Cruise International Contributing Editor Julie Peasgood joins a Caribbean cruise on Saga Sapphire and discovers island life is addictive

My chest is thumping to the rhythm of a steel band that’s in danger of breaking the sound barrier, and the air is filled with the scent of saltfish and sweetcorn. All around me scantily-clad dancers are moving with infectious excitement as they practise their steps for the Parade of the Bands, the highlight of the Trinidad Carnival. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, is at a standstill as its cast of exotic revellers samba and shimmy their way through the streets. It’s party time.

Life on board Saga Sapphire is all about having a good time too, though there’s nothing primal about it – unless you count the queue for the spectacular barbecues on the Verandah deck. Held in the balmy evenings under the stars, they are the culinary highlight of my cruise, with show-stopping flambéed bananas rounding off a huge seafood feast.

The daily cheese board is finer than I have seen on any ship; from Camembert to Crottin and Roquefort to Reblochon, they are all selected by Executive Chef Thierry Cherronnet and soothe the palates of the cheese connoisseurs on board.

But there are many other wicked pleasures to be savoured on this Caribbean Calypso cruise, not least the dazzling array of destinations we are visiting.

I board the ship late on a sleepy Sunday on the island of St Vincent (with Saga Sapphire having already docked in the Azores and Domenica), so my first proper port of call is Grenada, the most southerly of the Windward Islands.

Known as the ‘Spice Isle’, Grenada is most famous for its nutmeg, although cinnamon, vanilla and cocoa crops flourish here too – defiant in the face of the devastation caused by successive hurricanes – most notably Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Before then, Grenada was the second largest nutmeg producer in the world. I was fascinated to peel open a pale fleshy fruit to reveal crimson mace cradling the fragrant nutmeg inside, and I swear I could sniff them on the breeze.

The lush rainforests with their dramatic waterfalls give way to beaches here that are picture perfect, along with a charming capital city framed by an old volcanic crater and curving daintily around a horseshoe-shaped harbour. With its red-tiled roofs and pastel-coloured buildings, St George’s has a distinctly French feel and the restaurants offer a mix of Creole and international cuisine.

Not that I’m up for sampling them, as my tour finishes just in time for afternoon tea – and as tea on board Saga Sapphire is always piping hot and plentiful, I am unable to resist. I don’t normally indulge in afternoon tea on a ship, but Saga makes a real occasion of it with stylish service and an impressive buffet. The resident pianist provides the perfect musical background, with cake and Cole Porter proving a winning combination.

Being a Saga cruise, all passengers are 50 plus, and with a significant birthday approaching I am enjoying being with travellers of my generation who share similar interests.

The next day sees us docking in Bridgetown, Barbados, scene of one of the most magical excursions I have experienced. The Tiami catamaran trip is very professional and the guides are knowledgeable and witty, but it’s fulfilling an ambition of swimming with turtles that means so much to me.

We all know the hoped-for Hawksbills are by no means guaranteed to come out to play, so
our party shares a euphoric moment when a large teenage turtle joins us in the water as we swim from the boat. She nudges me on my leg at one point and then bobs up out of the water right by my side, and I’m even able to gently stroke her (very slimy) shell – a moment I will never forget.

Castries in St Lucia, 100 miles due west of Barbados and our port of call the following day, is pretty special too. Again, I don’t usually enjoy the coach trips that are often a necessary part of an excursion, as the guide’s onboard commentary (however good) can have a slightly sedative effect on me, especially after an early start. I didn’t snooze on this trip though as there were so many diversions.

Eudovic’s Art Studio is famed for its intricate woodwork and local carvings and we witness the man himself in action. Our journey then takes us to Fond Latisab Creole Park where we are shown extraordinary tropical plants and more spices, followed by cassava bread making – in a huge cast-iron pan originating, bizarrely, from Liverpool. We then enjoy a display of Creole folk dancing, after which we devour the cassava bread laced with nutmeg jam and I wonder how I can create my new tropical breakfast back in the UK.

Going on excursions can sometimes mean that you don’t have much time to explore a destination individually, and this was the case in St Lucia as the ship’s itinerary had to accommodate some unavoidable changes. So that afternoon saw us sailing – fortunately blessed with sunshine – to Martinique, for a stroll around its harbour before celebrating the sunset.

Saga provides a detailed colour map of each port location so it’s easy to explore. If you’re uncomfortable travelling alone, yet don’t fancy an organised excursion either, you might want to join a small independent travellers’ group. It’s a daily option in port, meeting at a designated time and place, and seems an ideal way to have the best of both worlds.

I did my own thing in our next port of call, the butterfly-shaped island of Guadeloupe, where I enjoyed a relaxing morning strolling around the local market in the main town of Pointe-à-Pitre.

Strangely enough the currency here is the euro, so my East Caribbean dollars had to be swiftly exchanged in order to buy the exuberantly coloured material that characterises the island, and which I simply had to purchase (even if I end up wearing it as an unhemmed sarong, which is highly likely, considering I’m a stranger to the sewing machine).

Far too suddenly it’s my penultimate day and I find myself in Antigua, heading for one of its famed 365 beaches. My group is transported to a hidden lagoon where we all board kayaks and spend a very happy hour navigating mangroves, crystal clear inlets and tiny islands, handling sea cucumbers and starfish with the enthusiasm and wonder of kids. Then it’s time for some snorkelling in an offshore reef, followed by half an hour relaxing on the beach. Other passengers are raving about their stingray encounter excursion, but I have loved my kayak adventure.

I don’t want to go home. I like my cabin (Saga has the only personalised radio station on board a ship, which is an added bonus). I like the eucalyptus flannels that give us a wonderfully cooling welcome back on board. And I really like my last trip, on the retro St Kitts Scenic Railway. Built almost a century ago to deliver sugar cane from the fields to the sugar mill in the capital city of Basseterre, this narrow-gauge railroad now provides a fascinating way to see the island. The lower deck is air-conditioned with lovely rattan furniture, but everyone gravitates to the upper level with its spacious open-air observation deck.

The train rolls across tall steel bridges spanning deep canyons (known locally as ghuts) and I marvel at the rainforests housing mischievous monkeys and birds so bright they take your breath away.

For anyone over 50 wanting to experience a good number of Caribbean islands in a short space of time, this cruise is a must-do.

GETTING THERE
Saga’s 31-night, all-inclusive Treasures of the Caribbean on board Saga Pearl II departs Southampton on 28 January 2017 with prices starting from £5,537pp. For more information or to book, visit saga.co.uk/cruises or call 0800 50 50 30.

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