Ten years ago I wrote about sailing with “Windjammer” through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and titled the story, “Sailing Through a Postcard,” a comment my husband made as we sailed the turquoise sea into the sunset. Though the name of the company we have sailed with has changed, the experience of sailing on a tall ship through the Caribbean remains the same — paradise! So, I’ve reprised the headline; no other words can better explain this vacation — unless it’s the description given by our sailing companion, Larry Epplin of Grandview Ind., who joined us, along with his wife, Kristi, on the trip from Grenada through the Grenadine Islands, West Indies: “On most trips, you have to take ‘excursions’ to the really great spots. On the Mandalay, we are the excursion.”
For nearly 10 years, my husband and I, often accompanied by friends and relatives, booked annual sailing trips with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. The legendary company, which was established in 1947 and sailed five tall ships in its prime, filed for bankruptcy in 2007, ceasing operations. Windjammer fans and employees were loyal, though, and the freewheeling sailing culture the company created was extremely popular. In 2012, an investor group including former employees of Windjammer formed a new company, Sail Windjammer, and purchased the gem of the sailing fleet, S.V. Mandalay, before she was scrapped. To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we booked a spring sail aboard Mandalay, departing from Grenada.
The 236-foot barquentine Mandalay was built in 1923 for financier E. F. Hutton and his wife Marjorie Merriweather Post. Grand in every fashion, the ship wasn’t big enough for Mrs. Post, who asked her husband for a larger ship. He complied, and in 1931 had the same shipyard build her the 360-foot Sea Cloud. The Sea Cloud sails still today, too, as a luxury passenger ship. Ironically, of all the ports where she could have been, we saw her in Grenada and spent a day at Union Island with her, too. Most of the Sea Cloud’s passengers, we were told, are German.
In the 1930s, Mandalay was sold to shipping magnate George Vettlesen who re-christened her VEMA. During WWII she searched for German U-boats off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. In 1953, Mandalay began service for Columbia University sailing more than 1.25 million miles worldwide. Evidence gathered on her voyages confirmed the theory of continental drift and mapped ocean floors.
We were pleased to see Mandalay as we remembered her, and improved. (We sailed Mandalay to the San Blas islands of Panama in 2004.) The new owners improved the navigational bridge, added air conditioning in all cabins, and expanded the galley kitchen, among other upgrades.
We were also pleased to see crewmembers with familiar faces — many were handpicked by Captain Sly (Sylvester Dzomeku) from the old Windjammer. Captain Sly was taking a week off when we sailed. At the wheel (when not in the hands of passengers — yes, you can steer the ship) was Chief Mate Bernard. The West Indies native did a fine job escorting us through the beautiful Grenadine Islands, surprising us daily with our destination.
As soon as all passengers were on board Sunday evening, Captain Bernard advised we would raise the sails (to the recorded tune of “Amazing Grace,” a longstanding Windjammer custom) and begins our sail through the Grenadines, destination unknown.
In the view of the Mandalay at all times is a Grenadine island that’s hard to find on the map. The Grenadines are an archipelago of more than 600 islands in the Windward Islands, part of the West Indies, in the Caribbean Sea. They are divided between the island nations of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada — the countries we would report travel to on customs documents.
During the seven-day trip, we sailed to Union Island, Mayreau, Tobago Cays, Bequia, Canouan, and Carriacou. Other islands in the chain include Petite Martinique and Mustique — the private holiday island frequented by celebrities. (Cruise ships don’t generally stop in Mustique.)
On beach days, the crew set up beach bars and tendered lunch to us on the beach. A splendid day was on an uninhabited island in Tobago Cays. Lunch was sandwiches on galley-made focaccia, spicy salads, and rum punch, under a palm tree. On islands with villages and small commercial districts — Bequia and Carriacou — passengers can sign up for an island tour (separate but affordable fee). Meivon, the purser and activities mate (and also a West Indies native), suggested restaurants when dining in town was an option. In Bequia, we enjoyed an amazing lobster pizza — not another chunk of lobster could fit on the pie.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served on the ship, as well as daily “snacks and rum swizzles,” served around 5:30 p.m. — another Windjammer tradition. For early risers, the galley staff bakes sticky buns and serves Bloody Marys at 6:30 a.m. All of our meals were delicious, dressed up with West Indian flare and spices.
Snorkeling gear is rented on board, and nearly every day there were snorkeling opportunities, either from the beach, or through an excursion offered. At the Tobago Cays Marine Park, we swam with sea turtles.
Unlike a cruise ship, nightly entertainment is more of the make-your-own-fun variety. Meivon led passengers in various games, including the famous crab races — when the only bets of the week were made. (Mandalay is sans casino.) Under sail, passengers generally spend time chatting with each other and crewmembers, reading, gazing, enjoying Caribbean beer and rum drinks, and relaxing.
Alcoholic beverages are purchased on the ship with “doubloons” — another Windjammer tradition. A doubloon is $20 and the bartender — “Mashup” or “Spice” — will punch your doubloon three or four times for a beer; five or more for cocktails. Each day, a special tropical cocktail is featured. On our anniversary, April 1 (which was shared by another couple, also celebrating 25 years of marriage and who had honeymooned on Mandalay), the galley staff, led by Boston, baked us cake and sang to us.
Is sailing with Windjammer for everyone? If you must pack your tuxedo or evening gown to have fun on a ship — you may indeed prefer the “foo foo” ships (referred to as such by every Windjammer captain). On the other hand, if your suitcase is light, carrying only shorts, T-shirts, and cover-ups, and you want to feel aged teak on your bare feet, you might begin searching those flights to Grenada.
When You Go
The S/V Mandalay sails weekly boarding in Grenada on Sunday and returning on Saturday. For 2015, the company is adding at least two sailings departing from St. Maarten. S/V Mandalay is also available for charter. sailwindjammer.com.
Flying to Grenada is not difficult, but limited flights arrive and depart daily. With any cruise, I suggest arriving the day before departure. As well, plan to stay over in Grenada a day or two when you disembark. American Airlines operates flights to and from Miami daily. Sail Windjammer recommends several hotels and resorts in St. Georges, Grenada. We booked apartment style rooms at the Gem Holiday Beach Resort. The resort is located on the more isolated Morne Rouge Bay and offered a swim-up beach bar, beachside pool, and good local restaurants within walking distance. A beach barbecue is featured on Saturday nights. We particularly enjoyed Sangria, a newly opened Spanish-influenced restaurant (Grenada lies just 95 miles off the coast of Venezuela) owned by a Scottish expatriate who moved to Grenada to teach at St. George’s University School of Medicine. (For the past three years, St. George’s University has placed more doctors into first-year U.S. residency positions than any other medical school in the world. In fact, the reason given by President Ronald Reagan to justify the October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada was to rescue American medical students at St. George’s University from the danger posed to them by the violent coup that had overthrown Grenada’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.)