How a botched cruise turned into a free trip to Tahiti
PAPEETE, Tahiti — It was cocktail hour on the Wind Spirit yacht, and, as everyone knows, nothing can go wrong during the golden glow of a sunset cocktail hour. Especially on a yacht docked in French Polynesia.
But there is a first time for everything.
“We regret to inform you that we will be unable to depart this evening due to some minor mechanical issues,” said the captain over the ship’s loudspeaker. Our departure would be delayed just a day, but based on the overdramatic reactions of some fellow passengers, he may as well have announced that the bar was out of Chardonnay and the ship was taking on water. Voices were raised, pearls were clutched, and faces went red and pinched with anger.
I rolled my eyes at the scene and took a healthy sip of a mai tai. A one-day delay does not a ruined vacation make. It wasn’t as if we were going to be stuck at the dock all week, or so I naively thought.
It was the first evening of the seven-day Dreams of Tahiti Cruise aboard the 148-passenger, four-mast Wind Spirit yacht operated by Windstar Cruises. I was here with my friend Dan celebrating our friendaversary (that’s a thing, yes?) and we were looking forward to marking the occasion by snorkeling in postcard-worthy water during the day and hoisting a few glasses of hooch in the evening as we sailed between a cluster of islands in French Polynesia.
I was also here to see what sailing was like on a (relatively) small yacht, and to find out why the Wind Spirit had been given a dinghy-full of awards from Cruise Critic.
In his announcement, the captain explained that although the ship would not be departing as anticipated, passengers would be ferried to the tranquil island of Moorea, which was scheduled to have been the first stop on our journey. That way we would not miss previously booked shore excursions. Ship maintenance would take place while we all frolicked in Moorea. By the time we were ferried back, we’d be ready to raise the sails.
The islands we were visiting were clustered so closely together — Moorea, Raiatea, Motu Mahaea, Bora Bora, and Huahine — that missing the first day would not set us behind schedule. No harm no foul.
Delay aside, my first impression of the ship was quite favorable. Polished teak, a small pool, and intimate gathering spaces gave the illusion that you were aboard someone’s personal and sprawling yacht. The ship was small, but not claustrophobic, and my cabin was surprisingly spacious. It had a built-in table with banquet seating and ample storage for my clothes. It was larger than many New York hotel rooms I’ve visited.
For our first excursion, Dan and I signed up for a hike in Moorea on something called Three Coconut Trail. The hike was listed as “strenuous,” but I explained to Dan that cruise ship “strenuous” was likely our version of “slow saunter.” However I wasn’t counting on a younger passenger profile on the Wind Spirit. There were even newlyweds in tow. The 5-mile hike was a not-so-delicate waltz through exposed roots, steep hills, and endless mud-coated trails. We were rewarded with amazing views, but by the end of it, my mud-caked sneakers resembled a pan of burnt rhubarb cobbler.
We returned to the Wind Spirit from our hike prepared for a breezy sunset cocktail and an all-clear from the captain. What we got was a shocking vacation plot twist. Cue the dramatic music. The captain announced that the cruise was canceled! Passengers looked at each other dumbfounded. What in the name of Shelley Winters was going on here?
Those mechanical issues (which we later learned was a failed engine that resulted in the Wind Spirit colliding with a pier the week before) were unable to be remedied. The captain was not comfortable taking the yacht out to sea and instead it would remain docked in Papeete.
This is the part of the story when I would normally raise a fist at the ridiculousness of it all, or perhaps sit on a sidewalk and cry. But what happened next was miraculous.
Windstar completely refunded all passengers for the cruise, including airfare. The boat would act as a kind of floating hotel for those of us who opted to stay. Booze, Internet, room service, and laundry were suddenly free for everybody. If passengers had already paid for those things, they were refunded as well. Excursions were also refunded. Windstar offered 50 percent off our next cruise. Essentially Dan and I had scored a free, all-you-can drink, all-you-can-eat, trip to Tahiti. This was better than a “Price Is Right” showcase. Happy friendaversary to us!
For people who wanted to leave the ship, Windstar helped arrange return flights. I didn’t understand this batch of people. Why would you rush away from a free trip to Tahiti? The very well-reviewed MS Paul Gauguin was docked beside our ship. It was about to take a similar route and still had some rooms available at a reduced rate, so several from our cruise jumped across the dock. It felt as if Windstar did everything right to help customers salvage their vacations.
There was a downside to our free vacation: The ship was docked in Papeete, not one of the more scenic islands. Once the shock of the cancellation set in, the sound of clicking fingers booking flights to other islands could be heard. Many of us were specifically hoping to get to Bora Bora, where our ship had been slated to stop for two nights. Dan and I tried to get Internet access to book there as well, but instead received a repeated message that there were too many shipboard users already logged on.
We were saved by a couple from Utah who rented an internet hot spot while in Tahiti. They could reach the Air Tahiti website, but could only get the site in French. Having some knowledge of French (although he claims to have more than he actually does), Dan was able to book the Utah couple flights to Bora Bora. We also booked flights to Bora Bora for ourselves, staying for two nights and three days. We decided to spend the rest of our time on the ship.
While some of my fellow passengers decided to grumble and grouse about the situation, I decided to turn lemons into lemon drop martinis. I may have done this too often because other passengers began calling me Lemon Drop. I’m not complaining, people generally call me much worse.
Before we went to Bora Bora, Dan and I stayed on the ship a few days, eating, drinking, and lying in the sun as if we were a couple of latter-day Charos circa 1979 on the Pacific Princess. It was the definition of a true vacation. I learned that about 50 passengers had departed the ship, so the yacht began feeling even more like our own.
With fewer passengers and a shared experience to bond over, I noticed that passengers were friendlier than usual. We all shared plans, which led to sharing details of our lives. Meeting people on cruise ships can be as rewarding as the cruise itself, and in this particular case I met a broader scope of people than usual.
Another bonus was that there were fewer crowds at dinner. The ship’s main dining room, Amorpha, was elegant without being stuffy. The dress code was casual. The lunch buffet on deck four was even more casual. Every night the pool deck was converted to a restaurant called Candles, which usually required reservations because seating was limited. One thing I enjoy about smaller ships is that the emphasis is generally on the quality of the food, not the quantity.
I was hesitant to leave the ship for Bora Bora. I had grown accustomed to sipping all those lemon drop martinis for free. Those hesitations evaporated when we arrived at our resort, and I saw we were staying in bungalows over the water. I had previously only seen photos of such places and thought they only existed in the Maldives, and also in a dream I once had that involved a yoga mat, Barbara Eden’s “I Dream of Jeannie” ensemble, and several cats.
There are many such resorts in Bora Bora. We stayed at the Intercontinental Le Moana Bora Bora. There was a glass coffee table in my room, which allowed me to look down into the water. I could slide the top off the table and feed the fish below. There was a two-tiered deck off the back of my bungalow. I slid a ladder off the deck and went swimming in the warm water. It sounds magical, and it absolutely was. I texted my mom and told her it felt as if I was living someone else’s life.
This was definitely a case of the martini glass being half full. Had our ship not been docked with problems, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to stay in a magical bungalow over the water and feed fish from my living room. The magic wasn’t cheap. The Intercontinental was $500 a night, the flight to Bora Bora was $250. This part was not covered by Windstar, but I don’t regret the additional expense, especially since the cruise, airfare, and transfers were getting refunded. The only thing I regretted was getting in a kayak with Dan. We made it about five feet from shore before tipping over.
It turns out that making friends with people on your ship is useful. The Utah couple who we helped book flights to Bora Bora had rented a small boat for the day and asked us to join them. We spent the day swimming, lounging, snorkeling, and gawking at the scenery and buzzing around Bora Bora.
On the final night of what would have been the seven-night cruise we returned from Bora Bora to the ship in Papeete, exchanging stories of adventures with fellow passengers. At this point there were only about 60 passengers left on the ship, so we had the run of the dining room. On that final night, Dan and I sat with our new friends from Utah. I raised a lemon drop martini, and gave a toast.
“To canceled cruises and new friends,” I said. “May they both always be as wonderful as they were this week.”
The Windstar Dreams of Tahiti Cruise runs regularly through the end of December 2019. Room rates on select cruises start at $2,300 per person double occupancy. www.windstarcruises.com, 877-889-5528.