Islets of the Caribbean

Untouched beaches, exuberant locals and rainforests rich with birdlife abound in the lesser-known corners of this much-plied sea. Jack Dyson boards an intimate expedition ship to cruise the coast of Latin America

Cayo de Agua and Punta de Cocos in the Los Roques archipelago, Venezuela
Cayo de Agua and Punta de Cocos in the Los Roques archipelago, Venezuela | Image: 4Corners Images

Can a Caribbean cruise ever be considered adventurous? The casino-laden behemoths that ply the sea’s waves hardly conjure up the romance of the Spanish main; but there is a certain small, very well kitted out expedition ship that takes in a bit of island sun between trips to the Arctic and Antarctic, exploring some of the better, and less discovered, coastline and islands that the Caribbean has to offer – namely, the stretch along the shore of Latin America, from Panama to Venezuela.

Weighing in at a shade over 6,000 tonnes, SilverSea’s Silver Explorer is, thankfully, far from the biggest ship on the sea, or even in its category; agility and discretion are its USPs. The crew of 117 can host up to 132 passengers at a time in very well-appointed suites. For some more exclusive legs, such as the one I’m on, the staff-to-guest ratio is a comfortable 1:1.

The ship’s size also means the places it can visit are among the least mainstream in the region. It lands on more beaches and shorelines than city docksides, ferries passengers to and fro on a fleet of Zodiacs with rugged outboard engines, and waits while these guests pass days on small, deserted islands and in colonial fortified towns, returning to the ship by evening to wake up in a new place each day, as it makes its way along a less-expected Caribbean coast, in a lazy curve to Barbados.

SilverSea’s Silver Explorer
SilverSea’s Silver Explorer | Image: © 2008 Michel Verdure

I meet the Explorer in Colón, Panama, along with about 10 other passengers who’d overnighted there. We slide past customs and border police, striding up the gang plank to be greeted by smiling staff and expedition leaders who, it seemed, already knew everyone’s names.

Reeling slightly from the journey, I find my suite. While not groundbreaking in any of its design features (Silver Explorer, like many expedition ships, is from the slightly stuffy five-star hotel school of décor), it has a separate dressing room and its own sitting room, and, gratifyingly, floor-to-ceiling windows that lead on to a Juliet balcony. A quick reconnaissance tour of the ship reveals a plush restaurant, bar and observation lounge – all as one might expect; but there is also a lecture theatre with state-of-the-art presentation equipment, a small library and a spa, while the rear deck has been kitted for the clement weather to double as a cocktail spot and grill.

Butlers abound (there’s one for each suite), and the 22-strong kitchen team, we guests will discover, seems to have managed to shoehorn at least three extra meals on to each day’s menu. The small size of the ship means dining is quite an intimate affair. One is welcome to eat alone, but is always offered the chance to sit at an open table, with various invitations pushed under the doors throughout the journey.

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Add the many expedition staff – hybrids of specialist guides and academic lecturers – and there’s no shortage of lively conversation. This itinerary had an Easter Island expert, a handful of ornithologists, a historian and a marine biologist/dive expert. They variously parsed the differences between frigate birds and gannets as we powered toward one shore or another in the Zodiacs, presented talks on the real pirates of the Caribbean (there was a different lecture each day) or expounded, always fairly fascinatingly, on something interesting (the climate, the communities) at the daily debrief in the theatre.

Before our departure, all passengers gathered for the first of these. Bar a brace of charming honeymoon couples and a young family, most passengers were comfortably in the just-retired bracket, but generally fairly hale. And far from Brit-dominated: there were a dozen-odd Finns, perhaps 10 each of Australians and Americans, with the rest made up of various nationalities. Many had stayed on from the previous leg, been through the Panama Canal and were now looking forward to a different and more unique view of the Caribbean.

I slept with my windows open, lulled by the sound of our progress through the water, but woke with a start to the whir and crash of the Zodiacs being lowered down to the water past my room. Once they had cleared my windows and the shock abated, I became entranced by the view: it was like something from a painting. We’d moored for the day at the San Blas archipelago, a partially inhabited network of 378 small islands off the north Panamanian coast, five or six of which were a few hundred metres away: low, sandy things with swaying coconut trees and not much else.

The cathedral in Cartagena, Colombia
The cathedral in Cartagena, Colombia

A group of Kuna, the indigenous people, was setting up in the rain when we splashed out of the Zodiacs onto the nearest island, a place called Porvenir. Boys and girls playing flutes performed traditional dances in the shade of the trees. But for the setting and the mellow pace, the steps would’ve been perfectly at home in any Scottish reel. The Kuna women wore winis – intricate bindings made of small, brightly coloured beads – and beautifully embroidered pieces of fabric in bright colours, called mola, around their waists. Throughout the performance, half a dozen more little motorboats pulled up with Kuna women in them, each bringing more embroidery to sell at a makeshift market set up on the island. The clouds soon burnt off, the sea soon beckoned; I spent the rest of the morning snorkelling over a shallow wreck nearby, splashing about in a kayak and recalling the days when I didn’t have to worry about getting a sunburned bald spot.

That afternoon we weighed anchor and headed for Cartagena, Colombia. A post-lunch dalliance with the fitness suite quickly revealed that there’s a big difference between treadmill running at port and at sea (the latter is ungainly, nauseating, downright dangerous or some combination of the three). I shelved the gym kit and headed to the lecture theatre for one of the daily talks, this time on Spain’s early expeditions to the New World.

Cartagena is surrounded by stunning colonial fortifications – it’s a tremendously evocative place to sail into. Ashore, standing on the fort, one easily imagines Sir Francis Drake’s fleet arriving to loot and plunder. Our guide, Roosevelt, busied us between the fort and the old town, where we explored the ornate theatre and grand colonial houses. All the time he expounded in a voice that sounded uncannily like Al Pacino’s in Scarface mode: “Das riiiight, das de jewel in Cartagena, check it out.” He was right, though. The old town is patently charming: narrow streets, profusions of mysterious doorways and courtyards, flowers spilling over balconies in bright tresses of colour and fragrance – as well as a suitably grisly museum in the old headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.

Lovely beaches in the Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Lovely beaches in the Tayrona National Park, Colombia

The following morning we awoke in Santa Marta, the continent’s oldest colonial city. I spent the morning walking through the tropical forest and long white surf beaches of the Tayrona National Park, spotting ethereally beautiful butterflies and graphically coloured and patterned birdlife. It was Easter weekend; Bahia Concha, the much more accessible locals’ beach where we passed the afternoon, was packed with Colombian families eating ceviche, burying each other in the sand and playing in the soft, gentle sea. A group of about 10 of us drove there and back in a Chiva, barrelling along the dusty roads in the brightly hued party bus with no windows and a large, crackly sound system that belted out salsa and pop.

That night I dined with a mixed table of Americans and Australians, many of them former engineers who had already “done” the Arctic and Antarctic on previous trips, and looked forward to a slightly easier itinerary with a few more stops and a bit less wave-bashing. From dinner to the bar for a little impromptu singing with the Finns and honeymooners (thanks largely to a few cocktails that elevated the slightly cheesy piano repertoire into a bit of kitsch fun).

We had a day at sea before reaching our next stop, Los Roques, Venezuela – a useful punctuation, reinforcing the fact we really were on a voyage, and an opportunity to take up my butler’s offer of afternoon tea in my suite (he’d seemed almost put out when I avoided it earlier). A worthwhile and faultlessly executed experience, with the added bonus of making me feel quite the Edwardian gentleman traveller.

Kuna women wearing mola fetch water on Carti Sugdup island in the San Blas archipelago, Panama
Kuna women wearing mola fetch water on Carti Sugdup island in the San Blas archipelago, Panama | Image: © Blaine Harrington III/Alamy

Los Roques is a blissful spot – another archipelago, this one a national park with one of the best preserved coral-reef systems in the Caribbean – populated by a small community (comprised of a surprising large number of Italians) and boasting some of the most picture-perfect beaches in the region: sea so bright blue it’s almost difficult to look at, soft white sand, a scattering of mangroves and only a few villas, none of which are more than two storeys high. It’s beautiful in its definitive simplicity.

A couple of groups trooped to the top of Gran Roque island, then headed back to the dock, where the Zodiacs whisked us to a nearby beach on which the crew had set up an impromptu beach bar, offering Cuba Libres, ice-cold beer and ceviche, along with pretty much the only shade on the island. Pelicans flopped lazily into the sea in front of us, coming up with mouthfuls of fish – and, often, with a seagull perched on their heads, trying to nip the fish straight out of their gullets. A “klepto-parasitic relationship”, said Marco, one of the expedition team and a world expert on seabirds and marine populations. A bit sozzled, a bit sunburned, we stayed for a magical sunset before heading back to the ship.

There was another day at sea before we found ourselves in Trinidad – not the most handsome of islands, a fact for which it compensates with truly astonishing birdlife sequestered in its sweaty forests. A guided walk through a nature reserve in the hills yielded, among many others, hummingbirds, manakin, bellbirds and the eyecatching golden oropendola, which swoops and darts from tree to tree, its tail a flare of fluorescent yellow.

Kuanidup island in the San Blas archipelago, Panama
Kuanidup island in the San Blas archipelago, Panama | Image: © Donald Nausbaum

The island of Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines came next, followed by our penultimate port of call, the Tobago Cays. The Cays themselves are a regular stop for cruise ships and yachts – and here Silver Explorer’s small size, and great advantage over them, was proven. When the wind conspired against us and made one of the landings unpleasant, we simply hoisted anchor and went round the corner to a small, quieter bay.

There was a choice of islands to head for. Conscious that this was our last visit, I enlisted Ulli, the resident marine biologist, who knew of an inlet with natural populations of several types of turtle. Within 50m of the shore we’d already struck gold – three massive green turtles and a couple of hawksbills, each with strikingly marked shells, incredibly graceful in the water, their flippers gently pulsing like wings. We passed an hour just floating quietly in their wake, watching them graze.

I spent a final day and night in Barbados – a beautiful, luxurious and very charming place, of course, but one in which I found myself focused elsewhere. Backwards, mostly, trying to hang on to the space of open sailing, the rustling palm quiet of San Blas and Los Roques – in short, the less-trodden, but far more alluring, side I’d just seen of this sea.

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