Champagne & Caviar: I’ve always wondered what it would be like to ply the Caribbean’s turquoise waters aboard a yacht, sipping Champagne and nibbling caviar.
Recently I came upon an ad for the world’s largest cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, weighing in at 220,000 tons and lugging 5,400 passengers. Since that didn’t sound anything like Onassis Aristotle’s yacht where Jackie O once luxuriated, I Googled on until I found the SeaDream: 4,000 tons, 100 passengers. I immediately recognized it and its sister yacht, SeaDream II, as the very same Sea Goddesses I had worshipped from afar in the 1980s. (Their names changed when they changed hands.) Alas, the gods—er, goddesses—of the sea didn’t smile on me back then, and I never boarded them.
By chance, the family-owned Sea Dream I was beginning its Caribbean season with a five-day cruise (they’re usually seven-day affairs) from Puerto Rico to St. John, Virgin Gorda (Columbus supposedly named it “The Fat Virgin”), uninhabited Norman Island (said to be the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island), and tiny Jost Van Dyke. Problem: My wife, Sue, got so seasick 20 years ago during a Mexican cruise in an old Greek tub that she vowed never to set foot on a vessel larger than a barge and then only if it was plying gentle European inland waters.
If I booked the SeaDream, was I sentencing Sue to a week’s worth of suffering at sea? But Sue’s a good Girl Scout and was willing to take a chance. I loaded up on ginger, Dramamine, and those patches worn behind the ear, none of which Sue would touch. Hours before we boarded in San Juan, we joined a group of passengers in a small café, where we fell upon quantities of oysters and other seafood, washed down with tropical drinks. Out on the open sea later that night, Sue heaved it all up over the rail. But she found her sea legs and from then on had no more problems, and ate no more oysters. Mal de mer had been vanquished.
While we had expected our shipmates to be older folks preferring to sleep until noon and lounge around all afternoon sipping exotic drinks, we found the average age to be between 40 to 50, people anxious to jet ski, sail, snorkel, hike, and frolic in the surf. The SeaDream sports a convenient rear platform for water sports.
It also turned out to be a relaxed ship where you spend your days at a casual pace without rigid deadlines and timetables. Guests were told to leave tuxes and evening gowns at home. Most passengers were Americans, joined by some Canadians, a few Brits, two young Columbian newlyweds, two 30-something Danish couples desperate for sunshine, and a Florida couple who got engaged on the third night.
The SeaDream had an open-bar policy, meaning that even premium drinks (but not super-premium) were free and French Champagne gushed, lubricating new friendships. At one beach party, Champagne and caviar were dispensed to waders from a surfboard and a barbecue was served on the sand. Our group consumed 40 bottles of the bubbly before the last tender carried us shipward.
Did I mention that the SeaDream has a large, excellent library?
The yacht normally sailed at night, arriving at a new island in the morning. We usually had a choice of snorkeling trips, guided hikes, dolphin encounters (all for a price), or just swimming or lolling on talcum-powder beaches, snorkeling on our own, and tasting the local beach shack food.
Outside of our departure and arrival points, in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, respectively, this was not a shop-till-you-drop marathon. Jackie O, I’m sure, would have heartily approved of the meals aboard, if not the outrageous Halloween party at legendary Foxy’s on tiny Yost Van Dyke, featuring a blond 20-something whose loosely buttoned Girl Scout uniform wouldn’t have won her a merit badge back home. “I’m a naughty Girl Scout,” she told me.
The SeaDream has no balconies, but with the decks so convenient, we didn’t miss one. Among the best surprises were the Balinese beds, soft lounges along the deck for daytime sunning, and beds for those wanting to slumber romantically under the stars. And we did, heading back to our cabin one night when a tropical sprinkle pitter-patted our faces.
The SeaDream isn’t for everyone. Some of our friends were aghast that we didn’t opt for one of those floating cities with Las Vegas-style shows, 16 decks, blaring announcements, mega-malls, pools (we had one), rigid timetables, fussy dress-up dinners, and costly shore excursions to crowded ports. For us, smaller was better. Speaking of small, while SeaDream cabins were nicely furnished but far from ballroom size, the bathrooms were tiny. The SeaDreams normally cruise the Mediterranean and Caribbean but plan new voyages in the Baltic next year and possibly on the Amazon in 2012.
Instead of catching a plane home from St. Thomas after island-hopping, Sue and I spent three days there and at St. John, a short catamaran trip across the sound. The Ritz Carlton, a huge beach resort at St. Thomas’s east end, is full of delights, though pricey, starting at $400 a night. Visiting some friends from the ship, we were impressed by the brightly painted Bellavista B&B, where they were staying. The view was excellent and it was just a short walk down the hill to the harbor town of Charlotte Amalie. It’s affordable at $195 a night. Owner Wendy Snodgrass handed me a novel set on St. Thomas, Don’t Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk. “This book offers a perfect taste of island life,” she wrote on an inside page of the paperback.
Over on St. John we toured the famed Caneel Bay Resort, the late Laurence Rockefeller’s low-profile, 1950s style hideaway with 166 cottages spread over 170 acres. Caneel is devoted to peace and quiet. Quiet it is. Expensive it also is. Maybe next year.
Photos by Sue De Lapa and Barney Brantingham