With winter coming, an onslaught of new megavessels brimming with amenities and creative creature comforts again steams toward the Caribbean.
In fact, so spectacular are these new ships that they essentially are destinations unto themselves, boasts Andy Stuart, executive vice president of Norwegian Cruise Line.
But those big, brassy high-rise resorts at sea - many taller than the Statue of Liberty, some too fat to fit through the Panama Canal, and others so long they dwarf a football stadium - come with novelties, such as a New-York-styled Central Park and a Coney Island-like Boardwalk, and they arrive with heftier fares.
Except for a passel of luxury vessels, the once all-inclusive-cruise concept is mostly as extinct as the dodo. In its place, cruise lines have installed a la carte cruising, in which your fare is just the starting point. Add gratuities, wines and spirits, spa treatments, photos, specialty coffees and pastries, shore excursions, the fine dining at a plethora of signature restaurants - all with a fee - plus irresistible onboard doodads, and the cost of your cruise easily could double, if not triple.
Take, for instance, the really grand dining options on the largest of the cruise leviathans, Royal Caribbean's 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas. Whet your appetite on Oasis' most exclusive dining venue, 150 Central Park, and you'll fork over $35 a person for dinner. Pizzas, salads, pastas, Italian sandwiches, braised-meat dishes and stews, all served family style at Giovanni's Table, will set you back $10 at lunch and $15 at dinner. To sample a selection of cheeses and an assortment of tasty tapas at Vintage, you'll hand over your shipboard credit card. The popular Chops Grille, Royal Caribbean's signature steak house with views of Central Park, will add $25 to your onboard tab.
In fact, a goodly number of Oasis' 24 distinct dining experiences carry a cover charge or a la carte pricing. And, should you hanker for room service in the wee hours, expect to pay for it. Choose a premium steak in the main dining room, and you'll pay extra, too. On Oasis, you'll even have to pay for cupcakes.
With this in mind, we wondered whether a land resort might not get us more bang for our buck and serve as an alternative to a Caribbean cruise.
Of course, comparing a land resort to a seagoing Caribbean vacation is, in some ways, like comparing pineapples and coconuts. Most land resorts don't have casinos on their properties or entertain you with million-dollar Broadway-style shows and Vegas-like revues, as Royal Caribbean will with Hairspray or Norwegian with Blue Man Group. Nor is sampling the Mediterranean by ocean liner comparable to a week's stay in France or Italy or, for that matter, any European country.
To test our thesis, though, we booked five days at Sandals' all-inclusive Grande St. Lucian Spa & Resort, one of three Sandals properties on St. Lucia, each located on a gorgeous white-sand beach. Though we stayed at one resort, all the activities and amenities at the other two - including 17 restaurants (most open to the sea breezes), 11 freshwater pools, a championship nine-hole golf course, basketball and tennis courts, catamarans, sunfish sailboats, aquatrikes, glass-bottom boat rides, snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, kayaking, and 22 bars serving unlimited premium brands and champagne - are available, at no extra charge.
Dine where you want, when you want, with anyone you want, and pay nothing extra. Zip. All wines, spirits and soft drinks are complimentary. So are all sports activities. So are all the pastries, crepes, and specialty coffees and lattes. So is the sushi.
Not having to reach into our wallets each time we were tempted by a special treat or captivated by an enticing menu at a restaurant on stilts above the bay, or chose to sip margaritas under a dazzlingly scarlet evening sky, was a relief from the nickel-and-dime environment so common on cruise ships.
Those weren't the only reasons we got hooked on Sandals. Silence and solitude stood high on our list.
Instead of a crush of people on a ship's pool deck or crowds on the sports decks during a day at sea, we found ourselves floating in a calm pool just steps from the beach and with only a handful of other couples for company. And, at week's end, we didn't jostle down a gangway with 3,500 other passengers.
A sprinkling of thatched-roof cabanas, hammocks, and lounge chairs by the sea also awaited whenever the spirit moved us.
No one pressed drinks on us. There was no constant blaring of a PA system announcing an art auction or a seminar on precious gems or gold sold onboard for $1 an inch or pitches for shore excursions. At turndown on Sandals, our bed was more likely to be strewn with tropical flower petals than with the sheaf of promotional fliers ubiquitous in cruise cabins.
We also were not captives at Sandals. We could shuttle freely among the three resort properties in complimentary vans. Land and sea excursions readily could be arranged for a fee. However, these weren't hawked. No staffers had their hand out. All gratuities were included, but it didn't dampen staff enthusiasm or desire to deliver prompt, smiling service.
Just as important, our vacation at Sandals didn't break the bank. The least expensive accommodations (about the size of a minisuite on most larger ships) offer either ocean, poolside or garden views and ran about $350 a night per couple at the time we visited in midsummer. On Oasis of the Seas, a comparable minisuite category would cost about the same per couple per night, excluding port charges and taxes, and would not be all-inclusive.
So was it thumbs up for a land vacation vs. a cruise?
Decidedly yes. This time, we did what we always wanted to do on a Caribbean vacation: nothing but enjoy a sandy beach, lovely accommodations, and bountiful food at our own pace.
As cruise lines try to duplicate shoreside resorts, some experiences are impossible to achieve. For us, it was the evening we dined at the aptly named Barefoot by the Sea, a candlelit restaurant on the Sandals beach.
Sitting shoeless with our feet in the cool sand, serenaded by waves breaking gently under a moonlit sky, we thought of the cruise passengers who sailed away from St. Lucia's harbor that day, and we toasted our good fortune at being on terra firma.
For information about Sandals' Grande St. Lucian Spa & Resort, go to www.sandals.com/main/grande/gl-home.cfm
or call 1-800-726-3257.