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Trip Report Arabella: British Virgin Islands May 2-8, 2010

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I’ve recently returned from a British Virgin Islands sailing cruise aboard the Arabella. I had read a review of this cruise in the Boston Globe a few years back and thought it sounded interesting. This May, it finally fit in with my schedule, so I was able to book it. I have been on traditional cruise lines before (Princess, Carnival, & Disney) and I enjoy them, but I wanted to try something different this time. The Arabella is a 3 masted schooner, operated by Atlantic Stars/Classic Cruises in Newport, RI. Arabella spends her summers and early fall cruising the waters of New England and the winter/spring season sailing the Caribbean. During the fall shoulder season, she can be found in the Chesapeake Bay area. This is not a traditional cruise ship experience, as the Arabella’s maximum capacity is 40 guests housed in 20 cabins. Much of what attracted me to this ship initially was the itinerary (they run several different Caribbean itineraries). I’d always wanted to go to the BVI, yet I didn’t want to stay in one place, so a land vacation was not attractive to me. I think the smaller nature of the BVI lend them to being explored by a smaller vessel, so that left either chartering or going with the Arabella or a similar vessel. I selected the Arabella since it looked luxurious enough to be comfortable, yet small enough to remind you that you are on a sailboat.

Prior to booking I perused the website (www.cruisearabella.com) and emailed them regarding single supplement costs which were not listed on the site. I received a prompt response back and decided to book. Booking was fast and efficient on the phone with agent Courtney, who was friendly and helpful. Your rate for the British Virgin Islands itinerary includes all meals except one dinner. It also includes appetizers and a cocktail of the day each evening. Any other alcoholic drinks you drink on board are extra charge.

Day 1 (Saturday)
The Arabella BVI itinerary runs from Sunday to Saturday, but I always like to fly in a day ahead for cruises, in the event of any plane delays or luggage that goes astray. I departed Boston on American Airlines bound for Miami, where I connected to a flight to St. Thomas USVI, where the boat departs from. I had an approx 2 hour layover in Miami and as I have noted at that airport before, the dining options may be lacking depending on what terminal you are in. I had plenty of time between my flights and the flight to St. Thomas took off more or less on time and we arrived St. Thomas a few minutes early. By the time we deplaned, the luggage was already going around the baggage carousel and I was able to get my bag in about 5 minutes. As is typical with the joys of modern traveling, the airline managed to get some kind of greasy dirt all over my duffel bag, so that was fun to try and clean off in a hotel room. The cab ride to my hotel cost about $18 and took about 25 min. After you exit the baggage claim area, there is a cab dispatcher and he will assign you to a taxi with other people headed to your side of the island. It was the last day of Carnival in town with parades clogging the streets. So instead of driving through Charlotte Amalie, the driver drove us up over the mountain instead and the views were nice.

I had booked a night at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort for my pre-cruise stay. Due to the resort nature of the island, I found that many places have minimum stay requirements and I was fortunate to find a place I liked the look of with no minimum stay requirement, that was not right next door to the airport and that did not require a deposit of 3 nights stay. The Wyndham is located on the East End of the island, 10 min from Red Hook. I had reserved a bay view room and was assigned room 150. The resort is spread out a little, so they show you to your room in a golf cart. The room was a normal hotel room, with everything you’d expect. The balcony was of good size with 2 chairs and a table and with a nice view of St. John. I spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting by the pool. The hotel has a nice pool with waterfalls and the property has a small beach for snorkeling and other water sports. To get to the pool area you may either wait at the lobby for the hotel shuttle truck or you may take an elevator and 99 steps down to the pool.

The Wyndham has several restaurants. Iguana Grill is a casual pool grill set up under a tent. The Turtle Rock is a casual sit down eatery and the Mangrove is a grab and go place. Caribe serves sit down dinner with a Caribbean flair. The Manor House, located in the main building, is where I chose to eat dinner. The restaurant has a nice bay view as well. I had a Pina Colada, NY Strip Steak with lemon shallot butter and roasted tomato demi glaze. It was also served with vegetables and smashed red bliss potatoes. For dessert I had the Key Lime Pie. I really enjoyed this meal; the food was well prepared, service good and the view was lovely.

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    Day 2 (Sunday)
    Today I awoke to a rainy day. It rained all morning until about 12:30pm. Unfortunately, I planned to sit at the pool all day, as I knew none of the stores downtown would be open since it was Sunday and no cruise ship was in port. Check out is normally 11am, but I was able to extend my checkout to 12pm without additional charge (if I wanted to stay in the room longer than 12pm they said they would charge an additional night). I checked out and stored my luggage with the bellman at 12pm and went to get an ice cream in the lobby cafe. Around 1pm, the clouds started to clear and I was able to head down to the pool to sit until 2pm when I claimed my luggage and had them call me a cab to the American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook. It took about 5 min for the cab to arrive and then 8-10 minutes drive to Red Hook.

    The Arabella starts accepting luggage at 2pm, but you can’t board until 4pm. The cab dropped me at the American Yacht Harbor and I found employee Russ waiting to take baggage. After giving him my luggage I wandered around the shops and sat on a small deck waiting for 4pm. When 4pm arrived, I went back to the meeting area and they started to bring passengers out in a tender/large dinghy (12-15 passengers can fit) and during my sailing week we had 36 passengers so it took several trips. Upon arrival on the boat we were greeted by the crew with a welcome rum punch. We then filled out our customs forms for the BVI, gave in our passports and were shown to our rooms. I had reserved a B category cabin and was assigned room 11. The room was quite nice with a fair amount of storage considering the size. All rooms have television and telephone and private bath/shower.
    Next we all gathered outside on the aft part of the boat in the covered outdoor seating area for the Captain's Call (meeting). This was an orientation and introduction meeting. The crew (Captain Debbie, Mate Steve, Engineer Dan, Deck Hands Russ and Bill, Stewards Sara and Holly, Chef John) all introduced themselves and the passengers all introduced ourselves as well.

    Finally it was time to depart Red Hook and we went across Pillsbury Sound to St. John Caneel Bay to the Equator Restaurant. This is a very pretty, open air restaurant located in an old sugar mill. The views were nice and the food very well prepared. Our group was seated at 3 large tables and we had a special Arabella menu. I chose the Chicken Roti for an appetizer, NY Steak with cognac peppercorn sauce and molten chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream. Alcoholic drinks are extra cost and I ordered a gin and tonic. We finished dinner a little after 9pm and then headed back to the boat.

    Day 3 (Monday)
    I woke up and went up on deck around 6:30am to try and catch the sunrise. It was another cloudy day with some brief rain showers. However, the plus side was that this created a nice rainbow. Breakfast is served each morning about 6:30-8am. First the cold items come out-- a fresh baked bread product is offered each day and today was coffee cake. Later on the hot items appear and today it was an egg dish and bacon.

    We got underway after 8am (I think) for our stop in Soper’s Hole Tortola to clear BVI customs. At this stop no passengers disembark. The captain brought everybody’s passports ashore and cleared us through. After this brief stop we sailed on to Norman Island, anchored and had a lunch of Chef Salad, Pasta Salad and Chocolate Chip Cookies on board.

    After lunch we had the choice of several activities. You could go to the beach, snorkel the Caves, take one of the boat’s kayaks, or later on, take the snorkel trip to the Indians. I opted to snorkel the Caves. We took the tender out to the snorkel area where they tied up to the mooring line and we hopped into the water. The Caves site consists of several small caves you can swim into and around. The snorkeling was quite good and I saw a variety of fish and corals. We stayed about 30-40 minutes and then went back to the boat. About 3pm, I did the snorkel trip to the Indians which is a rock formation that sticks up out of the water like an Indian headdress. The snorkeling here was terrific. You can swim all around and between the rocks and there are lots of nice corals and tons of fish. This was my favorite snorkel spot of the trip. This was my first time using my underwater waterproof camera (Pentax Optio W60) and am happy to say it really is waterproof and I got some very nice pictures.

    Dinner tonight was at Pirate’s Bight on Norman Island and it was served buffet style. There was curried chicken, ribs, rice, among other things. I also ordered a Dark and Stormy from the bar. After dinner we had the option to be dropped off at Willy T’s which is a bar located on a boat. Myself and many others from our group chose to go there and it was lots of fun. Several of us did a shot ski and we observed the wild antics of some of the other customers. It’s really a fun bar and you get to meet people from other boats, so myself and one other guy from Arabella stayed till midnight dancing and got our last launch back to the Arabella. We were the last people there, so we closed the bar.

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    Day 4 (Tuesday)
    Woke up again at 6:30am and had a delicious banana nut muffin. Today the topic of conversation was the action at Willy T’s the night before. This morning we sailed to Cooper Island. Our choices there were either the beach or snorkeling. Myself and several others opted to snorkel. This snorkel started at a rock formation and ended snorkeling along the shoreline. There was some nice sea life out by the rock, but along shore there was a lot of sea grass, so not as exciting. I did however see a turtle, barracuda and some squid I think. We ended up back on the beach and I walked around taking pictures of this lovely beach until we got picked up for lunch back at the boat.

    Lunch today was burritos (steak or chicken) with rice, refried beans, sour cream, salsa, guacamole and chips. Key Lime Pie for dessert. This was a great meal--one of my favorites.

    After lunch we had a long sail to Virgin Gorda and the Bitter End Yacht Club. Dinner tonight was at the BEYC and was their West Indian buffet: steak, plantain salad, fish, johnny cakes, pumpkin soup, garlic bread, baked potato and salad (among other things). Dessert was macaroons, chocolate cake, mango tart and guava pockets. They also had some homemade spiced rum you could add to coffee or tea.

    After dinner, myself and 3 guys from the boat took a water shuttle over to the Saba Rock Resort to look around. This is located on an island and they have an open air bar/restaurant and lights in the water to attract fish that you can view. After poking around there for a while we went back to BEYC for the 11pm tender back to the Arabella.

    Day 5 (Wednesday)
    As usual I got up at 6:30am and had a light breakfast of a cinnamon streusel coffee cake. Today we had an entire day at the BEYC to do whatever we wanted. You could take a day trip to Anagada, visit the spa, sit on the beach, snorkel trips, rent water craft or attempt to avail yourself of the lessons the BEYC offers. I had been wanting to try windsurfing for the longest time, so I decided to try to take a lesson. I took the 9am tender to shore and went to the water sports desk to find out about logistics. Unfortunately they couldn’t accommodate my request for a lesson until 4pm, but I took what I could get. I booked a 1 hour private lesson ($100). So I had all day to look around. I looked in the gift shops and made some purchases and then since I hadn’t brought my camera to shore, I took the 10am tender to the boat to get my camera. Since the tenders run every hour on the hour, technically, I should have had to wait until 11am to go back to shore, but driver Dan was nice enough to take me right back again after I ran to my room to get my camera. So I spent the next 2 hours walking around taking photos and sitting in a hammock enjoying the views of the water.

    I took the 12pm tender back to the boat for our BBQ lunch. There is a small grill attached to the side of the boat and they grilled burgers, chicken and hot dogs. Also had potato salad, slaw and chocolate chip cookies.

    I relaxed onboard for the afternoon and took the 3pm tender back to shore and awaited my 4pm windsurfing lesson. Apparently I had quite the audience looking on from the boat! Anyway, they got a board for me and gave me a brief on shore demo on how to control the board. Then we got in a whaler and dragged the board out to an area with good wind. I got on the board and the instructor stayed in the boat and followed me around giving instruction. It was challenging, but not as hard as I imagined. I was able to ride the board and not fall as much as I thought I would. The hardest part was tacking . By the end I was able to complete a tack without either falling off or dropping the sail. Arabella crew member Holly had rented a board and been practicing her skills while I had my lesson. After we finished up, we met up and went over to the Pub for a drink. I went back to the boat on the 6pm tender to get ready for dinner.

    Tonight dinner was on our own at one of the area restaurants (BEYC, Saba Rock or Fat Virgin at Biras Creek). I decided to go with the group heading to Fat Virgin Cafe at 7:15pm. While it has a more local cuisine, I instead opted for the BLT sandwich and a rum and coke. On the whole we had mixed reviews on the food-- some people really liked it while others thought it was mediocre. I was in the mediocre camp. The tender came and got us around 9pm and I went back to the boat to have some drinks there. Once back on board we had to give them our lunch order for the next day as well as our dinner selection. Lunch was going to be packed for our trip to the Baths. One fun thing to do at night on board is to look over the side at the tarpon swimming around-- there are lots of them.

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    Day 6 (Thursday)
    Once again I woke up early and had a muffin for breakfast. Today we sailed from the Bitter End to Spanish Town Virgin Gorda. They brought our lunches up and each person had a decorated bag containing their wrap selection (Italian for me), fruit, chips and a brownie. We then started to load the tender-- I was on the first one out. We were dropped on the dock in Spanish Town and then we boarded open air safari buses to the Baths (about 8-10 minute drive). The Baths consist of rock formations and pools. The entry fee to the Baths is $3 and the entrance is down many rocky steps. I headed down and decided to eat my lunch right away before the cold cuts got too warm. By the time I was finished, everyone else had made their way down. I met up with crew members Dan and Russ and another younger couple from the boat and we got lockers to stash our stuff before heading over to Devil’s Bay. We took an “off-road” route that included rolling down a rock into the water, rock climbing and part of the more traditional trail used by most other people. We got to Devil’s Bay and swam for awhile. We headed back and caught up to Dan and the others just in time to get in on a rock jumping experience. The climb to the rock we were to jump from was not easy and included many slippery and some steep footings. Once we got there, we were about 10 feet up in the air and we jumped off the rock into the ocean below. Next we went back to the beach, got our snorkel gear and had time for a quick snorkel before we had to start heading back up to be picked up. I really enjoyed my time at the Baths and I could have stayed all day! I should note that it would be a hard trip for anyone who is not steady on their feet; even the basic trail has ropes to hold onto in some locations and some of the rocks are slick.

    We got back into the safari buses to be dropped back at the dock. There is an ice cream store located in a little shopping plaza at the dock, which I found out about as our tender was leaving. I really like ice cream, so they let me ride back to the dock on the next tender run so I could get one!

    This afternoon we sailed to Marina Cay, which is a very small island. We anchored and the tenders started to shore around 5pm. There is a Pusser’s store there where you can purchase rum and other merchandise. However, the main event on the island was to go to a bar at the top and see Michael Beans perform. He dresses up like a pirate, sings and finds excuses to serve the audience shots of Pusser’s Rum. We were lucky, as this was his last performance of the season. The show was fun and the views from the bar were lovely.

    At 7:30pm we reboarded our tender back to the boat and had a fancy dinner on board. There was caesar salad, rolls, and choice of chicken or fish. I had the chicken which was delicious and served in a buttery, lemon caper sauce. Dessert was a pound cake soaked in coconut rum and served with blueberries. The meal was delicious and it was impressive that they could plate so many dinners in such a small galley.

    After dinner it was time to have some more drinks and socialize with the other passengers and crew. There were lots of tarpon swimming by the boat and we saw some rays swim by as well. Lots of stars out tonight as well and we had a late night.

    Day 7 (Friday)
    Woke up to a cloudy, rainy day today, so I had to enjoy my muffin inside. We sailed to White Bay off of Jost Van Dyke and arrived there in time for lunch. Today’s lunch was crab cakes, pesto pasta salad and because I and some others didn’t eat seafood, the chef prepared some black bean cakes with sour cream for us. The dessert was macaroons.

    After lunch we were taken to shore and let out on a beach. On this beach you could sit, snorkel or visit Ivan’s bar (Ivan’s is a self serve bar). You could also take the rocky pathway down to another beach where the Soggy Dollar Bar is located. Soggy Dollar is named as such because boaters can jump off their boats and swim in to get a drink and by the time they get there, the money is wet. Soggy Dollar Bar is known for their Painkillers, so I enjoyed one while laying in one of the hammocks. Of course I also had to buy a T-shirt. After a while I met up with some others from Arabella and sat with them before we headed back to swim before being picked up to get back on board. We were lucky that the rain held off and it even got a little sunny while we were ashore.

    Now we moved the boat to Great Harbour (about 10 minute motor) so that we could eat dinner at Foxy’s. Foxy’s is an open air bar and is famous for it’s New Years Eve party. The rain clouds came back and it poured as some of the people were heading to shore. I took the last launch to Foxy’s and we were lucky it wasn’t raining, but by now were prepared with our rain jackets. Arabella also provides ponchos. I should note that Foxy’s gift shop closes about 7:15pm, so I had to be quick to make my requisite T-shirt purchase. Foxy’s had good drinks and I had the Vanilla Killa. Dinner was salad, rice, fruit, BBQ ribs, fish and chicken.

    After dinner it was back to the boat for more drinks. I hung out with the other passengers and a crew member amusing ourselves watching the fish swim around the boat. It ended up being yet another very late night.

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    Day 8 (Saturday)
    This was our last day! We got underway early today at 6:30am. Breakfast was quiches, bacon and blueberry muffins. We arrived in Cruz Bay St. John and were there about 7:30-8:30am to clear customs. Everyone must go ashore to clear, including crew, so it takes a while to get everyone back and forth.

    We then sailed back to St. Thomas. Instead of going to Red Hook, we went to Charlotte Amalie, as the boat supposedly takes on fuel and provisions etc there. Our luggage was taken ashore first and then there were 3 tender trips of people. I stalled and took the last one so that I could savor the last moments on the Arabella. After saying goodbye to other passengers and crew, we were taken ashore where there were taxi’s waiting for us. Most of the people in my tender were headed to the airport and that is where I went as well, so we all went in the same cab. It was about a 15 minute ride and cost $10/person to the airport. If you don’t want to go directly to the airport for your flight, but instead want to shop downtown, you can give your luggage to the taxi driver and he will store it for you until you call him or arrange for him to come back at a set time to get you.

    I waited outside in the open air for a while before checking in for my flight which was not until 3:30pm. When you arrive at the St. Thomas airport they tell you to allow 3 hours for check in. The airline website (American) said you could allow less, but I’d read in other reviews online to allow 2-2.5 hours to check in and clear customs, as the line can be very long on Saturdays. I waited until there was a lull and then went right through with minimum wait (about 12pm)-- earlier on the line for customs was longer.
    There were many other people from Arabella flying out that I ran into in the airport as well.

    The flight boarded and took off more or less on time and once again I was connecting in Miami. We arrived in Miami early only to have to sit on the runway waiting for a gate. Luckily I had 2.5 hrs to connect and still had plenty of time to have a dinner of nachos and beer cheese coup at the Corona Beach House. My flight to Boston boarded a little early and we took off on time for an early arrival into Boston.

    This was one of my favorite vacations I’ve taken (probably top 5). It was fun mingling with and getting to know the other passengers, who were from all over the country. One couple came all the way from Germany. I’m not the most social person, but even I had fun getting to know and spending time with the others. The crew were also a fun group; very friendly and outgoing-- always there to make your stay comfortable and fun in every way possible. We were a full boat for my sailing and even with that, the boat never seemed crowded or crew over-stressed. The ship is in great condition and is kept up very well.
    When I paid my final bill, I put down a deposit on a future sailing; now I just have to decide which itinerary to choose. I can hardly wait for my next sailing! I'm a person who likes to stay very active on vacation and before I went I was afraid I'd be bored or there wouldn't be enough to do. I was wrong-- I enjoyed myself the entire time and you could stay as busy or relaxed as you like and I was able to avail myself of my vacation motto: "if you don't come home from vacation more tired than when you left, then it wasn't a very good vacation". This was a great vacation. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes sailing, water sports and island atmosphere.

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    I am considering this boat for a December trip. It sounds like it was a great time. My husband and I are in our 30's, were the other guests in this age range or were they older or younger?

    Elaine

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    I believe the single supplement was about 40% of a fare.
    Most of the guests were older. I too am in my 30s and there was one couple that was approx my age-- a bit younger I think. 2 single women in approx late 30s early 40s I'd say. Most people were 40-60s. But everyone was a lot of fun-- age didn't really matter on our trip-- but it's hard to say since I'm sure every week is different.

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    I am really excited because I have booked this trip for Feb 2011. Thanks for the trip report! I would not have known about the this boat if you did not post this report!

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