GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

SOUL TRAIN- ROLLING OUT ON THE HIGH SEAS…..

Keep on truckin'- all the way to the sunny Caribbean......

Keep on truckin’- all the way to the sunny Caribbean……

Soul Train was, in its heyday, the biggest dance show of its kind ever shown on television. For two decades, it showcased the baddest and best in soul, funk and disco music in a style never seen before or since. It’s demise was massively lamented, and a void was created that nothing has ever been able to fill.

Until now, that is.

Like the venerable Orient Express before it, Soul Train is being hauled back out of the sidings, buffed, shined and bejewelled, and sent out to sea. The journey takes the form of a fabulous, week long overkill of platinum chip soul, disco and funk outfits, showcased aboard Holland America Line’s spectacular Eurodam on a week long circuit of the Eastern Caribbean, sailing round trip from Fort Lauderdale on February 23rd, 2014.

The ports of call alone are compelling enough, with a visit to chic, cosmopolitan St. Barts, a rare, overnight stay in funky, feisty St. Maarten, and a visit to Holland America’s private island of Half Moon Cay. Throw in the world class comforts of a stylish, sophisticated five star resort such as the Eurodam, and it’s a double winner.

But then, of course, there is the actual line up. If soul is your food, then this is the most fantastic, all you can eat buffet ever set afloat on the high seas. Here’s some of the roster of luminaries being specially shipped aboard to ensure that the Eurodam rocks, hustles and grooves until the break of day;

'What a day for a daydream. Custom made for a day dreaming boy....'

‘What a day for a daydream. Custom made for a day dreaming boy….’

The Isley Brothers- Charlie Wilson-Roberta Flack-Jeffrey Osborne-The Commodores-Stephanie Mills-Peabo Bryson- Morris Day and the Time-The Manhattans- Maxi Priest-The Chi Lites-Honey Cone- Ray, Goodman and Brown-Peaches and Herb-DWB-Blue Magic-Cool V.

If this lot doesn’t get you out of your seat and back into sequins, flares and the Spanish Hustle, I suggest that you check your pulse. It’s quite possible that you might a;ready be dead. This fabulous combination of smooth grooves and decadent, five star funk and disco is a full ship charter, and definitely not for the shy and retiring.

Combining the comforts of a world class floating resort like the Eurodam with the colours, feel good vibe and sheer fun of the Caribbean is sweet enough, but adding such a hugely talented entertainment handle is something else again. The Soul Train brand of cruises is now established as firmly up and running, and features similar, funk fuelled fests to the magical Mexican Riviera in the fall.

It’s also worth noting that, while the bulk of the partiers will hail from the USA, a facility exists on line for international guests to book as well. For further details, check out the website at: http://www.soultraincruise.com

Get out there…

SAINT BARTS- THE SAINT TROPEZ OF THE CARIBBEAN

CNV00003Like an emerald that is somehow incredibly afloat in a sea of turquoise, tiny, beautifully styled Saint Barts has long been my favourite of all the fun, sun fuelled island paradises that make up the Caribbean. But even by the languid, laid back standards of ‘the islands’, St. Barts is a very classy act indeed, and totally unique. Only eight miles long and two wide, the main airstrip is about the size of a postage stamp. Nothing larger than small, twin prop passenger planes can get on the ground here.

The relatively shallow waters around the island also make it a no-no for the bigger cruise ships that today dominate the Caribbean circuit. The closest that most of them can get is Phillipsburg, the main port of Sint Maarten, some twenty five miles away across the briny. Only the smaller luxury ships can get in, and even they have to anchor offshore. This inevitably lessens the numbers pouring ashore by a thousand, or even four. And it makes the whole experience just…. dreamy.

Each of the islands in the Caribbean is as individual as a fingerprint. Most were colonised in the middle ages by the British, French, Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Swedes. And, today, each retains more than a little of the DNA of the occupying powers of old. In the case of St. Barts that was originally Sweden and, despite the fact that the island was amicably ceded to France, many of the original Swedish street names remain to this day.

CNV00004Today the vibe is unmistakably French; think Saint Tropez, but with bigger yachts in the harbour. Throw in an all year round summer climate, and some incredible French and creole cooking wizardry, and you’ve got a place to chill par excellence. Not cheap, of course, but you would hardly expect it to be.

The beauty of the place is the stuff of legends. Like most of the islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Barts is draped with long, slow rolling hills dressed in a thousand shades of green. They form it’s backbone, and also frame and embrace the chocolate box pretty little haven that is Gustavia itself.

Beautifully manicured lawns are draped with serried ranks of giant date palms. Stout little wooden jetties point like random exclamation marks out into the sparkling briny. Giant old anchors, left behind from long gone sailing ships are scattered around the waterfront, as if flung there by some petulant deity in a bad mood.

CNV00006There are small, highly styled designer shops straight from the boulevards of Paris, with eye watering prices to match, and also the best cheeseburgers anywhere in the Caribbean. The whole waterfront is as small, glittering and exquisitely proportioned as a charm bracelet. The pace is more laid back than on some of the more touristy, traffic strewn neighbours, not so far away over the horizon.

Winding lanes in the back streets are swathed in brilliant bursts of jasmine, hibiscus and oleander. The odd motor scooter splutters lethargically into life, threading its way past little groups of schoolkids as they head home for the day. Above, ranks of marshmallow clouds drift silently across a petrol blue sky, looking like giant, ghostly galleons under full sail. The air is alive with the sounds of hummingbirds.

From here, Shell Beach is an idle, delightful fifteen minute saunter. Nobody rushes to go anywhere in St. Barts, period. What’s the hurry, when your every step is surrounded by such beauty and vibrant colour? Even the simple act of walking becomes a stroll that you’ll almost certainly savour for the rest of your life.

CNV00007Like many of the islands in the Caribbean, slavery left it’s dark stain in these parts. The wall scene here, from nearby Virgin Gorda, is a poignant, timely reminder of just why so many countries colonised these islands in the first place, and how badly some of them behaved. Like many bright and often sunny places, parts of the Caribbean have a distinctly shady past.

Wars and rampant piracy also left their mark on the region. Great, walled cities like San Juan and pirate free-for-alls such as Jamaica’s Port Royal were as much a part of the landscape then as modern, high rise, beachfront hotels are now.

It was a violent, volatile era, fuelled by the mutual greed of those ransacking Central America for it’s gold, and the pirates and privateers intent on relieving the original thieves of the fruits of their gilt edged gluttony. Murder, treachery and gibbeted felons were the order of the day back in those far more turbulent times.

CNV00008Thankfully, it’s a lot more sedate today. The most aggressive thing you’ll find on most of the islands is a tidal wave of suntanned, often frazzled dollar crusaders, pouring ashore from the big cruise ships, but armed with nothing more lethal than a few credit cards.

At least you will in most islands. But not here on St. Barts.

The island really does somehow exude a kind of kindred, laissez-faire kind of feel that is very close indeed to the south of France, in spirit if not in actual travelling miles. The island is actually a department of France. With Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the Ile Des Saintes, it forms the French West Indies. The official currency is the Euro (though dollars are widely accepted) and, despite their remote stance, the islands are still answerable to Paris. At least, that’s the theory.

St. Barts has never gone the way of it’s bigger, glitzier neighbours in terms of the high rise hotel industry. This is mainly down to the island’s petite size and limited infrastructure. But what might seem as ‘less’ to many truly translates to ‘more’ in terms of a genuine, old style, Caribbean island experience here.

CNV00010Pretty little pastel shaded houses peep out from among the greenery all along the coastline, with their gently sloping roofs, and porches festooned with sun loungers, looking out over an indolent, sparkling ocean. Cats and dogs snooze uncaring in the mid day heat, under the handy shade of some spindly, sagging palm fronds. The scent of hibiscus and the subtle, seductive lilt of reggae floods the hot, humid air everywhere.

In the bay, tenders from one of the smaller cruise ships bumble back and forth like tiny, exotic water beetles. Each one carries a repository of awe struck human cargo, jaws scraping their shoes, eyes as wide as saucers at the incredible, audio visual assault on their senses that unfolds like a 3-D panorama all around them.

Ashore, they pause for lunch at some sun splashed waterfront restaurant, their podgy, sun burnt fingers clutching uncertainly at deceptively innocuous margaritas and strawberry daiquiris, as a rising tide of shopping bags threatens to overwhelm them. Yacht skippers in sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country stroll by, studiously ignoring the new arrivals.

CNV00011But keep on walking up along that route out of town, and you’ll find yourself on one of the most perfect beaches anywhere in the entire Caribbean. The French name is Anse Galet, but most of the locals simply refer to it as Shell Beach.

For my money, this gorgeous little slice of heaven is the most idyllic small beach anywhere in the Caribbean, period. Flanked on three sides by jagged, serried tiers of slate grey rocks, Shell Beach is a blinding white sweep of pristine, powder soft sand that shelves almost reluctantly into the deep, electric blue hue of the ocean just beyond.

Off shore, the odd jet ski or two might tear across the briny like some maddened kind of water beast. Above, para gliders drift across the endless canvas of the sky like random, exotic butterflies.

Smaller, more discreet spots among the rocks are a natural haven for topless bathers. Well, this is France in the Caribbean, after all.

CNV00015There is a small bar/restaurant called Do Brasil (?) that is set neatly into the rocks above that beach like a small, precious gemstone. It has an upper level bar cum restaurant, open to the breeze, that allows for heart stopping views right out over the whole soft, spun sugar expanse of sand.  The view is almost to good to believe; like being awake in a particularly vivid dream.

Ceiling fans hum overhead, and the ice cold Carib beers taste like the very nectar of the gods themselves. You can stay and savour one inside, with a side order of warm Caribbean breeze coming in off the sea. It’s all good, for sure.

But me, I prefer to take mine outside. Just walk to the water’s edge, sag down onto the sand, and let the warm water just kiss your feet before it washes over you. Cold beer plus warm sea equals sheer, platinum chip bliss. I would not lie about something like that.

This is sweet and surreal enough, either on your own, or with friends. But there are other options, too.

CNV00016Consider a glacially cold bottle of Moet et Chandon, a few glasses on the beach, and how fine the world can seem. And still, there’s that subtle, seductive sound track of the ocean rollers, drumming like fingers on that wondrous, warm swathe of sand. It’s not cheap, but as one of the best experiences of your life, the memory will be, quite literally, priceless.

There are chairs and tables sprinkled on the sand, making this small, beautifully proportioned beach one of the most perfect spots anywhere in the world to perfect the very fine art of platinum chip lounging.

And, even as you slouch over your Moet, the thought drifts through your mind that nothing this good can last forever. Yet that is only partly true. Memories of days like this are the stuff of pure magic. They sear themselves into the soul and the psyche, just as surely as if they had been emblazoned there with a branding iron. Make no bones; this is strong, magical stuff, and it stays with you long, long after you think you’ve left the actual place itself far behind.

CNV00013If and when you can tear yourself away from all of this-and at some stage, you will have to- then there is still time for another stroll along the gorgeous waterfront of Gustavia itself. Many of the de-luxe cruise ships actually stay at anchor here until around midnight, allowing those passengers that want to dine ashore the option to do exactly that.

But the one thing that I know from personal experience is that St. Barts leaves you with a palpable, almost painful longing to return. Because even in that fabulous, rum and reggae fired playground that people call the Caribbean, St. Barts is truly unique, adrift in it’s own time and space.

I have to warn you. Once the St. Barts bug has bitten, then you will in all probability find that you, too, have become forever smitten. The good news is, its far from being the worst kind of compulsive addiction you could fall prey to. Enjoy!

REGENT IN THE CARIBBEAN

No matter how many cruises you might do over the course of a lifetime, there are always some that stand out like exclamation marks in your life; the ones that always make you grin like an idiot even on a really bad day. They foster memories that are guaranteed to rescue you from your deepest funk.

They can be special because of so many things; it could be the thrill of discovering somewhere new, and utterly seductive. A place- or even places- so spine tingling that the urge to return is almost physically painful.

It could be the people you meet on board. Fun, well travelled, warm, generous souls that turn a cruise into a joyride. People that you instinctively gravitate to. People that you learn from, and share epic adventures with ashore. A cruise as an education. Makes sense to me.

Then of course, there is the ship and the crew. The two truly indispensible ingredients that can either make or break any holiday. When it all works out on board, everything is fine and dandy.

Any of these could be salient points in delineating the truly memorable from the very good. But, when all of them come together to create the perfect mix, then you are guaranteed an experience that will stay with you long, long after you actually leave the trip behind.

I have been more than lucky to sample a few such trips. One of the best was, without doubt, a ten day Caribbean circuit from Fort Lauderdale aboard Regent’s magnificent Seven Seas Mariner. The ports of call- St. Thomas, Tortola, Saint Barts and Grand Turk, to name a few- were seductive enough in their own right. So too was the idea of winging it smartly out of a gloomy, rain sodden UK for those balmy, milder climes. I am not a good ‘winter baby’- anyone who knows me would vouch for that. Even the idea of side stepping neatly into such agreeable sunlight is an adrenaline boost that cannot be under-rated.

And I knew that the ship was going to be sublime. I had sampled the line’s hospitality a few times, so pretty much knew what I was getting into. Regent is a line that does not ‘do’ mediocrity at any level. The all outside suites come with balconies, big, marble sheathed bathrooms, and enough in room entertainment to last a millennium.

The food and service are, quite simply, superlative at every level. The staff walk the finely balanced line between being attentive, without ever lapsing into over familiarity. Staff quickly learn, and often anticipate, your most whimsical desires. Coupled with an all inclusive policy, the Mariner has a vast amount of personal space per passenger. This, more than anything, makes for a stand out product.

In truth, the secret of the line’s success lies in what it leaves out. Crowds and tannoy announcements are left to the mega ships. Open seating dining is the norm, where a table for two can just as deftly become one for six. Formal dress codes are thrown overboard, in favour of a country club casual vibe. After all, who, in God’s name, wants to shoe horn themselves into formal wear after a hard day’s indolence on Magen’s Bay beach? These might sound small things- and individually, they are- yet, over the course of ten days they add up to something quite simply superlative. The sheer quality of everything is quite something.

If you want rock climbing walls, casinos the size of California, and brash, braying, bar hopping hordes, then this is not for you. Mood music is subtle, mellow, and fits the moments on board quite perfectly. I’ll never forget the solitary sax player out on deck as we left St. Thomas; his tall silhouette black against a flaring crimson twilight as his music flooded the air like fine wine. It was like being awake in a really vivid, slowly moving dream. The moment seemed as delicate and fragile as eggshells, and yet it is seared into my memory as indelibly as if I have been branded.

The entire cruise unfolded like that. The passengers were a sophisticated, fun group; one that knew how to enjoy itself, yet always remembered to show consideration for others. The whole ship seemed wreathed in a fog of dreamy smiles for the duration. It brought out the best in people, and in a way that no stay at any land based resort could hope to match. The whole adventure seemed shrouded in some kind of deep, indefinable magic.

Of course, the islands played a huge part in it. Flopping back into my favourite, fondly remembered hammock at Tortola’s Cane Garden Beach was just amazing. Palm trees overhead, and just the sound of slowly rolling surf drumming a pristine swathe of dazzling white sand. At home, it was eight degrees centigrade. But the only ice near me was in my Daiquri. And that, my friends, is exactly as it should be.

And anyone who cannot enjoy a day draped across Gustavia’s Shell Beach should really- and I mean really- check their pulses. They might already be dead.

Because man cannot live by bread alone….

I don’t care how many times you go to the Caribbean; it is impossible to be blase about it. Something in the breeze just eats into you and stays with you. And I don’t mean the mosquitos, either. Sure, it can be hellish on days when there are a dozen cruise ships in Saint Maarten. But that is where taking a smaller ship comes in handy. Bypass the crowds and the endless lines, and go do what you need to do!

Those islands- those exalted, white and lush green little glimpses of paradise- came and went like a  succession of drum rolls. Garlanded with tender sunrises and sometimes shrouded in blazing crimson sunsets, they warmed the heart and the soul alike.

And yet it was the Mariner that was the standout island. She was our own little fantasy island. Pristine, always immaculate and familiar, and with a chilled glass of welcome champagne at hand. We flitted in and out of sunsets, and the odd rain shower that always ended in a stunning rainbow.

For ten days, the Seven Seas Mariner was our universe. We could be as sociable or secluded as our moods took us. You could enjoy a nightcap on your balcony with a side order of moonlight, or a zesty margarita at the pool bar with new friends. You could sample food as simple or as sophisticated as the whim of the moment moved you, and it was always superb.

Leaving such a trip is always a bit of a wrench. But, truth be told, I never really left it behind. I’ll always have it, or at least the memories of it. And all those memories are gold plated, smiley little treasures. What more can you ask for than a dream that comes true, and does not disappoint?