ST. THOMAS, US Virgin Islands - As I grumbled about the wait at the open-air luggage carousel, other passengers popped open Bud or Carib beers, the bottles sweating with condensation, and a woman next to me smiled and held up her hands as if in surrender.
It took me about 90 island minutes to learn that my bags had not made the connection. It took only five to realize I was going to have a tough time adjusting to the pace on this, my first cruise and my first trip to the Caribbean.
The Arabella, a three-masted schooner I and 30 other passengers would call home for a week, hardly qualified as a typical cruise. Nonetheless, my preferred method for relaxing is to climb a mountain or ride a bike all day, neither of which you can do on a boat, particularly one as small as the Arabella. There, relaxation comes in the form of sun, water, sand, and drink - most often beer or rum. In fact, as soon as we had walked down the gleaming metal stairs of the airplane and onto the runway, looking like a parade of moles, all pasty and squinting, the first person we encountered was at the ''Welcome to St. Thomas'' booth, handing out free rum punch.
This trip was not the sort where passengers help sail. The company classifies the cruise as ''soft adventure,'' but from an active person's point of view, it was so soft as to be mostly about doing nothing. The adventures were snorkeling, some cave exploring, getting on and off the dinghy that took us to and from shore, and trying to stay upright while we were sailing. By the end of the week, we had been given only 14 daylight hours free to play in the water or on land.
But for people looking to relax, for those who can set their watches to island time, the Arabella is heaven on sea.
Mornings were spent sailing, and we moved every day but one, docking off sparsely populated islands. Afternoons were for playing in the water - swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, hanging out at the beach. Refreshingly, the shopping opportunities were limited. Most nights we were shuttled by dinghy to an island for dinner, usually far from the cruise ship crowd. Some evenings were quiet, others lively.
Friends had told me about this cruise, offered by Classic Cruises of Newport, R.I. In winter, the 160-foot yacht sails throughout the US and British Virgin Islands. In summer, it plies the waters of southern New England, including Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and in May cruises from Charleston, S.C., to Savannah, Ga.
Before we sailed, I spent Saturday night not as I had wanted, exploring St. Thomas, but instead wandering the aisles of KMart for shorts and other necessities. On Sunday, I met up with the other Arabella passengers at a bar called Molly Malone's, whose name made me chuckle at the thought of Southie in the tropics. I ignored the Sunday afternoon football on TV and watched as a camera-toting tourist chased after one of the island's many iguanas.
Sara Raff, Arabella deckhand and activities coordinator, played hostess. She was laid-back yet efficient, and took the luggage problem out of my hands. Island time seemed to suit her.
It took a few dinghy launches to get us from the dock to the Arabella. ''Squeeze in there tight,'' Raff, 36, ordered. ''You'll be touching each other all week. You might as well get used to it.'' Our group was mostly couples in their 40s and 50s, a few younger, some older, with the exception of two families. I was the only solo traveler.
After two minutes on board, I panicked, realizing we would always be in motion. As soon as my luggage arrived that evening, on went the ''Sea-Bands,'' bracelets that use acupressure to prevent motion sickness.
The Arabella, once owned by actor Kelly McGillis, was recently rebuilt and was relaunched in 2000. Its owners say it's the smallest passenger sailing vessel in the Virgin Islands, meaning it can go into coves and harbors where bigger vessels cannot, a huge bonus. It has a nice dining and sitting area, a small bar, and a small serving space for food, of which there was plenty. In the stern, there's covered outdoor seating and a hot tub, and in the bow, a couple benches and a small padded sundeck.
The 20 staterooms have private baths, portholes, satellite televisions, even telephones. The cabins were spotless and the towels plush. The smallest rooms have virtually no floor space, but the larger ones are adequate. Prices range from $1,000 to $2,000. Virtually all of us had been told, at various times, that we were getting one of the last remaining cabins.
At the helm was John R. Ventura, 37, of Newport. With his longish hair, handsome face, and white gauzy shirt open at the top, he seemed a shorter, more-weathered version of Fabio. His friendly sarcasm livened up the daily captain's call, a rundown of the day's activities.
Ventura, who grew up on the water in New Bedford and sailed from there to the Vineyard at age 12, said excitedly, ''We actually get to sail down here. This is as close to yachting as you can get.'' He started the new year by sailing ''off the anchor'' out of a crowded harbor, meaning the crew used only sails and no motor to maneuver the ship, an enviable task. Sailors on a neighboring ship applauded.
Unaccustomed to sleeping at sea, I awoke about 15 times the first night. From my porthole I watched the sunrise lighten the blue sea. Mornings became my favorite time. As the sun rose, the lush hills always in view would turn a paler shade of green and the sky would go from pink to blue, reflecting on the calm sea.
''Where are we?'' a woman asked her husband at breakfast the first day. ''Who cares?'' he replied.
While we sailed, folks lollygagged. I'd never seen so many relaxed people in my life. They were on island time.
I was ready to play.
Our first stop was uninhabited Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands, purportedly the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson's ''Treasure Island.'' We had been issued snorkeling gear, but despite being antsy to get in the water, I was cautious, not having snorkeled for 10 years. Seeing ''Fred the Barracuda,'' so named by Raff, swim under the boat did not help.
We took a short launch to The Indians, rock pinnacles that resemble an Indian headdress. Raff joined us, dispensing tips and caution. I felt utterly safe, and happy as a clam the second I put my head underwater. Fred was not there, but I did see yellow striped sergeant majors, shimmering parrotfish, blue chromis, and a spear-shaped halfbeak, all identified later in a book on board.
I then paddled a kayak with passenger James McCartney of Cambridge, and we snorkeled over to the Caves, three caves you can swim into. Before long, we were fetched by a crew member who was afraid we would miss the appointed time to leave. Captain John, it turned out, does not run on island time.
We anchored in the Bight of Norman. Happy hour was marked with the omnipresent and aptly named ''painkiller punch,'' rums (yes, plural) with pineapple juice and coconut milk. That evening, Chief Mate Timothy Dargan staffed the grill, which was bolted to the railing. Our outstanding cook, Britt Amann, 27, had seasoned the mahi-mahi and jerk chicken to perfection.
Dargan, 25, grew up in Andover and fell in love with the water at his grandparents' cottage in Hampton, N.H. After several years of seasonal work, he started working full time on the Arabella in August, and is second in command. He keeps an apartment in Newport but is rarely home.
''The boat has a way of making people relax,'' Dargan said. He likes to do the New England trips ''because it's home.'' But, he added, ''it's not the island life.'' That's for sure.
Some folks later went to the William T. Thornton, a floating pirate ship/bar. Women who dive off naked get a free T-shirt. I was more interested in imagining the action over at Kisses, the three-story yacht anchored nearby and said to be owned by the Hershey family.
The highlight of Tuesday, New Year's Eve, was a too-short stop at the Baths on the island of Virgin Gorda. The beach there is piled with boulders that form a natural swimming area and underwater caves and archways you can walk and wade through. It is eerie and beautiful. Several people walked a trail around the boulders to the pristine beach at Devil's Bay.
We docked off the Bitter End Yacht Club and Resort. Before heading over, Ventura led a champagne toast and gave a long blow on the horn. Dinner was mediocre, though the waterfront setting was ideal. Dinghies docked three or more deep, and the harbor was jammed with yachts. Partiers drank and danced and got rained on, and boat horns blared at midnight.
New Year's Day it rained on and off, but was warm. Some of us took a snorkeling trip offered by the Bitter End. It was windy, and the ''safety first'' attitude of the Arabella crew was replaced by an islander's nonchalance.
That afternoon I hiked with passenger Charrette Boyce of South Hadley. We were itching to be on land, and enjoyed the quick, steep climb up Virgin Gorda. We marveled at the bromeliads, the big colorful Frangipani caterpillars crossing the trail, the red-topped Turk's Cap cactus, and the harbor view below.
Another squall came up as we waited for the dinghy. Up pulled deckhand and launch driver Kerriann Kelley, dressed in yellow foul-weather gear. Kelley, 24, is from Quincy, and is studying for her captain's license. She was a competitive swimmer who learned to sail in summer camp. During college, she spent summers as assistant sail master of the sailing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. When it came time to find a permanent job, ''I knew I didn't want to work in an office,'' she said.
The rainy evening was made exciting when the Arabella's power went off for at least an hour. It turned out to be bad fuel that had to be filtered out. The next morning's stiff winds were designed for sailing. We passengers looked like characters in a stop-animation film: We would take a few steps and freeze while the boat heeled.
For Dan Rowland, a Methuen native now of Lexington, Ky., and Montville, Maine, the sailing was the best part of the week. Rowland, a university professor, and his wife, Wendy, used to spend summers sailing around Penobscot Bay before their family sold the boat.
''With cruise ships, travel is not the point. It's done at night. Here it's fun to be traveling,'' Rowland said. ''What makes this boat so great is it's a beautiful boat with traditional lines. A gorgeous boat. It sails well. It's fun to watch the crew set their sail.''
I knew the Arabella was quite fetching because several people onshore asked about us, and one couple paddled up in a kayak to get a closer look. We passengers were disappointed we couldn't see ourselves under full sail.
On this Thursday, we stopped at Cooper Island for what turned out to be the best snorkeling of the trip. Pointing the treasures out to one another, we saw more of the vibrant fish we had already seen, along with an octopus, a spotted moray eel, and a small barracuda. Closer to the beach, Boyce and I hunted for sea worms, tube or snail-like creatures that have little bristles they withdraw when threatened by predators. She waved a hand near them, and they snapped shut.
We spent the night anchored in Peter Island's Great Bay and had a terrific dinner at Prospect Reef Beach Club on Buttonwood Bay, open at night only for private parties. With dim light from a generator, and the beach a few feet from our three long tables, it was a magical place.
On our final day of play, Ventura unfurled the map at captain's call, saying, ''We're going here to White Bay, at Jost Van Dyke. What do you do there? Nothing.''
If any place could motivate me, finally, to reset my clock to island time, it was White Bay, the prototype of a beach paradise, with soft white sand, sparkling blue water, hammocks between the palms, and only a few shacks selling drinks, food, and beachwear. We swam, we sunned, we swam, we strolled. There were two launch times set for a return to the Arabella. When the early one appeared, everyone waved it off. We weren't budging.
Our last supper was at the famed Foxy's, a sprawling ragtag beachfront spot that started as one shack. The barbecue buffet was phenomenal, and we danced the night away to a steel drum and pop band that played some horrendous covers. But then, music wasn't the point.
We returned to the ship that night with our stored luggage back in the hallway next to our doors. The party was over. Island time had run out.
Saturday morning we cleared customs and again docked near Molly Malone's.
''Dug in well,'' chief mate Dargan shouted to the captain when the anchor took hold.
''Dug in well, ay,'' he answered.
Virgin Islands resources:
This story ran on page M1 of the Boston Globe on 1/26/2003.
Reprint permission granted by author
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