It's a lazy Sunday in Barbados. A hazy day completely different to any other Sunday anywhere else in the world.
The sun is beating down on the coral island, the locals are either in church or taking a siesta, and Bridgetown Pier is deserted deserted that is except for the handful of passengers making their way up the gangway of the sleek Wind Star towards the Captain and his officers waiting to greet us.
It is like a scene from an old black and white movie. But everything here is in Technicolour...with digital sound. A sea so blue there are no words in the English language that can adequately describe it, and a stillness that is almost deafening, and there is a scent, always in the background, of something exotic: a mix of rum, bougainvillea blossoms...and history. Things heady, fragrant and intriguingly musty.
The first on board, beating us up the gangplank, are Frank and Rachel from Johannesburg. They've flown practically halfway around the world to get here in time, and for them, the welcome punch and platter of hors duvres in the cool ship's lounge, as we register for our week on the Wind Star, is the perfect introduction for a week of elegant relaxation on what is practically our own private yacht for the seven days cruising the Caribbean islands. With only 148 guests, a trip on the Wind Star really does feel like your own exclusively arranged vacation.
Rachel just wants to find her cabin, unpack and start relaxing. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the pier she's managed all three. This is why I love small ships, she declares in her broad accent, passing me by with a Pina Colada in one hand, her blockbuster romance novel in the other and a broad smile plastered across her face. No lineups! No waiting! No crowds! Just a deck-chair waiting in the balmy Caribbean afternoon.
For my part, I'm here to take a break from editorial deadlines and the treadmill of daily life...and this is the perfect place to find that escape.
The crew everywhere introduce themselves with warm handshakes. Everything is laid on, from an endless supply of fluffy white towels to a Bon Voyage bottle of champagne in our cabin, and there's nothing to worry about except how much longer our sunscreen is going to last, to what's for dinner.
Even dining is made easy. Open seating, anytime between 7:30 and 9:30pm, tables of your choice in a restaurant with views all around of the gently moving Caribbean Sea, and the dress code is elegantly-casual. It's beginning to seem more and more like our own private yacht.
The food and service aboard the Wind Star is worthy of any elegant, top rated resort restaurant. A choice of four entrees and seven courses every night, everything from roasted duck and Lobster Thermidor, to chocolate mousse or cheeses from around the world.
No wonder that by 11 o'clock that night, when the Wind Star finally slips from the quay, in a completely understated moment when the sails noiselessly unfurl above us and she sails into the Caribbean night, I've already pretty much forgotten most of my worries. So has Rachel, so far from Johannesburg, who is headed for the Pool Deck bar for a nightcap with her husband Frank and the handful of friends they've already made in only a few hours.
I'm headed for bed. But who can blame me. Who wouldn't want to get the edge on a night of being gently rocked to sleep in your berth.
The cabins are spacious, considering the size of the ship, and the elegant design manages to create a sense of being at sea (portholes instead of windows and wood-panelled cabinets that hold everything so neatly) while still maintaining that sense of style and elegance that pervades the whole ship.
On our first full day at sea a Monday that still seems like Sunday we're all out on deck wallowing in the sun like baby seals on the rocks. Ricky, our Philippeno bar tender on the Pool deck, has been plying us with exotic cocktails and friendly bantering. I've had a wickedly elaborate lunch in the outdoor Verandah, and my only concern is that I won't be able to finish the chapter of my good book before I have to baste myself again and turn over to do the other side!
Herb, a retired public relations executive from New York, is down in the Casino taking a lesson in Blackjack while his wife Moira counts the winnings he promises and decides what to spend it on in St Martin, our second port of call, and one of the world's most popular duty-free shopping centres. At my age, she tells me, fingering the three gold chains around her neck, the only thing you want from your husband is jewelry, but she says it with a smile and reminds us that they are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this week.
The next day at sea is like another Sunday, even if it is Tuesday, and we've all slept like babies rocked to sleep in our cradles again, and we're headed for the island of Nevis where the ship's crew has planned an elaborate picnic on the beach. The Wind Star comes to a gentle halt in the azure waters of the bay, the tenders are lowered and we're on our way.
Being under sail is one of the most magical things about a cruise on the Wind Star. Even the more experienced sailors cannot fail to be awe struck by the sensation. Some of us lie back and imagine we're Christopher Columbus discovering these islands for the first time, others wander the decks from fore to aft in a sort of daze, like children, staring up at the sails and marvelling at the power of the wind. It's a day to do nothing, nothing but happily expect the next day to be the same. Which it is.
Rachel and Frank from South Africa are sleeping off their jet lag, and everyone else around me is busily figuring out the answer to the Captain's poser: how many hours will we be at sea under sail with the engines cut off. A prize is promised.
Sitting on the beach, Herb and Moira from New York are celebrating their winnings at the Blackjack table (Moira insists his luck came from her good advice and not the lesson he took) and they're planning their gambling strategy for tonight. Rachel has tried in vain to talk Frank out of his ride on the banana, a huge cylindrical float led at breathtaking speed through the bay, accompanied with squeals of delight, and is watching him anxiously from the beach. They won't believe this back in Jo burg! she says, shaking her head. Personally, I'm too busy to take notice of her worries about her friends back home. I'm in the water with the snorkelling equipment from aboard ship, floating at the top of another world, amazed at the life beneath me. I've even forgotten that I've promised Claudette, a magistrate from Wales, a cha-cha in the lounge after dinner which shouldn't be a worry except that I've forgotten the steps.
Cindy is originally from Barbados and has the same easy geniality typical of the people of these islands. She takes the ribbing her husband Sam receives in good spirit and even joins in, and passes around the local island perfume she has bought. It's hard to distinguish it from the scents already bombarding us from every corner.
The young honeymoon couple from Toronto, Canada, Sam and Cindy, who seem to have spent an inordinately large amount of time in their cabin (no doubt enjoying the free selection of videos and CDs available from the library), are more into shopping for souvenirs and a shirt for Sam that everyone will tease him about.
On our fourth day on the Wind Star Moira comes into her own. At St Martin at last, and a chance to spend Herb's winnings before he loses any more. Last night was not a good one. But they're still up a couple of hundred dollars.
As for me...I've survived the cha-cha with Claudette, though she's walking with a slight limp this morning but my main problem is that after my day on the beach yesterday, I've burnt to a frazzle, so I've joined Rachel and Frank, wandering about the market square, bartering with the locals, sharing their sense of humour, and spending my money on souvenirs that will hopefully capture this moment when I'm sitting by the fire in Vancouver on a cold and wet and windy evening.
The highlight of the day, however, is the barbecue under the stars this evening. Truly one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at sea. The crew have magically transformed the Pool Deck into an outdoor restaurant complete with moonlight made-to-order, linen-clad, candlelit tables, palm fronds everywhere, a huge buffet/barbecue with everything from grilled lobster to a roasted side of pork, and music to fit the mood.
The island of St Barths the next day provides a slower pace. Fewer tourist shops, more examples of real life in the Caribbean, and the perfect chance to stroll around the streets without being tempted to spend too much. Iles des Saintes the next day brings much of the same, as does Bequia on our last day aboard. Charming ports in a string of Caribbean Islands that most of the major cruise ships, the bigger ones at least, cannot visit.
Herb and Moira are all spent out, something Moira declares in a somewhat irritated New York accent, and have had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it all home. Sam and Cindy, still locked in their honeymoon delight with each other, are spending time alone on one of the many exotic beaches near the town, and Rachel is teaching me a South African version of the cha-cha on the pier before I break any more of Claudette's toes. Frank is giving us good advice while he looks out of the tender back to the ship.
It's a frozen moment of time. Just us on the deserted pier. And it feels as if we have the island to ourselves as if there's nothing else but the scent of the local blossoms and the heat of the afternoon between us and paradise. And in the distance, the Wind Star sits anchored in the bay. Peaceful. Waiting. We want to spend the rest of our last afternoon on deck. A moment of peace before our last evening and our last delicious meal aboard the Wind Star.
The captain gives us a speech of farewell in the lounge over cocktails and congratulates the winner on the poser he set on our first day out of Barbados. It seems that Herb's luck has finally run out. He doesn't win, but Frank does. I missed it by two points. Payback for watching you crush my wife's feet, he tells me with a wink, remembering our lesson on the quay, and noticing that Claudette is no longer walking with a limp. The Wind Star had been under sail for 96% of the time we were at sea.
But all good things have to come to an end. And this cruise is no exception. It seems we're back to square one. But not quite.
It's a lazy Sunday in Barbados again. That same sun is beating down on the same coral island, the same locals are either in church or taking a siesta, and Bridgetown Pier is deserted once more deserted that is except for the handful of passengers making their way down the gangway and casting disconsolate glances back at the sleek masts of the Wind Star rising above them. We all wish it wasn't over. Rachel and Frank, Herb and Moira, Sam and Cindy, Claudette and me and the rest of the 148 guests. All of us. Only seven days but we feel as if we've been resting for months. The Wind Star has become home. For a week. One whole week at a different pace.
For more information visit Windstar Cruises' web site at www.windstarcruises.com