Tuesday, 21 February 2012

An Epic Adventure, Pt 5

The Cruise

Continuing our day-by-day look at a typical voyage in the life of Norwegian Cruise Line’s wonderful Norwegian Epic, by World of Cruising editor Simon Veness

Having spent the first few days detailing the remarkable vessel that is Norwegian Epic, it probably makes sense to look at the voyage itself, where it goes and what it offers for the 4,000-plus folks who have decided this is the holiday for them.

Well, after sailing out of Miami at 4pm on Saturday, we charted a course almost directly south-east, passing north and east of the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands on a line for Puerto Rico. At roughly 8 o’clock on Monday evening we veered around the latter and cut south past St Thomas, enjoying a superb southern coast cruise along the night-time façade of the US Virgin Island.

By first thing Tuesday morning we were pulling slowly into the Dutch/French island of St Maarten (Sint Martin on the northerly, or French, side).

The beautifully green and hilly island is studded with wonderful sandy bays, ringed by typical ‘paradise island’ beaches, the sea that breathtaking aquamarine that comes only from shallow, sun-bathed waters on sand-covered sea-floors.

There are dozens of official ship-organised shore excursion options (including many water-sports opportunities) but, having been here multiple times before, we are happy to wander and explore by ourselves.

Shopping is No 1, 2 and 3 on most people’s radars for any visit to St Maarten and, while the merchandise varies mainly from jewellery, electronics (cameras, etc) and typical tourist apparel to liquor and fragrances, there are scores of outlets to choose from, both here in Philipsburg, the capital, and in neighbouring towns.

There are some 20 casinos on the island (probably not a great attraction seeing as the ship has all the gambling action anyone could possibly want) and some large self-contained resorts, but much of the development is relatively small-scale and you feel St Maarten manages its tourism profile extremely well, even when there are six ships in port (ourselves, two 138,000-ton vessels of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class, the Celebrity Constellation, the luxury style of Regent’s Seven Seas Navigator and the chic sail-cruise ship of French line Club Med).

After breakfast on our balcony to soak in the first of the Caribbean sun, we opted for a stroll into town and some gentle retail therapy. It is easy, clean, safe and hassle-free to wander the two main streets (the boardwalk-style beach-front and the aptly-named Front Street) and, while there is nothing hugely imaginative about much of the offerings, it is convenient, easy on the eye and pretty good value.

For those who can’t make the 20-minute walk (or 5-minute water-taxi ride), there is even a mini shopping village right at the open-plan cruise terminal, which provides all the same range of shopping and bars in town-like microcosm.

Sure, it could be any of a dozen Caribbean islands with the identikit shopping format but, under the best winter sun imaginable (a balmy 84F), it is just a joy to be out and about and soaking up that laid-back island vibe. The close proximity of the port means it is easy to return to the Epic for lunch, where a sandwich and iced water at O’Sheehan’s is the perfect mid-day tonic.

Afterwards, we had decided on a trip to Maho Bay, where St Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport backs on to the main beach. Which means you can sit with your feet in the sea and watch some seriously large planes come in right over your head at a height that can only be described as “you-must-be-joking!”

The twin highlights of the day are the departure of a KLM Jumbo Jet, the force of which with its engines turned back to the beach acts like a gigantic sand-blaster for anyone foolish (or unwary) enough to stand their ground as it lumbers down the runway; and the arrival of the big Air France flight, roaring over the beach seemingly at touching distance.

It is a spectacle that draws hundreds of tourists every day and is amazing to see first-hand, even if the majority of planes are twin-prop island-hoppers. But, ouch, that sand can sting!

The airport anorak in us suitably satisfied (along with a couple of beers, naturally), we jumped in a taxi back to Philipsburg and the port ($10 a head, one-way, for the 25-30-minute drive) and a much-needed shower to clean all the sand and jet-engine grime out of our eyes, ears, nose and throat (actually, that’s a wild exaggeration, but it doesn’t half get in your ears).

Tonight, we sail at 6pm, off to St Thomas for port of call Number 2 (little more than two hours’ sailing away, hence the captain will not have his foot on the gas tonight!). We have another day at sea on Thursday and then it’s the Bahamian capital of Nassau on Friday, prior to our return (sadly) to Miami.

A typical eastern Caribbean itinerary, but one that still holds much promise for the genuine chill-out opportunity this region does so well.