This morning, Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze arrived at her first port of call on our weeklong Costa Rica & Panama itinerary that will conclude with a transit of the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal.
Today, though, we’ve arrived at our anchorage off Quepos, Costa Rica, a former banana exporting capital turned sleepy paradise. With 22,000 inhabitants, the town is about 60 kilometers from the capital, San Jose – if you could drive in a straight line. Thanks to Costa Rica’s notoriously labyrinthine highway system, you’d have to drive nearly 200 kilometers in order to get from San Jose to Quepos by car.
Getting here on the Star Breeze is decidedly more relaxing. Captain Roman Krstanovic dropped anchor shortly after 7 a.m., and tender services ran throughout the day until 5:15 p.m. in preparation for our 6 p.m. departure.
Star Breeze was built in 1989 as Seabourn Spirit. Embarking, I was ready to forgive a lot of little things that a ship nearing its third decade in service might have. An older ship might rattle more. There might be more mechanical noises, or vibrations, or engine bleed-through. But that’s just not the case here aboard Star Breeze: Even in last evening’s moderate swells, she didn’t make a peep. No creaking. No groaning. No loose ceiling tiles rattling softly in the night. Nothing. She’s whisper-quiet. … and the crew of the Star Breeze took one of the lifeboats for a spin around the bay. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
As I mentioned yesterday, she’s also been lovingly refitted by Windstar. Sure, if you look hard enough you’ll see some signs of wear, but you have to look really hard. We’re talking ‘get-down-on-your-hands-and-knees-and-pick-at-the-decking’ hard.
Let’s take a virtual walk around the ship as she appears today, showcasing her interiors. Bright, modern, and contemporary, Windstar has done a great job of cultivating an onboard ambiance that is welcoming and relaxing. Stateroom Corridor, Deck 6, facing aft. Note the brand-new carpeting and signage. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
So how can you spend your time here onboard? Here’s what’s happening around the ship today:
You might notice there’s no elaborate production show, despite the fact that Star Breeze has a pseudo-show lounge on Deck 5. This is in keeping with the vibe found aboard Windstar’s sailing ships; aside from live music offered each evening, you won’t find much in the way of scheduled activities – and that’s okay. This experience is one of social fun, not manufactured entertainment.
Windstar includes all non-alcoholic beverages in the price of the cruise, and an all-inclusive package that features alcoholic beverages can be added to your onboard account for a little more than US$100 per suite, per day. I personally won’t drink enough to make that worthwhile, but a couple that enjoys sundowners and nightcaps could end up saving money. Pull up a (deck) chair – or four. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Speaking of onboard expenses, the ship’s internet works well here onboard. It’s not as fast as on land due to the ship’s satellite connection, but it’s snappier and more responsive than I would have expected. Prepaid internet tickets can be purchased from the Reception Desk, and are available as follows:
The latter basically allows you to have unlimited internet access throughout the vessel. Compared with just a few years ago, when US$250 would barely get you a handful of hours online, that’s a good deal. Of course, unless you happen to be writingabout your cruise, I’d advise you to not get any internet package. You’re on vacation, after all.
This afternoon, I took part in the 3.5-hour Mangrove Wildlife & Boat Cruise. It’s one of eight excursions that Windstar offers here in Quepos, and I chose it for one reason: I love mangroves.
Four years ago, I wouldn’t have known what a mangrove was, until I saw one for the first time on an expedition cruise. Trees with elaborate root structures grow along an estuary that looks like a river, but which is actually fed by the Pacific Ocean. This dense collection of trees and other vegetation is unique in that it creates its own ecosystem unto itself, with monkeys, birds, crabs and, yes, crocodiles calling these mangroves home. The pier in Quepos is surprisingly modern … Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The good news: At $79 per person, this tour is an affordable way to get to know Costa Rica. We also saw nesting bats (good), and an astonishing assortment of monkeys that happily played amongst the mangroves, throwing banana pieces down to land on the tops of our boats as they passed underneath. The mangroves themselves are spectacular. If you haven’t seen one yet, this is the tour for you.
However, the tour itself hit a snag when there wasn’t enough room for everyone on our coach on the covered boat slated to take us down the river. This was after we’d spent half an hour cooling our heels at a local cantina because the tide was still out too far to conduct the tour. Now, riverside, we’ve got more people than seats. Judging by the list of the boat, I’d say monkeys are up in the trees. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders Yep. Monkey. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders Sunset provided some interesting photo opportunities on our mangrove tour. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
In the end, we overloaded our boat and transferred two guests mid-stream to the second boat. That got me thinking: what happens if old Mr. Smith takes a tumble into the brackish waters of Costa Rica?
To make matters worse, our boat had no working P.A. system. Those of us at the back, next to the noisy, smoke-belching Evinrude outboard motor, were completely unable to hear our guide. He made the trek back once, and didn’t return for the rest of the tour.
It wasn’t a bad tour – just a disappointing one.
Back onboard and underway once again, I took the opportunity to dine in Candles tonight. Windstar’s specialty dining venue, Candles aboard Star Breeze is located all the way aft on Deck 7, on the outdoor fantail. Tables are set with fine linens and electric candles, and complimentary bookings are limited to one visit per stateroom until all guests aboard the yacht have had a chance to experience it themselves. Casual by day, The Veranda on Deck 7 aft turns into Candles at night; Windstar Cruises’ casual al fresco restaurant. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
I’d dined at Candles on board Wind Spirit and Wind Star, and I loved it. Dining outdoors while at sea is always fun, and the atmosphere and service had been good on my past voyages. On this voyage however, it wasn’t just good – it was superb.
From my last trip on Windstar back in 2013, I feel that the line has really upped their culinary game a lot. My meal – roasted Portobello mushrooms and local Panamanian Sea Bass – was one of the best dishes I’ve had at sea. The Portobello mushroom appetizer is, without a doubt, the best Portobello mushroom dish I’ve ever had. Everything was tasty. Everything came out piping-hot. Every single waiter and server addressed guests by name, and did so with a smile.
The Verdict: an amazing meal in an amazing setting, made better by the genuine and hardworking crew aboard the Star Breeze. Windstar does guests a great service by informing them about Candles when they embark Star Breeze, and offering the ability to make a reservation right then and there. I did just that – and you should too.
Tonight, we’re making our way to our next port of call: Bahia Drake, Costa Rica – a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants. Duty-free shopping mavens, take note: This isn’t the Eastern Caribbean. The main draw here is the local culture and wildlife of this unique part of the world – and that’s just fine by me.
|February 27, 2016||Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica||Embark||6:00 PM|
|February 28||Quepos, Costa Rica||7:00 AM||6:00 PM|
|February 29||Bahia Drake, Costa Rica||7:00 AM||5:00 PM|
|March 1||Golfo Duce, Costa Rica||8:00 AM||4:00 PM|
|March 2||Isla de Coiba, Panama||7:00 AM||6:00 PM|
|March 3||Balboa, Panama||5:00 PM||Overnight|
|March 4||Balboa, Panama / Transit Panama Canal||Overnight||1:00 PM
Enter Canal: 5:00 PM
|March 5||Colon, Panama||7:00 AM||Disembark|