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Seabourn Sea Goddess I: Virgin Islands, etc

  • Submitted by: David Stybr
  • Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005

I. Introduction

In mid December 1999 my wife Denise & I gave ourselves an early celebration for our 20th anniversary (which is actually in January 2000): a cruise on the Sea Goddess I. It's not often that one can sail 2 cruise lines at once, but we did. In December the Sea Goddess I had nearly completed its transition from Cunard to Seabourn, which let us sample the policies of both cruise lines. Moreover this was the first time we actually stayed on St. Thomas for a few days, although we had visited it twice before as a cruise port. This gave us time to see some attractions we had missed before. Denise & I traveled with our friends Robert & Nancy.

Cruises are great vacations, and the Seabourn Sea Goddess I was our 16th cruise. Our standing joke is that we can't decide whether or not we enjoy cruises, or which cruise lines we prefer, so by golly we'll cruise again and again until we make up our minds. This may take the rest of our lives. We have cruised once in Hawaii, twice in Alaska, 4 times on the Caribbean Sea, once via the Panamá Canal, and once from New York to Nova Scotia. We especially love the Mississippi Queen and have cruised 5 times on it and once on the Delta Queen, on practically the entire Mississippi River from New Orleans, Louisiana to St. Paul, Minnesota, plus the Ohio River to Cincinnati, Ohio. Our most ambitious cruise was a Royal Princess voyage around Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands in December 1998 and January 1999 via Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan. Santiago, Buenos Aires and Montevideo were great cities. 18 hours of daylight last Christmas in the far south was fun too.

II. In Transit

Thursday, 16 December 1999: Chicago, Illinois - San Juan, Puerto Rico - St. Thomas

By coincidence we chose a good time to visit the tropics, because we left home just as the first snow of the season rolled into Chicago. Unfortunately our 6:30 AM Central Standard Time American Airlines flight stood on the runway at O'Hare Airport for almost an hour. It took that long for 3 tons of holiday mail to be loaded, and then for our plane to be de-iced. As a result, we arrived late in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and therefore we and about 20 other passengers missed our 1:40 PM Atlantic Standard Time connection to St. Thomas. American Airlines hustled us over to another gate for the next available flight at 2:15 PM, the gate attendant took our tickets, and we boarded a shuttle bus. Unfortunately, due to the general confusion we missed that flight too. Moreover, the confusion was so great that several passengers originally scheduled for that flight also missed it.

The ticket agents then directed us to a service counter to book everyone on the next available flights to St. Thomas. Robert and I stood in the long slow queue to hold our place, while Denise and Nancy independently got the idea to phone the American Airlines toll-free number to book us on another flight to St. Thomas. Great minds must think alike. Rather than scramble for the next available flight at 4:30 PM on standby, they reserved seats for us on an American Eagle commuter flight scheduled for 5:05 PM. This was just like the planes I sometimes take between Chicago and Toledo, Ohio. Then we proceeded to the main terminal for our reissued tickets, not an easy feat without our original tickets, which the gate attendant had taken. Ahead of us were another couple in the same situation, who argued with the ticket agent and his supervisor for nearly half an hour before their tickets were reissued. Naturally their difficulty made us very uneasy, but luckily their efforts helped us sail through the ticket reissue process in minutes when our turn came. Then we settled down for a late lunch at San Juan airport and relaxed. The wait might have been a blessing in disguise, because meanwhile a thunderstorm rolled into Puerto Rico for the next few hours, but it ended just before we boarded our flight.

This missed connection simply should not have happened. We had booked our flights 6 months in advance, and the only scheduled connection from San Juan to St. Thomas gave us less than an hour between flights. In early December several more flights from San Juan to St. Thomas were added to accommodate the start of the tourist season. We had tried to rebook a later connection to give ourselves more time, but American Airlines would have charged us a fee to change the flight. Therefore we retained our original flight schedule, missed the connection in San Juan and ended up on a later flight anyway. At least then we were not charged an extra fee, but we paid for it in aggravation. However, apart from these snags, we were well pleased with the overall level of service and friendliness offered by American Airlines. In any case, it is a welcome change from my years of business travel on United Airlines.

III. Pre-Cruise: 3 days

Thursday-Saturday, 16-18 December 1999: St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands

St. Thomas Harbor, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

St. Thomas, along with St. John, St. Croix and numerous small islands, make up the United States Virgin Islands. St. Thomas was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but not formally colonized until Danish settlers arrived in 1671. Apart from 2 short periods of British occupation, St. Thomas remained in Danish control for nearly 2½ centuries. In 1870 the United States Senate rejected an offer from Denmark to sell the Danish Virgin Islands for $7.5 million, and in 1902 the Danish Parliament rejected an offer from the United States to buy the islands for $5 million. Finally in 1917, due to fear of German occupation in World War I, the United States agreed to buy the Danish Virgin Islands for $25 million. St. Thomas with an area of 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) is the 2nd-largest (after St. Croix) of the United States Virgin Islands, and the most populous with 48,000 people. It lies 1100 miles (1770 kilometers) east southeast of Miami, Florida and 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico. St. Thomas is also the busiest cruise ship port in the Caribbean Sea, due primarily to its duty-free shopping.

Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, St. Thomas

We spent 3 days at the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort on the East End of St. Thomas. It had a beautiful white sandy beach along Pillsbury Sound and a fabulous view of St. John. Check-in was a bit muddled because we had reserved a room with a king-size bed, and they tried to give us twin beds, but eventually we resolved the problem. Our lovely 2nd-floor suite overlooked the pool and also had a terrific view of the sea and islands beyond. Dinner at their casual Baywinds restaurant was delicious, although the menu was limited. We timed our stay perfectly because it was just before the official tourist season began, and before most hotels doubled their rates.

This was a superb resort in almost every way, with one glaring exception. One evening they had a loud loud loud private poolside party with a Caribbean band, and our suite was next to the pool, so we bore the full brunt of the drumbeats. After 10:00 PM we phoned the front desk several times to ask when the party was scheduled to end, but no one seemed to know. They promised to find out and call back, but no one did. (The next day we noticed in the hotel guide that 11:00 PM begins their designated quiet time, but nobody at the front desk thought to tell us.) The party ended shortly after 11:00 PM, and we went to sleep. Then in their infinite whiz-dumb, the staff tore down the party tents between 1:00 and 3:00 AM. Kling klang klung! Was there any tent pole they did not drop? Repeatedly? It was the St. Thomas Olympic Pole Dropping Team! This sort of noise is inexcusable at a fine resort such as this. Parties are fine, but we also like to sleep on vacation. Thank goodness we left Saturday morning, because 2 or 3 more parties were scheduled for that evening. However, apart from this major incident, we were well pleased with the overall level of amenities, service and friendliness offered by Renaissance Grand Beach Resort.

Coral World, St. Thomas

Friday morning we strolled to nearby Coral World Marine Park, an excellent aquarium complex which let us see and actually touch some of the marine life from the Caribbean Sea. Caribbean Reef Encounter features colorful fish, stingrays and Caribbean lobsters. Shark Shallows is the home of baby and juvenile sharks and other fish. In addition to the many tanks and displays, they also have an 3-story underwater Observatory Tower to see the reef and marine life in Coki Bay. In all we spent 2 or 3 hours at Coral World, which is the most popular single attraction on St. Thomas. Coral World underwent a major renovation after the damage caused by Hurricane Margaret in 1995. We had snorkeled in Coki Bay in January 1996 and seen some of the damage then.

Next we boarded a taxi van to visit the duty-free jewelry stores on Main Street in Charlotte Amalie. Denise had great fun as she shopped for her own Christmas, birthday and anniversary gifts. We discovered that many stores lowered their prices in the late afternoon after the cruise ship passengers depart. This may be when the locals shop for themselves. We also enjoyed part of the Miracle on Main Street Christmas Festival, and felt almost like locals ourselves. The next day we also shopped at Havensight Mall, a dockside shopping district which deals primarily with cruise ship passengers. Good deals abound, but only if one knows the merchandise and can bargain well. We are glad that we traveled via taxis rather than rent a car. The roads can be very narrow, winding and confusing.

Amusing musical notes: Some friends in Illinois have asked how we can possibly enjoy Christmas without snow, but it's surprisingly easy. After all, the Three Wise Men never needed to shovel snow. During the past few years I have also become quite fond of Christmas in the summer, as in southeast Australia and far southern Chile. We love Christmas, but all the hype in the United States can be counterproductive. Our trip to the Caribbean Sea bombarded us with even more musical delights: Christmas carols in reggae, calypso and steel drum band versions. Thank goodness we were nowhere near a Mexican mariachi band, ha ha. It seemed downright silly that they repeatedly played some carols which technically have nothing to do with Christmas. Sleigh Ride and Let It Snow in the tropical climate are just plain goofy. The pièce de résistance was a work which had even less to do with the holidays. It was Adagio in G Minor for Organ and String Orchestra by Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1759), but in a funky calypso band arrangement. Résistance is right, mon (chuckle).

IV. Cruise: 4 days

Saturday-Wednesday, 18-22 December 1999: Seabourn Sea Goddess I:

St. Barthélemy, Antilles Françaises (St. Barth, French West Indies);

Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

A. The Ship: Seabourn Sea Goddess I
Saturday at Havensight in St. Thomas we boarded the Seabourn Sea Goddess I to cruise 4 days to the French island of St. Barthélemy and to Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, and finally back to St. Thomas. Embarkation procedures in St. Thomas proceeded very smoothly. The ship collected our passports to ease immigration formalities on the cruise. We also carried photocopies of our passports to be safe. Then we walked to Havensight Mall for a few final purchases before our ship sailed.

Ship Statistics:

Completed: 1984, Wartsila Shipyard, Helsinki, Finland
Gross: 4253 tons; Net: 1277 tons; Average speed: 15 knots
Length: 107 meters (350 feet); Beam: 14.3 meters (47 feet); Draft: 4.3 meters (14 feet)
Port of Registry: Naussau; Flag: Bahamas
Crew: 89
Passenger Capacity: 116; Decks: 6; Suites: 58

Captain: Tor Muller
Chief Engineer: Frans Hansen
Chief Officer: Morten A. Hansen
Hotel Manager: Jonathan Norton
Chief Purser: Duncan Ross
Doctor: Aleksander Falinski
Maître d'Hôtel: James Lochhead
Chef de Cuisine: Peter Schlapfer
Social Director: Denise Leafe
Sea Goddess I is one of the finest cruise ships afloat, and it is more like a large luxury yacht. It epitomizes the good life people dream about on a cruise, and of course it is expensive, but well worth it for our 20th anniversary. The Sea Goddess I has a small capacity of 116 passengers, but only 71 were aboard, plus 89 crew members. The ship was luxurious and catered to our every whim. The meals were the equivalent of the finest French restaurants on land. The interiors of the ship have an understated elegance, with fine woods, fabrics, marble and brass trim.

The all-inclusive nature of the cruise -- drinks, tips and some tours -- was a great attraction. This underscores the fact that people on vacation don't like to be bothered with extra expenses, even when they can afford them. Quite simply, the Sea Goddesses I & II were intended to provide some of the most luxurious vacations at sea. About a month before our cruise, we received a box with a leather passport case, luggage tags and a personal preference request form in which we could specify our preference of 2 bottles of spirits.

All cabins on the 4 passenger decks are outside suites of identical size, although several can be joined in pairs as double suites. These cabins are most comfortable, with ample drawer space and a full-length closet. The sleeping area is next to the large picture window, and contains 1 Queen bed or 2 twin beds. This is divided by a curtain from a lounge area, which contains a sofa, chair and coffee table. The cabins have a full but small bathroom with tub and shower, and well stocked with toiletries, towels and terry-cloth robes. Our cabin stewardess, Malin from Sweden, was very friendly and efficient.

The Dining Salon on Deck 2 has one open seating each for all 3 meals of the day. Passengers may dine at different tables at every meal if they so wish. Generally breakfast was served from 7:30 to 9:30 AM, lunch from 12:30 to 2:00 PM and dinner from 8:00 to 10:00 PM. Two selections of wine are included every evening. The menu selections are outstanding, and it was difficult to decide what not to order. One evening we enjoyed the Gâteau Chaud au Chocolate dessert so much that we requested it again the next evening, even though it was not on the menu. Our waiter Zoltán was superb, and helped me practice my entire 10-word Hungarian vocabulary (köszönöm = thank you, Magyar = Hungarian, etc.). Breakfast and lunch buffets are also served at the Outdoor Café on Deck 5. Or, if one wishes, full meals can be served course by course in one's cabin at any time of the day or night. The service was incredible, and almost every request can be fulfilled. The dining and cabin staff are mostly young Europeans, all of whom speak excellent English, although it was fun to practice my French, German and Spanish with them too.

The activities and entertainment are almost nil. About the only scheduled events were morning exercises and meetings, and evening cocktails and drinks in the Main Salon on Deck 3 next to the Reception area. Deck 4 also has a Piano Bar, a small Casino (table games and slot machines only) and a small but well-stock library. Deck 5 included the Outdoor Café, Gymnasium, Beauty and Massage Salons and Doctor. In a way, we were disappointed at the lack of planned activities, which have been great ways to meet other passengers on other cruise lines. However, we found more than enough to do on our own, and many passengers prefer the lack of schedules. Another absent feature was a ship's photographer, although we certainly did not miss it.

Again we timed our cruise perfectly because their next cruise was chock full for the Millennium celebration, and we got a discount for this cruise. We also enjoyed romantic moonlit evenings at sea, with the Moon between first quarter and full, and at its brightest in years due to its orbital alignment. The Full Moon coincided with its perigee, or closest approach to Earth, on 22 December, and this nearly coincided with the Earth at its perigee, or closest approach to the Sun (late December or early January). This would culminate in supposedly the brightest full Moon in more than a century, but the combination is not as rare as some people have thought. Sky and Telescope magazine reported that approximately the same alignment happened in December 1991 and in December 1980. Nonetheless it was an extremely bright full Moon, and in the Caribbean Sea at night, the Moon suffused the clouds, islands and sea with a romantic glow all the way to the horizon.

B. Passengers

The small size of the ship is a great advantage. With a small number of passengers, sometimes outnumbered by the crew, highly personalized service is assured. Most passengers soon develop a natural rapport, and it is easy to meet almost everyone. About 3/4 of the passengers on this cruise were from Canada and the United States, and the rest were from France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom etc. Ages generally ranged from about the mid 30s to the mid 70s, with only a few outside this range. Most of the other passengers on our cruise were very friendly and interesting, affluent but not pretentious. About 20 of them were from a family of wealthy cattle barons in west Texas who also have some holdings in the oil industry. They were a fascinating and friendly lot, and we had great fun together. Also aboard were some wheeler-dealers from the film industry in California and some movers and shakers from the corporate world in New York. They were also interesting and friendly. It was amusing to hear some of them talk animatedly about their great business deals. When asked about my work, I replied that my boss takes care of the business aspects. I'm simply a chemical engineer and computer engineer who makes manufacturing processes run smoothly, and in return my boss takes good care of me. I must be doing something right. Several passengers were excited to learn that Denise was an author, with the first in a series of mysteries due in July 2000.

In contrast, we also encountered a couple whom we dubbed Mr. & Mrs. Snob. They would have nothing to do with us, perhaps because we were Midwesterners from Illinois, and therefore 'obviously' uncultured. A few days into the cruise it was hilarious to see Mr. & Mrs. Snobs' jaws drop and eyes open wide when I suddenly began to speak French with a family from France aboard the ship, and later German with the hoards of tourists from Germany on the British Virgin Islands. Apparently we must have risen in Mr. & Mrs. Snobs' estimation because they suddenly became very friendly to us. Très curieux. However, we emphasize that most passengers were warm and friendly.

As an amateur linguist I love to mingle with people and absorb other cultures, be it in Europe, South America, Australia or right here in North America. It's my idea of fun. I even use the correct accents when I write auf Deutsch, en français or en español. Few tourists might thoroughly immerse themselves like this, but I have always found it fun to study other histories, cultures and languages. It must be the engineer in me. I love to learn.

C. Cruise Itinerary

St. Barthélemy, Antilles Françaises (St. Barth, French West Indies);

Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands

Gustavia, St. Barthélemy

St. Barthélemy is a Dependency of the French Overseas Department of Guadaloupe. It has an area of 21 square kilometres (8 square miles) and a population of 5000. Gustavia is the capital of the island. St. Barthélemy was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and named for his brother Bartholomeo. The island was colonized in 1656 and again in 1694 by French settlers from Brittany and Normandy. In 1784 France traded the island to King Gustav of Sweden in exchange for trading rights at Göteborg. This became the only possession Sweden ever had in the Caribbean Sea. The King named the capital Gustavia after himself, built 3 forts and developed the island into a prosperous free port. Unfortunately in the mid 19th Century a series of earthquakes, fires and hurricanes devastated the island. In 1878 France repurchased the island and it remains a free port. Unlike most other Caribbean islands, St. Barthélemy was unsuitable for plantations and thus never had a slave population. Thus the population is almost entirely of French and Swedish descent. French is the official language, although many people also speak English. Once again it was good to practice my French with some locals.

St. Barthélemy has avoided the overdevelopment found on many other Caribbean islands, and that remains its primary attraction. The general atmosphere is quiet and casual, with little of the hectic shopping and nightlife of other Caribbean islands. It is also a duty-free port, and offers good buys on many luxury items. Gustavia is a charming small city which occupies the 3 sides of its small harbour, and we simply explored the streets for most of that Sunday afternoon. The harbour was filled with many interesting yachts from other islands and the United States. This was our 2nd visit to St. Barthélemy, and we had explored most of the rest of the island on that stop.

The British Virgin Islands are a Territory of the British Commonwealth. Their area is 153 square kilometres (59 square miles) and population is 16,640. The British Virgin Islands have some of the finest resorts in the Caribbean sea, and are perhaps the most popular boating and yachting destination. Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands, which we had visited in January 1996 via the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Windward. On Monday we stopped instead at Virgin Gorda, the 2nd-largest island. The main settlement is Spanish Town, and the scenery at the South End of the island is dramatic with countless granite outcrops.

The Baths on the South End of Virgin Gorda are famous beaches with scenic pools and grottoes formed by gigantic granite boulders which are completely different from any other rock formations in the area. These boulders may have resulted from volcanic eruptions during the Ice Age, and they were worn smooth by wind and water erosion over the millennia. They have fallen in such a way as to form a labyrinth of grottoes to explore. We gradually worked our way along the paths and around the boulders to the very scenic beaches. Also impressive were the huge number of German tourists who were there. At one point a brown cow strolled across the path, and the German tourists were much amused. 'Kuh! Kuh! (Cow! Cow!)', they shouted. Several English-speaking tourists thought they had shouted 'Coo-coo!' and looked up to see where the birdie was.

Afterward we traveled via taxi bus across the length of the hilly island toward North Sound. Spanish Town and the South End are connected by a narrow isthmus to the rest of the island. There the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea almost meet. At North Sound our ship Sea Goddess I lay at anchor near the Bitter End Yacht Club. We remained there overnight, and the next morning just before sunrise we began to sail the short distance to Jost Van Dyke. I was the only passenger on deck that early, and the sunrise was among the most beautiful I had ever seen. Whenever I see a sunrise or sunset like that, it reminds me why I am alive.

White Bay at Jost Van Dyke was the site of our beach party. The Water Sports Platform was lowered, and passengers were ferried to the beach via Zodiacs. Ashore the dining staff prepared a barbecue with lobster and other goodies. They also served caviar and champagne from a raft in the surf, just like photos in their brochures. It was contrary to my nature simply to sit on a beach and do absolutely nothing for hours at a stretch, but I managed. This was a vacation which I needed as much as wanted.

V. Post-Cruise: 1 day

Wednesday, 22 December 1999: St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands

After the cruise, the Sea Goddess docked at tiny Homeport just west of downtown Charlotte Amalie. All passengers had to appear in person in the Library at 6:30 AM to clear immigration and customs with officials who came aboard. We had never needed to appear in person for clearance on any previous cruise, and we assumed that this was why the ship had retained our passports, which were returned to us at that time. On the other hand, during both of our previous cruise stops at St. Thomas, all non-US citizens had to appear in person for clearance.

Marriot's Frenchman's Reef Resort, St. Thomas

Seabourn took us via taxi van to a day room at Marriot's Frenchman's Reef Resort at the entrance to St. Thomas Harbor to wait for our afternoon flight. This is probably the finest hotel on the island, so we were glad to see it at ship expense, and enjoy the facilities. It has a very dramatic location atop a cliff, which tends to isolate it like a fortress. It shares facilities with Marriot's Morningstar Bay Resort, which is located on a lovely beach on Morningstar Bay. Marriot's Frenchman's Reef Resort was great, but we liked our other hotel (Renaissance Grand Beach Resort) better because it was less isolated and more accessible to the beach and to other nearby attractions. We also saw the enormous Grand Princess in port at Havensight, which is the ship we will cruise the last week of next March. Whereas the Sea Goddess holds only 116 passengers, the Grand Princess holds about 2600 and is the largest passenger vessel ever built, so it will be a contrast.

VI. In Transit

Wednesday, 22 December 1999: St. Thomas - San Juan, Puerto Rico - Chicago, Illinois
Our return home went fairly smoothly. Even though St. Thomas is part of the United States, we had to clear customs and immigration before we boarded our flight. This is because St. Thomas is a territory and enjoys special duty-free status, unlike the mainland.
Our flight left St. Thomas an hour late (surprise, surprise) which made us uneasy, but we made our connection in San Juan with 5 minutes to spare. The slow pace of island time sometimes conflicts with the fast pace of business time. Fortunately we had scheduled our return flight well, because the official tourist season had begun. Whereas the southbound flight from Chicago to San Juan was chock full with 200 passengers, our northbound return flight had only 43 passengers. We moved around and had entire rows to ourselves. As a result I could lift all the armrests and lie down for the 5-hour flight and sleep for most of it. Our flight took off just after sunset, and the full Moon looked huge just after moonrise.

It was a bit of a shock to go from 85°F (29°C) in St. Thomas to 5°F (-15°C) in Chicago, but this trip was just what we needed to help us through the rest of the winter. Luckily the temperatures moderated to 45°F (7°C) within a few days, which was not bad for late December. Chicago may have a bad climate, but its economy is excellent. Again we timed our cruise perfectly, because we missed the worst of the cold weather. We also missed the first snows of the season, when all the idiot drivers try to relearn winter road skills. Heaven knows I needed to rest and recharge after the previous few months at my work as an engineer, or my head would collapse. Once reason I had worked so hard was that I knew my vacation was just around the corner. Denise was amazed that I could actually sit on the beach and do absolutely nothing for hours at a stretch because it is contrary to my nature. However I knew that periodic rest and relaxation are vital to increase my overall productivity.

VII. Conclusion

In general Denise prefers the ships whereas I prefer the ports, but we always reach interesting and enjoyable compromises. My favorite cruise remains our Royal Princess voyage around Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands in December 1998 and January 1999 via Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan. In that case, the main attraction was the magnificent itinerary, although the Princess Cruises ship itself was sufficiently luxurious. However Denise's favorite was unquestionably this cruise on the Seabourn Sea Goddess I, which is quite simply in a class of its own. The level of luxury and refinement are almost without equal. We will probably continue to sail more moderately priced cruise lines for the simple reason that we can take twice as many of them. However, we will definitely return to top-of-the-line cruise lines such as Seabourn for special occasions. This time we gave ourselves an early celebration for our 20th anniversary (which is actually in January 2000).