Beginning in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, Anthony Pearce explores the Caribbean on board Viking Sea and realises that there is no better way to see this incredible part of the world
It’s a cliché but it rings true: time seems to move more slowly in the Caribbean. Long days are spent lazing on pristine beaches, meandering through historic port towns, exploring the beautiful countryside and indulging on rum and incredible food – the stresses of everyday life long forgotten.
We’re here with Viking Cruises, on its 10-night West Indies Explorer itinerary, and over the next week will take in St Lucia, Barbados, Sint Maarten, St Thomas, Guadeloupe and more. There are other ways to see the Caribbean, but it’s difficult to think of any better than a cruise, hopping from one paradise to another.
Our journey begins in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s colourful capital, connected to the UK via Miami, New York or Charlotte Douglas in North Carolina (the latter proving less stressful than the sprawling Miami International Airport). The second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas, San Juan is a fascinating introduction to the Caribbean, and a great springboard from which to explore it. Puerto Rico is the fourth largest island and San Juan the third largest metropolis in the region, a contrast to some of the tiny islands to follow.
In the city’s charming Old Town, Spanish influence remains: cobblestone streets and colourful colonial buildings – reds, blues and greens – are overlooked by a 19th century fort, the imposing Castillo San Cristóbal, from where the first cannon was fired in the Spanish-American War. But it’s the city’s lively bar and restaurant scene that make it worth a pre or post-cruise stay. The country has remained in the news because of the damage sustained during last year’s hurricane season, some of which still remains. As an unincorporated territory of the US, Puerto Rico is reliant on tourism, and guests were greeted enthusiastically when the cruise ships first returned.
The next day we sail to St Croix, a late change after Tortola, another of the British Virgin Islands, is removed from the itinerary because of storm damage (it’s now welcoming cruise ships again). It’s the least well-known and least developed port of call on the cruise: unspectacular compared to some other destinations, but St Croix offers a true slice of Caribbean life. When we arrive on a Sunday morning, the island seems almost deserted. Ours are the first footprints made on the white sand beach a stone’s throw from the pier; in the hour we spend sat under a palm tree, only one other person wanders by. It’s proof that the postcard Caribbean exists – peaceful, pristine and pure. As we stroll inland we’re greeted by gospel sounds escaping from churches, a clue to where the island’s small population is to be found.
Viking Cruises has carved out a niche for itself in the ocean cruise market. While it avoids the word ‘luxury’, its ships are inarguably among the nicest at sea. Built in a minimalist and understated style, the vessels are all about form and function, an ideal that rings true to the company’s Scandinavian heritage. Areas such as the Wintergarden and pool deck with its retractable roof may be stunning, but the ships aren’t showy – no feature feels unnecessary or over-the-top. Although not all-inclusive, the cruise price covers one excursion per port, wi-fi, food in speciality restaurants, wine, beer and soft drinks with meals, while the Silver Drinks package, at $20 per person per day, is very reasonable. The line’s fast expansion means that fleet is also incredibly young: Viking Jupiter, which will launch next year, will become the sixth ship since 2015; and there are plans to bring the ocean fleet to 16 by 2027.
Its speciality restaurants include Manfredi’s, an Italian grill, where indulgence reigns. On the first of two visits there, I opt for a creamy carbonara starter and the porcini dry-rubbed rib-eye for main – the best steak I’ve had at sea. There’s also the Chef’s Table, which serves up the meal of the cruise – an innovative Venetian set menu with wine pairings. With the drinks package we’re treated to the premium wines (although the house wines are excellent, too). There’s also the main dining room, World Café, and Mamsen’s to choose from. The latter, named for chairman Tor Hagen’s mother, serves breakfast, including ridiculously tasty Norwegian waffles, which I’ve been craving every since.
Viking also includes access to its spa, where guests are encouraged to try the Scandinavian technique of moving between hot and cold rooms. Treatments such as massages are extra, but the spa’s pool, sauna, steam room, ice room and plunge pool are open to everyone. Despite this, there are never more than a handful of people in there. In fact, the ship never feels crowded. It carries 930 guests, but, at 47,800 GT, has a guest-to-space ratio comparable to the luxury lines.
Although it’s nice to wander freely, excursions offer a good way of getting to grips with the region’s rich and complex history, allowing guests to learn about its colonial history, slave rebellions and culinary influences.
The day after St Croix we take our first paid-for tour with Viking: a scenic railway tour around St Kitts, taking in the former plantation fields, black sand beaches, the calm Caribbean sea and wild Atlantic ocean. The tracks – now for tourists merry on 150-proof rum – were once used for transporting sugar cane.
In St Lucia, we spend the morning on the beach before taking another optional tour, heading on an aerial tram into the island’s dense rainforest, where there are around 600 types of plants, trees and shrubs per acre. I expected white-sand beaches and turquoise bays, but it’s striking how green the islands are.
St John’s, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, is the most interesting city we visit, full of character, made up of busy streets, markets and St John’s Cathedral, the 19th century Baroque church which sits above the town. We spend the morning wandering, before taking a taxi to the beach and then back to ship. Taxi fares are regulated on many Caribbean islands, so you don’t have to worry about being ripped off.
In Barbados we explore its exclusive Platinum coast, see where Rihanna was born and head to the top of island; in Guadeloupe – where French is the first language – we explore Grande-Terre, the eastern of the two islands, its local markets, beaches, the beautiful Pointe des Châteaux and fascinating cuisines. In Sint Maarten we spend the day on the beach, Caribs beers and books in hand, looking out to the turquoise sea, Viking Sea the only ship in the port. If there’s a better way to explore this incredible part of the world I’m yet to hear of it.