Small-ship lines face reshuffling, uncertainty in Caribbean

The Crystal Esprit is scheduled to operate a series of Caribbean cruises from Marigot, St. Martin.
The Crystal Esprit is scheduled to operate a series of Caribbean cruises from Marigot, St. Martin.

While damage from this year's hurricane season has scrambled Caribbean itineraries for large cruise ships sailing from Florida and elsewhere, it has created an additional level of uncertainty for small-ship lines operating in the region.

A number of companies base their ships during the winter in Caribbean islands that were recently decimated by storms, including St. Maarten/St. Martin and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many offer port calls at islands that are likely to need months to be ready for tourists again, such as St. Barts, Dominica and Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Windstar Cruises is one company that has had to reshuffle its itinerary plans following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The Seattle-based line scrubbed plans to sail its 208-passenger Star Breeze in the Caribbean and instead will keep it in Panama and Costa Rica, where it has added cruises in February and March.

Windstar said it is still in the process of deciding which itineraries to offer on the Star Pride, which is scheduled to begin sailing from San Juan on Nov. 25.

"We are working with our San Juan agents and hotels and have conducted a detailed port-by-port evaluation for mid-cruise port calls," Windstar said.

Travel agents and guests will be updated by email when a decision is made, according to the company.

Another line still trying to decide its course in the Caribbean is Crystal Cruises, whose 60-person Crystal Esprit expedition yacht is scheduled to begin a series of roundtrip cruises from Marigot, St. Martin, on Nov. 2.

The French collectivity, which shares the island also occupied by Dutch St. Maarten, was badly hit by Hurricane Irma.

Crystal is in discussions with local port officials and is telling guests that the Crystal Esprit plans to sail from St. Martin, according to some travel agents. Others said there has been no official decision.

"I have not received any correspondence from them at all about that vessel," said Karen Ruppel, manager of leisure and cruises at Boca Raton Travel and Cruises in Florida.

Several islands on the Esprit's scheduled itinerary, such as Tortola and St. Barts, are said to be unready to reopen.

Efforts to get an update from Crystal on the Crystal Esprit were unsuccessful.

SeaDream Yacht Club, which has a turnaround operation in St. Maarten, has revised many of its itineraries for the winter season.

"They will be going out of Antigua rather than St. Maarten," said Christopher Nelson, a spokesman for the two-ship line.

SeaDream begins its winter Caribbean season Oct. 29 with a six-day voyage of its 112-passenger Sea Dream I from Bridgetown.

Itineraries posted on SeaDream's website show cruises beginning or ending in Bridgetown and Antigua early in the season, with some using St. Thomas and San Juan for embarkation or debarkation by December.

The U.S. Coast Guard has removed restrictions on vessel calls in San Juan and St. Thomas, and although there remains damage to the tourism infrastructure, cruises could turn in those ports later in the year.

Another small-ship line with Caribbean voyages this winter is Star Clippers, which begins its season Dec. 9 with a seven-day, roundtrip cruise from Bridgetown on its 227-passenger Royal Clipper sailing yacht.

Spokeswoman Lauren Frye said the line doesn't have any cruises scheduled to depart St. Maarten until Feb. 10, when its Star Flyer is slated for a series of seven-day sailings on a Treasure Islands itinerary that includes Tortola, St. Barts, St. Kitts and Anguila.

"Right now, it's wait and see," Frye said.

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