The Caribbean, to me, always represented a pleasant diversion where one could avoid the realization that my hometown, at times, bore a striking similarity to what you might see out the window from the Trans-Siberian Railway on a winter run to Vladivostok.
If yours is an average agency profile, the Caribbean could well be the lifeblood of your existence. It is where people go to honeymoon, dive, divorce, golf and cruise.
The powder-white sandy beaches, however, were always the main draw. Clients generally do not choose to visit the Caribbean because of the islands' high-quality museums. One goes to the Caribbean with minimal expectations in terms of cuisine. After all, conch chowder goes just so far.
Aside from climbing, hiking, horseback- or bike-riding, swimming, snorkeling or sunning, there isn't very much to do. The Caribbean is where you head when your brain cells need a rest. This generally starts to happen, for me, at my first sight of the almost opaque, turquoise water.
For the most part, I have never felt that it was really necessary to see the Caribbean on a five-star-rated ship. But I was eager to experience one of the best and most expensive ships sailing the Caribbean, the Regent Seven Seas Navigator. Moreover, I wanted to test the ship in hostile waters. Could a Regent ship enable me to enjoy the Caribbean in ways that some of her larger, more exciting sisters could not? I was eager to try to figure out which comes first, the itinerary or the ship.
The hull for the research vessel Akademik Nicolay Pilyugin was completed in St. Petersburg, and there she ended. The unfinished vessel was purchased and sent off to the Italians, who built the ship up from the hull. It was launched for Regent in 1999, a uniquely spacious ship with only 490 passengers, a rather insignificant number.
Just how insignificant we were was demonstrated when we docked at St. Maarten. It was surreal, far different from my prior visits to the Dutch half of the island.
As I looked down from my balcony, I heard ... nothing. There were no sounds. No people. The water looked pristine with shimmers of morning sunlight and nothing to ruffle the sweet air. Was this really St. Maarten? I knew it was Good Friday, but so what? That wouldn't stop the watch merchants along Main Street.
Well, it just so happened that we were the only ship in port that day. Just us. And the locals thought we were so small and insignificant that they declared it a store holiday and closed down everything. This, despite the fact that, on average, I would guess Regent's guests had a far larger in-port spend yield than guests aboard many of the megaships.
My cruise started nicely enough. I drove to the pier and was able to park about 50 feet from the front entrance. That cost me $200, which I trust the Port of Miami will use for beautification. I only wish the cashier had said, "Thank you."
The Navigator's cabins are essentially suites. The worst cabin onboard is 300 square feet with a picture window, nearly twice the size of a standard cabin on many of the megaliners. Drinks were included.
The cabin stewardess introduced herself and offered to gather any two bottles of liquor we might prefer. There was a stocked refrigerator that was refreshed daily.
The onboard lecturer was interesting, talking about "The Real Pirates of the Caribbean" and, in a somewhat surprising turn, he described his personal experiences aboard the Seabourn Spirit when it was hijacked off the coast of Somalia. The coast of Somalia sees a hijacking incident about every three days. Cargo ships are the most common target because they need to operate at slow speeds during certain sea lane transits.
He went into some detail about the high-decibel beam rocket used to puncture the eardrums and disorient attackers. He offered the observation that Indonesia has the most piracy, with the Amazon area and the South China Sea also experiencing a number of attacks on vessels.
I am not sure that the onboard cruise consultant was helped by these observations, but I was still relaxed and looking forward to the fact that I would be dining with other "villagers" that evening in Prime 7, a carefully managed specialty restaurant where guests' needs are anticipated and where steak and lobster of high quality (they used certified Colorado beef) appear on most plates.
During dinner, at zero additional charge, I enjoyed some fine wines and noticed the flawless service was offered on a personal level that included addressing each guest by name.
The main dining room, Compass Rose, requires no advance reservations. It is an unusually comfortable room, where arriving guests are warmly greeted, and the best tables by the windows are set up for two guests.
I could determine no area of food service where cutbacks were evident. The newest concept, an alternative casual Italian restaurant, Sette Mare, is off to a good start, though it needs to make several changes if the experience is to be, in any way, authentically "Tuscan."
The cruise director made few announcements, but when she did they were delivered in a soothing semiwhisper. Some guests referred to her as "Mrs. Stepford," but I liked the calm tone she set.
I did some writing, some reading, and I thought a lot about the idea that perhaps we can all be divided into two camps: urban and village cruisers.
Urbanites crave options, some sense of risk, like walking out on glass walkways over the ocean or rock-climbing on a moving ship. Urbanites like the feel of a small city, and they need Broadway-style entertainment and restaurants that charge something if you really want a good meal. They assume some annoying folks will be onboard, but they know that in a city at sea, you don't have to mingle with them. Urban cruisers expect to see all ages onboard, just as you would walking the streets of any city. The urban cruiser knows that sometimes you have got to stand in line and the really good stuff always costs extra.
The village cruiser wants to feel embraced by a community of like individuals. They aspire to know a few interesting people well. They want fine food, no crowds, no extra fees. In the village, they want to forget about urban life and feel as though they are somewhere really special. They will tell their friends about the comfort they felt in knowing that "everything is taken care of; I didn't have to do anything."
The village cruiser goes home and tells friends, "We did it all. You won't believe what they had on that ship."
For me, what I most craved on this vacation was time to relax in a village of my choosing. On that level, the Regent Navigator proved to be the perfect choice.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].