All content was accurate when this story was published in August 2010.
Perched on deck of a 101-foot schooner, I sip my rum swizzle and watch the flying fish flit through the turquoise Caribbean Sea. On my right, I spot a perfect palm-fronded island, complete with deserted white sand beaches; on my left, there's nothing but calm open ocean under sunny skies. It's a fantasy straight from a Jimmy Buffet song -- and for one week, I was able to live it on the Diamant, the sole ship owned by the fledgling Island Windjammers cruise line.
The company's five-day cruise through the Grenadines, offered since November 2009, intrigued me for several reasons. The chain of small islands, each with its own distinct character and local flavor, is known as a sailor's Mecca -- and is off limits to larger vessels that simply can't dock in the tiny ports. I couldn't wait to visit some of the secluded beaches that only sailors can access and – even better – to stargaze while listening to the water lap the side of the boat.
I was also drawn to the story behind the Island Windjammers line. The company emerged from the ashes of the incredibly popular (to the point of cultish) Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. When that line went bankrupt in 2007, it left its customers robbed of their deposits -- and many crew members high and dry in ports around the world. Windjammer fans sprang into action and raised money to help the line's stranded crew members. That task complete, several people kept the dollars flowing, with the dream of buying their own ship to keep the Windjammer spirit alive.
The ease of a barefoot cruise hit me as soon as I started packing. The company's website warned that space would be tight, and that we should only take essentials in duffle-style bags. I laid out my clothes on the bed and realized that I needed nothing more than T-shirts, shorts and a swimsuit. "Is this really it?" I asked my husband (the type of guy who lives in flip flops, he was sulking a bit because his work schedule prevented him from coming). "What else are you going to need?" he replied. I threw in a sweatshirt and a sundress, just in case.
My trip down to Grenada, where the Diamant is based, was a chore. While Grenada is a gorgeous Caribbean island, with plenty of hiking and beaches to satisfy any active traveler, it's a pain to get there. From Washington DC, I flew to Philadelphia, then to Barbados and finally on a small LIAT plane to Grenada. My luggage didn't make it on the latter leg, but I was OK because I came in a day early (some of my fellow passengers weren't so lucky. Lesson learned: when taking LIAT before a cruise, allow some time for luggage delays).
Starting the Vacation
The hassles of air travel fell away when I arrived at the Port Louis Marina in Grenada's capital, St. George's, and first saw the Diamant. A white fiberglass brigantine schooner with blue trim and tons of wood accents, it was gorgeous and looked ship-shape.
As a solo traveler, I had been assigned room number 1, in the front of the ship. The cabin was about what I expected from the company's website: While tight, the room had an upper and a lower berth, a hazy porthole, and several drawers and hooks to place belongings (although I felt a little relieved that my 6'5" husband wasn't there to share the space with me).
Best of all: the Diamant's cabins all have their own en-suite bath, with a shower separate from the toilet. Apparently the Windjammer ships lacked this setup, so throughout the week, vets of those cruises reminisced about showering over their toilet. It took me all of a few minutes to unpack my bag and get situated. I fiddled with the in-room air conditioner, setting to a decent temperature, and went upstairs to wait for my fellow passengers.
As I waited, I talked with Cindy Basham, one of the Island Windjammers principals, who had recently moved to Grenada as the company's vice president of operations. Cheery and efficient, she took my passport so she could handle the paperwork as we crossed between Grenada and St. Vincent & the Grenadines during the week. I also met our captain, Matt Thomas, a veteran of the Windjammers Barefoot Cruises who a fellow traveler had once dubbed "Captain McDreamy." Cindy told me that most of the Diamant's crew members had worked for the original Windjammers in some capacity, and that other alums were also clamoring for positions.
5 p.m. came and went and music from Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffet filtered through the iPod sound system. Still no other guests. I looked at the pitcher of rum swizzles and snacks longingly but didn't indulge (hey, who wants to come off looking like a pig on a cruise's first day?) Finally, Cindy called to Matt "They're here!" and I went up on deck to see my companions for the next few days (they had all stayed the previous night at the Allamanda, a hotel on Grand Anse beach that offers a special rate for Island Windjammer guests). The Diamant only takes 12 passengers, a size that could either be a selling point or a detractor for the line. In a group that small, just one or two obnoxious people could easily spoil the trip for everyone else. On the other hand, you can really get to know other people well in a setting that intimate, leaving with 10 new best friends. So I was nervous to see which way the chips would fall.
I needn't have worried. Although my fellow passengers skewed older (average age was 63), they definitely were not shrinking violets. We spent the first night consuming a delicious buffet dinner and a few glasses of wine before Gloria, an outgoing widow who splits her time between St. Augustine and Maine, suggested a late night swim at the Port Louis Marina swimming pool. So what if the swim meant crashing a cocktail party held by the St. George's University vet school? This is when I knew our group would get along just fine.
Rock and Roll
The Diamant was slated to lift anchor at 5 a.m. Sure enough, I heard every creak and moan of the anchor from my front cabin. Cindy had warned us to take our seasickness remedies, as the first day's passage between Grenada and its sister island Carriacou took place over open water. But I wasn't quite prepared for how much the boat started to rock. As my world started tilting, I went above deck to stare at the horizon and calm my stomach.
I wasn't the only one searching for a remedy. On a ship as small as the Diamant, you can really feel the ocean rolling beneath you -- and throughout the rougher passages of the trip, people were either getting sick or thinking about it. Capt. Matt tried to prepare us for these stints, and the boat kept a supply of Bonine handy. Some passengers wore wristbands, but I swore by Sturgeon, an anti-seasickness medication I picked up at a Grenada pharmacy that didn't have the drowsy side effects that Dramamine can produce (it's not available in the US, so use at your own risk).
Once we were through the worst of it, chief steward Brandon rang the bell. "Storytime!" he shouted. A tradition carried over from Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Storytime is the designated time when Capt. Matt explains the day's itinerary to us (necessary, as our sail didn't always follow the one that was posted on cruise line's website). The bell also summoned us to meals, which were either served inside the Diamant's gleaming wood saloon or on an outdoor dining table at the back of the boat, which Brandon and the others thoughtfully covered during the heat of the day.
On this first day, we were anchored off Carriacou's Anse La Roche, a gorgeous -- and almost completely deserted, with the exception of a few cows -- white sand beach. Matt issued us our snorkeling gear, which we kept for the week, and one by one, we were helped into the dinghy that would be our only method of port transfer during the cruise. While I felt a little unsteady during the process on the first day, by the end of the week I was scrambling in and out like a pro.
Once we arrived on the beach, we were free to do as we pleased. With Janet, a nurse-practitioner from South Carolina and Sally, a university lecturer from Worcester, England, we put on our gear and snorkeled out to a reef at the end of the beach, where we watched parrot fish dart among the coral and schools of small fish swim by us. Later, we relaxed and drank beer and sodas from the cooler that dinghy operators Troy and Aubrey so thoughtfully brought over for us. Several fell asleep until it was time to return for dinner on board.
And so the days passed, in a blur of sun, sand and sea. I awoke every morning and immediately grabbed my swimsuit and a cover-up, which I wore until dinner. Sailing between ports such as Union Island, Mayreau and Bequia was done during the daytime, so we felt part of the Diamant's operations. Sometimes that was joyous – when the crew unfurled the ship's sails, a bagpipe version of "Amazing Grace" would blast through the speakers, lending pomp to the occasion. And other times, it was a little scary, such as when we discovered that the boat's anchor battery was on the fritz. As one passenger confided to me, "It makes me wonder what else is going to go wrong."
This unpredictability is supposed to be part of the charm of an Island Windjammers cruise. I'm not so sure I agree. The company's website lists the glamour island of Mustique as a stop, and on our first night, Cindy described a possible barbecue on its world-famous Macaroni Beach. But our anchor problems meant that we needed to make a longer stop in Bequia and, at one point, the entire last day of cruise was almost jeopardized, before Matt decided the anchor could handle overnight docking. While none of the other passengers mentioned the Mustique outing's absence, I was a bit disappointed.
Capt. Matt did a good job of keeping us informed, although the ping-ponging itineraries left us a little confused (at one point, he thought we'd have to cut the cruise short and head back to Grenada, a move that filled many of us with dismay). Because he was busy with the mechanics of the ship, however, it fell upon us passengers to create our fun. We did this through nightly card games such as hearts and Shanghai, and almost everyone toted a book. Most of my fellow passengers were veterans of the Windjammers Barefoot Cruises, and time was spent reminiscing about that line's ships such as the Mandalay and Fantone, and infamous parties such as the weekly PPP (pirates, pimps and prostitutes) events. As I listened, I couldn't help thinking that the Diamant could have imported a little of that rakish atmosphere; while personable and amusing, our group was far more interested in rummy than rum and the cruise was definitely one of the quieter vacations I've experienced. It's all quite a shift from the party-hearty lifestyle that Windjammers Barefoot Cruises used to endorse.
Still, who needs nightlife when you've got one of the world's outstanding marine parks to explore? The Tobago Cays, a protected part of the Grenadine chain, famously provided a backdrop for "Pirates of the Caribbean" and are known for the sea turtles that swim close to their shores. We arrived here on a day where the blue of the sky was only outmatched by the turquoise sheen of the water, joining the flotilla of sailboats and yachts already enjoying the spits of sand. Eagerly, we strapped on our snorkel gear to get up close with the turtles. While not everyone found success, Janet and I spied a smaller turtle as it lifted its head for air. Down it went, and we followed it, watching with awe as it grazed on plants along the sea floor.
The swimming wasn't only restricted to the island beaches. The Diamant boasted a swim ladder and we were encouraged to jump off the side to cool off when we were anchored. But why simply leap when you can fling yourself, Tarzan-style, off an old-fashioned rope swing? I was a little scared the first time I hopped up on the side of the boat, holding on to the twisted rope. But I take the dare when it's given, and swung out into the water, making sure to let go. While my splash caused my bathing suit to rise up uncomfortably, I came up laughing and scrambled up the stairs to go again. Eventually, others joined me – including several in the above-70 set.
That's the type of camaraderie that developed among our group during the week. With so many hours at sea, much of our time was spent out on deck, commenting on the scenery or chatting about our lives. I learned that Bob and Ginny, a couple in their late 60s and early 70s, had met on the internet dating site Match.com. I gleaned some secrets to a successful marriage from Ron and Cerise, celebrating 51 years of wedded bliss. And I discovered that fabulousness has no age limit, as Gloria – still rocking a bikini in her late 60s -- entertained us with outrageous bon mots. When I grow up, I want to be just like her.
With all this bonding going on, everyone was a bit sad when our last day arrived. We were docked in Chatham Bay, off Grenadine's sailor-friendly Union Island, and Capt. Matt gave us the morning to hang out on the beach there. Dotted with a couple of beach bars, Chatham Bay is just beginning to see development, and we walked over to inspect a boutique hotel that was still being built (my gut tells me that Chatham Bay's lovely beach will look much different in several years). For the time being, rivers of fish live within the protected reef, and we swam among them until Troy and Aubrey arrived in the dinghy for our last trip back to the Diamant.
For our final night, Capt. Matt planned a lobster dinner, and I used the occasion to pull my sundress out of my drawer. We docked back in Port Louis Marina in Grenada, and yearbook-style, signed each other's maps of the Grenadines that Island Windjammers gave us as a parting gift. After dinner, several of us disembarked and headed to the Marina bar, where we coerced the bartenders to play dance music for us late into the night.
I left the Diamant feeling like I had just attended a grown-up summer camp at sea. With no agenda and few planned activities, an Island Windjammers cruise is perfect for those who want a vacation of nothing more than swimming, snorkeling and staring at the Caribbean (those who need more stimulation may want to look elsewhere). On such a small ship, not only do you visit beaches so secluded that you feel like they're yours alone, you create bonds with other passengers that can continue back home, through email and Facebook. And I'm not sure a "foo foo ship," as Windjammer alums call larger cruise ships, delivers that.
--Images courtesy of Island Windjammers.