Through the Grenadines aboard Mandalay

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

“Amazing Grace” played as the tall ship Mandalay sailed out of St. George’s harbor into the sunset. The sweet sounds of the music, the delicious smell of cloves and allspice in the air and the lush green mountains of Grenada all said that this was going to be a very special voyage.

The barquentine Mandalay under full sail. Photo courtesy of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

It was the start of a week-long cruise through the Grenadines for my wife, Susan, and me aboard one of the historic vessels of the unusual Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, a voyage highlighted by great islands, wacky activities, a wedding on the beach and one great day after another.

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises was started almost 60 years ago by Mike Burke, an ex-submariner and adventurer who launched his cruise line with a tiny sloop, a handful of passengers and a bottle of rum. Today his creation includes four beautiful and historic tall sailing ships, including vessels owned by the likes of the Vanderbilts and E.F. Hutton.

Unlike the Vanderbilts, however, no one dresses in tuxedos for dinner here. The line’s philosophy is casual to the max — all you need is a T-shirt, a bathing suit and bare feet and you’re all set.

Our vessel was the queen and largest of the Windjammer fleet, the sleek and tall Mandalay. Built in 1923 for financier E.F. Hutton, Mandalay is 236 feet long, with a barquentine rig, a long, dramatic bowsprit, a beam of 33 feet and a draft of 15 feet. She has 37 cabins and holds a maximum of about 72 passengers plus 30 crew.

Many cabins are small (about seven by 10 feet), and some have “railroad style” berths, where you must climb up into the upper berth. But all cabins have air-conditioning, adequate but limited stowage, private baths with showers, attractive varnished dark wood walls and 14-inch portholes.

Mandalay and the other vessels sail some of the most delightful cruising grounds in the world, including the waters of Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, the “ABC islands” (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao), off the north coast of South America, and the West Indies.

Our itinerary was one of the best, from lush, romantic Grenada north through the Grenadines to St. Vincent, then downwind at a leisurely pace to Bequia, Mayreau, the Tobago Cays, Union Island, Carriacou and back to Grenada.

Of the islands on our trip, my favorites were Grenada and the Tobago Cays.

• Grenada is a high, rugged island with fantastic waterfalls, pounding surf on the windward side and quiet beaches on the leeward (western) side. The harbor at St. George’s, the capital, is one of the prettiest in the Caribbean.

One of the most interesting sights in town is St. George’s Medical & Veterinary School, which played a major part in the U.S. invasion of the island in 1983. U.S. students at the medical school allegedly were in danger from the new, illegal and pro-Cuba regime, and this was one of the reasons given for sending in the U.S. Marines.

Today the school is very peaceful, with a beautiful and quite large campus on the water, a very impressive library and enthusiastic students from all over the U.S. and the world. The campus looked very fresh and well maintained, and even the town had largely recovered from Hurricane Ivan, which hit Grenada in September 2004, about 18 months before our visit in the summer of 2006.

• In contrast with the relatively developed and exciting Grenada, the Tobago Cays are all about quiet and relaxation. A national park, the Cays comprise five little islands with a sheltered roadstead in the middle. Fishing, jet skis and water-skiing all are prohibited, but snorkeling and diving are encouraged and are among the best in the world.

The greatest attraction is the colors of the water, with almost every color in the rainbow represented: dark blue, aquamarine, turquoise, green, yellow and even golden-browns. Hollywood filmmakers have picked these islands as some of the prettiest on Earth. Petit Tabac, one of the cays, is the gorgeous little island where Johnny Depp as pirate Captain Jack Sparrow was marooned in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

Captain Fernando Niochet of Venezuela, captain of the Mandalay, dressed up for the PPP party. Photo: Toulmin

Another great attraction when sailing with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises is the wacky and sometimes wild activities on board. The wildest are the infamous “PPP parties.” PPP stands for Pirates, Pimps and Prostitutes, and passengers are encouraged to shed their Stateside personas and dress up as one of these worthies. The line supplies costumes, but many Windjammer enthusiasts bring their own for the once-a-week party, which usually includes a conga line and prizes for the best, most obscene and strangest costumes.

For modern-day pirates with a thirst, a large, attractive bar on every vessel serves up beers and exotic but reasonably priced drinks at any time. And the pain of paying is eased by having each passenger buy a “pirate doubloon,” a round paper coin representing about 24 drinks that is punched by the bartender after each round, so money changes hands only once.

Typical daytime activities include visits ashore, snorkeling and diving. (A divemaster on board most vessels organizes dives for certified individuals and usually offers instruction to adults and even children.) Passengers can participate in raising the sails but are not required to help, and no one goes aloft. Activities at night include crab races, stargazing, beachside barbecues, karaoke and midnight dips over the side.

An amazing 60 to 70 percent of Windjammer passengers are repeaters, with fierce loyalty to their chosen line. Some love it so much that they plan their major life events around Windjammer.

On our trip one couple, Chris Larsen and Shary Vinje, had enjoyed a previous cruise enormously and decided to come back and get married on this trip. A simple ceremony on the beach, with the Mandalay captain officiating, confirmed the civil ceremony that Chris and Shary had celebrated in their native Minnesota. Almost every Windjammer voyage includes at least one wedding, honeymoon or elopement.

To verify my positive views of the voyage, I interviewed several fellow passengers. One was a first-time cruiser, Lori Haferman of Bloomington, Minnesota.

She said, “We took a speedboat tour from the Mandalay up the coast of St. Vincent. The colors of the water were unbelievable, and the birdlife was fantastic. We saw a beautiful volcano with a huge caldera and very sheer cliffs. We saw part of the set of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ then went swimming off a beach with absolutely no footprints on it. The snorkeling was staggering, with neon blue tangs, yellow-orange tube corals, and reefs teeming with life. It was the best day of my life.”

In 2007, a typical price for a week-long voyage similar to the one we experienced would be $1,449 per person, including all meals but not airfare, drinks or special excursions. You can reach Windjammer Barefoot Cruises at P.O. Box 190120, Miami, FL 33119; phone 800/327-2601 or visit

The Toulmins sailed as guests of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises but paid for their airfare and drinks. Lew, a member of the Descendants of Pirates & Privateers, is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906;