On a sunny 23-degree Celsius January morning, our eight-person open-air gondola ascended quietly into St. Lucia's lush rainforest for an aerial tram ride. Countless shades of green and a fresh, earthy scent delighted our senses and dispelled travel stress.
Other than the live narrator's voice explaining what we were seeing, the only sounds were the soft whir of hummingbirds and shrieks of delight from nearby zipliners. After gliding gently through the tree tops 25 metres above the forest floor, the tram gradually descended back to the loading area.
The Brits who shared my gondola and others in the excursion were guests on the Viking Sea, one of six Viking Ocean ships. Many of us had earlier cruised on one of Viking's Longships in Europe.
Launched in 2016, the contemporary 930-passenger Viking Sea has all veranda cabins with comfy king beds you can sink into, luxury linens, generous closet and drawer space, mini-bar beverage chiller, LCD TV and security safe.
What's not to like with a bathroom with a low entry step, heated floor and towel bars plus a glass shower stall? All cabins have a small espresso coffee maker, robes, slippers and 24-hour room service. On a rare rainy day, use the red Viking umbrella in the closet.
Unlike other cruise lines, Viking ocean cruise fare includes one land excursion in every port, dining in alternate restaurants, Wi-Fi throughout the ship, port fees, as well as beer, wine and soft drinks with onboard lunch and dinner.
The ship is Norwegian themed with light woods, dozens of decor and cultural items, art works, books as well as Mamsen's gourmet deli. Viking ocean ships do not have formal nights, photographers or art auctions. Children under 18 are not allowed. Most of the adult guests are well-travelled retirees.
Viking's West Indies Explorer 11-day itinerary offers a different island excursion every day with no sea days. Several islands share similar histories. Most had British ownership with an active slave trade that used captured Africans to plant, tend and harvest sugar cane, bananas or other crops for wealthy landowners and merchants.
Today, many of the islands are independent nations where tourism sustains the local economy. Several islands are still recovering from hurricanes, while others were not touched. In the British tradition, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. A variety of vehicles provide island transportation, often on narrow, bumpy two-lane roads. Drivers honk their horns as they zip around blind corners and curves. Roundabouts are more common than traffic lights.
Typical excursions include panoramic tours around the island, ascending to high viewpoints for photo ops. Then tours go to beaches, rum distilleries, culture centres, boat excursions and marketplaces. Visitors who prefer more active excursions can zipline, snorkel or hike on rugged terrain. On some islands observant visitors spot pelicans diving for ocean fish.
Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Island archipelago, has a beautiful setting amid gleaming azure waters. For a time, Tortola's sugar cane industry boomed. Today, the capital of Road Town sits on a picturesque horseshoe-shaped harbour where yachts mingle with simple fishing boats.
Although St. Lucia has the deepest harbour in the Caribbean, this lush green island did not have electricity until 1964. The French and British fought for control of St. Lucia for many years while sugar cane and bananas sustained the economy. Today, tourism is the main source of income. Our tour guide said the chocolate in Hershey bars comes from St. Lucia.
Back on board you will find an extensive array of palate-pleasing food, gorgeous views and open indoor/outdoor seating. The World Café is not crowded and there always is an open table. Breakfast features made-to-order eggs and other hot food items. Lunch and dinner frequently offer a carving station. Seafood, Greek, Mexican, Asian and other theme dinner items are featured throughout cruises. There are several other eating options as well.
In the afternoon, indulge in tea service with freshly made finger sandwiches, textured scones and delightful desserts. Live classical music enhances the ambiance.
Pack your sunscreen! The ship's public areas include an infinity pool cantilevered off the stern, adjacent to World Café outdoor tables. The main pool features a retractable dome for year-round swimming and sunning. In the Spa, guests can use the Snow Grotto and plunge pool along with the sauna and steam room. There is no entrance charge for the spa. Each deck has a launderette with programmable washers, dryers and irons.
If you go
Because island visitors may encounter broken pavement and uneven terrain, wear sturdy walking shoes. Some small buses have very steep entry/exit steps.