Sailing the Virgin Islands of the Caribbean on a Schooner

Arabella Sailing Ship

Linda Garrison

Sailing the Caribbean on a tall ship like the Arabella, with the sails billowing in the wind overhead, is one of life's most pleasant experiences. I love large cruise ships too, but many travelers who do not like crowds or glitz would love a week on the Arabella. It's a wonderful, relaxing Caribbean vacation, filled with blue seas and sky, breezy days, and beautiful sunsets. In addition to the lovely ship, the Arabella's ports of call are small, fascinating islands, not visited by mega-ships. The ship combined with the islands guarantee some marvelous memories.

The Arabella is a 160-foot, 40-person tall ship with three masts and an interesting history. The Arabella is a schooner with motorized sails, and it's a thrill to see them zipping up the masts and catching the wind. Her top speed under sail is about 7.5 knots.

My husband Ronnie and I sailed on the Arabella for six days in May in the British Virgin Islands. The sailing ship had 32 passengers and 8 crew onboard. Most passengers on our cruise were couples ages 40 on up, and all were active -- enjoying swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking when ashore.

Arabella Cabins

The 20 cabins on the Arabella have either queen or bunk beds. They are tiny and might take some getting used to for those who have never been on a sailing ship. The good news is that you really are in the cabin just to sleep, clean up, or watch TV, and the open deck is just a few steps away.

Dining on the Arabella

Breakfast and lunch are served onboard the Arabella. Our Chef, Jon, did an excellent job of preparing delicious, varied foods in his tiny galley. We had one dinner onboard; the rest were in restaurants ashore. Each day, after our early evening happy hour (with snacks and the drink of the day), we went ashore for dinner in a shore side restaurant. We usually had a choice of fish, chicken, or barbecue. We were all hungry after an afternoon of snorkeling or swimming, and each meal was delicious.

Arabella Common Areas

Meals are served in the Salon, and some guests enjoyed sitting in the Salon to read their books or chat. Many of the guests gathered outside under the covered cabana while we were sailing. Others sat on the sun deck or aft next to the hot tub. We usually sailed for a couple of hours or so after breakfast, anchoring at our next island in time for lunch.

On our 6-day Caribbean cruise, the Arabella atmosphere was not as rowdy as I saw on our three Windjammer Barefoot cruises, but I think anyone who enjoyed those old ships will love the Arabella. (We might just have had a more mature, subdued group on our Arabella cruise, too!) It's a smaller ship, but much nicer and with better food. The wonderful 8-person crew is friendly and helpful, and the ambiance is casual and cozy. Several of our fellow sailors had also cruised with Windjammer Barefoot cruises, and they all seemed to agree with my assessment.

Join me on the Arabella as we sail the British Virgin Islands. The next nine pages are my cruise travel journal.

01 of 09

Arabella Embarkation in St. Thomas

View of the Virgin Islands from the Mountain Top of St. Thomas
St. Thomas Photo (c) Linda Garrison

The sun was shining when the plane landed in St. Thomas. The Caribbean sparkled in dozens of shades of green and blue. I always forget how gorgeous this part of the world is until I'm approaching it from the air. It's also easy to forget that the flight from Atlanta is only three to four hours long. The Caribbean is really a special part of the world.

Ronnie and I had flown to St. Thomas to join the Arabella, a 40-passenger sailing ship that was spending the week in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Collecting our bags, we exited the airport and got lucky--a van taxi was filling up with other vacationers heading for Red Hook on the western edge of the island, where we were to meet the Arabella. The van stopped first at the Red Hook ferry terminal, where all the passengers disembarked except for us. The driver dropped us at the Molly Malone Irish pub, after he asked a woman where the Arabella was docked. She replied, "50,000 people have asked me that question today" and concluded that many of them were eating lunch in the restaurant. We went inside and quickly met a couple from Cincinnati who had just sat down, so we ordered lunch and ate with them. Ronnie loved the conch chowder and the conch fritters; I stuck with the chicken quesadillas.

Arabella staff had told us to meet the crew at dock D next to Molly Malone's, so we finished our late lunch and were on the ship about 4 pm. She is a lovely vessel, and was originally built as a private sailing vessel. The company bought the Arabella and spent a couple of years extending the ship and changing her into a passenger ship. Our cabin was very tiny, with a built-in queen sized bed and minimal storage. We had 4 drawers under the bed, a cabinet over the bed, and a narrow shelf around the bed, which was about as wide as a book. That shelf was invaluable for holding our books, glasses, sunscreen, and other daily necessities. The room has a small sink, with a toilet and shower in a small adjoining room. Taking a swimsuit, shorts, and t-shirts in a duffel bag is the best way to go. The room is only about 7 feet wide and 10 feet long, with no room under the bed to put anything, so suitcases use up valuable floor space. A clothes line in the shower would be nice to be able to hang stuff. We didn't spend much time in that small space! One of the prices for sailing on a "small" sailboat.

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02 of 09

St. John and Dinner at Caneel Bay Resort from the Arabella

Caneel Bay at St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands
St. John Photo (c) Linda Garrison

About 4:30 pm, we had a captain's call meeting where we met the staff and discussed what we would be doing the next day. The Arabella has many sophisticated electronic charts and equipment, but the crew uses a simple white board to post the daily schedule. The ship has a large covered cabana seating area on the back deck, a dining room/lounge Salon mid ship, and seating on the front sun deck under the sails. The mid ship area where the crew works the sails is off limits to passengers.

Captain Sandy cranked up the motor about 5 pm for St. John, and we crossed the cut dividing St. John from St. Thomas. It was a very short ride and there was no wind, so we just motored. We anchored in the bay in front of the famous Caneel Bay resort. Drinks and snacks were served and we all enjoyed getting to know each other and watching the sun set over St. Thomas.

At about 6:30, we used the 14-passenger launch to make three trips and ashore to the Sugar Mill Restaurant at Caneel Bay near the ruins of an old sugar mill. It was set in a circular building on a hill overlooking on old tabby sugar mill. The restaurant was open air, and had a special fixed-price "Arabella" menu marked at $70. (It was included in our fare).

The Sugar Mill Restaurant also had great views of St. Thomas from the hilltop. Its many lights sparkled in the night, and there was a nice Caribbean breeze. We also had a few birds chirping, but couldn't decide it they were real or piped-in the outdoor restaurant. We had a choice of chicken, lamb chops, steak, and fish. Appetizers were lobster/crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, chicken roti, or a salad; and dessert was chocolate molten cake or key lime pie. Cocktails/wine were not included, and the wine was about $15 a glass. Ronnie had shrimp cocktail, steak, and the key lime pie and I had the lobster cake, lamb chops, and the chocolate molten cake. The steak was overdone, but the lamb was excellent, as were the appetizers and dessert. After dinner, we walked back to the launch (dark and downhill). Ronnie and I (along with several others) were exhausted, so we went to bed. The crew ran launches at 9 pm, 10, 11, and 12. Some folks stayed ashore and had a drink or enjoyed the music in the beach bar. This pattern was repeated nightly. Those who wanted to go back to the ship returned after dinner, others stayed ashore on each island to enjoy the local music, entertainment, and drinks.

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03 of 09

Jost Van Dyke from the Arabella

Great Harbour at Jost Van Dyke
Great Harbour at Jost Van Dyke (c) Linda Garrison

I was up bright and early the next morning. St. John glimmered in the sun, all green and lush. The sun comes up in the eastern Caribbean before 6 am, and although we had the cover over the porthole in our cabin closed, bright sunshine leaked in around it. The Arabella staff put out coffee and continental breakfast about 6 am, and Jon the chef had prepared hot homemade cranberry orange muffins, a bowl of mixed fruit, cereals, bagels, bread, juices, and yogurt. They were all set out for self-serve early-riser breakfast. At 7:30 am, he delivered a delicious egg strada and crispy bacon. All were delicious, especially since the galley is very small.

At 9 am, the crew raised the sails and we sailed for Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). It was very exciting to hear the whoosh of the sails and see them billowing over the ship as we made our way east. The ship gently rocked and rolled in the wind. What a marvelous sensation it was! We dropped anchor a little before 10 am in Great Harbour, which is home to Foxy's Bar, a couple of other bars/restaurants, a dive shop, souvenir shop, and a BVI government building. The crew took the passports and immigration forms ashore so we could officially enter the BVI.

Soon we were cleared to go ashore while they finished processing the passports and paperwork. Most of us took the tender ashore and spent an hour or so exploring the small town. Four passengers (the young athletic types) swam ashore. Not much to see except for the lovely Great Harbor beach with sparkling white sand, and Foxy's Bar wasn't open yet. We were back on the Arabella by noon and had a selection of buffet salads for lunch, including Asian chicken, Cobb, black bean, and a pasta Mediterranean. Since I'm a cookie freak, the peanut butter cookies were a special treat. Heavy rain showers passed overhead while we were dining--perfect timing.

After lunch, we sailed around Jost Van Dyke and anchored off Green Cay. We all went snorkeling (Arabella had a large selection of gear) or kayaking. The sand on the beach was marvelous--white and sparkling--and the water was refreshing and not too warm. Good snorkeling for all.

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04 of 09

Tortola in the British Virgin Islands from the Arabella

Arabella passengers go ashore to the Jolly Roger Restaurant at Tortola's West End
Tortola West End Harbor (c) Linda Garrison

The snorkeling and swimming time at Green Cay near Jost Van Dyke passed by quickly and we were soon sailing for the West End of Tortola. Captain Sandy took the long way, and we zipped along in the brisk wind, rocking along with the sea. Unfortunately, I picked a bad time to take a shower to wash off the sea - not a good idea. (We used a freshwater hose to wash down when re-boarding, but I wanted to soap off all remaining salt and get out of the wet swimsuit.) Never again. I propped myself against the shower wall, but drying off my feet wasn't easy. Finally gave up. One great thing about this ship - ultra-casual is the rule. No make-up (except sunscreen and moisturizer), no shoes, and no fancy shorts or shirts.

The Arabella anchored off the West End of Tortola, and we had fried spring rolls and delicious tuna tartare with wasabi/seaweed/and pickled ginger as appetizers with our daily dose of rum. Ronnie and I could have made a meal out of the tuna tartare! At about 6:30 pm, we started going ashore in three waves on the dinghy as usual. We ate at Jolly Roger's on the West End of Tortola. Our group had a huge long table on the dock right next to the water. They took orders for either lobster, ribs, chicken, or mahi-mahi earlier in the day to save time at the restaurant. Ribs were a little dry, but the lobster was delicious.

Ronnie wished he had put bug spray on his ankles as the no-see-ums and mosquitoes chewed on them throughout dinner. They always seem to find him, but usually leave me alone. Guess I'm not as sweet as he is!

The Jolly Roger was busy, with numerous boat people arriving via rubber zodiacs or other small boats to dine. We were sitting outside (gets dark in the eastern Caribbean before 7 pm), and it was a perfect evening. We returned to the ship about 9:30 and stood out on the deck and watched dozens of huge tarpon rolling under the ship lights. They were mesmerizing. The crew told Ronnie that the harbor was a fishing preserve, so glad he didn't bring a rod. He would have loved to try to catch them. The harbor was gorgeous at night, and we could still see St. Thomas glowing in the night far away. As we all were getting to know each other better, we stayed up socializing a little later, but were in bed before midnight. A few hearty souls stayed ashore and took the late "shuttle dinghy" back to the Arabella.

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05 of 09

Arabella Sailing Ship - A Tour of Tortola

Cane Bay at Tortola in the BVI
Tortola (c) Linda Garrison

Awoke to hot coffee cake the next morning on the Arabella, followed by eggs Benedict (with or without asparagus) and sausage. We had anchored at Tortola overnight. After breakfast, about half of us took an optional tour ($25 per person) of Tortola in either an open van or a van with air conditioning. Something for everyone!

Our Tortola driving tour was similar to those on St. Thomas - rode to the main town (Road Town) for 30 minutes shopping and a short visit to Pusser's, followed by a winding trek up to the top of Tortola's highest hill, where we all snapped photos of Jost Van Dyke and the Atlantic Ocean on the north side and the Caribbean on the south from the roof of the Skyworld Restaurant. We could see most of the islands we would visit during the week--Norman Island, Peter Island, Virgin Gorda, St. John, and Jost van Dyke. The tour continued down the mountain and to famous Cane Garden Bay beach. It's always fun to get a different perspective of these lovely islands in the Caribbean. We had a photo stop at Bomba's Bar Shack, which is the beach bar with the women's underwear hanging from the ceiling and the sign that says "nude women drink free". We senior-age women wondered if they would pay us to NOT get naked.

Our final stop was at the Callwood Rum distillery. I loved the gorgeous old building, and they were "cooking" rum while we were there. This distillery was not as large as the Cruzan Rum factory on St. Croix and was much more rustic.

We returned to the Arabella for lunch, and I was delighted to find it was Mexican food day--burritos and tacos, with ground beef, chicken, guacamole, and delicious salsas--both tomato and a fruit one. Chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Yummy!

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06 of 09

Peter Island in the BVI

The Arabella passengers gathering for dinner at Oceans7, a beach restaurant on Peter Island
Peter Island (c) Linda Garrison

After lunch, the Arabella sailed southeast for Peter Island, another secluded island in the British Virgin Islands. It was a great day for sailing, with fair winds and bright sunshine. We anchored off Peter Island, and had a captain's call to set the rest of the day. Some folks went kayaking, others swimming, some hiking, and Ronnie took a nap. I decided to read my book in the shade of the mast and watch the snorkelers and swimmers. They came back with good reports of seeing a tarpon, squid, and many colorful reef fish.

Peter Island is the largest private island in the British Virgin Islands and is home to the luxury Peter Island Resort. Many sailboats also find their way to the excellent anchorage on the island, and sailors can dine ashore at the Peter Island Resort or at the casual Oceans7.

Our nightly cocktail party featured Cuba libres and crackers and cheese balls. Dinner was ashore at Oceans7, a beach restaurant on Peter Island. We had a choice of crab cakes, fried calamari, tomato bruschetta, or conch fritters for appetizers; followed by tuna, mahi mahi, grouper, chicken or seafood roti, steak, or ribs. All the fish was grilled and topped with a fruit salsa. The mahi mahi was the best. Dessert was cheese cake, chocolate cake, or key lime pie. Another delicious meal in the BVI!

Some Arabella passengers stayed ashore for a while, but most returned to the ship. We even had two guys on a small dinghy who tried to "visit" the ship, but the captain said no. Good idea. Evidently it's a frequent occurrence. Guess many people are fascinated by beautiful sailing ships such as ours. There were no tarpon surrounding the ship that night, and it was much windier than the night before. Still a beautiful night in Paradise.

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07 of 09

Virgin Gorda from the Arabella

The Baths at Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands
The Baths (c) Linda Garrison

The next morning after a breakfast of French toast and link sausage, the Arabella headed east for Virgin Gorda. We sailed all morning, tacking back and forth across the Sir Francis Drake Sound. We had great views of the south side of Tortola, including Richard Branson's house, which was high on a cliff overlooking the sea.

We arrived at the Spanish Town harbor a little before noon and had a Captain's call. Following lunch, Sandy said we would go ashore and take a jitney to the Baths. We would spend most of the afternoon at the Baths and then return to the ship for cocktail hour and to get ready for dinner.

Ronnie and I left with the second tender to shore and arrived at the Baths about 1:30. We hiked down to the beach, and then followed the Devil's Bay Trail to Devil's Bay Beach. The trail wends its way through the rocks and tidal pools. Very interesting. The huge granite rocks are quite a sight. We returned to the Bath's Beach and did some snorkeling around the rocks for about an hour. Ronnie saw a barracuda and even got some good photos of it. I probably would have been rapidly swimming in the opposite direction if I had seen it! We also saw some scuba divers with huge cameras and lights. Maybe we will be in someone's movie.

We hiked back up to the Top of the Baths bar and had a beer and a dip in the freshwater pool. (you could swim in the pool if you bought a drink). We got back to the ship about 4:30 or so - just in time to take a quick shower before having a cheese tray and the rum drink of the day for happy hour.

Our group went back ashore at 6:30 to the Turtle and Bath restaurant for a buffet dinner. It was very good, but as usual we had to pay for water ($2) and this time dessert wasn't free. Okay with us. We got back to the Arabella by 9:00 and sat outside on the back deck and listened to music and enjoyed the evening. It was a quiet evening, like most on the Arabella. One nice thing for those who love to party -- the Arabella crew will run a tender for you back to the ship on the hour every evening - e.g. at 9, 10, 11, or 12, with midnight being the last tender. They were having live music and dancing at a bar near the Turtle and Bath, so a few guests in the mood for dancing stayed ashore.

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08 of 09

Norman Island and the Caves and Indians from the Arabella

One of the three caves on Norman Island. Legends say that pirates used these caves to store their bo
Norman Island (c) Linda Garrison

After a breakfast of fruit, asparagus and mozzarella frittata, and bacon, we sailed from Virgin Gorda at about 9 am, and the captain sailed close by the Baths so we could get a good look at the giant granite boulders from the sea. We sailed downwind, but still tacked back and forth across the passage. The views from the ship were terrific, and the morning sunshine was warm and comfortable.

We arrived at Norman Island about lunch time, and had a captain's call before lunch. Lunch was crab cakes and a delicious apple/cranberry salad. After lunch, we piled in the dinghy to go snorkeling at the caves. Three sea caves are "around the point" from the main anchorage at Norman Island. They were fascinating to explore, although a little creepy. You can understand why many believe that the pirates used Norman Island as a base for hiding their booty. We had been told to watch out for bats in the caves. I didn't see any bats in the caves, although we'd see them at night around the ship. Fine with me.

We returned to the ship for about an hour - some people went to the beach and did some hiking, others did a little kayaking or swimming. After resting up a little, we took the dinghy over to the Indians, some rocky outcroppings offshore in the Drake Passage. The snorkeling was excellent in both places, but one guy brushed up against some fire coral. His back and arm immediately blistered, and the dinghy immediately took him back to the ship for a dousing with vinegar. His blisters were much better the next day, and a good reminder to all of us how dangerous the sea can be.

Two rounds of snorkeling were exhausting, so we were glad to see happy hour, featuring mojitos and more cheese/crackers. Jon the chef also cooked some brie in puffed pastry. Dinner was on the ship, and we had a choice of steak or chicken. The appetizer was a crab cake, and we had pound cake with strawberries/whipped cream for dessert. Captain Sandy sat at our table, and we enjoyed hearing his stories of life in the Virgin Islands, where he moved 20+ years ago from his home in Rhode Island. He and his wife also have an inland home in Alabama, where he goes on vacation. He said the farm looked good after spending so much time asea.

After dinner, we watched the tarpons circling the boat for a while before turning in. We heard rumors that some of our fellow passengers took the dinghy to the famous floating bar/restaurant at Norman Island called Willie T.'s, but no one gave us a report the next day. Either it was very quiet, or one of those, "what goes on at Willie T.'s, stays at Willie T.'s nights"!

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09 of 09

Back to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Home

Enjoying a Caribbean Sunset on the Arabella
Arabella (c) Linda Garrison

Our last day on the Arabella, I woke up early at the anchorage on Norman Island and enjoyed the "early riser" hot muffin with some tea, followed later by pancakes and sausage. We spent the morning sailing around St. John and the other Virgin Islands. It was a lovely day for sailing, and we all marveled at the opulent hillside homes and brilliant turquoise bays.

Captain Sandy anchored the Arabella near Cruz Bay off St. John, and the dinghy took all of us ashore (in three groups) to clear U.S. Customs. Most of us returned to the Arabella for a hamburger and hot dog outdoor lunch. It was delicious as usual, and included potato salad, baked beans, and cole slaw. A few guests stayed ashore to maximize their time in St. John, where we would be spending our last night on the ship.

After lunch, most guests returned to shore to explore St. John on their own or browse in the shops. In addition to the famous Caneel Bay Resort, St. John has a large national park and many condos, bars, restaurants, and high-end shops. Jon had boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce for our evening snacks, along with another rum drink of the day.

Our last night on the Arabella was the only night we had to pay for dinner on our own. The crew had numerous suggestions for dinner, and Ronnie and I chose the Fish Trap, a seafood restaurant in downtown Cruz Bay, where he could order the scallops he loves. We ate outside under a whirring ceiling fan and had a nice dinner before returning to the ship.

The next morning we packed our bags, and the Captain took the Arabella back to St. Thomas. We all disembarked by about 10 am. Since our flight wasn't until the afternoon, Ronnie and I joined three other couples for brunch at the Molly Malone, where we had started our journey the week before. However, this time was different. We had many shared memories with our new friends from the Arabella. It had been a terrific week - filled with good food, an excellent crew, fascinating ports, perfect days at sea, and a beautiful ship. Thanks, Arabella!

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see ourĀ  Ethics Policy.

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