FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — At long last there's a ship for the die-hards who think they'd get bored on a standard cruise, for people who shy away from the big ships, for erstwhile skippers who like to stand on the bridge with the captain.
It's for couples who want to be alone together on a remote island beach instead of on a group bus tour of St. Thomas, and for anyone who would rather snorkel or windsurf than play bingo or line up for the midnight buffet.
The newest star afloat, a motor and sailing vessel called Wind Star, made its splashy debut in the Caribbean in December, and the cruise world may never be the same again.
On the maiden voyage, the rich and famous showed up in every port, clamoring to come aboard for a closer look.
In Mustique, William F. Buckley came over from his yacht and requested permission to board, and David Bowie wangled an invitation to lunch.
In St. Lucia, Princess Margaret admired the ship, and Colin Tennant (a.k.a. Lord Glenconnor) invited the ship and its passengers to spend the afternoon at his private beach.
Lord Glenconnor's pet elephant Bupa, along with steel drummers, fire-eaters, limbo dancers and acrobats, greeted passengers while shipboard chefs grilled freshly caught lobsters for an al fresco lunch. The outing was such a success it has been added to the regular itinerary.
At the end of the cruise, three dozen passengers made cash deposits to guarantee their cabins for the inaugural sailing of its sister ship Wind Song, in Tahiti in July. And one couple booked their cabin for a second week and telephoned their daughter to come and join them.
You're right if you suspect that only a very unusual ship gets this kind of attention in the jaded Caribbean cruise lanes.
The 440-foot, four-masted Wind Star has six sails set and trimmed by computers that monitor wind velocity and direction and control heeling to less than six degrees. Then there are the usual cruise ship stabilizers and bow thrusters, giving the 150 passengers the comfort of a cruise vessel combined with the romance and grace of a sailing ship.
With masts towering 204 feet above the sea, Wind Star is a striking sight. The interior is no less innovative; the captain's bridge looks like Mission Control and the futuristic French modular bathrooms in each stateroom make you feel like calling out "Beam me up, Scotty!" every time you open the door.
Without a doubt, Windstar Sail Cruises offers a sophisticated and relaxing alternative to a traditional cruise.
But this isn't a swinging-singles sailing. This ship attracts couples, from honeymooners to pairs in their early retirement years, with a preponderance of people in their 30s and 40s.
During the cruise, the image of Sea Goddess and its relaxing and unregimented luxury came to mind, as well as the romance of the sailing yacht Sea Cloud and the frequent beach calls of the water-sports-oriented Exploration Starship.
But the Wind Star is different. Its sail/cruise design, created at Wartsila in Helsinki and built by Societe Nouvelle des Ateliers et Chantiers in Le Havre, lends it a distinctive profile. The clean-lined decor by French designer Marc Held uses deeper colors and darker woods than the new Scandinavian ships.
Windstar president Jean-Claude Potier was eager to get away from some of the cliches of cruising. There is no end-of-the-cruise tipping, for example, and no dining room seating assignments, no shore excursion program or scheduled daily events, no bingo, no cruise director, and virtually no entertainment beyond the piano bar and music for dancing.
Instead of going alongside a pier in the familiar Caribbean port cities, the Wind Star frequently anchors off a quiet beach and ferries passengers ashore in inflatable Sillinger boats. The ship's bartender sets up a beach bar (soft drinks, beer, wine and punch are gratis), and the staff provides free water-sports equipment--windsurfers, snorkeling and scuba gear, Sunfish sailboats and water-skis--and any necessary instruction. (All scuba divers are required to have proof of certification.)
Because the ship has no elevator and most ports are reached by tender, sometimes in inflatable rubber boats, the Wind Star cannot be recommended for the elderly, disabled, or for small children.
The emphasis is on low-key camaraderie and offbeat, non-commercial ports of call. Singles looking for night life or casino action might grow fidgety with the lack of after-dinner entertainment or from trying to play at one of the two blackjack tables on board.
Time for Friendliness
From the first day at sea, a camaraderie grew among the passengers, about 60% of them Americans and 40% French on the first cruise. The daily routine usually means sailing in the mornings, arriving at ports at midday and sometimes staying through the evening or all night.
Beach visits with water sports from shore and the ship's launching platform are scheduled daily, with shoreside picnics and barbecues.