Cruises

Big Adventure on a Small Ship

A Pacific Northwest Cruise - Olympic Wilderness & San Juan Islands

 Wilderness Discoverer 

Wilderness Discoverer 

We've been on a dozen or more cruises - everything from small luxury yachts and mega ships to clipper ships and chartered barges but this trip was our first experience on an Expedition ship. Our packing list for this voyage included things we had never taken on any other cruise - waterproof gloves, rain pants and jacket, waterproof hiking boots, trekking poles, multiple pairs of wool socks and layers of wicking, breathable clothes. We had always wanted to experience an UnCruise and this year we were able to do it and I don't think it will be our last.

UnCruise has been in business since 1996 and specializes in delivering big adventures to passengers on its fleet of small ships. Our voyage was aboard the Wilderness Discoverer - a sleek ship built for adventure and exploration at 176 feet in length and 39 feet wide. The ship was equipped with kayaks, paddle boards, inflatable skiffs, snorkel gear/wetsuits, two on-deck hot tubs, fitness equipment and yoga mats. The EZ Dock platform made launching kayaks a breeze.

The interior of the ship was casual but well designed and comfortable. Our cabin had two twin beds, a large picture window, small bedside table and in-room sink. The combo shower/toilet room was small but manageable. The closet had plenty of room and there were lots of hooks to hang gear. There were also hooks outside of each cabin for guests to leave wet rain gear and jackets in the hallway along with hiking boots and rubber shoes. The public spaces were located on the Main Deck (Deck 2) and included the dining room, bar and lounge which had bookshelves loaded with books and DVDs to borrow. There was also plenty of deck space to catch some fresh air outside although it was mostly cold and rainy during our time aboard. The two hot tubs got a lot of use though. 

The Wilderness Discoverer can accommodate up to 76 guest and 27 crew. Most of the ship's 38 passenger cabins are located on the Observation Deck (Deck 3) with a few scattered below on the Main Deck. Four "Explorer" cabins located on the Sun Deck (Deck 4) were larger and featured a sitting area as well as a private bath with shower. These cabins seemed to be reserved for repeat guests who received them as upgrades. One couple we talked to who got the upgrade said they really preferred the cabins on the 3rd deck because of the interior hallway and being closer to the public areas.  

April 7, 2018 – Embarkation:  Seattle, WA

On embarkation day, we met up with other passengers at a downtown hotel in Seattle and waited to be shuttled to our ship docked at Fishermen’s Terminal. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the dock by members of the crew, expedition and hospitality teams and our Captain, Keith Raisch, a retired US Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer. As we boarded the vessel we were welcomed with a glass of bubbly and then escorted to our cabin where our luggage had already been delivered. We quickly stowed our gear then went to explore the rest of the ship. Eventually we made our way back to the lounge and met some of our fellow passengers who were already bonding with perhaps the most popular crew member - the bartender, Jasmine. This particular cruise also had a craft beer theme so along for the voyage were Nate and Becca Schons, co-owners and brewers of Island Hoppin' Brewery. A selection of Nate's brews were available on tap at the bar and later in the week the Schons would be hosting us at their brewery on Orcas Island. Nate and Becca also made beer-pairing recommendations to go with each night's dinner menu. 

When all of the guests were settled in the lounge, we were introduced to the rest of the crew and guides along with our Expedition Leader, Sarah, who gave us a rundown of the next day's schedule and activity options. As Larry and I sipped on Nate's Bills Pills beer we listened to Sarah describe the list of skiff, kayak or hiking options we could sign up for the next day but she warned us, "There could always be changes based on the three W's - weather, whales and whims." At the time we didn't realize how foretelling those words would be. 

Shortly after the Captain and his crew set sail, dinner was served in the casual but well appointed dining room which served as the dining area for all meals onboard. Seating was open so each night we met new people from far and near - Brazil, Australia, Massachusetts, Texas and Seattle, to name of few places.

We transited the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks while dining on the first of many delicious meals we would enjoy throughout the week. The full-service, sit-down dinners always included a starter, choice of a meat, seafood or vegetarian entree, two side dishes and dessert prepared by a dedicated pastry chef. Breakfast was always served buffet style as was lunch, unless on-shore activities were planned in which case we would take a packed lunch.

It became the ritual each night, during happy hour guests would meet in the lounge to enjoy some appetizers while Sarah and the other guides would fill us in on the next day's plan and activities.

 Sailing Through Deception Pass 

Sailing Through Deception Pass 

 

April 8, 2018 – Salish Sea / Deception Pass

On the first morning of the cruise we awoke anchored in the Salish Sea which is the intricate network of coastal waterways encompassing such major bodies of waters as the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Our morning consisted of a leisurely breakfast highlighted by fresh-baked Black Cherry & Hazelnut scones. Breakfast was followed by an orientation on how to properly wear a PFD (personal flotation device), procedures for boarding the skiffs that would shuttle us to shore for excursions and brief demos on kayak and SUP basics.

Not long after the orientation it was announced that kayaking would be cancelled for the day due to high winds. While guests convened in the dining room for lunch, the expedition team convened with the captain to see what other activities were still possible.

After lunch, we got word that the crew and expedition team would be able to launch skiffs and ferry us over to Whidbey Island for our originally planned afternoon hikes. The skiffs dropped us on shore at the point of the now defunct original ferry that back in the day had been operated by a cantankerous women named Berte Olson. As the story goes, patrons would summon the ferry by hitting a saw with mallet and Olson might come if she felt like it.

Many of the trails on the island were the result of work carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 through the early 1940's. Our trail took us from the shoreline where we watched two bald eagles soaring overhead and a few harbor seals swimming in the water to a meandering path surrounded by old-growth forests and commanding views of the surrounding islands.

Upon returning to the ship it was good news to hear the Captain had deemed it possible to sail through Deception Pass. Thankfully, Mother Nature was cooperating with us but she still had plans to throw us off course.

 Paddling the Waters of Echo Bay

Paddling the Waters of Echo Bay

April 9, 2018 – Sucia Island

Due to high winds after leaving Deception Pass the Captain decided to skip our scheduled stop at Lopez Island and headed for the more-sheltered Sucia Island instead. In the morning we woke up to find our vessel anchored in a quiet bay surrounded by sandstone bluffs and towering trees. Sucia Island is considered the "crown jewel" of the state marine parks system and is only accessible by watercraft. After breakfast we suited up for our first chance at kayaking. We shimmied into our kayak while on the EZ Dock platform and then the crew and expedition team slid us effortlessly into the pristine waters of Echo Bay. On our 2-hour paddle our guide, Karl, led us in the direction of some rocky bluffs where seals were known to hang out but once we entered the open waters it was a little too rough to continue. Instead, we ventured back into the calmer bay waters and explored the island's unique sandstone formations, quiet inlets and wildlife.

After lunch we took a skiff from the ship to Fossil Bay and then hiked to the other side of this horseshoe-shaped island to Ewing Bay. We had great views of neighboring Orcas Island and its towering Mt. Constitution - the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The 3.5-mile hike took us along rocky shoreline, through old-growth forest and up bluffs overlooking emerald-green waters. It really was a breathtakingly beautiful island.

After dinner, Nate gave us preview of what we would see and taste at Island Hoppin' Brewery the next day. It was great to him and Becca with us all week as co-hosts so guests could chat one-on-one with them. There were a few true beer aficionados on board including a beer writer and a beer competition judge. When asked about his approach to making beer Nate explained,  "I have a vision of what I want a beer to be and then I work backwards into making it." Nate also piqued the interest of several beer enthusiasts when he told us about a beer we could try at his brewery the next day that is 8.3% ABV.

April 10, 2018 – Port: Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

Gale warnings again forced the captain to change course from our planned itinerary of visiting Orcas Island and instead we docked in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Our visit to Nate's brewery would have to wait. While we were enjoying breakfast, the crew and expedition team had been hard at work putting together a new plan and Nate called a friend with a craft beer brewery on the island to see if he could host us in the afternoon. It is worth noting here how amazing the entire UnCruise team was. No matter what changes were presented to them the expedition team could seamlessly put a new plan in place with little disruption to the guests and the stewards of the hospitality team were always looking out for the comfort of guests. 

San Juan Island has an interesting history in that it was the last place of border dispute between the United States and Britain. The English Camp was on the forested north side of the island and the American Camp was on the south side. We were part of a group that shuttled to the south side to take a 3-mile hike on the Jakle's Lagoon Trail which at the start overlooked the Strait of Juan de Fuco and mainland Washington in the distance. It rained pretty good during our hike but we found some cover once we headed into the dense forest and miraculously the rain stopped and the sun peeked out just in time so we could enjoy our packed lunches sitting along the shore of a pretty cove.

Back in town we visited The Whale Museum which opened in 1979 and was the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. It was a really well done museum with a mix of low- and high-tech exhibits and plenty of hands-on exhibits that kids would enjoy too. The museum is well known for its work in tracking generations of whales since the 1970's.

The rest of our afternoon was spent at the San Juan Island Brewery housed in a new $4-million facility just a few blocks from Friday Harbor. There was a nice, big deck out front which is probably packed on summer days but on this cold and drizzly day we headed inside. UnCruise had arranged to pick up the tab for our first pint or tasting flight of beer. Nate and Becca and some of the other passengers from the ship were already there and chatting with Nate's friend who owned the brewery. Larry and I both had the tasting flight which included pours of Golden Ale, IPA, Porter, Pale Ale and a Lager. The tasting notes were quite creative like the one for the Yachter's Daughter Helles Lager - Like the annual fair-weather flotilla of incoming recreational boaters.

Dinner that night was "all-you-can-eat" crab and platters of it just kept coming as we cracked and picked our way through the tasty crustaceans. The beer pairing selected by Nate that night definitely added to the lively meal.

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April 11, 2018 – Stuart Island

We left Friday Harbor before sunrise and headed to Stuart Island (again, not on the original itinerary) where we dropped anchor. After breakfast we took a skiff tour where we saw some great bird life including cormorants, pigeon guillemots, belted kingfishers, bald eagles and harlequin ducks. Stuart Island is private so there were no hiking opportunities here. We could only admire the island from the skiff.

When we returned to the ship the captain had been monitoring weather reports and the already pesky winds were forecasted to increase so once again, Mother Nature had upset our plans so off we went in search of calmer seas. 

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We spent the rest of the day peering out the ship's large windows at the relentless white caps churning all around us as we headed for a protected cove. On the Wilderness Discoverer the bridge is always open to passengers so it was a popular spot to visit. The Captain and First Mate were very welcoming and generous with sharing their space and explaining the goings-on as they commanded the vessel against 44-knot winds. 

Eventually, the crew dropped anchor in West Sound off Orcas Island with a perfect view of Turtleback Mountain and that is where we remained for the rest of the day. The guides allowed some open-paddle kayaking for a few hours in the the vicinity of the ship but no other activities were planned for the rest of day so we played some cribbage and read in the lounge. This was a pretty restful day and we turned in early after dinner.

As I was putting things away in the cabin before going to sleep I came across the original itinerary UnCruise had sent with our cruise documents. I turned to Larry and said, "You know, this really isn't an itinerary at all. It's merely a list of ideas, suggestions and possibilities." We had a good laugh as I tossed it in the trash.

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April 12, 2018 – East Sound, Orcas island

The captain repositioned the ship during the night so that when we awoke we were in West Sound directly in front of the Rosario Resort and Spa. This grand estate was part of the original private property of shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor, Robert Moran who had it built in 1906 as a place to escape the stress of work and city life. In 1920 Moran gifted a large portion of his property to the state of Washington after being inspired by his good friend, John Muir. (The Rosario Resort and Spa is still privately owned.) We had the opportunity to walk through the former mansion and admire the fine craftsmanship before boarding shuttles to take us to the trail head for our hike.

Moran State Park has miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails but perhaps the most well known trail is to the summit of Mt. Constitution. In retrospect, Larry and I wished we had signed up for the summit hike but we opted for the shorter, 4-mile loop hike around a lake so we would have ample time to visit Nate and Becca's brewery later in the day. We ate lunch along the trail and then met up with our shuttle driver to take us to the summit of Mt. Constitution where we rendezvoused with the other hiking groups including the ones that hiked to the summit. I was disappointed because obviously there would have been plenty of time to hike the summit and visit the brewery. That was when I wished the guides would designate some hikes for faster walkers only. Sometimes it seemed like they made some hikes sound harder or longer than they were just to dissuade people from signing up and other hikes were set at very slow paces like our 4-mile loop. We were told during the orientation the summit hike could take up to 8 hours. That wasn't the case at all. 

In the afternoon we made our way to Island Hoppin' Brewery – Nate and Becca’s place, which is a little distance from the main part of town. UnCruise had arranged to have a shuttle make a loop to town, then the brewery and back to the dock so guests could come and go as they please. The brewery was located in an old metal shop in a little warehouse district. Nate built the interior of the brewery from the ground up. He initially wanted a smaller space but the owner of the building told him, "You're thinking too small." It was good advice because Nate already has plans to expand by knocking out some walls. 

When you enter the brewery you feel like you're walking into Nate and Becca's home. Island Hoppin' Brewery has much a different feel than the larger San Juan Brewery we had visited but that's what's great about craft brewing. The breweries are always a reflection of the owner/brewer. A group of locals were holding court at a corner table and behind them on the wall was one of Nate's guitars. I could just sense there had been some great impromptu nights in this place. Now in their sixth year of operation, Nate and Becca still enjoy a loyal following by locals who were there when they started. During the first two years Nate and Becca initiated a "Mug Club" for locals only. Members were vetted and had to be year-round residents in order to qualify for a coveted mug. The locals just grabbed their mug off the shelf when they entered and headed for the bar. They never had to wait.

The brewery has two interior rooms that are cozy, quaint and perfect for easy conversation with others and the opportunity to make new friends. We were able to grab two stools at the modest-sized bar and tried some of the beers that were not offered on the taps aboard our ship, like the 8.2 ABV Old Madrona Imperial Red. The bartender poured $5 pints, $2 tastes and $15 flights. We thought all of the beers were very good but we asked the opinion of the beer judge from our ship who was sitting next to us to get his professional opinion. He agreed. There were a few food options available for order and a help-yourself bucket of peanuts. Although somewhat tucked away and modest in size, this brewery was bursting with conversation and laughter and felt three times its size. Nate pointed to a stack of big boxes and said it was new furniture waiting to be unpacked and added to the outdoor area already decked out with picnic tables and a Ping-Pong table. The busy summer season would be starting in just a few weeks time. Island Hoppin' Brewery felt like the hub of the community. A place where everyone has to stop before heading home or back to the ship. 

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April 13, 2018 – Olympic National Park

We awoke this morning anchored off Port Townsend which is located on the northeast end of the Olympic Peninsula. A peek outside the window of our cabin revealed fog and rain. Not exactly ideal conditions for our planned hike.

At one time, Port Townsend was speculated to become the largest harbor on the west coast of the United States but when the depression hit the city lost much of its funding to continue building rail lines so its importance diminished greatly. It began to flourish in the 1970's as new residents moved to the port city, including many retirees. Today, original Victoria-style buildings from the late-19th century now share the waterfront with restaurants, shops and theatres. Port Townsend plays host to many festivals, artists' conferences and other cultural programs throughout the year making it a popular tourism spot.

At breakfast we sat with a couple from Seattle who said they planned to stay on the ship all day. "We see enough of this kind of weather in Seattle. I don't need to hike in it. " the woman told us. Several other guests were planning to skip the hike and just take the skiff into town for a little while or just stay on the ship. Hmmm, maybe they were right but, Larry and I are San Diegans who don't get to use our rain gear very often. So, off we went to our cabin to cram our day packs full of warm, waterproof gear. One thing we didn't have were backpack rain covers so we improvised with some garbage bags.

We joined the other guests willing to brave the weather and boarded shuttle buses to take us to the trail head for our 6-mile hike. As we neared the drop-off point it became clear the road was washed out and so was the foot trail to reach the trail head. Our nimble guides scouted for another trail and then radioed the expedition leader and and support team with the back-up plan. With only a slight delay, we were soon hiking a path named "Dry Creek Trail" which seemed like a misnomer considering the lush terrain and constant rainfall puddling all around us. 

After hiking in the rain for about an hour and a half and with no guarantee of a spectacular view or summit on this unfamiliar trail, a few of us opted to turn back with one of the guides and catch a shuttle to go explore the town of Hoodsport before heading back to the ship.

Nate and Becca had been on the hike and decided to turn back and head for Hoodsport too. We decided the best way to take the chill off was to visit the local distillery in town. The Hardware Distillery Company is located next to the Hood Canal in a quaint building constructed in 1930. The owners, Jan and Chuck, have occupied the space since 2012 and produce mead, vodka, gin, whiskey and Aquavit using honey, grains and fruit from the Washington area. The distillery's unique setting along the Hood Canal allows Chuck to age his barrels in the basement of the building and open up ventilation so the  barrels can breathe in fresh, salt air.

We tried at least dozen different blends as Chuck guided us through the tasting and explained the different distilling processes. The distillery was full of copper and stainless steel pots, stills, columns, etc. Chuck makes a variety of distilled meads under the "Bee's Knees" label. Distilled mead is made from 80% honey and 20% fruit. The liquid is aged in American Oak for about three months and then becomes a very unique spirit. His offerings include Peachy Keen, Raspberry, HWY 101, Merry Cherry with Coffee, Cat's Pajamas and Little Owl.

We also enjoyed tasting the unique blends of Aquavit. We tasted the liquor ice cold, the way it's enjoyed in Sweden and raised our glasses - "Let's toast to life - Sköl!"

April 14, 2018 - Disembarkation: Seattle, WA

We enjoyed one final breakfast with some of our new friends and exchanged contact information. Then is was time to catch a taxi to the airport for our early flight. UnCruise handled all transfers to the airport or city hotels. If passengers had early flights, the cruise was accommodating about setting up taxi or private shuttle service too.

We would definitely book another UnCruise. We loved the mix of scenery, activity and relaxation aboard the Wilderness Discoverer. The entire staff was first rate and meals were very good. If you are interested in booking a trip with UnCruise or would like to get more details about our trip, please contact us. 

When you book a cruise or tour through Putnam Travel you always receive a nice bon-voyage gift or shipboard credit.  Contact: Larry Clark at lctravel@san.rr.com
or 858-488-2569. Or click here.

 

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

Not sure what to pack? Click here for a Pacific Northwest Packing List.

 

 

Cruisin' in Cuba

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UPDATE - 

Unfortunately, Celestyal Cruises has put its sailings on hold due to large U.S. Cruise Lines saturating the Cuba market. Celestyal will evaluate the situation and consider re-introducing sailings to Cuba in 2020. As an alternative, we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage" for a similar small ship experience. 

 

I have to admit, I felt a little trepidation before our trip to Cuba. Questions swirled in my mind about safety and whether we would be warmly received by the Cuban people. I also wasn't sure if we'd come away with a genuine feel for the country since we'd be touring as part of an escorted "education experience" program. Cuba is still under the U.S. embargo, meaning Americans can’t just go to Cuba to drink mojitos and drive in cool cars (although we did do that one day). Americans must travel under one of the 12 categories of the the Cuba Travel Affidavit and most casual travelers visit as part of a guided “People-to-People" immersion program.*

Our booking with Celestyal Cruises included a "Discover the Authentic Cuban Experience" Program which met the criteria of the Cuba Travel Affidavit and would provide us with a broad introduction to Cuba's rich history and culture. We also liked the itinerary which called on three ports and docked for two full days in Havana. Celestyal handled all of the excursions, programs and tours so all we had to do was show up at the correct time to meet our local tour guide or catch our assigned bus. Our immersion experience wasn't limited to just our time on land. Onboard, we had the option to attend lectures by Destination Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha, (Professor of Contemporary Philosophy of the University of Havana) on topics ranging from history, cuisine and art to music, cigars and rum tasting. I attended a few of Dr. Arocha's presentations and found him to be engaging, energetic and entertaining. 

* It is possible to visit Cuba on a self-guided tour but there are strict requirements to document your trip. 

Nov. 10, 2017 - Embarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

We spent a couple of nights at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay before the start of the cruise because it's never a good idea to fly to a destination on the same day as embarkation. We always recommend arriving a day or two before your cruise in case you encounter any travel delays. The Holiday Inn was perfect for our group - it was all-inclusive, near the airport and had the amenities we needed for two days - beach, pool, bar, restaurant and a place to rest our heads. If you prefer something in the luxury category, there are plenty of 5-star, luxury resorts including Half Moon, Round Hill and Secrets Wild Orchid to name a few. 

Aboard the Celestyal Crystal

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We scheduled a shuttle for our group of ten from the Holiday Inn to the port. The drive took about 45 minutes due to bumper-to-bumper, rush hour traffic but we boarded well before embarkation so we had no worries. The check-in process was a little confusing with multiple lines and some in our group were charged a departure tax (even though we would be returning to Jamaica). 

Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal was easy to explore. At 162 meters long, it featured ten decks with accommodations for 1200 passengers and 406 crew and was the first ship to offer around-Cuba sailings. The Crystal had everything large cruise ships offer but on a more intimate scale. The public spaces, lounge and restaurants had touches of Art Deco design but other spaces like the Sports Bar/Card Room and tiny casino looked tired and in need of some updating.

Our cabin was decent-sized with two twin beds, sitting area, desk, ample closet and storage space and a large picture window. The furnishings were stylish but basic and the beds were very comfortable. 

The dining room looked chic and contemporary and felt welcoming in soothing turquoise and tan tones.  The cuisine in the dining room was okay with some hits and misses. Every fish entree I ordered was great, however the beef dishes always seemed to be overdone. There was a selection of entrees off the menu that were available for additional charge which included lobster tail, which was very good. Breakfast and lunch had a good variety of options served cafeteria/buffet style. The self-serve coffee machine always seemed to leave an oil slick on the top of my coffee so I opted to order a cappuccino from a bartender instead. I know a lot of ships have those automated coffee/espresso machines and some work great but others I question how often they are cleaned. The meals were fine, just don't set your expectations too high or you will be disappointed. If you are into 5-star fine dining then this ship would not be a great fit for you.

Thalassa, the terrace bar at the aft of the ship, was a popular spot. The seating arrangement can feel a little tight and one side of the deck is the smoking area but it was a great end-of-the-day gathering place for our group. 

Nov. 11, 2017 - Port: Santiago de Cuba

Our first morning in port we met in the lounge to be assigned buses and guides. On this cruise it's important to attend these gatherings so you know what bus to get on. There are several buses each designated for specific groups and independent travelers and itineraries may vary depending on nationalities. Seating is limited and everyone must check in as they board their bus.

Our first order of business after we disembarked and cleared Passport Control was to exchange money. There was a kiosk and small trailer with teller windows on the dock where we exchanged money before boarding the buses. In Cuba there are two forms of currency - the CUP and the CUC. The CUP (Cuban Peso) is what Cubans receive with a government salary. The CUC (called the "kook") is the convertible peso you receive when you exchange foreign currency. You'll need cash for all of your purchases (you cannot use US credit cards in Cuba) so it's good to plan ahead on what you want to buy and exchange just enough money so you're not stuck with CUCs and the end of the trip. 

We boarded our bus and began a tour of the old colonial city of Santiago, the 2nd largest city in Cuba and a major center for banking and commerce. There is also a lot of political history to be found in Santiago, including bullet-riddled buildings, monuments on former battle sites, statues celebrating revolutionaries and museums full of imagery and artifacts of the country's tumultuous beginning of the Cuban Revolution. One of our stops was at the Moncada Barracks, the site of the of the failed attack by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953. Although this attack failed and led to dozens of injuries and some deaths, it is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. Other stops included Plaza de la Revolucion, the El Morro, San Juan Hill and the African Cultural Center to watch a traditional dance performance. 

Before heading back to the ship our guide took us into one of the island's government-run stores where cigars, cigarettes and liquor are sold. We had planned to buy some cigars in Havana but since we were carrying quite a bit of cash we decided to buy in Santiago and reduce the amount of money we were carrying around. It turned out to be a good decision because when we checked the state-run stores in Havana some of the cigars that were on our list to buy were sold out and some of the prices were slightly higher. In these stores the prices marked are what you pay. There is no negotiating in the state-run stores.

Nov. 12, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our day at sea included many activities of a typical cruise - tour of the bridge, fruit carving demos, dance classes, towel folding, cooking lessons and Bingo. There was also a presentation by Dr. Jorge Arocha about "Cuban Cigars and The Story behind the Smoke." According to one of our local guides the top three Cuban cigars are 1. Cohiba, 2. Monte Christo and 3. Romeo & Juliet. 

Nov. 13, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 1

One of the reasons we selected Celestyal was because its itinerary gave us two full days in Havana. Some other cruise lines only have one stop on the island and some don't stop in Havana at all but dock in another city and bus passengers to the capital city for day trips or over-night trips which means you have to pack a bag and stay in a hotel. Our ship was docked right at the foot of Havana's old town and a just a short walk to San Francisco Plaza, one of the four major plazas in Old Havana where our walking tour began that morning. The tour took us through the "cobblestone core" of the colonial district with stops at some notable sites including some of Ernest Hemingway's haunts as well as the three other plazas -  San Viejo (New Square), Arms Square and Cathedral Square. Many of the buildings being restored in this area used to be homes of wealthy aristocrats in 18th century Cuba. The parks and squares were clean and well tended but it was here we could see the impact tourism was having on the city. Dozens of tour groups stood huddled around guides holding umbrellas or placards reminiscent of so many tours in European cities. After our walking tour we had the option of returning to the ship for lunch or staying in town for lunch. We had lunch at one of the seafood restaurants recommended by our guide. The service was good and the fresh fish plate lunch we had was great.  In the afternoon we boarded buses for a driving tour of the city. We cruised along the malecon past the new hotels, the American Embassy, and into the central district where many residents live. This area is "rent free" and is a little run down. Our final stop was at Revolution Plaza.

After dinner on the ship we boarded a bus to the world-renown Tropicana to see its famous cabaret show. Touristy? Sure, but it was definitely worth visiting this open-air nightclub to watch the dancers dressed in their over-the-top costumes. If you go, don't expect much in the way of comfort or service. We were seated at long tables arranged very tightly with the rest of the audience and then provided with a bottle of rum and a couple cans of mixer (cola or soda) to share. If you want something else, good luck. It's not likely you'll see your server again. We didn't. The show (weather permitting) is still performed outside under a gorgeous canopy of trees like it was during the casino's heyday in the 1950's.

Nov. 14, 2017 - Port: Havana, Cuba - Day 2

We began our second morning with a bus ride to the outskirts of western Havana to the mosaic wonderland of Fusterlandia. What started as a DIY project of Jose Rodriquez Fuster to liven up the facade of his house with mosaic embellishment has blossomed into a full-blown community project of converting almost every flat surface in the neighborhood into a canvas for shiny decorative shards. The whimsical and quirky designs stretch for blocks and can be found on walls, houses, flats, office buildings, schools and even the medical center. It all exemplifies the Cuban spirit through art and resourcefulness. On our way back to the ship the buses stopped at the Museo de la Revolucion which is a very well done museum full of photos and memorabilia from Cuba's revolution. Here, you will find all kinds of things on display including Che Guevara's beret, women's skirts lined with hidden pockets that were used to transport hidden guns and ammo and Granma, the small speedboat in which the Castro brothers traveled to Cuba from their exile in Mexico in 1956.

In the afternoon, we had a period of free time until our ship left at 9pm. This was really the only extended period of time we had to see Cuba unescorted. We hired three drivers in American vintage "taxis" to guide our group of ten around the city. The cars are referred to by the locals as almendrones (translation - almonds) because they think the cars resemble the shape of a giant almond. Most drivers pay a fee to rent cars from owners so they need to make enough money to clear a profit after covering the day's fee. Be sure to negotiate up front where you want to go and for how long you want to have the driver. Our first request was to stop at the Hotel Nacional, famed for its ties to the mafia and as a gathering place for Hollywood's elite in the 1930's, 40's and 50's. As it turned out, our drivers were also excellent guides who knew all about the history of the hotel and showed us all around the property. We gained entrance into the Hall of Fame bar after one of our drivers knocked on the locked glass door and made eye contact with one of the bartenders who let us in. We enjoyed a couple of "mafia mojitos" while we looked around at all of memorabilia, movie posters and photos of politicians, sports legends and celebrities who had been there. After leaving the hotel, our drivers suggested a trip to see the imposing sculpture of Christ of Havana on a hilltop overlooking the Bay of the Havana with fantastic views of the city. It provided great photo opps. Our last request before heading back to the ship was to stop at an authentic paladar - a restaurant/bar operated by a private citizen. Many of these privately-owned restaurants are quietly tucked into backyards, courtyards and spare rooms behind unassuming facades of private homes in modest neighborhoods and others look and operate openly on main streets. These are legal Our drivers parked on a normal-looking residential street and we followed them up the driveway and through a gate into the backyard of one of the small, single-story houses. Once inside, the entire place looked just like any tiki bar hangout with wooden tables, chairs and bar with a palm frond roof. There were some musical instruments in a alcove, a large Coca-Cola sign hung on a wall and a fountain in the center gurgling water. There were even a few ducks wandering around. We ordered a round of beers and some potato chips and enjoyed our last outing in Havana before sailing to Cienfuegos.

Nov. 15, 2017 - Day at Sea

Our last day at sea featured lots of activities including a bridge tournament, dance classes, cooking demos and a few quiz contests. Our Destination, Expert, Dr. Jorge Arocha also gave two presentations, one in the morning on "Cuban Culture" and another in the afternoon on "The Cuban Landscape in the 20th Century."

Nov. 16, 2017 - Port: Cienfuegos, Cuba

Our final port of call was Cienfuegos, a beautiful city in the south-central region of Cuba about 122 nautical miles from Havana. Upon entering Cienfuegos Bay we sailed past the impressive fortress of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles before docking at the pier. Known as the "Pearl of the South," Cienfuegos was originally settled by Taino indigenous people and later settled by French immigrants from Bordeaux and Louisiana so a French and European influence can been seen in the elegant architecture of many of the city's buildings. The views looking out to the bay were breathtaking as we drove in buses through the beautiful neighborhood of Punta Gorda on our way to tour some of these historic buildings. The most beautiful structure we saw in Cienfuegos was the Palacio de Valle, a spectacular example of Spanish-Moorish architecture with touches of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque styles.

We also visited art galleries and were treated to a live street performance featuring dancers, artists, musicians and actors. Art was very prevalent in all the cities we visited, perhaps because it gives Cubans a way to somewhat express themselves in a country that still has many restrictions on free expression. Art collectives and cultural groups are sprouting up across the country to help new artists find their footing. The cost associated with having a studio make it nearly impossible for a new artist to get started so art collectives have been setting up spaces that provide multiple workspaces and art supplies. Tubes of paint, brushes and canvases can be very expensive and hard to find so these collectives offer a place where artists can share resources.

Our last day touring Cienfuegos embodied everything I had observed about the Cuban people during my time visiting their island. Despite the oppression they are under, I found Cubans to be optimistic, resourceful and proud. They seem to find happiness by expressing themselves through music, dance, art and conversing deeply with each other. I never once felt threatened or insecure; on the contrary, all the people we met seemed generally friendly. I have a feeling we will be visiting Cuba again in the future. 

Nov. 17, 2017 - Disembarkation: Montego Bay, Jamaica

After disembarkation, we headed straight to the airport for our flight home.

If you're interested in booking a own cruise to Cuba we recommend AZAMARA Cruise Line's "10-Night Circle Cuba Voyage."  We'd love to help with your travel plans. Contact us.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

 

 

 

Uniworld Cruise - Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux

The River Royale is a nimble ship allowing passage in narrower rivers which makes it an ideal vessel for sailing on the Garonne and Dordogne.

If you've read some of our other cruise posts you know we prefer small ships and Uniworld's River Royale was probably the smallest we've been on yet but it was just the right size to traverse the waters of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers with views of the Bordeaux countryside and its world-famous vineyards and chateaux on both sides. The ship carries just 130 passengers and on this shoulder-season cruise it carried about half that many which made for a very intimate cruising experience. The service aboard the River Royale was fantastic. Every crew member would go out or their way to help passengers with special requests or take the initiative to make sure everything on board was the best it could be for all guests. The polite and diligent waitstaff supported by an extremely attentive Maitre d' made every dining experience enjoyable and the sommelier dedicated to us all week was extremely knowledgeable about the great wines of Bordeaux.

Because we were sailing short distances on this cruise, we had many of the same local guides each day but they met up with us in different towns and villages which made it nice to have some continuity. All excursions were included in the cruise price (with a few optional ones offered at an additional price) and were very good. We visited vineyards, did some wine tasting and visited a few chateaux. Larry and I both thought the excursions on this cruise were the most authentic, professional, educational and interesting of any excursions we've taken on other river cruises. We especially liked the "Go Active" cycling tours provided by Bordeaux A Velo, owned by a husband and wife team, who led three excursions during the week. They were so knowledgeable and passionate about Bordeaux and the history of the entire region. 

Another benefit of traveling short distances was the free time we enjoyed on the sun deck most days after excursions or during breaks in the afternoon. The scenery on shore is much different along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers than say, the Rhine or Danube. There are no towering castles but instead rustic, old fishing cabins on stilts and remnants of medieval ramparts and forts. The wine that makes this region so famous today was the result of nature's gift some 50 million years ago when this basin was a tropical sea. The vast quantities of sediment left behind now provide the soils and sub-soils so ideally suited to wine-making. The soil on the left bank tends to have more gravel and pebbles and the soil on the right bank contains more clay and limestone. It is these properties that give Bordeaux wines the distinctive character and exceptional quality sought by buyers worldwide. 

Spoiler Alert: 2016 is being touted as a remarkable vintage. An Indian summer followed by early September rains brought the grapes to perfect maturity.

Some experts think the 2016 vintage will be the best in the last ten years and may prop up the dwindling interest in wine futures that the Bordeaux region has been suffering since the financial crisis of 2008 in the United States. Interest waned substantially and some big buyers in futures never came back.

If you love river cruises and wine, you should definitely give this itinerary on Uniworld a look. We hope you enjoy our trip recap below and please feel free to contact us if you have specific questions about cruising with Uniworld or any other cruise line. And if you would like assistance in planning your vacation, we are a full-service travel agency and would welcome the chance to work with you. Please click here to contact Putnam Travels or to read more about us. 

The Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, opened in 2013, is the longest vertical lift bridge in Europe and is named in honor of a former Prime Minister of France and former mayor or Bordeaux.

April 9, 2017 - Embarkation: Bordeaux, France

After spending one night in Arcachon and one night in Bordeaux on our own, we boarded our ship which was docked near the city centre of Bordeaux on the Garonne river. The river has a crescent shape that curves along Bordeaux's waterfront giving the port its name - Port de la Luna, or Port of the Moon. Europe's largest vertical lift bridge can be seen towering in the distance. The River Royale would overnight here giving guests who were just arriving in Bordeaux a chance to see the city. Bordeaux is beautiful at night so after dinner we took a stroll along the promenade to capture some of the evening's beauty. One site not to be missed is the Miroir d'Eau which was built in 2006 and is the world's largest reflection pool. Its field of granite covers 37,100 square feet and on some evenings a system beneath the granite turns the shallow pool of water into a fog of mist. The ornate Place de Bourse, is a city icon similar to Place de la Concorde in Paris and was designed by the same architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel. It makes an impressive backdrop to the Miroir d'Eau both day and night. The "Pont de Pierre" or stone bridge is beautifully lit at night as well. This bridge was constructed from 1819 to 1822 and connects the the left bank of the Garonne river with the right bank.  

Aboard the Uniworld River Royale

Once we boarded the ship we checked in at the lovely reception area highlighted by a Van Gogh-inspired mosaic mural. Finger sandwiches, fruit, beverages and pastries were laid out. This area became the "early risers" breakfast area for self-serve coffee, tea and pastries each day of the cruise. Our stateroom was small (151 sq ft), but had a large picture window for maximum river views and was designed efficiently for comfort and storage. Our stateroom featured a flat-screen TV, small table and chairs, built-in closets and a Savoir of England bed with Egyptian cotton linens. Bath amenities were from L'Occitane.

The decor of the River Royale is a stark contrast to many other river cruise ships that have been recently remodeled with sleek and modern furnishings and neutral color palettes. Although my personal taste tends to lean toward neutral colors and modern design, I found that the elegant furnishings, rich fabrics and bold colors created a distinctive and compatible ambiance in which to discover the history of Bordeaux and the legacy of one of the world's most acclaimed wine regions. 

The Executive Chef on our ship was young, energetic and very personable. He made a point of being accessible to guests and took part in the culinary presentations. The main dining room had a very elegant setting and the alternative restaurant located on the top deck provided lovely views in the evening. I don't take pictures during meals but trust me, the food on this ship was probably the best cruise ship cuisine I've ever had. The attention to detail and service was exceptional.

This was, after all, a wine cruise and Uniworld delivered on the theme. Our sommelier for the week was a young women named Aline who introduced us to the wines she had selected for each night's dinner. For guests wishing to order wine off the extensive wine menu (not included in beverage package), Aline was available in the dining room to assist with selections and make recommendations. There were three wine tasting sessions available aboard the ship with Aline during the week which took place in the Claret room. The session was included in the cruise but each guest needed to make a reservation. Aline gave an excellent presentation and we learned several new things about wine and how better to appreciate it. 

We did manage to carve out a little time to use the fitness center and the jacuzzi at the aft of the ship. The deck chairs and lounges were plentiful as were plush towels. The bartenders provided service on the deck and were constantly making the rounds to see if anyone needed anything.

April 10, 2017 Cadillac

Our stop in Cadillac (pronounced "caddy ack") included a full day in the vineyards of Sauternes with a visit to a chateau Grand Crus Classes vineyard and tasting followed by and exclusive artisanal lunch and wine pairing. During the wine tasting at Chateau de Myrat we learned about the painstaking work involved in making Sauternes which makes this wine so unique. The grapes can only be harvested by hand with several passages through the vines to allow the noble rot (made from a fungus) to settle properly on the grapes which gives them their high sugar content and exceptional aromas. Sauternes are made from three grape varieties: Semillon, which gives sweetness and texture (70-90%); Sauvignon Blanc, which adds freshness (5-20%); and Muscadelle, for aroma (1-3%).

Our group enjoyed a private, three-course lunch at Chateau de Cazeneuve, the royal palace first built in the 11th century and residence of King of France Henri IV and Queen Margot. Today, the estate is in the hands of their descendants, the ducal family de Sabran-Ponteves. Our lunch included a different wine pairing with each course so we could experience the vast differences between Sauternes. 

April 11, 2017 Medoc/Pauillac/Bourg

On this day we opted for the "Go Active" excursion which was a guided bike tour through Medoc vineyards with a stop for wine tasting at Chateau Legrange.  Our tour guide, Paolo (of Bordeaux A Velo) led us on easy roads through gorgeous and historic terrain within sight of many storied chateaus you've probably heard of like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Latour, owned by Francois-Henri PInault, the seventh richest man in France, estimated to have a fortune worth US$ 19.5 billion. He recently bought the Araujo Estate in Napa Valley which he added to his holding company, Groupe Artemis which also includes Christie's Auction House and Stade Rennais Football Club. He's also the controlling shareholder of luxury-goods conglomerate Kering which includes the brands Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Puma and he's also married to actress Salma Hayek.

Chateau Latour, the famed first-growth chateau made a commitment in 2008 to farm all of its 230 acres biodynamically. As you can see above, the chateau uses horses (not tractors) to plow its vineyards.

Obviously, it takes a lot of money to operate a chateau and a sad fact about the chateau life in France is that many family owned estates have sold to large corporations, both foreign and domestic, because high operating costs and inheritance taxes have made it impossible for heirs to continue their family's legacy. China has emerged as a big player in Bordeaux wines. After the financial collapse in 2008, the U.S. buyers in Bordeaux wine futures dwindled and never really came back but China found favor with Bordeaux wines and began filling that void and eventually began buying chateaux. More than 100 Bordeaux chateaux are now owned by Chinese but it still only represents about 1.3 percent of the 7,400+ chateaux in the region.

Chateau Lagrange (above left); Our bike-tour guide, Paolo Saint-Laurent of Bordeaux A Velo

April 12, 2107 Bourg/Libourne

Citadel of Blaye

The city of Bourg is home to the Citadel of Blaye, a former Roman military base in ancient times. The headlands of Blaye became a Medieval village and the base was replaced by a fortress, the remnants of which can be seen today. Throughout history many changes were made resulting in the citadel becoming a modern system of defense. After WWII, the army sold the citadel to the town of Blaye and the site underwent restoration and protection. In 2007, the citadel was added to UNESCO'S World Heritage list.

Today, the Citadel of Blaye is like a town within a town and includes a hotel, restaurant, souvenir shops and artist studios where you can purchase handcrafted, jewelry, linens and wooden toys. Certain days of the week the local market is set up within easy walking distance of the citadel. Blaye is also known for its marathon which snakes through the Bordeaux wine region and runners have the opportunity to do a little wine tasting at dozens of chateaux en route to the finish line.

April 13, 2017 Libourne/Saint Emilion

Saint Emilion is a quaint medieval village located in the heart of the Bordeaux region and is easily identifiable by the bell tower of its monolithic church. Saint Emilion is named after an 11th century monk who fled Britain to escape persecution by the Benedictine Order and lived in a cave for 17 years and was believed to be a performer of miracles. Guided tours of the cave and the rare underground monolithic church are available and there are many very good restaurants and wine shops in this village. Many bottles of wine for sale in these elegant shops had eye-popping price tags in the thousands! My favorite winery that we visited was Soutard which had two crystal chandeliers hanging in the vat room and a very James Bond-esque glass elevator to take guests down to the tasting room.

April 14, 2017 Libourne Village Day and Farmers' Market

Today, we started off with a tour of Libourne's city square and a stroll through the busy Farmer's Market to join the locals gathering fresh fish, produce and cheese for their weekend meals. Later we were joined by Christiane Saint-Laurent, wife of our previous bike guide, Paolo, who led us on the day's bike ride along the banks of the Dordogne river. Christiane was the first guide to offer cycling tours in Paris and later met Paolo. The two opened Bordeaux A Velo and know this region and its history so well which adds so much to their tours.

April 15, 2017 Bordeaux - Cycling Tour

On our last full day aboard the River Royale we were docked back in Bordeaux where we would overnight until disembarking the next morning. We opted for the "Go Active" bike tour with Christiane again. We cycled along the banks of the Garonne river and rode through the backstreets of Bordeaux. Again, Christiane impressed us with her knowledge of the viticulture, history, art and architecture of Bordeaux.

April 16, 2017 Disembarkation: Bordeaux 

On the evening before our disembarkation, Uniworld provided a bus tour through the city to capture the sights of Bordeaux at night. I was glad I had taken my night pictures at the beginning of the cruise because on this night Bordeaux was bustling with thousands of runners for the Bordeaux Marathon. And yes, the Bordeaux Marathon takes place at night. The run starts around 8pm and continues into the wee hours. To read more about the city of Bordeaux read our blog post - 12 Reasons Why We Think You'll Love Bordeaux

The Place des Quinconces is one of the largest city squares in Europe (about 31 acres). The two columns in the foreground were erected in 1829 - one symbolizes commerce and the other, navigation. The column in the background was erected in between 1894-1902, in memory of the victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. The statue on top represents the spirit of liberty.

This was probably the most active, yet relaxing river cruise we have ever taken. Each excursion was well executed, authentic and definitely complemented the wine theme of the cruise. The itinerary left us with plenty of free time to see more of a port town on our own or return to the ship and enjoy the views from the sun deck. We left Bordeaux with a very good education and appreciation for its wines, history, landscape and people. If you'd like to contact us directly for more information about this cruise please click here.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them.

For more information on this Bordeaux Uniworld Cruises click here.

Windstar Cruise - Costa Rica & Panama Canal

Two years ago we cruised with Windstar on the Star Breeze from Barcelona to Lisbon and fell in love with sailing the seas on this small luxury ship. So, when we found out the Star Breeze would be cruising Costa Rica and the Panama Canal we knew it would be an ideal ship to transit the Canal. The Star Breeze is just one of three power yachts in the Windstar fleet which the cruise line purchased from Seabourn back in 2013. The Star Pride, Star Legend and Star Breeze all underwent $8.5-million makeovers to enhance their all-suite accommodations, public spaces and dining rooms to create luxury cruising experiences for its guests.

Once aboard the Star Breeze, it was easy to settle in to the yachting lifestyle again. Thankfully for us, there were no formal nights or set times for dinner. (There is a dining room dress code though.) We liked having the breakfast options of the hearty buffet or smaller offerings of granola parfaits and smoothies found in the Yacht Club each morning. The casual, outdoor Star Bar was a great gathering spot for a drink before dinner and to enjoy the onboard entertainers - two different duos who performed nightly. On the second day we were on a first-name basis with crew and other guests and felt comfortable strolling to the ship's bridge to chat with the Officer of the Watch, who was always generous with information about the navigation system or questions we had. You really start to feel like you're on your own yacht!

With only 212 guests, the power yacht experience feels intimate and authentic. On our Panama Canal cruise we experienced the magnitude of the man-made interoceanic waterway but also felt fully immersed in the nature that surrounded us. At each port, the Star Breeze dropped anchor near small marinas or in picturesque bays where we were the only cruise ship and sometimes the only ship. Sporty inflatable Zodiacs, not smelly, lumbering lifeboats, were used to transport guests from ship to shore and back.

The service is extremely personal at every level and the food was very good. Windstar played to its strengths by hosting an elaborate dinner BBQ one night on its outdoor decks and showcased the talents of its predominantly Indonesian galley team with a buffet lunch of authentic Indian cuisine one afternoon.

I hope you enjoy the trip recap below and please feel free to contact us if you have specific questions about cruising with Windstar or any other cruise line. We've sailed on the Wind Surf and the Star Breeze twice. And if you would like assistance in planning your vacation we are a full-service travel agency and would welcome the chance to work with you. Please click here to contact Putnam Travels or to read more about us. 

For more information on Windstar Cruises click here.

Disclaimer: As a travel agent, Larry received a reduced rate for this cruise but there was no compensation provided in exchange for editorial coverage. All opinions expressed are our own and all content on Putnam Travels Blog is for informational purposes only. We are not liable for any errors or omissions in this information and accept no responsibility for any damages or losses arising in connection with the use of this website. Links directing to third-party websites are for informational purposes only and serve as a resource to the reader. We do not accept responsibility for the content of these sites or liability from use of them. 

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Feb. 11, 2017  Embarkation: Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica

We hired our own driver to pick us up at our hotel in San Jose and take us to Puerto Caldero where we boarded the ship. We were traveling with a group of six so we opted to hire private shuttles and schedule some private tours throughout the cruise so we could customize our excursions and have our own transportation.

It only took about 20 minutes from the time we stepped off our shuttle until we inserted our newly-minted keycard into the door of our spacious cabin and began to unpack while we sipped our welcome-aboard mimosas. With only 212 passengers, the boarding process is so fast and easy - no lines - just a quick check through security and you're aboard.

Our suite was a spacious 277 square-feet including a sitting area, desk, bar, flat-screen TV, walk-in closet and large bathroom with combo tub-shower and a generous supply of bath amenities from luxury label L'Occitane. The bed and comforter were dressed in Egyptian cotton linens and robes slippers were provided.

The public spaces are designed for intimate conversations or for groups who want to sit together. It's so easy to meet people on a small ship and by the second day we recognized everyone. Photos: Clockwise from top left - The Yacht Club; Star Bar; Compass Lounge, AmphorA Restaurant. 

There are plenty of lounges and sitting areas on the sun deck plus a jacuzzi and swim spa. We used the gym a few times which had ample space and equipment. The ship also has a Spa and Wellness Center. The spa offers a large array of services including facials, massages, mani/pedi, waxing, hairstyling and tooth whitening. The Wellness Center under the direction of the Fitness Director provides complimentary daily fitness classes and personal training, body composition analysis and nutritional consultation for a fee.

Feb. 12, 2017  Port: Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The ship offered its own shore excursion to Manuel Antonio National Park but we pre-booked a private tour with our own professional tour guide prior to leaving home. The guides in the national park are professionals who undergo vigorous training and have a camaraderie that is evident on the trails. They are quick to share information with one another and inform fellow guides of animal sightings along the trail. Our private guide, Manuel, was outstanding and I would highly recommend him to anyone booking their own tour. He took some fantastic pictures for us though his telescope (the owl photo above was taken with my iPhone 6s through Manuel's telescope.) Before becoming a guide, Manuel traveled all over Costa Rica to surf the best spots but was always intrigued by the plants, birds and animals he would find in the jungles near the camps where he stayed. His passion for surfing eventually gave way to his passion for nature so when he returned back from one of his surfing trips he decided to train to be a guide. Please contact us if you'd like information about booking with Manuel.

Quepos, Costa Rica

We stopped for lunch in Quepos and bid farewell to our driver because we decided to walk through town on our way back to the marina. For lunch I had ceviche and fried plantains with a cold Imperial Light - the local beer. And we had time for a margarita at the marina before we boarded a Zodiac back to the ship.

Feb. 13, 2017  Port: Bahia Drake, Costa Rica

Windstar's excursions at this port included horseback riding, ziplining and other nature tours but we decided to stay aboard and enjoy this small bay by kayak, paddleboard and snorkel and fins. The Star Breeze has a watersports platform that opens at the aft of the ship and passengers have use all the sports equipment and water toys. If weather permits, experienced passengers can also waterski. We also spent the day enjoying the whirlpool and sun bathing on the deck.

Feb 14, 2017  Port: Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica

Puerto Jimenez, once a bustling little logging and mining town, is now home to just 1,780 residents. Located on the southeastern tip of the Oso Pennisula, the little town is a bit rustic with its dusty roads but the area is teeming with natural wonders. We had scheduled a private kayak excursion for our group of six and met up with our guide, Roberto, on the beach. We claimed our kayaks and and began the two-hour paddle on the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce. We tried snorkeling at our stopping point but visibility was poor and the water was very shallow. The shore was muddy and not conducive to swimming so we headed back with our kayaks tied end-to-end and towed by Roberto's little skiff. Back on land we enjoyed sandwiches and fruit provided by Roberto and watched parrots, macaws and monkeys in the trees above us.

Feb. 15, 2017  Port: Isla Parida, Panama

We've been on cruises that have hosted beach barbecues for guests on private islands but none as fun and relaxing as Windstar's BBQ on Isla Parida. There were plenty of lounges for guests to enjoy the view as well as full bar and impressive buffet. The water sports team brought the kayaks, paddleboards and snorkel gear to island so there were lots of activities to work up an appetite. A few guests made an impressive showing in a volleyball game with the crew and others showed off their waterskiing talents. 

Feb. 16, 2017  Day at Sea

Our day at sea was filled with activities and leisure time. The galley tour on the Star Breeze was one of the best galley tours I've experienced on a cruise ship in a long time. (Most big ships don't even have them anymore.) The Chef gave a very detailed history of the culinary hierarchy of a kitchen staff and spent time answering guest questions and introducing his galley team who were busy prepping, baking and creating desserts for our dinner. We rounded out the day with a bartending class, sun bathing, relaxing (a lot of relaxing), visiting the bridge (which is open to guests anytime the ship is underway) and attending the Crew Show. By now, we had gotten to know our waiters, bartenders, cabin steward and many other crew members so well that it felt like we were watching a family member perform.  

Feb. 17, 2017  Port: Panama Canal, Panama

The day of our Canal passage started early - 6:45am early! While we were sleeping off the previous night's revelry our crew was welcoming aboard the local pilot who would have full responsibility for navigating our ship through the Canal as well as a local expert who would provide commentary throughout the transit. It was our first time through the Panama Canal so when we heard the public announcement from the hallway that we would soon be entering the first lock we jumped out of bed, got dressed and hurried to the deck where we were greeted with urns of coffee and fresh pastries and many other guests who had risen earlier. The best part of being on a small ship was that there was plenty of room to move around and get a great view. It took just a few minutes to move forward to aft and check out different vantage points to watch the goings on. Traffic at the Canal can be unpredictable but we seemed to be entering each lock right on schedule. We had fantastic weather albeit a little windy. Every guest received a personalized "Order of the Ditch" certificate to commemorate their Panama Canal passage.

Feb. 18, 2017  Disembarkation: Colon, Panama

We spent our last night anchored off the Port of Colon amid many other ships within site of the busy port activities. The next morning we docked and disembarkation was again fast and easy. We had a late afternoon flight from Panama back to San Diego so we scheduled our own transportation from the the ship to Panama City which allowed us a little extra time to sleep in. We were off the ship by 8:30am.

We had time for a quick tour of Old Town and took some pictures of the downtown skyline across the bay.