Windstar VP's own cruise confirms 'the Caribbean is open'

A sample of Steve Simao's tweeted photos, from upper left clockwise: San Juan's El Morro fortress with its fresh carpet of grass, Martinique's greenery and tropical flowers, double rainbow over Les Saintes, red roofs of St. Barts A sample of Steve Simao's tweeted photos, from upper left clockwise: San Juan's El Morro fortress with its fresh carpet of grass, Martinique's greenery and tropical flowers, double rainbow over Les Saintes, red roofs of St. Barts (Photos: Steve Simao)

It's one thing for cruise lines to say 'the Caribbean is open.' Windstar Cruises' Steve Simao, VP sales, went a step further and took a Star Pride cruise this week to see for himself, inviting along his mom and several travel agents.

As his personal Twitter feed and Windstar's Facebook and Instagram accounts show, it's been quite a trip. Simao, whose hobby is photography, has been posting lush and intriguing images—from the greenery and tropical flowers in Martinique to the red roofs and sugary beaches of St. Barts, the fascinating 'modern-day Pompeii' at Plymouth on Montserrat and a double rainbow over Guadeloupe's tiny, charming Les Saintes.

Simao's also depicted passengers relaxing on floats and kayaking from the ship's water sports platform and a barbecue/dance party under the stars with lobster tail, a suckling pig and fresh local fish.

He reported 'amazing weather' all week, apart from some passing tropical showers in Les Saintes.

The six travel agents who are along have been actively posting to their social media channels. Janice Sinardi of Cruise Planners, for example, reported people are eager to know 'Where is this?' in response to her pictures on Facebook. She expects to book Caribbean cruises as a result.

'That's perfect—just what we hoped for,' Simao told Seatrade Cruise News from St. Barts today. 'We really want to create this groundswell message that the Caribbean is open.'

This cruise is 'not as full as we would have hoped,' he said, adding there had been quite a few cancellations because of the hurricanes. For Star Pride's itinerary, particularly, people had expressed concerns about flying in and out of homeport San Juan.

Windstar had to revise the Caribbean programs for three ships after hurricanes caused severe damage in key destinations. One of those was Puerto Rico, but the line kept Star Pride's turnarounds in San Juan and calls at Gustavia, St. Barts, and Little Bay, Montserrat. Instead of Vieques and the British Virgin Islands, though, the itinerary now has Guadeloupe's Les Saintes, St. Lucia's Pigeon Island and Martinique's Anse Mitan.

Simao flew JetBlue from Newark to San Juan to embark the ship's first cruise this season on Nov. 25. 'The airport is completely open. The power is on. It looks fine,' he said. 'On the road out, we noticed a number of electrical trucks [from the US mainland] that were raising wires and putting up poles.'

Fifty percent of the island still lacks power but that's mainly in the interior, according to Simao, who got briefings from locals including Windstar's GSA for the Caribbean. 'San Juan is quite OK. There are periodic shutdowns. All the traffic lights are still out but police are at the major intersections.'

The transfer to the ship was 'very smooth,' he said. 'People were happy to see us. They were waving and saying hello.' There are no concerns about security now.

Star Pride's departure time is 10 p.m. to allow more flight options for embarking passengers. Hotel space remains a challenge. Of 148 hotels in San Juan, 110 are open but rooms are tough to find because they're occupied by Federal Emergency Agency workers. Many of those are expected to be clearing out in a couple weeks.

'San Juan proper is in quite good shape. For the most part, the streets are clear. People are out, in bars and restaurants. Shops are open,' Simao said. As he Tweeted, one Old San Juan shopkeeper said: 'I am sometimes using an electrical generator, but I along with my neighbor shops and restaurants are open. We just need the customers to come again.'

Simao saw some rubbish piles and a few buildings that had collapsed but 'there were not many visible signs that there had been a hurricane.'

Excursions are operating. Passengers can choose from three tours, including Old San Juan's fortifications, a walking tour or the Bacardi Distillery and rum tasting. At the iconic El Morro fortress, a fresh carpet of grass has already sprouted up.

Today the ship was in St. Barts which, outside of Puerto Rico, was the island on Star Pride's route most impacted by storms. 'They've worked very rapidly to recover,' Simao said. 'You see people rebuilding. The roads are clear. The shops are open.'

The most noticeable change since his last visit in March is that trees and flowers are gone. 'They're replanting,' he said. 'It's amazing what they've done in two and a half months.' Excursions are operating, however one island tour is rerouted because of a road that's going to be closed two more weeks.

One of the surprises of the cruise for Simao was seldom-visited Montserrat. Two-thirds of the island is still off-limits because of Soufrière Hills, an active volcano that erupted in 1995, destroying Plymouth, the capital. It has been mostly quiet since 2010. A shore excursion revealed Plymouth as a 'modern-day Pompeii,' Simao said, 'an abandoned city of empty or buried buildings.

Visitors can only tour the off-limits area with a sanctioned guide, and a safety officer goes along to ensure everyone can get out of the area within 10 minutes should there be signs of volcanic activity.

He called the visit a highlight: 'You think of the Caribbean as tropical beaches ... This is a scientific and cultural stop.'

Simao loved Les Saintes, too. 'It feels like Europe. Same with St. Barts—like a port on the French Riviera. There are great beaches for snorkeling and water sports.'

In Martinique, Star Pride made its maiden call at Anse Mitan. Simao said Windstar was last in Martinique five years ago, at Fort-de-France, but the guest satisfaction levels weren't as high as hoped. Since then Martinique has worked hard to become more welcoming to cruise passengers.

'They asked us to come back. They wanted to prove themselves. Based on this visit, I'd say they've done that,' Simao said.

A shore excursion visited a historic plantation house and rum factory. Anse Mitan has a long beach, and Simao's mother, 80, swam the entire length.

Simao hopes his communications, and those of the agents on board, will spread the word that cruisers can have a great Caribbean experience right now, even on islands that were storm-impacted.

'Everyone I saw in every port was so friendly. They know their livelihood depends on tourism. They're here. They're ready,' he related.

'Some passengers told me they almost canceled because they felt guilty going on a cruise, having fun, when people are suffering. But once here, they realized that's what people need to do: keep coming, and spend money in the restaurants and on tours.'

Simao believes Windstar represents the entire industry with its social media efforts from this cruise showing 'the Caribbean is open.'

It had originally been president John Delaney's idea to 'lead by example' and take the cruise. When health reasons prevented that, Simao stepped up, and he's thrilled he did.

Another thing that became clear this week aboard Star Pride: 'Even though this is a revised itinerary, there are guests on board who said: "You've got a winner."'

Posted 01 December 2017

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Anne Kalosh

Editor, Seatrade Cruise News & Senior Associate Editor Seatrade Cruise Review