January 3, 2014
We have just returned from our trip on the Yorktown visiting the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, offered by Travel Dynamics International (TDI). Rather than repeat the information about the ship’s provenance or the company and its target audience, etc, as reported in the editorial and passenger review preceding this, I will focus on our experience on and off the ship and with its crew.
First, the original trip was canceled while it was still in dry dock due to a delay in receiving US Coast Guard certification; that should have sent a signal. We chose to go on the next passage, because it was still over the holiday period (paid time off). Just before leaving, we were told the ship, heading for Saint Thomas from Florida, had encountered rough seas and strong currents and could not make it to its destination in time. We were sent tickets for a connecting flight to San Juan where we were to meet the boat after dinner at a nearby hotel.
TDI did a good job of collecting us at the airport and we had a pretty good dinner at the hotel (much better than any dinner we were to have on the ship). Then around 9:30 we were taken to the ship, where for some reason the embarkation took a very long time. We ended up having the mandatory safety drill at 1:00 a.m., after a very long travel day.
Saturday, December 28:
After a perilous overnight sail from San Juan to Jost Van Dyke, we arrived late morning. The ship had heaved and rolled all night on water that was merely choppy; waves of two to four feet should not be difficult for a ship of this size, however this ship has a very narrow draft of nine feet. It is a ship for rivers and lakes, not the ocean, as would be made quite evident over the course of the trip. Many people were quite seasick the next day.
As I said we got in late morning, and by then we were to have been swimming, snorkeling or kayaking on White Bay Beach. Instead it was lunch time and we were told that right after lunch we’d be boarding the “DIBS” (I’ll call them pontoons) for a wet landing on the beach. All those going were to wait with their gear in the lounge until the three pontoons were secured to the swim platforms and we would then go in groups, 12 to a pontoon. We waited, and waited. This was TDI’s first trip in the VI, obviously completely unrehearsed! It turned out they had to figure out how to secure the pontoons, and then they realized they only had one person available who could commandeer the thing. Ultimately they found one other, who was busy “working on the anchor” who was pulled into service. So now we had two pontoons that could bring a total of 24 people at a time. The lounge was full, I’d say about 60 people waiting to go.
When they called for the first group, there was no order, just whoever was closest to the stairs to go down to the platform. Chaos ensued, a crowd not a queue, as people were handed life jackets and “helped” (more on that later) onto the pontoons. One pontoon at a time was made ready as the platform on the other side of the ship was not used; they did not have enough staff.
By the time we made it onto a pontoon, it was mid-afternoon. The experience of being assisted (we are not novices at this) was very telling. The pontoons were not secured close enough to the ship, and there was a lot of movement on the choppy water. It was not calm, there was constant yelling to grab this, step on this, and people were getting kind of thrown on. The condition of the pontoon was horrible. These were small, uncomfortable metal units resting on rubber pontoons that were riddled with repair patches. These were very old, very used up equipment that inspired no confidence. The splash control ( a rubber sash across the front) sagged almost into the water and anyone sitting in the front had to get a lot of splash.
I’d say we got to the beach around 3:45 p.m. This “secluded beach,” reachable only by “special boats” like ours, was tiny, mobbed, and extremely loud; there was an outdoor club playing loud loud loud hip hop rap “music” non-stop. The beautiful coral and fish (displayed in the colorful brochure) were not there; I saw a sandy bottom and some minnows. That’s all anyone else saw. After about 45 minutes I had enough of the noise and got on the next available pontoon to return, with just enough time to shower and get ready for dinner. There was no facility on the return to the platform to rinse off all the sand on the fins, our sandals, feet, etc. Imagine the mess 60 sandy people made trudging back to their rooms, forced to rinse their gear off in the shower! The captain just shrugged his shoulders and said “we’ll just have to do the best we can.” (Oh, oh, I said to myself.) What a mess, everywhere.
By the time we had arrived at that beach, we were already supposed to have done it and then returned for lunch while they sailed to Peter’s Island for afternoon swimming and snorkeling at Soper’s Hole. The actual sail occurred during dinner, and we arrived there at night. A few brave souls went out with Wayne the “Expedition Leader,” and the account told to me was that they walked around the town in total darkness, no lights anywhere and crossing streets with cars whizzing around them. Wayne offered no information about what they were “seeing.” “We could have been killed” said the couple I spoke with.
A word about the expedition leaders: Wayne and Karen Brown, Expedition and Assistant Expedition Leaders, are billed in the promotional literature as having expertise in environmental and marine biology, and ecology. The expectation was that they would be accompanying us on excursions to explain what we were looking at. They didn’t. Their primary function seemed to be herding people around, getting them from point A to point B, often on open air safari taxies because the boat did not get close enough to where we were going. Wayne was constantly babbling on the speaker system on the ship, repeating information, to most people’s great annoyance.
Sunday, December 29:
We were supposed to awake arriving at Tortola, capital of the U.S.V.I. Instead, we were awakened at 6:00 a.m. by Karen over the PA system, telling us in a chirpy happy chuckley voice that we were not in Tortola, we were still in Soper’s Hole, and we had one hour to get cleaned up and get some nutrition and make it to the “taxis” that would take us to our destinations, about 45 minutes away and not a comfortable ride.
I was livid; there was no explanation, and no apology offered for the inconvenience. I found Karen and let her know how insulted I felt at being treated this way, and that we all deserved an explanation and an apology. She was all chirpy happy until I let her know how inappropriate that was in light of the situation. She did then get on the mike, apologized, and explained that they had lost an anchor when attempting to leave Soper’s hole, and a dive team was on the way to retrieve it. We were stuck, and behind schedule already.
We had opted for a historical tour of Road Town. We first drove to the botanic garden to find it closed (why didn’t they know it would be closed on Sunday?), skipped without mention one museum, then visited an old cotton works museum, where we spent more time than anyone wanted to.
Those that went on the Sage Mountain Hike were far less fortunate. Apparently it was not planned out, and split into disorganized groups. It was a treacherous hike with seemingly no purpose; no explanation of the environment they were in or what they were seeing. There were injuries (mostly scrapes), including a broken rib. On the ship there was not even easily obtainable over-the-counter medications to help those with injuries.
We were supposed to have lunch while sailing from Tortola to Peter’s Island for swimming, snorkeling or kayaking; instead, we were still stuck at Soper’s hole. The group was offered a taxi back to a local beach for swimming only. We decided to not even go back to the boat, and had ourselves a very nice lunch on the pier.
At this point I’d like to mention this is not a cheap excursion; John and I paid, net after air credit, $10,000 for our (2) cruise tickets. At this price point for 7 nights, 6 days, we expected a lot more than we were getting.
Late afternoon, we were supposed to be sailing for Virgin Gorda, but we were still sitting dead in the water. We settled in before dinner for a concert by an excellent chamber music quartet (specific to this cruise only, for the benefit of various music appreciation groups who booked this cruise); more on that later.
During the concert the crew was noisily testing raising and lowering the newly attached anchor, and finally we were on our way, considerably behind schedule.
Monday, December 30:
Of course by now the morning arrival at Virgin Gorda was now to be an afternoon affair, so we skipped breakfast to get some sleep.
Now for the much touted BBQ on the sun deck, prior to our excursion to The Baths at Virgin Gorda. And why did it have to be an “excursion?” Shouldn’t this special boat with its nine foot draft just bring us there?
The BBQ consisted of hamburgers and bean burgers, cooked in the restaurant kitchen and sent up to be warmed on the grill. Ribs? Chicken legs? Hot dogs? Nope, just hamburgers. They did toast the buns. But wait! They served the 20 or so of us that were on board (I don’t remember what they offered off shore that morning) and when those legions returned, guess what? There was no food for them! They literally ran out of food for the much touted BBQ after serving about a quarter of the people on board. The rest were told to go get their burgers from the restaurant and bring them up, and they could get their buns toasted. How festive! At this time I caught sight of the beautiful Seabourn Pride across the bay from our ratty ship, and I just wanted to swim over to it. It was like dangling shrimp in front of a cat. How cruel.
Mid-afternoon, our trip to the Baths at Virgin Gorda was nice, if crowded. With all the time it took to load up the taxis, get there and back, the photo-ops we were supposed to have in the afternoon were instead some quick shots (I didn’t bother) on the way back as the light was quickly fading and it was hazy. It was bright and clear on the way out, so why didn’t they stop then?
The (after lunch) nature hike to the summit of Gorda Peak National Park didn’t happen, again because they were still catching up to their “schedule.”
Tuesday, December 31:
This day was supposed to be a variety of stops around Salt and Normand Islands. The one item on the itinerary that was made available was a hike around a natural salt evaporation pond. A stop at Cooper Island was changed for this “more interesting stop” so snorkelers could view a famous ship wreck, but the currents were too strong and that was canceled (shouldn’t they have known about the currents?). The “late morning” sail to Norman Island to swim or snorkel and view an area known as The Caves did not happen. It was almost dark when Wayne announced we were sailing past The Caves, and we could look out and “still see them.” No one bothered. One had the sense that this was a cynical attempt to say this part of the itinerary was at least partially met. Pathetic.
Another beautiful concert on board.
Wednesday, January 1:
After another perilous overnight journey through a violent storm (I heard the ship had gone further out to sea to dump “grey water”) we arrived at Cruz Bay in Saint Thomas. It was a wilder ride than the initial one from San Juan. It was dangerous to get out of bed. I went on all fours to use the bathroom, and hung onto the shower bar and vanity and had one foot braced against the shower sill. My first no-hands pee! I crawled back to bed and worried about making it.
We took it easy in the a.m. and opted for an afternoon shuttle to Trunk Bay, a beautiful if crowded beach maintained by the National Parks. It was clean and there were shady areas, and a concession stand. There is also an underwater snorkeling trail, which John explored, but it was so crowded you had to “keep moving” to not hold up the line. Barkers in bullhorns periodically admonished swimmers to not stop or touch or stand on the coral. Barkers from major cruise lines such as Carnival walked up and down the beach yelling for their passengers to return.
So why were we here, instead of at a very private secluded beach, with our special boat with a 9 foot draft? At this point I didn’t care, I was glad to be out wading in clean warm water, knowing I would soon be packing and that we were disembarking the next morning, a day early. We had changed our flights to beat a storm, and, admittedly, it was a good excuse to get off the ship.
An incident with staff:
After dinner Wednesday evening, I finished packing and as it was still early went down to the lounge to get a glass of wine and look for anyone I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to. It was about 10:45 by my iPhone and the bar had been closed early. I started chatting with a couple and their son about the trip (this really was a topic most passengers found common ground with!) and they were asking me about other cruises I’ve been on. The bartender (Tom) appeared to fetch something and I said “Great! Can I get a glass of wine?” Tom said no, the bar was closed. I asked how late the bar was open and he said 11:00. I said I was there before 11:00, and Lisa looked at her watch and said it was only a few minutes past 11:00 and that I’d been there talking to them for at least 20 minutes. An awkward moment passed, then Tom leaned over to me and said “Well I guess that’s just too bad for you.” We were pretty surprised at the unnecessary rudeness, and as he walked away I said I was going to report him in the morning. I blew it off, and we continued chatting for about another 20 minutes, when Tom came into the lounge with two other staff members, came up to me and said “I have determined that you are inebriated and need to be escorted to your cabin.” I can only guess this was a futile attempt to pre-empt the complaint he surely knew I would make. It was also quite clear to all present that I was entirely lucid and in control.
We all froze at first, recognizing the potentially dangerous situation. I looked this guy in the eye and said “I’m not going anywhere, and I want you to call the captain.” (There was no way I’d be caught with him out on a dark deck on a rocky boat.) My friends did a great job of showing with their body language that they were staying put with me. The other two staff looked awkward and stayed back, avoiding eye contact. Tom went to the bar and picked up a phone, mumbling something, and it looked like he was pretending to make a call while trying to think of how to get his self out of his own mess. The other two staff, to their credit, moved away from the door and turned their backs. I whispered too my friends and they walked with me to my cabin. I felt so threatened I was afraid to fall asleep, so John jammed the lock lever to prevent anyone from turning a key from the outside.
I reported this incident to Brian (Tour Manager) who was very surprised and concerned, and wanted to make sure I was alright. (Actually, I wasn’t)
Disembarkation: Even this was complicated, and there was confusion about what to do. Brian had been told that before we could go to the airport, we had to go to a customs declaration site because we had been out of the country. The driver went to the wrong one of two sites, they were not nice, and sent us back to the ship. Brian and the purser then came with us to straighten it out, and ultimately they decided that since we had just cleared Saint John we could in fact go to the airport. Again, this process should have been vetted before taking on passengers. It’s a good thing we started early. We caught the last flight to Boston before the storm.
A final word: It was strange to be on such a problematic trip, yet experience such a lovely group of passengers. This particular cruise happened to be mostly a charter for alumni groups associated with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The musicians were the creme de la creme of chamber music; I regret having to miss the last concert. Apparently this is the type of audience TDI targets, and by all accounts, until this cruise on this boat, they have done it very well in Europe. For this group of people, the cruise itself was secondary; they were there for the music. Still, the problems became even too much for them, and there were no happy campers.
The crew on this ship left much to be desired, with the exception of Brian Goyette (Tour Manager) and Terri Lundi (Tour Director, I think). They were professionals who always had their hands full yet managed to stay calm and keep things moving. The wait staff was fine, but the boat crew from the captain on down gave the impression that TDI fished from the very bottom of the barrel.
We did not expect this to be a luxury trip, but we did expect for the price to have a real expedition and education style cruise; we are sorely disappointed.