Joy on the Caribbean seas, but all-in clubs fail the single girl
The `Wind Surf' has satellite phones and 24-hour room service. Stephen Roe on a life of luxury aboard deck
Sunday 14 November 1999
What a relief. No scrubbing of decks is required to be a passenger on the five-masted Wind Surf. All you need is to put on a designer sailing jacket with logo, stand on the bridge and nod at the officers as they adjust computer-controlled sails and hi-tech navigational equipment.
The thing is that this particular vessel is not just any old sailing ship. At 14,745 tons, this French-built mother of all sailing ships, with five 164ft (50m) masts and seven enormous sails, is closer in size to an ocean liner than an ordinary yacht. She is 530ft long with a beam of 65ft. She may be built of wood, but her effective stabilisers limit heeling under sail and assist it to cut smoothly through the water. And yet a draft of just 16ft enables her to drop anchor close in to some of the Caribbean's remoter beaches and shores.
The best of all worlds? As far as I am concerned, possibly. The ship carries a crew of 180 to pamper and fuss over her passengers, who never exceed 300 in number. Henning Heltberg, the Norwegian captain, operates an Open Bridge policy, allowing passengers access to chat to his mainly British officers at any time. When the wind was up we cruised under sail at around 8 knots, although the four diesel-electric engines were often needed to ensure we kept to schedule.
I realise for once and for all that this is not an old sea-dog's operation when I notice that there is 24-hour room service and that every cabin is fitted with video and CD players, live television and direct-dial international satellite telephones (pounds 10 a minute). Computer terminals and modems are soon to be installed, too, for those who fear being becalmed in a non- interactive world. Towels are changed twice daily and there is a same- day laundry service.
At every stop a large sports platform is opened at the rear of the ship. Water-ski boats, kayaks, sailboards, dinghies and other toys are launched for passengers to play in the crystal-clear waters. Qualified crew members escort snorkelling and diving expeditions. Or you can just jump in and swim around at the back of the ship. Apart from scuba diving, all of the water-sports activities are provided free of charge.
After setting sail from Barbados, our first port of call is the island of Mayreau - white-sand beaches, coral reefs, etc. While breakfast is being served on deck, an army of Indonesian and Filipino stewards is setting up neat lines of sun beds, fresh towels and a makeshift bar along the beach. If this is roughing it, I can cope for a few more days.
Weather permitting, a sumptuous informal buffet lunch is served under sunshades on the main deck every day, except when the chefs are preparing beach barbecues on shore. There is nothing (terribly) formal about life on board Wind Surf. Anyone wearing a tie will look out of place. Instead, an atmosphere of what the Americans describe as "casual elegance" is encouraged. Shorts, T-shirts and denim are banned during the evenings.
As on most ships sailing in the Caribbean, Americans dominate the passenger mix by around 10 to one. One consequence of this is that the menus and wine list seem to be aimed at an American clientele - plentiful and served with a smile, but falling short of the five-star standards promised in the company's brochure.
But these passengers want action. We climb a rugged track to reach a deserted sandy beach in Bequia; snorkel in sparkling waters in Tobago and drive beside a steaming, sulphurous volcano in St Lucia. Each day the ship calls at a different island.
For some, however, disembarkation looks like a mistake. From every island hilltop we climb, we see our ship at anchor glistening alluringly in the sunshine. For those wise enough to stay on board, there is a glass-walled gym on the top deck to ensure that nobody misses out on the passing scenery. Down below there is a health and beauty spa with six massage rooms. Personally, I can't resist giving the Alpha Capsule a try.
With my naked body enveloped from the neck down, I lie on a vibrating pad while relaxing music and subliminal messages are played through headphones. As I begin to breathe in the aromatic oils, I am asked to choose between programmes including Relaxation, Invigoration, Sleep or Life Enhancement. Perhaps my expectations are too high. After 30 minutes, the only sensations I feel are boredom. Am I beyond help?
There is no organised entertainment on board, apart from a couple of remarkably joyless trios playing seventies music in the lounge and bars. However, most people are happy to retire early, perhaps for a little romance. Or are they exhausted from their action-packed days?
CRUISING AND SUPERCLUBS
`Wind Surf', along with her sister ships `Wind Song', `Wind Star' and `Wind Spirit', is operated by Seattle-based Windstar Cruises. One week's cruise, departing Barbados, costs from pounds 1,190 during winter. Fly/cruise fares for a week, including non-stop flights to Barbados from London Gatwick on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, cost from pounds 1,935. Call Equity Cruises (tel: 0171-739 5414). Packages with `Wind Surf' itineraries are available from Elegant Resorts (tel: 01244 897999) and Caribbean Connection (tel: 01244 355300).
Lucy Gillmore flew with Air Jamaica (tel: 0181-570 7999), which goes from Heathrow to Montego Bay four times a week until 21 November and five times a week from 22 November. A return flight costs pounds 397.30 when booked seven days in advance and taken before 25 November with a maximum stay of one month. A return flight on Air Jamaica with Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400) costs pounds 370.30 until 30 November.
With SuperClubs' Grand Lido Sampler you can split a week's holiday between Sans Souci and Negril with a free flight in between. Call SuperClubs UK (tel: 01749 677200). Four nights at Sans Souci and three nights at Negril costs pounds 1,200 per person, based on two people sharing, until the end of November. Alternatively, Funway (tel: 0181-290 3600) offers a week at Sans Souci or Negril from pounds 1,535 per person until 16 December. The Grand Lido resorts are adult only. SuperClubs have a strict no-tipping policy.
FURTHER INFORMATION The Jamaican Tourist Board (tel: 0171-224 0505).
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