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I was reclined on a lounge chair, my toes dangling in the sand. A floppy straw hat sat askew atop my head, and I held a colorful, tropical cocktail in one hand and a book in the other. From a bystander’s perspective, I looked like a blissed-out beach rat. And yet, I was having an inner crisis. Should I remain unmoved in my sloth-like position, or should I join a yoga class down by the water’s edge? Should I go snorkeling in the shallow reef offshore, or would I be better off grabbing a raft and floating in the clear, warm Costa Rican sea?
These are the kinds of tough questions guests onboard Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze must ask themselves while sailing its weeklong Costa Rica & Panama Canal itinerary. This particular crisis of choice overload set in while I was enjoying the cruise line’s private island event, set some 14 miles off the coast of Panama on Isla de Coiba, a marine preserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Covering 430,825 pristine acres, the island of Coiba offers some of the world’s most superb snorkeling,” said Joe Duckett, director of sales and marketing for Windstar. “The translucent waters are teeming with dazzling marine life and surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific. After some coconut welcome drinks, guests enjoy volleyball or a mixology class, followed by a tasty beach buffet lunch. It’s an island resort experience amid a cruise.”
The island celebration, exclusively for Windstar guests and included in the cruise fare, is just one of many onshore experiences the line offers passengers. An abundance of excursions are available for a fee throughout the itinerary, from guided nature walks, horseback riding and canopy tours to surf lessons, a chocolate farm tour and even sport fishing.
“Windstar’s Costa Rica & Panama Canal itinerary showcases the grandeur of nature along Central America’s Pacific shoreline, allowing guests to get close to wildlife and choose from a huge array of adventure-, culinary- and nature-focused shore excursions,” Duckett said.
I kicked off my trip with the Mangrove Wildlife & Boat Cruise in Quepos, Costa Rica, just outside Manuel Antonio National Park. Seated in a charming riverboat, our group nearly capsized the vessel numerous times as we darted excitedly from one side to the other to catch sightings of monkeys, iguanas, crabs, egrets, herons and a multitude of other birds.
Our guide relayed information about the area’s wildlife during the two-hour tour, somehow simultaneously spotting animals where the rest of us initially only saw branches and leaves. But one by one, we would squeal in delight as we beheld what he had extraordinarily spied — bats nestled on the underside of a tree; a teeny pygmy anteater high in the canopy; and a black spiny-tailed iguana camouflaged on a log. Capuchin monkeys chased our boat as we steered through the mangroves, occasionally clambering onto the roof and peering over the edge at us, then leaping back into the treetops upon realizing we had no food for them to steal.
During the Dolphin Watch & Enchanted Point tour, our group sailed and surveyed the seas for four hours in search of pods. And we found them in abundance: We could scarcely take it all in as the playful mammals danced next to our boat and leaped out of the water in every direction. While we filled up the memory on our cameras, our naturalist guide educated us about the biology, behavior and habits of the dolphins, and excitedly pointed out other wildlife, such as a loggerhead turtle paddling gracefully through the turquoise waters and a deadly bright-yellow sea snake.
Costa Rica boasts gorgeous beaches and coves, such as this one in Quepos. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
On the two-hour Mangrove Wildlife & Boat Cruise excursion, we spotted monkeys, crabs, bats, herons and a pygmy anteater. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
During the mangrove tour, hordes of capuchin monkeys followed alongside our boat in the treetops. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Our group saw rays, sea turtles and many different kinds of fish during a snorkeling tour around Cano Island biological reserve. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
After disembarking in Puerto Jimenez, passengers can trek in the nearby jungle or select an excursion to Corcovado National Park. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
A short hike through the lush greenery brings visitors to a secluded beach. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
In Puerto Jimenez, travelers can rent kayaks and set out on their own. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
The Dolphin Watch & Enchanted Point excursion took our boat through warm Costa Rican waters for four hours in search of sea life. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
In addition to dolphins, we saw loggerhead turtles and even a poisonous sea snake. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Dolphins swam alongside the small boat as our guide taught us about their biology, behavior and habits. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
During Windstar’s private island event on Isla de Coiba, passengers can enjoy watersports, a yoga lesson, a delicious buffet, cocktails on the beach and simple relaxation. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Paddleboarding in the clear, turquoise waters off Isla de Coiba was a highlight of the private event. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
The all-day event is exclusively for Windstar guests. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
As the trip wound to a close, the excitement ramped up for our nighttime passage through the Panama Canal. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
In Casco Viejo, Panama’s up-and-coming historic district, guests will see institutional buildings as well as new developments. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Windstar’s Costa Rica and Panama cruise and optional shore excursions give passengers a taste of local life in the destinations. // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
When stopped for a snack of juicy, fresh pineapple and watermelon, we spotted a flock of scarlet macaws in a nearly palm. The large, striking parrots allowed us only a few seconds of observation before retreating deeper into the foliage.
Hours later, we left the tour with a sense of intimacy — not just with one another from our shared experience, but also with the lively dolphins we had spotted earlier, which, even if just briefly, made us feel like we were part of their pod.
But it was Windstar’s Snorkel to Cano Island Biological Reserve excursion that had me truly enraptured. Near Bahia Drake, one of Costa Rica’s most isolated and biodiverse areas that is also home to the beloved Corcovado National Park, a guide led us through rolling swells to discover trigger fish, trumpet fish, parrot fish, puffer fish, rays and sea turtles. I first followed a blue-and-white polka-dotted pufferfish, entranced by its strange shape and fashionable pattern, and then floated, transfixed, above a ray as it undulated elegantly in the current. I felt a deep gratitude for the chance to play amid such lovely creatures in an underwater wonderland.
Back on the peaceful Isla de Coiba, I eventually made the tough call to greedily luxuriate in everything available to me. I swam, floated, snorkeled and paddleboarded — and later proudly touted my inevitable sunburn as a reminder of my glorious immersion in nature.