(4 p.m. EDT) -- The newly stretched all-suite 312-passenger Star Breeze left St. Maarten on Saturday, June 19 on its inaugural sailing with 80 fully
vaccinated guests, but it was not quite the brave new post-pandemic cruise world that Windstar had hoped.
The original idea was a bubble cruise, visiting the British Virgin Islands, where Windstar passengers could do such shore excursions as visiting "The Rocks" caves, hanging out on beaches, driving their own Zodiac and attending a ship-sponsored beach BBQ, no independent touring allowed. St. Barth’s and Anguilla were both on the itinerary too.
But with few vaccinated among the 177 crew onboard, plans changed. Everyone has been wearing masks except when eating and drinking, at the spa or gym -- or away from others on deck. We sailed south passing Monserrat and St. Kitts and Nevis. Then it was back to St. Maarten.
Most of our views have come from being anchored in Simpson Bay, near the airport, with nowhere to go.
With some of these startup post-pandemic cruises, there are hiccups and unknowns.
In this case, the crew -- unable to get vaccines in Indonesia, the Philippines, eastern Europe and other home countries -- arrived at the Palermo shipyard, where the Star Breeze was overhauled, without having been vaccinated. Ten other crew arrived in St. Maarten with the same issue, including the Slovenian hotel director.
Windstar was not able to secure shots in Italy, nor in St. Maarten. It was a perfect storm of "no" from authorities says Chris Prelog, the line's president.
Islands turned the ship away. The B.V.I. and Anguilla said no. St. Barth’s, which has not welcomed a cruise ship since the pandemic, waffled back and forth.
On Monday, two days into the voyage, the cruise line confirmed it was able to secure Johnson & Johnson vaccines for crew in San Juan, where Star Breeze will head next week without passengers – Windstar has cancelled the next two sailings and plans to resume service on Star Breeze from St. Maarten on July 10. Guests on the cancelled sailings will receive a refund or a 125 percent future cruise credit.
Prior to the current sailing, Windstar contacted the 90-something guests booked (including a media group) to warn that this sailing might not follow the line’s printed itinerary. Passengers who agreed to to fly to St. Maarten anyway were offered a free cruise. Less than a dozen guests demurred.
Still, onboard this week, the guests on their free sailing expressed surprise in learning that fewer than 20 percent of the crew had received vaccines and that no port calls had been secured.
David Hakimian, 58, an oncologist from the Chicago area, was looking forward to beach time. “I just wanted to get away and relax,” he said. “I am a physician and have been working through the whole pandemic. I figured it was safe to be on a cruise deck.”
He added he was “stunned” to get onboard and learn the majority of crew had not been vaccinated. Though with the safety protocols in place, he was not concerned.
Go with the flow turned into frustration. There were audible groans every time the Captain announced that it was unclear whether St. Barth’s would allow us ashore. On Tuesday afternoon, the announcement was that the ship would just keep hanging out around St. Maarten, with plans to dock in Philipsburg on both Wednesday and Thursday night.
There, passengers will have the opportunity to book shore excursions to do the Flying Dutchman zipline or a rum tasting or catamaran and snorkel tour and at least get off the ship. No independent touring is allowed – though you can book a private car with guide for $525.
“It’s a beautiful place to be on vacation no matter where we are going but it would be nice to land somewhere,” said Anna Gillon, 61, from Atlanta, before the docking announcementt. She added that she and her husband, David, did at least have a new experience on the ship – acupuncture at the spa.
The ship’s watersports platform was open for a second day on Tuesday, so those looking to swim (the water has been too rough for paddle boarding and kayaking) can at least dip in the sea and lounge on floating mats, planes from St. Maarten's famed airport flying overhead.
Prelog said the original itineraries including the B.V.I., Anguilla and St. Barth’s should be in place once the crew is 100 percent vaccinated. The last weekly sailing in the region embarks on July 31.
Windstar’s health protocols for all their ship startups – Wind Star also returned to sea in Greece last weekend and Wind Spirit will cruise in Tahiti beginning on July 15, with both of these ships fully vaxxed – involve all crew and guests wearing masks and serious social distancing, for the foreseeable future.
Tables for four are blocked off for three – making it difficult to dine with another couple unless you can find a table for six, on a ship where anytime, open-seating dining is a highlight. Guests had to remember to put on a mask every time they left their cabins.
Luggage is sanitized on the outside before coming onboard. Suite amenities now include a packet of masks and the guest services and shore excursion crew now sit behind a glass barrier.
The crew is great at service, smiling with their eyes at least, and remembering everyone’s favorite drinks and how they like their eggs at breakfast. But without vaccines, there have been odd moments such as where they back away from guests who get too close.
Onboard, there’s at times that awful suspicious feeling we’ve all gotten when someone sneezes or coughs – highlighted because we know most people onboard are not vaccinated.
To make sure there is no COVID-19 brought onboard, all guests received a nasal swab antigen test before boarding, and there was another test Tuesday so that we can get cleared to tour in St. Maarten later in the week. A third test will be administered before we disembark. Crew was tested before the cruise and are also being tested this week.
All this begs the question, why did Star Breeze set sail this week in the first place?
The ship has been ready to sail since October 2020, following a renovation that included cutting the ship in half and adding a new 84-foot midsection. Fifty new suites were added, the deck completely redone with a stunning new raised pool – accessible from two decks – added. Excellent new dining venues such as Quadro 44 by Anthony Sasso were ready to go.
With its sleek reimagined hull, the ship was ready to make its debut.
“We thought about canceling but we wanted to show off the ship,” said Prelog. “I am joyful, excited, really proud of what the team has been able to achieve.”
But the need to cruise goes deeper than that. Crew, many of whom have been bubbled on the Star Breeze for two months, without any shore leave, and all of whom have not seen guests for more than a year, were ready to get back to business.
Hotel director Milton Ceklic said it all in kicking off Windstar’s signature on-deck BBQ. “I have been waiting two years to do this!” he exclaimed.
After filling up on grilled lobsters and steaks at the BBQ, guests danced late into the evening around the newly expanded deck, while a live band played popular 1970s and 1980s dance tunes.
Anna, traveling with her husband, David, was delighted with the “casual and nice” atmosphere and the Star Breeze redo. “The interior design of the suites is gorgeous,” she said, noting she especially appreciated the added French balconies. “I love the scale of the ship, and the overall ambience.”