When you’re excited about a destination, but also a little unsure, there’s no better way to go than on a cruise ship. So, when Viking Ocean Cruises invited Travel Market Report on its 11-day West Indies Explorer itinerary, we were happy to set sail and see for ourselves how the Caribbean is faring.
Eighteen months after Hurricane Maria, the Caribbean is in vogue once again. The New York Times this month called Puerto Rico the number one place to visit in 2019, and Conde Nast Traveler named it among the “19 Best Places to Go in 2019.” U.S. News & World Report included both the British Virgin Islands and Saint Lucia on its World’s Best Places to Visit list, and crowned St. Lucia the number one Best Honeymoon Destination. Lin-Manuel Miranda was in San Juan reprising his role as Hamilton; Jimmy Fallon and the Clintons were in the audience.
And, as seen from the sea or the tourist buses or the cable car rides up the mountains, all the islands look lush and lovely again. Many were never touched at all, and even on those that were badly hurt, Mother Nature already has repaired much of the visible damage. In St. Thomas, where not a leaf was left on the trees after Maria blew through, for example, the view now is verdant and lush and colorful.
That is not to say that everything is completely back to normal. Major resorts remain closed; infrastructure outside the big cities may be iffy. But the mantra of the locals seems to be much like that of Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton: “When I was 17, a hurricane destroyed my town. I didn’t drown.” Life goes on.
Indeed, while The New York Times article about Puerto Rico described visitors there as “repeats and loyalists,” that was not the case on Viking Sea. Most guests were repeat cruisers — when asked at the first show how many had sailed Viking before, more than eight out of ten raised their hands. But many were newcomers to the Caribbean, or to these less-traveled islands. Some, expecting an Aruba-like experience, were taken aback by the poverty more than by any hurricane damage.
But given Viking’s upscale amenities — the included specialty restaurants, the Thermal Suite, the attentive service, the heated bathroom floors, the high tea and the lobster and steak dinners — many said they felt good about offering a helping hand to those in need without having to be inconvenienced in any way themselves.
With just a day in each port, visitors see a West Indies that sparkles in the sunshine. A new adventure park with cable cars and ziplines and a restaurant/event space has opened in St. Martin; a new convention center complex with a 6,000-seat concert hall will open by year’s end in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
“We’ve moved on from the hurricane story,” said Assistant General Manager Carlos Garcia at the InterContinental San Juan. Even as some of its neighbors were forced to close, the InterContinental was open and fully booked through the immediate post-hurricane period — and now has begun an extensive “refreshing" of its 26,000 square feet of meeting space and all guest rooms. And, he noted, with travel agents being “such a big part of our business, we will start to do more fam trips by the end of this year.”
And then a bug checked in
The backdrop to all travel is braving the vagaries of Mother Nature — and just as the islands rose to the occasion, so too did the Viking team when an unidentified intestinal bug surfaced on our cruise. Started by a single guest who came aboard already sick and did not notify authorities, the virus was quickly contained as the crew shifted to a Code Red condition.
After recent stories about a norovirus outbreak that ended with more than 600 sick cruisers, many guests were surprised that after the initial 20 or so passengers fell ill, the number of patients grew by only one or two a day.
It helped, no doubt, that Viking Sea is a small ship, with just 930 passengers. In addition to quarantining the sick and disinfecting the ship, the crew immediately moved to keep human contact between passengers to a minimum. They removed the plates from the buffet line, and the salt shakers and creamers from the tables; they had servers dish out the food and pour the coffee. They closed the pool and the hot tubs for three days; they stood at the doorways to the restaurants to make sure everyone washed their hands.
Guests seemed to take the restrictions in stride. Like Hurricane Maria, “It’s unfortunate, but it’s amazing how quickly they got it under control,” said one guest. “Given the circumstances, I think they did a great job.”
The cruise itself had more of the feel of a river cruise than an ocean one — perhaps not a big surprise, given Viking’s roots on the rivers of Europe. The pricing structure is inclusive: the price includes beer, wine, soft drinks and specialty teas and coffees, as well as specialty restaurants; unlimited WiFi; an excursion every day; 24-hour room service; tips; a self-service laundry; and a private dining room with a personal waiter for groups up to 20. While there is a fee for spa services, entrance to the beautiful Thermal Suite — complete with sauna and hot tub and snow — is included.
One guest described the trip as much like being in The Haven, the exclusive area on Norwegian Cruise Line ships: It’s quiet and peaceful, the food is locally sourced and thoughtfully prepared, and the service is attentive. Entertainment tends toward speakers and lectures and talented musicians, but there is a show — either a musical revue or a movie — every night.
And at the heart of the Viking experience, of course, is the food. A team of 14 chefs oversees the dining rooms and specialty restaurants; one chef cooks nothing but potatoes. Room service delivers 150 meals a day. All the gelato, sushi, cakes and pastas are made onboard, along with more than 50 different types of bread; and a separate kitchen cooks allergen-free versions of anything on the menu. The tuna comes from Japan, the salmon from Norway.
As always, new menu items are in the works, destined to be tested on the Viking Jupiter when it launches in February. The inside scoop? “It will have more Tuscany, more Roman cuisine, fresh pasta and a great pork chop in mushroom sauce, plus a new bread selection,” Corporate Chef Gaetano Monteriso told Travel Market Report.
Travel advisors, meanwhile, noted their favorite islands. “I love them all for different reasons,” said Mary Howard Evans of Alpha J Travel Limited. “The historian in me loves San Juan; Dominica for the lush beauty; Antigua and Tortola for the unspoiled beaches.”
John Gawne, at Cruises Inc., chose St. Lucia for its “variety of geographic features: volcanic parks, twin piton peaks, banana orchards and great snorkeling.”
And Tracy Whipple of Travel on a Dream in Deforest, Wisconsin, chose Barbados, where “the colors of the water and the sky are amazing. I’ve toured this island by land and sea and you can’t go wrong with either.”
In the end, said Stefanie Katz, owner of The Travel Superhero in Orlando, “A cruise is a great way to get a taste of any county, since you can cover a lot of ground with ease in great comfort, from the most basic on a mass market line to the stuff of royalty on a luxury line.”