Friday, March 14, 2008

Aboard Fred. Olsen's Balmoral cruise, port stops: St. Bart's, St. Maarten

In yesterday's post, I talked about the port of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, the first stop on my Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard the Fred. Olsen ship Balmoral.

Those of you following this saga know that Fred. Olsen is a British line with a predominately British clientele that is now trying to lure a greater number of North American passengers, especially for its remaining three Balmoral departures from Miami this spring and aboard another ship in its line scheduled for winter 2008-09. (You can find the Balmoral in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and British Isles this summer.)

Like any cruise line, Fred. Olsen isn't right for everyone -- nor does it try to compete with American mega-ships. For instance, two of the big sporting activities aboard the Balmoral last week were carpet putting and carpet bowling, which don't exactly rank with waterslides and climbing walls on the action meter. And though there are a few gaming tables, there's no casino with whirring shot machines and flashy lights.

You will find two decent-sized swimming pools, some hot tubs, a spa and gym, quite a lot of deck space (though often not enough unoccupied deck chairs, it seems -- the Brits love to linger in the noonday sun), a number of bars and restaurants, various music and show venues, a well-stocked library, and some lectures and quiz games thrown in for good measure.

On my Balmoral cruise, service was generally helpful and friendly, despite a few housekeeping glitches -- though this was only the Balmoral's second cruise under the Fred. Olsen banner, so I didn't necessarily expect all the rough edges to be smoothed.

One fellow American onboard requested ice the first night of the cruise -- and after that, it appeared in her cabin regularly every day. My guess is that ice (whether in cabins or cocktails) will become a regular feature on Fred. Olsen cruises leaving out of Miami, especially if their North American passenger base grows as they hope.

Overall, I give the Fred. Olsen line high marks, and the shipboard ambiance and top-quality cuisine alone would draw me back in a moment.

Now, on to St. Bart's. Because we had to skip the scheduled port stop in the Dominican Republic due to high winds, we spent a full day at sea before reaching St. Bart's early on the morning of March 7. The port of Gustavia requires being tendered in from larger ships, so we dropped anchor away from the inner harbor and were crammed into smallish boats each seating 90 passengers or so to make the 15-minute trip into town.

I was on the second tender (leaving right after those taking scheduled tours), which started filling around 8:40 in the morning and arrived at the pier around 9 a.m., with instructions to return on or before the last tender at 1:15 p.m. (Originally we had been scheduled to arrive in St. Bart's in mid-afternoon and to leave around 11 p.m.)

With just a few hours in port, I decided not to try to explore the island beyond the town of Gustavia, though a few passengers were renting cars or scooters to do just that.

My purpose was two-fold: to see the town and then find the town beach.

Set against a backdrop of lush green hills, with curving roads leading up provocatively to other regions of this small French island, Gustavia would have felt at home on the Riviera. The main streets along the harbor were lined with sidewalk cafes and bistros and residents carried bagfuls of baguettes brought fresh from the bakeries.

Prices, listed in Euros, were daunting, especially with the brutal exchange rate currently depressing the value of U.S. dollars. If one were inclined to sip a cafe creme at a sidewalk bistro overlooking the lovely harbor -- and many brave or foolhardy passengers were -- you would have to pay $6 per cup or so for the experience. My advice: sip slowly.

I kept walking, past enormous yachts tied up in the harbor, a variety of boutiques and other shops, a church or two, and some schools where uniformed children marched hand in hand on their way to class. Eventually I made my way to Shell Beach, tucked a bit out of view just beyond a pre-school on the south side of town. It was small, gorgeously situated against cacti- and shrub-lined hills, and led to water of an alluring shade of blue as it lapped the sands that were strewn with tiny shells.

And for the next two hours, I swam, sunned, and watched the beach slowly fill with ever-more cruise-ship passengers and a smattering of locals. An open-air restaurant beckoned at one end, until the 25-Euro ($38) plates of fish convinced me I should return to the ship for lunch.

But, as it turns out, I was in for a long wait. At noon, the line for the tenders was half a city block long, 45 minutes in the hot sun. Because of windy conditions, it turned out, the ship could only offload passengers onto one side of the ship, thus cutting the number of tender runs in half. The tenders had to keep running till well after 2 p.m. and the ship's departure was delayed for an hour and a half or so.

Those weather-related things happen on cruises; it comes with the territory. And I was soothed by one of the best lunches of the week when I did get back to the ship: lamb skewers, blue mussel soup, chicken tikka, and pannacotta with raspberry sauce. I ordered off the menu in the smallish 10th-deck Spey restaurant, with its huge windows overlooking the sea, but could have also hit the buffet there for more mussels, shrimp, you name it -- what a feast.

Instead, in the interests of staying awake, I headed for a deck chair and watched the remaining tenders come in until we finally were able to sail off for St. Maarten, already visible in the distance.

While I had previously been to St. Martin -- the French side of that divided island -- I had never been to the Dutch side, St. Maarten. Since I was scheduled to go for an early dinner with several other cruise writers, I waited until then (about 6:30 p.m.) to venture into the port of Phillipsburg. Altogether, we were docked from about 5 p.m. until 11 that night.

Like so many Caribbean ports, the end of the cruise ship pier here leads to a newish and somewhat garish shopping complex, which I skipped entirely en route to the small bus that was taking us into town. It was just a few minutes until we reached the neon-light casinos that Phillipsburg is known for, and a few minutes beyond that when we were left off in front of a noisy, crowded area near the waterfront that was hopping with activity.

It turned out that this was the weekend of the big Heineken Regatta, and all kinds of special tents had been erected along the waterfront where musicians played, young women in "Fun Crew" T-shirts sold Heineken, and restaurants buzzed with activity. We headed into one with outdoor seating that was packed with mostly young people chugging away at beers and margaritas and downing large plates of baby back ribs.

I suspect the ribs weren't the most authentic in local cuisine, but they looked good and just about everyone at our table ordered them, along with some conch fritters and fried calamari to start. The beer flowed, the music blared in the background, the Friday-night partiers streamed by, and everyone had a blast. Or at least I think they did, because I could barely hear a word anyone was saying.

And I have no idea what Phillipsburg is actually like under normal circumstances, assuming these weren't it. After dinner we all piled back into our small bus and returned to the ship, where a young Filipina singer was belting out modern classics on the Lido deck, aft. Knowing I had to leave the ship the next morning, I lingered outside for hours.

Next up: Antigua.

Balmoral and St. Bart's photos by Peter Knego.

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