It seems as though only big ships or luxury ships or giant companies get much attention paid to them these days. That's a shame, because at the opposite spectrum is the Arabella, a terrific little sailing ship that operates in the Caribbean, Chesapeake Bay and New England areas.
Run by Classic Cruises of Newport, R.I., she's a three-masted schooner with motorized sails; her top speed is about 11 knots when she's under sail and using her motor (about 7 knots under sail only). Carrying only 40 guests in 20 cabins, Arabella is almost yacht-like in size and ambience. Guests are mostly Americans, mostly couples, ranging from their 30s on up.
It's just about as casual and as cozy as it gets. The exceptionally friendly crew of eight walks around mostly barefoot – and by the first morning at sea, many of the guests do the same. Shorts, t-shirts, bathing suits and other really relaxed attire are the order of the day. There's no printed activities list. All of the day's planned events, such as they are, are inked on a small board in the salon -- the only inside public room – that acts as dining room, bar, library, lounge, etc. The only organized items are the itinerary, which is subject to the whims of nature – it is a sailing ship after all – and meals. Outside, there's a main seating area aft, under a canopy, and comfortable mats forward (these became more and more popular as the voyage went on). The one hot tub became a late night gathering spot.
Breakfast, lunches and the occasional barbecue dinner are served on board in very relaxed fashion. Most dinners are taken ashore in a local restaurant. It's easy to get used to this as opposed to eating on board at night. The ship's galley is pretty small, but it's amazing how the staff can turn out a variety of items to satisfy one's appetite. As for beverages, soda, juices and bottled water are included in the fare; alcoholic beverages, including wine and beer, are additional.
The beauty of sailing on this ship is just that: sailing. When the ship is underway beneath billowing white sails, rolling with the flow of the ocean or sea, it gives you a feeling the new, large ships do not provide. This is sea travel the way it used to be. Non-sailors may take a bit of time to get used to it, but before long everyone is an old salt, luxuriating in the feel and life at sea.
The size of Arabella makes for easy access to unusual ports, secluded lagoons, coves and bays where the big ships cannot go. It's not unusual for the ship to sail part of the day and anchor in a cove for lunch, followed by swimming from a beach or right from the ship. The ship's six kayaks and plentiful snorkeling equipment are put to regular use. Then the ship can weigh anchor and head to another spot where guests go ashore to visit the port and, later on, have dinner at a local establishment.
Arabella, refit in 2000, is immaculately maintained and meets higher safety, operational and other standards than any similar vessel. As such, she's able to operate without restriction in the American, British and Spanish Virgin Islands. During the year, she has itineraries in three different areas: the Virgin Islands, southern New England and, just introduced, the Chesapeake.
The six-night Caribbean itineraries include such ports as St. John, Jost van Dyke, Tortola, Norman Island, Virgin Gorda, Peter Island, Salt Island, Culebra and Vieques. My cruise, a three-night sampler, went to the last two, which are islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. Vieques, most notable for having been the site of U.S. military testing, is home to some outrageously gorgeous and unspoiled beaches as well as one of the few truly bioluminescent bays anywhere. This experience is hard to describe, but swimming at night among billions of single-celled organisms that light up as you move around is quite unique. And no, you do not feel them at all. The beaches and waters at Culebra, unknown to most travelers, are clear and clean and make for great swimming, kayaking and snorkeling.
The five-night New England sailings -- perfect for New Englanders who want to get offshore a bit -- operate all summer long round-trip from Newport. Stops are usually made at Martha's Vineyard (Oak Bluffs and Edgartown), Nantucket and Cuttyhunk Island. The small coves and beautiful harbors of New England are great for swimming and other water sports. Ashore, there's history and shopping, biking and strolling, and all sorts of exploring available. One night, there's a clambake under the stars on Cuttyhunk (weather permitting of course).
The new five-night Chesapeake sailings round-trip from Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, present an in-depth exploration of one of the nation's most famous yet unexplored bays. Days are spent visiting restored plantations, kayaking undisturbed creeks and exploring quaint fishing villages. St. Michaels, Oxford and Cambridge are among the stopping points; there's also a visit to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, a famous ecology and natural resource learning center.
Prices for these adventures range, per person, from $899-$1,699 for New England, $899-$1,499 for the Chesapeake and $1,195-$1,995 for the Virgin Island sailings. All sailings include breakfast, lunch and evening hors d'oeuvres. The number of dinners ashore that are part of the price varies by destination. Personal items on board such as telephone calls, faxes, tips and alcoholic beverages are additional.
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