roads, some over the tops of mountains where it was just impossible not to want to stop and gaze forever, others through thick forests. We even saw a toucan flitting among the trees. At one point we crossed a river, which really surprised me  you can actually take these things directly through water! That was fun  the water was up to our feet, and the river was full of huge rocks that we had to bound over while splashing through the water.

At the end of this tour we were both covered in dust  when I took my sunglasses off and looked in the mirror, I had two big white circles in a practically black face!

This entire day was so full of astonishing sights and sensations that I could barely sleep that night, trying to commit it all to memory.

Well that is the end of my review. In brief summary, overall this is a fantastic vacation for active people who enjoy all the luxuries of cruising, as well as the wonders of nature and the excitement of new adventures in an indescribably beautiful, peaceful, and magnificent country.

Publication Date: 05/05/06
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