St. Martin, Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean — For the first time in more than 15 months, vacationers from North America began boarding in June a small selection of cruise ships that have been activated from their slumber during the pandemic. Among them is the 312-passenger Star Breeze that glided out of the harbor at Philipsburg, bound for … maybe St. Bart’s, said the captain, maybe not. Even the captain did not know where we were going.
Turned out that our expected one-week itinerary changed nearly every day, and passengers were confined to a vacation bubble that included masks, social distancing, and friendly yet serious enforcement. Our experience, while delightfully relaxing and comfortable aboard a spiffy ship recently enlarged and renewed, sometimes was not the carefree voyage that cruisers normally expect.
For me, the tradeoff of occasional annoyances for a return to sea was fully acceptable, but travelers who are planning to cruise or to join any other group vacations this summer should be aware that the pandemic has added stress to the experience. Restrictions are expected to improve as the calendar turns toward fall. In the meantime, be vaccinated and be prepared to be tested and managed; to carry a mask and paperwork of testing evidence, and to be flexible.
For my June trip with Windstar Cruises, vaccinations were required, and we were tested for COVID four times, once at home before we were allowed to board a plane for St. Martin. Everyone on the Star Breeze in June was an experienced traveler, aware that our cruise would have its hiccups. We had a few.
We cruised, occasionally, during the next six days, for a total of 490 nautical miles (a distance, as the crow flies, between Cleveland and Boston), but we never stopped at another island, and we never saw St. Bart’s.
The first — and last — voyage of significant distance took us past Monserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, before we turned around and sailed back to the waters near St. Martin, where the ship lowered its aft-end water sports platform so passengers could go for a swim.
Thereafter, we breezed in and out of St. Martin’s bays, because no one else would have us — a shame, really. The newly made-over Star Breeze of Windstar Cruises is a vessel that delivers a top service staff, outstanding food, fun with water toys and (usually) isolated beaches for snorkeling and picnics, all aimed at the casual yet demanding small ship crowd. As the pandemic moves to a close, Caribbean islands will be sending engraved invitations to this ship.
Windstar is one of several cruise lines — all with predominantly North American passenger lists — that decided to start their 2021 season outside the United States to work around confusing pandemic protocols about testing and vaccinations.
Windstar, with six ships, all of them closed to cruisers since March 14, 2020, decided to begin with a ship in St. Martin, another in Greece — and a third soon in Tahiti. Passengers and crew would be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the Star Breeze crew showed up to work at the shipyard in Europe largely unvaccinated, and Windstar was unable to purchase vaccines for the crew, even when the ship arrived in St. Martin, where the government apologized for its inability to help.
As a result, Windstar called each passenger booked for June 19, offering them a free cruise, explaining that most of the crew was not vaccinated but had passed a series of tests and was confined to the ship (in sort of a trusted bubble), some for two months, others for two weeks. A few passengers declined, accepting a refund. The rest, extra masks packed, headed for the Caribbean.
We were a total of 80 passengers, purposely a small group on a ship that holds 312: all fully vaccinated, all tested for COVID at home, all tested again when we arrived at the ship on Friday, again on Tuesday so St. Martin would let us go ashore (for escorted excursions only), and tested at the end of the cruise before our final docking, where we were escorted directly to the airport. St. Martin doubled down by requiring all passengers to buy island medical insurance for $30. Windstar charged passengers about $150 for two of the COVID tests, but did not charge for the third.
Thoroughly tested — both with swabs in our noses, as well as our patience — we all wore a mask in public areas aboard Star Breeze. We were socially distanced at tables and in gatherings; we stood six feet apart at lifeboat drill. A table for four in the dining rooms became a table for two or three. Dining chairs, as well as seats in the theater and common gathering spots, were marked with a “don’t sit here” tag to achieve a proper distance. Except for whoever was in your cabin, the seat next to you was tagged.
Despite the pandemic paraphernalia, the cruise was a joyful occasion both for passengers hungry to vacation at sea and for the crew, who returned to work after more than a year of waiting for their jobs to restart.
Of all the places one might choose to ride out a week of the fading COVID blues, the Star Breeze is quite a bubble. It is the first of three sister ships to leave drydock after an estimated $250 million of makeovers by Windstar Cruises. Windstar ordered the Fincantieri Shipyard in Palermo, Italy, to cut the ship in half and insert 84 feet.
Outside, the made-over Star Breeze is sleeker than it was in 2013 when Windstar bought three cruise ships from Seabourn to join the line’s trio of masted sailing ships. An enlarged pool was added to the main sundeck, as well as the Star Grill which operates on the upper sundeck level beneath a shaded tarp. At lunch and dinner the Grill features such smoked barbeque items as my two favorites, a coffee-crusted prime brisket and a bourbon brined turkey breast, both from the cookbook of Steve Raichlen.
Inside, Windstar has added an outstanding new Spanish and Portuguese tapas-style restaurant, Cuadro 44 by Anthony Sasso; a well-designed, expanded spa; and 50 cabins for 100 passengers.
The new cabins — with an improved design from the older cabins, placing the bed next to the window and sitting area closer to the door — raises the ship capacity from 212 to 312, but does not disturb the small ship feel. Star Breeze is easy for passengers to navigate; like moving around a boutique hotel, nothing seems far away from the stairwell and elevator at mid-ship.
Next to arrive from the shipyard in Italy are the sister ships, Star Legend and Star Pride, both sliced, enlarged, and renewed. Vaccinations will be required of all crew members and passengers. After the June 19-26 cruise, Star Breeze motored directly, without passengers, to San Juan, where Windstar had arranged for vaccinations for the remainder of the crew on June 27. Star Breeze cruises scheduled for June 26 and July 3 were canceled. Cruises were to resume July 10 in St. Martin. The ship sails to Barbados in August, then Aruba and Panama, and to Tahiti in September.
How long will mask-wearing and distancing aboard Windstar ships continue in the Caribbean, Greece, and Tahiti? That is uncertain, said a cruise line spokesperson.
For me, the most awkward mask-wearing moments cruising on Star Breeze were at evening cocktail events, particularly when the ship’s officers were introduced and mingled with passengers. While masked, holding a beverage in one hand, it was difficult but possible to lower my mask briefly with the other hand to take a sip, then replace the mask into position for conversation.
But when tasty nibbles arrived on silver trays and were offered by waiters around the room, the issue was complicated. With drink in one hand, a shrimp and napkin in the other, my mask remained in position. This predicament made conversations short, as I stood awkwardly holding drink and food with no place to put either one. As the saying goes, there was no other hand.
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David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com, is former travel editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.