Four days of vintage cruising to coax your tastebuds to life
This past weekend, I embarked on something truly out of the ordinary: a four-day wine cruise through the San Juan Islands aboard the Schooner Zodiac (schoonerzodiac.com) that was so close to home, I’d be tempted to cross the border every week.
Departing out of Bellingham, Washington, we would enjoy wine tastings on Lummi Island, Lopez Island, and two stops on San Juan Island – at cozy Roche Harbor and its larger cousin, Friday Harbor.
Built in 1924, the Zodiac has been lovingly restored to her original glory and maintained by her owners and a team of dedicated crew members, many of whom are volunteers.
From roughly May until October, she operates a variety of cruises to the San Juan Islands and beyond, including a massive 12-day voyage to Desolation Sound in July.
The Zodiac is a totally immersive sailing experience, meaning guests actively participate in the sailing of this sleek, 160foot schooner, from raising the sails (including the largest mainsail on the West Coast) to taking part in a rotation that includes 30 minutes spent learning about navigation in the ship’s Chart Room; 30 minutes standing on bow watch; 30 minutes acting as a relay between the bow and the stern; and 30 minutes at the helm of Zodiac, steering the schooner under the watchful eye of Captain Tim Mehrer and his able crew.
Of course, participating in the actual sailing of this spotless ship is completely optional, but that would be missing out on half the fun.
Each passenger is assigned a sailing station, and Zodiac’s friendly crew demonstrate what to do and how to do it. On the first day, we were rusty – very rusty.
But by day four, Chief Mate Chris Wallace had turned us into a well-oiled machine accustomed to hearing her call out, “Haul away peak! Haul away throat” – our cue to raise our respective sections of Zodiac’s beautiful sails.
The nautical feel continues below decks where the majority of sleeping accommodations come in the form of single-occupancy berths nestled into the walls of the ship’s Main Lounge.
My bunk was a cozy affair.
It had fleece blankets and pillows, a small storage shelf, and an electric light to read or write by.
While a handful of small staterooms with private bunks are available, the standard bunks out in the lounge were a terrific experience. The crew even has earplugs on hand should you require them, though I found my trusty iPod and the Master and Commander soundtrack did the trick.
Each day, we would sail for most of the day before coming ashore for a wine tasting in the afternoon. In the early evening, we’d come back to the ship and the Zodiac would proceed under the power of its auxiliary engine to our overnight anchorage, typically a secluded anchorage.
Kayaks were put in the water for those who were interested, along with the ship’s small sailboat.
While alcohol isn’t normally included aboard the Zodiac, these wine cruises do include all wines. We were fortunate to have two wine experts on-hand as passengers: Chuck Egner of ’37 Cellars Winery, who also brought some of his very own wines for us to enjoy; and Carl Pietrantonio of Bellingham’s The Purple Smile, on-board to discuss the varietals grown on both the San Juan Islands and throughout Washington State.
Founded with his brother-in-law and named after their vintage 1937 Martin guitars, Egner began making wine out of a passion to develop ultra-premium, hand-crafted wines – and he’s succeeded. His 2009 Merlot was my go-to favourite throughout the voyage, the perfect accompaniment to Relay’s fantastic dinners up on deck.
Of all the vineyards and wineries we visited, it was Lopez Island Vineyards on Lopez Island that left the most profound impression on me. Surrounded by some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to France when you come upon Brent Charnley’s award-winning operation.
Charnley walked us through the ins and outs of his wines, along with the history of his vineyard that has been in operation since 1987. But it’s not just his baby: indeed, many in the local community own stakes in the vineyard as part of an innovative plan to raise capital during the first years of operation.
My favourite wine? Charnley’s Siegerrebe is full of flavour and endlessly enjoyable, designed to pair nicely with Asian foods and spicy curries. The organic berries used to make this stunning white wine are grown locally on Lopez Island.
A brand-new stop for passengers and crew alike was the San Juan Island Distillery. Run by Richard Anderson and Suzy and Hawk Pingree, they produce their own locally-grown fruit ciders, gins, and even tasty apple brandy at their small shop just off Roche Harbor. Gin fans don’t want to miss this.
But it’s not just wine-themed cruises that are offered aboard the Zodiac; their 2012 itinerary lineup features voyages focusing on photography, lighthouses, Victoria and the Gulf Islands, an Oktoberfest Brewery cruise, a voyage dedicated to bluegrass music, and Nauti-Gals – a three day cruise in August designed exclusively for aspiring female sailors.
Some of us came for the wine; others came for the scenic beauty of the San Juan Islands. I came for the ship.
But regardless of why we were initially there, every passenger went away completely changed by the experience, each discovering a world they never knew existed.
And that’s an amazing way to spend four days.
Visit fromthedeckchair.com for a full voyage report from on-board the Schooner Zodiac.