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This New Yacht Is Sailing to Gorgeous, Lesser-known Ports in the Caribbean Sea — and I Was on Board With 'Below Deck's' Chef Ben

Emerald Cruises' new Emerald Sakara ship brings guests to smaller ports in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, with an onboard marina and the occasional Bravo-lebrity.

<p>Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure </p>

Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure

With a couple dozen guests looking on, chef Ben Robinson was showing how to slice and dice a fresh red snapper. “You kind of feel him — but you don’t fondle him,” said Robinson, the fan favorite from the Bravo reality show Below Deck, who’s always ready with a quip. As he pulled a perfect filet off the bone, he explained how to salt the fish and that there’s no more important relationship than the one you have with your fishmonger. “My advice is to always be friendly,” he noted. “I like to support my mom-and-pop [businesses]. If you become familiar with them, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I got this in this morning.’”

The cooking demo, which also featured a ceviche how-to and tips on knife sharpening, was one of many “Chef Ben” moments on my trip aboard Emerald Sakara. It’s the newest 100-passenger vessel from Emerald Cruises, which launched in the fall of 2023, a sibling vessel to the Emerald Azzurra.

During an eight-day voyage in March from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda, the reality personality was definitely one of the star attractions. Robinson spent several evenings in the galley, creating special dishes such as a panko-crusted veal striploin stuffed with pesto.

He also hosted a well-attended Q&A about his life in the kitchen — and spent plenty of time connecting with fans, many of whom booked the trip specifically to chop it up with Below Deck alum.

“We definitely booked because of Ben,” said Shannon Welnel, a Montana-based travel advisor who had lots of praise for his cuisine — and the yacht-like atmosphere on board the 100-passenger ship. Other guests I spoke with admitted they hadn’t seen much Below Deck, but were intrigued by the chance to chill with a Bravo-lebrity.



Emerald Sakara

  • With a max of just 100 passengers, Emerald Sakara feels at times like a private yacht, with no lines and no crowds, and outstanding service from a highly experienced crew.

  • Minimalist rooms recall the stripped down aesthetic of Miami Beach or Mykonos, Greece, with pops of color from Missoni Home accents and a sleek-yet-functional bathroom with plenty of storage space.

  • While this small ship has but one restaurant and one poolside cafe, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to meals, whether you’re hitting the breakfast or lunch buffet or choosing from the dinner menu.

  • The onboard marina, which is open in favorable weather conditions, offers watersports and swimming off the stern of the ship.

  • Easy to understand and mostly inclusive pricing covers meals, beverages at mealtime, many tours, and surprisingly speedy Wi-Fi.




The intimate-ship vibe was also one reason the chef wanted to hop aboard. “This definitely has more of a yacht vibe than any other [ship] I've been on,” Robinson told me one afternoon. “A hundred passengers is not a lot,” he said. “I've been on boats with 2,500 passengers, and you really do feel like you're anonymous. But here, the service is great, and you really are treated as an individual and someone important. And you kind of lose that on the big boats.”

While Robinson doesn’t have immediate plans to join another Emerald cruise, he told me that there were plenty of parallels between his life on megayachts and what the Sakara offers its guests. “It’s been incredible,” he said.

I had to agree. The Sakara certainly has much to offer, both in spite of its smaller size and because of it. While it’s available to book by the cabin, like any cruise ship, it still manages to feel at times like a private yacht, particularly when it sails to less-commonly visited ports such as Culebra, on Puerto Rico, or St. Bart’s. In the latter, we dropped anchor near Eric Schmidt’s yacht, Whisper, and had the whole day to explore the glitzy island and its capital, Gustavia. (After a drive around in the morning, I managed to catch the beautiful sunset from the lovely little Shell Beach, right in town.)

“The benefit of being on a small cruise ship like this one is that we can enter small ports and areas where others can’t,” said Robert Kuznin, the captain of Sakara, who previously worked with several cruise lines, including Paul Gauguin, Seabourn, and Virgin Voyages. “For example, when we dropped anchor in Esperanza Bay,” he explained about our stop at the island of Vieques, “there were only two meters under the keel — and that was the shallowest I’ve ever been!”

<p>Courtesy of Emerald Cruises</p>

Courtesy of Emerald Cruises

The ability to go places that larger ships can’t was also on display one morning on St. Kitts, one of the final stops of my trip. It was still early in the morning, but already four mega-ships were docked in Basseterre, the island’s capital. Instead of tying up next to them on the busy cruise pier, we dropped anchor just off the beach in South Friar’s Bay, a long sweep of sand in the island’s southern reaches. There were no crowds to contend with, no paperwork hassles, no touts offering dodgy cab rides. A five-minute tender ride to the beach was all it took to meet our local guide. Time from leaving the breakfast buffet to our first stop? About 25 minutes. Even the most efficient mega-ship would struggle to make that happen — and they can’t drop anchor right off the one of the best beaches on the island.

Other moments aboard Sakara felt like something out of Below Deck. One afternoon, I made my way to the yacht’s marina, a platform at the stern stocked with lounge chairs, refreshments, and water toys such as a floating trampoline and inflatable sea kayaks. I jumped off the stern into the Caribbean and then tried out the ship’s Seabob, a floating gadget that’s like a cross between a Jet Ski and an electric scooter.

As I continued my joy ride, I could see another vessel anchored just north of us. Turns out, it was David Geffen’s private yacht, Rising Sun. Of course, we were there first.

Here’s a closer look at all the amenities of the Emerald Sakara, which sails seasonally in coastal waters in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Staterooms

<p>Laurent BENOIT/Courtesy of Emerald Cruises</p>

Laurent BENOIT/Courtesy of Emerald Cruises

Welcome to your starship: the stripped down, white-and-gray cabins on Sakara feel sci-fi chic, particularly when the accent lighting is switched on. They’re also, thankfully, spacious and super functional, with ample storage space (including a safe), a small minibar, a coffee station, and a clever headboard built-in that’s a great spot for your charging devices and water bottle. Most of the 50 rooms and suites have verandas; ocean-view staterooms are the exception. Bathrooms are just big enough, with plenty of storage, and are stocked with Espa products and a hair dryer. My cabin, 421, was a 300-square-foot balcony suite toward the aft of the ship on deck four: I never once heard noise from the surrounding cabins or in the hallway, though I did occasionally notice sounds and vibrations from the vessel, something that is common on even the largest of ships. A note on power plugs: my stateroom had U.S.-style outlets throughout as well as USB-A charging ports on either side of the bed, a nice touch.

Bars and Restaurants

<p>Laurent BENOIT/Courtesy of Emerald Cruises</p>

Laurent BENOIT/Courtesy of Emerald Cruises

Because Sakara is smaller than most cruise ships, it can’t compete on sheer volume of bars and restaurants. Still, the food on board is solid. La Cucina is the only true dining room, with both indoor and outdoor seating; it has somewhat limited hours compared to the round-the-clock dining options on bigger vessels. That being said, I certainly didn’t go hungry: a breakfast buffet is complemented by traditional à la minute options such as omelets and pancakes; lunch is also buffet style with a carving station. Dinner is more restaurant style, with options from an ever-changing daily menu plus always available classics such as Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, grilled salmon, and spaghetti bolognese on offer. (Many dietary restrictions and preferences can be accommodated.)

On my voyage, chef Robinson put together several special plates, including what might’ve been the best dish of the week: a sesame-crusted seared yellowfin tuna with celeriac puree. The Below Deck star also put together a panko veal striploin roulade one night and, another evening, offered a citrus-cured hamachi with, in a touch of molecular gastronomy, “mango spheres.” Elsewhere on board, a poolside cafe, Aqua Café, has quick bites like burgers and flatbreads, as well as sweets and coffee pulled from a Cimbali espresso machine. The cocktails served in the Amici Lounge and the Sky Bar were consistently excellent, mixed by a talented team of pros who’ve previously worked on Seabourn ships and in some of Dubai’s top hotels. One weaker spot was the selection of wine on board: pours at mealtimes are included, but they didn’t rock my boat. A short list of “chairman’s wines,” available at extra cost, included a couple by-the-bottle finds such as 2013 vintage Cristal ($650) and some mid-tier Bordeaux and Burgundy options.

<p>Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure</p>

Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure

Where Emerald Sakara Sails

Though small, this ship isn’t an expedition yacht. Rather, it’s specifically designed for warm-weather coastal cruising, meaning it spends the lion’s share of its time in places such as the Caribbean and, in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months, the Mediterranean. My trip aboard was spent entirely in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, where passages between ports were short and the seas were often calm. (We did occasionally encounter some swells of up to two meters, or 6.6 feet. I saw many guests wearing medicated patches to prevent motion sickness throughout the trip.) Sakara typically spends a season of several months in a given region, with a variety of cruise lengths offered, ranging from six to 24 days. In 2024, the ship will spend April through November in the Mediterranean. Sakara will return to the Caribbean at the end of the year, through April 2025.

Shore Excursions

Tours off the ship were a strong suit for Emerald, at least on my voyage. Most stops offered a variety of activities, ranging from a simple transfer to a nearby beach to a full-on, multi-hour tour. Usually, I found myself ashore with a very small group of folks — fewer than a dozen — and all the guides Emerald arranged were true pros. Passengers raved about a kayak paddle through the bioluminescent bay on Vieques, something I sadly didn’t try myself. I did, however, enjoy a short guided hike on the island of St. John, to the pristine beach along Salomon Bay, which was all but deserted. The organization of excursions felt flawless to me, thanks no doubt to the crew and shore excursion manager, Pilar Atencio. Worth a mention, too, were Atencio’s detailed briefings on what to expect each day. While these sorts of “port talks'' are common on ships of all sizes, they felt particularly useful on Sakara because of how intimate our groups were; many passengers made a point of attending the pre-dinner talks every night, for info on what to expect about our anchorage, historical background on each island, and detailed info about what each tour offering would entail.

Amenities and Entertainment

<p>Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure</p>

Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure

Call it small but mighty: Sakara has all the essentials, which is a bit of feat for a ship this size. A cozy spa has wellness and beauty treatments, as well as a small hairstyling and facial studio; morning yoga and stretching are available on deck. The fitness center, with a few cardio machines, a Peloton bike, and a variety of weights and other gear gets the job done. The smallish pool and a top-deck whirlpool were lovely — though I spent most of my time in the ocean: the Sakara’s marina deck is a key feature, and it was open several afternoons during my trip. It’s like the greatest pool party you’ve ever been to, complete with piña coladas, sea kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and a trampoline, right off the stern of the ship. It is, truly, as much fun as it sounds like, though it is subject to the whims of weather and ocean currents. Also available in some destinations are e-bikes from Gocycle, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis; during my trip, several guests gave them a spin on the island of Vieques. Sakara also carries a ton of snorkeling gear and beach towels, which passengers can borrow whenever they like. In terms of performances, this isn’t the vessel for Broadway-style shows, but guitarist Jamie Ferguson and voyage director Nathalie Millet added plenty of live music to the trip.

<p>Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure</p>

Paul Brady/Travel + Leisure

Family-friendly Offerings

The youngest passengers I spoke with on my cruise were in their 20s — and they were traveling with their parents. Sakara is perhaps the perfect ship for families traveling with adult children, since it offers such a diverse array of activities to suit different tastes and activity levels, while visiting intriguing destinations. The ship is also intimate enough that everybody can gather easily for meals — or a swim off the stern — without fighting the crowds common on larger vessels. On the other hand, Sakara is probably not the best choice for families with younger children: there’s no kid-specific programming, and you’re likely to be the only ones aboard with little ones. “Emerald Cruises yachts are recommended for people aged 12 and up, and they must be accompanied by and share a cabin with an adult aged 18 or [older],” a spokesperson shared with T+L.

Accessibility

Sakara is probably best described as somewhat accessible: the ship has elevators to all decks and the crew was, on my trip, very accommodating to those with mobility challenges. There are handrails throughout, and bathrooms feature shower grab bars. That being said, several areas of the ship — the outdoor dining terrace, for example — require navigating at least one step even once you’ve reached the deck in question by elevator. “Due to the nature and size of the ships, wheelchairs and scooters are not allowed to be used on board,” a spokesperson told T+L. When the ship is at anchor, it’s only possible to go ashore by tender or Zodiac, both of which could be challenging for those with limited mobility. As Emerald’s FAQ explains: “Guests with limited mobility will require help from a companion, since the crew is limited.” Also of note: many announcements are made only by loudspeaker with no hearing-impaired alternative.

Seven-night sailings on Emerald Sakara start from $2,775 per person, and you can book at emeraldcruises.com.

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