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Windjammer Barefoot Cruise to ABC Islands
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

ABC Islands Map
New York, NY - For 30 years I had dreamed about sailing on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise. Then the opportunity presented itself and, as in "The Godfather," I was made an offer I could not refuse to head out for a six-night cruise on the S/V Legacy, leaving from Aruba and visiting Bonaire and Curacao as we sailed the briny deep. Although I flew with Continental out of NYC, Jet Blue, Delta, US Airways, American and United also fly non-stop to Aruba in around four hours. Of major importance to me was the fact that all three islands are outside the "hurricane belt." Considering the nature of things of late, pun intended, I was focused on the promise and anticipation of a relaxed, informal cruise with lots of food, drink and fun in the sun. Just how informal that was to be I discovered when I was the only person, besides the captain, wearing long pants to dinner. While my legs were not showing, I believe that my age was. The fact of the matter is that I could have brought shorts, bathing suits, a beach towel, hats, clogs, sneakers, t-shirts, suntan lotion, camera, toiletries and sunglasses leaving everything else at home, which is precisely what you should do if and when you make your sojourn for a similar adventure.

I had last been to Aruba and Curacao 30-plus years ago (on a cruise) but Bonaire was new for me and it was to be my 146th country visited. Yes, I am keeping a record.

Where and when did Windjammer become more than an entrepreneurial dream? Mike Burke Sr. was born in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey and first sailed to the Caribbean after serving in World War II on a submarine. The way he tells it, he bought his first boat, the 25-foot sloop, Hangover, in Miami in 1956. Now, with the world?s largest (and family run) fleet of refurbished tall-masted ships, Mike believes his cruises should be relatively informal and not too expensive or beyond the reach of your average traveler. This former bait boy negotiated with the Vanderbilts and Onasssis to assemble his fleet and, presently, his daughter runs the company (he still comes into the Miami headquarters daily), which consists of four tall ships that ply the Caribbean year 'round with anywhere from 65 to 125 passengers on each trip. There is no connection with the Windjammer Company that concentrates on cruises along the eastern US and his fleet of S/V (sailing vessels) ships include: Legacy at 294 feet built in 1962 as a weather ship and bought in 1981; the Yankee Clipper, the smallest ship at 197 feet and built in 1927 for the Vanderbilts and bought in 1963; the Mandalay at 203 feet, built in 1923, and purchased in 1980; and the Polynesia, 248 feet long, built in 1939 and bought in 1975.

Talking to the other passengers on the Legacy I found mostly couples and over half had sailed on a Barefoot Cruise before: the eighth trip for one; the sixth for another. They liked the fact that the ship sailed in late afternoon and at night. We spent one night docked at each island which allowed a beach BBQ with a band a few hundred feet from the ship as well as shopping and shore excursions. I arranged in advance to be met by guides provided by the local tourism authority. There was a group of divers and snorklers, several of whom brought their own equipment. Without TV or computers everyone seemed to have brought lots of books to read. In addition, there was a scavenger hunt, costume night, the battle of the sexes, crab races, rum swizzles, hor d?oeuvres and game time before dinner. Every morning was Captain?s Story time dealing with the day?s schedule. Captain John may have been selected as much for his relaxed sense of humor as his sailing skills. "What?s the difference between God and a Captain? God doesn?t think he?s a Captain." That seemed to be the intention of the company. The 40 person crew interacted with the passengers and seemed to really enjoy their work. There is plenty of room on the decks for sunning, reading or just looking at the water. Do you know why they call it the "Poop" Deck? The top rear deck was where they used to throw the garbage overboard. We had at least ? hour watching a school of dolphins swim along side our ship. Sunset was a special occasion every evening. Please don?t expect luxury in the cabins. My double bed took up most of the room. There was adequate closet space and drawers. The bathroom had the toilet next to the shower and sink. After the first day I made sure the shower curtain was all the way out so as not to wet the toilet. Cozy but it worked. There were 60 passengers out of a capacity of 120 on my mid-September cruise. Several "regulars" booked because the company sent out e-mails offering heavily discounted rates.

I arrived a day earlier than expected in Aruba, and checked into the Mill Resort Hotel in the Palm Beach area, where most of the high-rise hotels are located. Even though the fitness center and tennis courts were under construction the view was great, ambience outstanding, room and bathroom quite large and there was, to my surprise, a full kitchen that I was not going to utilize. It was then early to bed after dinner in the somewhat inexpensive open-air restaurant.

When you go, make certain that your tour of the island includes: Arikok National Park, Donkey Sanctuary, Butterfly and Ostrich Farm, California Lighthouse, Natural Bridge, Alta Vista Chapel, Fontein Bat Caves, Casibari Rock Formation & Indian Drawings and International Raceway Park. Whew! Eagle Beach was called one of the 10 best in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine and the so called "Baby Beach" has such shallow water that children can walk out a hundred yards and still not find the water any higher than their waist. Yes, walk with them.

Aruba is the heart of the southern Caribbean, only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Under 20 miles long and just six miles wide, it has around 100,000 inhabitants and 70% of the over 700,000 tourists that stay at least one night (plus 550,000 cruise ship passengers, an increase of 88% over the last 10 years) come from the United States. With an average temperature of 81 degrees, they (along with the other islands visited) are in the same time zone as NYC and, with the US Dollar accepted everywhere, I can see why Americans feel at home. They use the same electric current as does the U.S. and, with the world?s second largest desalinization plant, the water is pure. The Valero Oil Refinery replaced the closed Standard Oil facility and is the island?s second largest employer, after tourism.

As an interesting point of information, Aruba and Curacao were refuges for Jewish settlers fleeing the Spanish & Portuguese Inquisition and, later, the Holocaust. In 1754, Jewish settlers came to Aruba from Curacao and built what is now Beth Israel Synagogue.

History time. Aruba means "well placed" and their license plates read "One Happy Island." I found that to be pretty much on the mark. It is one of six Dutch possessions in the Caribbean and, in 1986, it seceded from the Antillean Federation (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatus and Saba). The Spanish arrived around 1500 and found the Arawak Indians that had come over from South America. In 1636 the Dutch came to power and Europeans arrived at the end of the 18th Century. With European, Indian and African roots, English is widely spoken, as well as Dutch, Spanish and the native language of Papiamento. One fifth of the island is protected from building and we had to use a Four Wheel drive vehicle to get around that part. I dropped my bags at the dock and walked around the capitol of Oranjestad. Since it was Sunday most of the shops were closed, but they do open when cruise ships dock. Then it was dinner and overnight aboard the ship with one last hurried shopping foray in the a.m. before departing for Curacao.

There all sorts of degrees of discomfort at sea, depending upon the weather, and I, admittedly am not exactly referred to as Neptune by any of my colleagues so the patch and wrist bands came into play the first night. After this initial unsteady period I was fine the rest of the trip. The Tourist Board of Curacao had one of the most intensive 1 1/2 day schedules I had ever encountered. We were docked in Caracais Bay, a 15 minute drive from the capitol, Willemstad, which is a UNESCO World Heritage City Site. Curacao was discovered by the Spanish in 1499 and they called it Corazon (heart). The Dutch conquered it in 1634, with the British becoming the ruling country in 1807. By 1815 it was returned to the Dutch. The island is 38 miles long and seven and a half miles wide, has a population of 140,000 and 35% of the 510,000 plus tourists are from Holland, 20% from the U.S. (less frequent flights). Of that total, 276,000 come by cruise ship. The eastern side of the island is filled with hotels, clubs and shopping and the western side is secluded and rugged with mountains, caves and beaches. I discovered that baseball is the number one sport and that Curacao was the 2004 Little League World Champions. Everyone reminds you of that if you ask anything at all about any sport. Also, as a bit of trivia for your next go at it with your friends, Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves and Randall Simon of the Philadelphia Phillies are from the island.

On the religious side once again, Congregation Mikve Israel was founded in 1651 and dedicated in 1752. In 1964 it united with Temple Emanuel and is the oldest in continuous use in the New World, while the Toro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the U.S. (1763). In 1969 the Jewish Cultural Museum was opened next door to the temple and is worth a visit. Other things to see on the island include the Curacao Liqueur Factory where Rum Raisin, Chocolate, Coffee & Blue Curacao is produced. The Spanish brought Valencia oranges with them but they had a bitter taste since, grown wild, they found that the peels dried by the sun contained aromatic oils that made a liqueur using added spices.

The Open Water Dolphin Dive allows you to swim with dolphins in the open ocean and the dolphins are kept in a habitat but, during the open water encounter, they are free to return to the aquarium of their own free will. The same goes for the sea lion experience. There is an Ostrich & Game Farm with over 600 birds and great views of the city can be found from Fort Nassau. The Floating market brings fish, fruits and vegetables from Venezuela and is positioned around the corner from the Floating Bridge. When the bridge is in the open position ferries to the other side are free. In 1981, Dinah Veeris started planting medicinal herbs and her Den Paradera Herb Garden now has over 300 different herbs for sale. I bought four and am not leaping tall buildings in a single bound as yet.

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  • My hotel was developed from 16 Dutch Colonial houses that were converted into an eight block historical preservation project and, with two pools and a spa, it is a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. I spent most of the first day at the Kura Hulanda Hotel & Museum in Willemstad, built in 1999 next to the hotel with the best collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean. where I discovered that Curacao was one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean. Many people walk right through the historic area not realizing it is a hotel. There is a sister hotel, Lodge Kura Hulanda on the western end of the island, that opened in 2005 with 74 suites and guest rooms. I had dinner at the Avila Hotel ,which is a 4-Star boutique resort on the water, privately owned and adding 68 luxury rooms (to their present 100), pool and spa to their new Octagon Wing that will be opened by the time you read this story.

    Another night sailing and we arrived in Bonaire. Somewhat earlier, in 1499, Amerigo Vespucci discovered Bonaire and found the Arawak Indians already here. From 1527-1633 it was Spanish territory; the Dutch came in 1634; the British in the 1800?s; and the Dutch returned in 1816. These dates and events are similar to those for Aruba & Curacao. My morning tour, courtesy of the local tourist office, covered the high points of this very laid back island of just 13,600 people. It is 24 miles long and three to seven miles wide, depending upon where you are standing at a particular moment, and located 50 miles north of Venezuela, 38 miles east of Curacao. Their license plates read, "A Divers Paradise," and all over the island are signs showing the 86 diving areas. Bonaire is considered one of the finest scuba and snorkeling areas in the world. There is also windsurfing, ocean and sea kayaking, deep sea fishing for Marlin and Sailfish and land sailing (moving over sand using a sail).

    Since 1979, all waters off the island?s coast have been declared a marine park. Tourism, salt harvesting and oil storage are the main sources of revenue and the 13,500 acre Washington-Slagbaai National Park occupies the northwest part of the island. There are 200 species of birds, including the signature pink flamingo. At breeding time there can be up to 10,000 present and I learned that flamingos are born white, then turn grey. I never knew that but was told that the carotenes in the shrimp they eat turn them pink. I'll have to check that out and get back to you. The Cruise Market Place in the capitol of Kralendijk comes alive when the 86 cruise ships that docked at Bonaire in 2005/2006 arrive delivering 56,500 passengers for a few hours of shopping and, as usual, 40% of the 60,000 overnight visitors are from the U.S.; 40% from Holland.

    Each of the three islands is different, yet the same - great weather, the US dollar is welcome and the people are genuinely warm and friendly.

    Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to or email him at