Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.

Good things come in small packages: A small-ship cruise

A picture is worth a thousand words - The Silver Cloud (on the right!)

For many people, bigger is better.  For us discerning travelers…not so much.  When the ship Oasis of the Seas launched in 2009, we took one look at its specs (close to 6000 passengers) and knew immediately it wasn’t for us.  The largest ship we’d been on at that time was just slightly over 2000 passengers, and we knew that was quite large enough.  But we wanted to go smaller.  So we looked to the self-described “six-star” experience.

It’s wonderful to be at that point in our lives (nudging ever closer to retirement and yet still with significant cash flow) so that we can travel in a way that allows us to be a bit more discerning than we used to be – because, self-described or not, the so-called six-star cruise lines cost.  And for us, there is one place where bigger is better when it comes to getting on a cruise ship; that place is the size of the stateroom.

On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary some years ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship and we’ve never been able to go back to a smaller stateroom.  So, we are looking for value when we choose an experience.  In the case of moving to smaller ships, we first tried Regent – first the Navigator (490 passengers) and then the Mariner (700 passengers)[1] – then ended up earlier this year on a Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud with all of 296 passengers.  What an experience that was!  Even if you can’t afford a Silversea cruise, or a Silver suite on board, come along with us and we’ll tell you what it’s like.

Art in the suite dining room

We boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown, Barbados at the cruise terminal.  We were greeted not by the usual line-ups and booths that face you when you go aboard a larger ship in places like Fort Lauderdale; rather there was a table with three of the ship’s personnel to greet us with our documents and a wave us to the pier.  Once on board, with a glass of champagne in hand, we had our ID photos taken and were whisked to our suite.

What made the ship so different than previous experiences was that you could stand in the bar at one end of the ship and look down its one corridor and see to the other end.  Then, as you walked along the corridors past occasionally open doors of suites (every stateroom aboard is at least a small suite) and see out both sides of the ship: there are no interior cabins; everyone has an outside suite and some 90% have verandahs.

Patty in the suite living room

The ship’s itinerary took us to several islands that we had never visited before either as an island vacation or as a cruise ship port.  These included Dominica, Bequia and St. Bart’s.  Some islands just don’t have the capability for one reason or another, to host the larger ships, so smaller is better when it comes to accessing them as ports.

We prefer just the two of us for dining companions on any given cruise ship.  In fact, when ships have set dinner times and tables, if we can’t be guaranteed a table for two, we won’t book.  We’ve been burned in the past by having to spend a meal or two in the company of loud wind-bags who like to hear themselves talk – not our idea of a relaxing meal.  On these small ships you just arrive at the dining room any time during dining hours and ask to be seated.  In our case, our requests each evening for a table-for-two were never a problem (unlike a previous experience on a Regent ship when the maître d’ simply could not seem to understand precisely what a table-for-two meant).  Despite our  preference for ‘twosomeness’ in dining, the ship is small enough that you would have to stay in your suite the entire cruise to not come in contact with just about everyone on board some time during the 10 days.  The amazing thing was that we found ourselves in the company of some 250 like-minded people.  These were people who could afford to travel well, but who were looking for an experience that assured them they had spent their money well.  They were not disappointed in this experience, nor were we.

One aspect of travel aboard these six-star ships a traveler needs to know is that people dress.  Some of the lines (Regent for example) have really moved away from truly formal evenings, however, every night on the Silver Cloud was like a cocktail party with cocktail attire expected – and you would certainly stick out if you chose not to dress up a bit.

Our invitation to dine with the Captain of the Silver Cloud

Of course, the food was wonderful and these are all-inclusive experiences.  Not once does a bar tender ask you to sign a bill.  There is no passing over your room key for anything to be added to your bill (except spa services and if you choose wines off the sommelier’s premium list).  Wine, drinks, and gratuities – they are all included in the price.

The entertainment was fairly low-key and yet there was always something to keep us amused.  We would not, however, like to have too many days at sea on such a small ship.  This kind of a cruise where there are five or six lovely ports to explore is the ideal way in our view to experience all the perks of small-ship cruising.

We ended up sharing our van and driver with several passengers from another larger cruise ship who were stranded at a beach on the island of St. Kitts.  When they asked us which ship we were from and we mentioned the Silver Cloud, one of them asked us what it was like on board such a small ship.  “I  heard that everything is included and you have a butler,” he said.  We nodded.  He sighed.  “I’m going on one of those someday,” he said.  “It looks like a private yacht.”  Couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Bequia
Bequia