What It’s Like to Return to the Caribbean on a Cruise Ship

When AFAR’s special cruise correspondent got back out on the open water for the first time since the start of the pandemic, things didn’t go quite as planned.

What It’s Like to Return to the Caribbean on a Cruise Ship

Windstar’s fully renovated “Star Breeze” is now sailing in the Caribbean.

Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

In a normal year, I am on a cruise ship nearly every month. For decades, I have been writing about cruise experiences on ships big, small, and in between. But, like everyone else, I took a long pandemic pause—15 months without even seeing the sea.

Eager but cautious about getting back out on the water, I was drawn to the Caribbean island of St. Martin last month by the relaunch of a small Windstar Cruises yacht. With its boutique-style sailing ships and motor yachts, the line is one of my favorites—fancy but not too fancy, casual in style and attitude, with great food (Windstar is the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation), nice accommodations, and a friendly crew.

I wanted to see the 312-passenger, all-suite Star Breeze, fresh from a major redo. I loved the planned itinerary for the June 19-26 sailing, which included days lolling around the Lesser Antilles, with stops in the low-key British Virgin Islands, a beach call in Anguilla, and time to wander around St. Bart’s.

Windstar’s plan was that everyone onboard would be vaccinated against COVID-19. It seemed the perfect trip for me to get my feet back in the water—a bubble cruise on a lazy Caribbean route.

But an uncomfortable call from the cruise line arrived a few days before my flight to Philipsburg, St. Maarten, the island’s Dutch side. There had been a snafu. The line had not been able to secure vaccines for the ship’s 200-person international crew. Most had been isolated together for nearly two months, while undergoing weekly testing.

Testing was not good enough for government authorities in the British Virgin Islands, which denied the ship passage. For paying guests, the cruise became a freebie—they could use their already paid-for flights and come onboard anyway. About 80 people took Windstar up on the offer and about a dozen others canceled. Those onboard included some journalists and the company’s own executives. My husband and I after much discussion decided not to cancel our trip.

By the time we boarded the ship in Philipsburg, Anguilla also was off the table. Even the captain didn’t know where we were going.

We left the pier and sailed south past Monserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts. Soon, word came that St. Bart’s would not welcome the ship.

Star Breeze sailed and sailed around St. Martin, docked for a couple days in Philipsburg, where we were allowed to leave the vessel only on escorted shore excursions such as a downtown shopping tour or a catamaran to snorkeling spots, then sailed around the same island again.

On the plus side, the captain found calm water in Simpson Bay, near the airport in St. Maarten (on the Dutch side), so the aft watersports platform was lowered, and guests could at least jump from the ship into the sea.

Passengers on a recent “Star Breeze” Caribbean cruise made the best of some extra sea days and played in the water.

Passengers on a recent “Star Breeze” Caribbean cruise made the best of some extra sea days and played in the water.

Photo by Fran Golden

So, how was my return to the Caribbean? It wasn’t a bad week to be stuck on the beautifully redone ship, drinking too much wine, relaxing in the sunshine, going with the flow, no matter how repetitious the flow turned out to be. But it definitely wasn’t the planned itinerary. Others on board were mostly relaxed about it as well, accepting that it was a free cruise in the middle of a pandemic and that nothing was set in stone.

Masks, tests, and social distancing

At least on this sailing, there was no way to fully forget the pandemic. Everyone onboard was required to wear a mask at all times except when eating and drinking or hanging out outdoors on the newly expanded sundeck or in the new pool, big enough for eight. You could also go mask-free while working out in the gym, getting a massage, or while in the steam room or sauna in the recently spruced-up spa.

Social distancing was required. In case you forgot the required distance, signs indicated not to sit on certain restaurant chairs and even bar stools—so no cozying up to a new drinking buddy. Tables were limited to three people, making it difficult to join another couple for dinner. Crew, trying their best to smile from behind their own masks, politely reminded guests to follow the rules.

Before we left home, we had to get a pretrip COVID test (antigen or PCR), which was required by St. Maarten. Three nasal swab tests followed once we got to the ship—Windstar is comping the test to get onboard and charging a fee of $138 for the other two. The test that took place toward the end of the cruise was one that was required to re-enter the United States.

Unwinding at sea

Ultimately, the masks and testing were a necessary annoyance that everyone onboard accepted. Once we adjusted to the pandemic-era protocols and setbacks, our cruise felt somewhat normal.

When not gorging, we spent our days in plush loungers out on deck, getting Swedish massages, working out in the gym, meeting new people, and otherwise truly vacationing. Occasionally, we did work too—in the Yacht Club, a light and airy observation lounge high on the bow, with lattes from the coffee bar and ocean views through the windows. There are far worse places to set up shop.

As part of its renovation that was completed in 2020, Star Breeze was literally cut in two and a new 84-foot midsection added at a shipyard in Italy. The 30-year-old ship has been reborn with a sleek exterior and space for 50 additional suites (100 more guests) plus excellent new restaurants. The top-to-bottom overhaul also included adding new energy-efficient diesel engines.

All 156 cabins are suites with at least 277 square feet of space. Ours came with sliding doors you could open to let in sea breezes and a French balcony broad enough for one person to take a step out into the sunshine, plus a big bathroom with a walk-in shower. At the even higher end are a few suites with verandas, including an apartment-sized three-bedroom owner’s suite.

On Windstar’s “Sea Breeze" all accommodations are considered suites.

On Windstar’s “Sea Breeze” all accommodations are considered suites.

Photo by Fran Golden

The renewed ship’s culinary star power means that guests have two new dining choices. In addition to the rebuilt and relocated main dining room and the indoor/outdoor buffet on the stern, which turns into an outdoor steakhouse at night, we sampled gourmet tapas created by Michelin-starred chef Anthony Sasso at the 34-seat Cuadro 44. The 24-month-aged Jamón ibérico and fried rice balls that magically pop with the taste of paella are an absolute must.

Any true barbecue fan knows of cookbook author Steve Raichlen. He’s represented on Star Breeze, too, with his recipes featured at the outdoor Star Grill, open for lunch and dinner—do not miss the bourbon-brined turkey.

Passengers are served gourmet tapas at Cuadro 44.

Passengers are served gourmet tapas at Cuadro 44.

Photo by Fran Golden

As is typical on Windstar’s warm-weather itineraries, one night of the trip (in our case the third night) featured an outdoor deck barbecue with all-you-can-eat lobster tails that erupted into a dance party for passengers and crew. I am still trying to get Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” out of my head.

It felt like good times again, despite everything.

Vaccines accomplished

The next two sailings of Star Breeze were canceled starting June 26, and the ship set course for San Juan, Puerto Rico, where crew received the Johnson & Johnson vaccination. Caribbean sailings have resumed as of July 10. Windstar is also operating ships in Greece and Tahiti this summer, with crew already vaccinated and everyone required to mask up.

>> Next: U.S. Cruising’s Return Favors the Vaccinated

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on some 170 ships to destinations around the world.
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