Mark Meredith returns to a former haunt and undergoes a Caribbean conversion.
After an absence of 10 years I was finally returning to the Caribbean, a 50-something cruise ship virgin with no history of motion sickness.
As a journalist working out of Trinidad, I had seen the huge vessels docked in port, in Dominica, St Lucia, Grenada and Barbados, a fevered sense of anticipation apparent on the quayside as taxi drivers and souvenir sellers prepared for the hordes to disembark and part with their dollars.
Not for me, I had thought. You can keep your cruise ships and overweight Americans. I'd have to be in my dotage to get me on board one of those.
Funny how things turn out.
Earlier this year I found myself flying with my wife to Miami from Auckland to join the Azamara Quest's 11-night West Indies Hideaway voyage taking in the US and British Virgin Islands, Iles des Saintes in Guadeloupe, St Barts, Nevis and Sint Maarten.
Owned by Royal Caribbean, Azamara Club Cruises promise a more intimate cruising experience because of their relatively small size. There are two identical ships, the Quest and the Journey - the latter has an Australian and New Zealand itinerary - and they carry 686 guests and 408 crew, a very manageable number.
Unlike some of the behemoths cruising the oceans - our captain pointed out another ship passing by with 6000 guests and 3000 crew; imagine trying to grab a lounger by the pool on that - the size of the Azamara Quest (181m long) means it can anchor off small bays and even in them. We did not have to share any island with any other cruise ship and that can make a big difference to your onshore adventure.
The islands we visited were small, and hideaways pretty much summed them up. Our itinerary showed us a part of the Caribbean you'd see only if you arrived by private yacht, Sint Maarten apart. But even with our modest size we had to be tendered ashore at most ports of call - a very well organised, smooth procedure.
Azamara touts the "immersive" experience they are able to offer with longer stays and more "overnights". The ship had plenty of organised, pre-paid "Land Discoveries" you could take, but they were not cheap. Instead, we pre-booked rental cars to explore by ourselves.
The best part of a Caribbean cruise is experiencing the enormous diversity to be found from island to island, collecting different rums as you go. And, like the rums, each has a unique flavour: from the idiosyncratic French islands of St Barthelemy (St Barts) and Iles des Saintes to the slightly run-down, rustic charm of Nevis with its domineering volcano; the serene exclusivity of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, to overdeveloped Dutch Sint Maarten/St Martin, half of which is shared by France, where duty-free shopping and apartment building seem the pre-eminent occupations.
A good way to judge which islands were our favourites was to fantasise about owning a property and living there. And, from our brief experience, the Virgin Islands won easily, British or US, we didn't mind which we would retire to. We loved our first stop, the charming town of Cruz Bay in St John in the US Virgin Islands where we had a cheap and fabulous creole lunch at De Coal Pot following our morning snorkelling at gorgeous Honeymoon Bay.
The best views and bluest water we found on Virgin Gorda. From the Hog Heaven restaurant on the tallest hill the outlook was incredible: tiny islands and cays dotted beneath us with the white wakes of motor launches making pretty patterns across the azure surface; Necker Island, Richard Branson's hideaway plainly visible, paradise personified.
A highlight was Virgin Gorda's The Baths National Park, an extraordinary area shaped by volcanic forces on the shore near Spanish Town where enormous granite boulders have been sculpted by nature into smooth, spectacular shapes.
Iles des Saintes is a small archipelago situated just south of Guadeloupe of which it is a part and therefore a department of France. It was very Gallic with a good scattering of restaurants and bars in the colourful town of Terre-de-Haut where tourism and fishing are the mainstays. The view from Fort Napoleon on the hill above the town with its cluster of red roofs is worth making the climb for, though you could hire a scooter, the most popular mode of transport.
St Barthelemy could not have been more different. A hideaway of the super rich, the shops in the capital Gustavia have names such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, and hiring a beach lounger will set you back €50 (NZ$83).
On the day we arrived, the rich were there in force for a super-yacht regatta called St Barths Bucket Regatta, which hardly does the vessels in question justice. On the tender to shore we sat open mouthed in astonishment at the opulence and number of enormous yachts at anchor in Gustavia's bay. On shore I felt I was in the south of France, not the Caribbean.
After a day exploring beaches, bars and restaurants on shore, it was always great to be back on board the Azamara Quest, to flop down on the super comfortable bed, breeze blowing through the veranda door of our lovely cabin, before heading up to the bars and restaurants upstairs.
On Azamara Club cruises your ticket price includes all the food and drink you can consume. It's easy to overdo it. My excitement the first day at working my way through so much on offer set off my previously undiscovered vulnerability to motion sickness.
The food and service was, without exception, exceptional. Four-course meals each evening with wine may seem excessive, but actually it was just right. I never felt I had eaten too much. Perfect portioning. Two restaurants, the Prime C steakhouse
and Aqualina (Italian) carried a US$30 surcharge, but the Windows Cafe and Discovery restaurant were included in the price.
As for my fellow passengers, they were a mixed bunch, ranging from 20-somethings to 80-somethings, mainly from America and the UK. Yes, there were some stereotypically overweight people who lounged all day by the pool eating and drinking before hauling themselves to the restaurants.
There was one couple who seemed to spend the entire voyage running around the exercise track, which seemed to defeat the point of such a cruise.
An American couple I met were on their 49th cruise, 26 of which had been on the Azamara Quest or Journey. And that tells you all you need to know about the quality of the cruise which finally converted me to travelling afloat.
After the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean, Azamara Club Cruises have adjusted their itineraries for November and December, replacing Philipsburg, Siint Maarten; Tortola and Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands; and Roseau, Dominica on Azamara Quest sailings with alternative locations.
Azamara Quest has various Caribbean itineraries available. Azamar Journey sails from Sydney to New Zealand in February.
Want more holiday inspiration? Sign up to our new Travel Insider newsletter here.