'Access to hidden-gem ports': Why this luxury yacht is the best option for beach lovers

“This is your yacht, to do with as you please,” Captain Rob O’Leary told guests of the Emerald Sakara, the second luxury superyacht from Emerald Cruises. “We have an international crew from 21 different nations, and we are all here for you.”

I was on the maiden voyage of the 360-foot Sakara, a December 2023 sailing with the added glamor of a Champagne christening in San Juan, Puerto Rico, led by the ship’s godmother, Kelly Craighead. She is president of Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s leading trade organization.

“Sakara” is a Sanskrit word meaning “thoughts become things” – a fitting name, given the thought that went into the ship’s chic design. And our itinerary for the week couldn’t be more yacht-like – an island-hopping experience in the West Indies, stopping in out-of-the-way ports that larger cruise ships can’t manage. And while some smaller boats can feel rocky, the Sakara’s stabilizers keep the ship on an even keel.

Emerald Sakara Exterior
Emerald Sakara Exterior

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With just 100 guests and 76 crew, the Sakara is part of the larger trend in cruising: smaller ships that cater to vacationers who want the style and feel of a yacht, and the intimate service that accompanies that, with the amenities of a larger ship. Craighead said small-ship cruises offer “luxury at a great value, access to hidden-gem ports and unique features like marinas for water activities directly off the ship. These small ships can even be chartered for your own amazing, private yacht experience.”

After departing from San Juan, the Sakara reached the Puerto Rican island of Culebra in a few hours, just 20 miles off the coast. We hopped in a taxi van at the port to reach the pristine waters of Flamenco Beach, which consistently makes the world’s top 10 lists. It was a fall-asleep-on-the-sand kind of day, under brightly colored umbrellas, with multiple trips to the canteen for french fries.

Flamenco Beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico
Flamenco Beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico

“I hope you enjoyed Culebra today because it’s quite hard to get in, through a very narrow channel,” O’Leary said at a supper-hour briefing.

The next day, we stopped at the nearby island of Vieques, which is filled with wild horses – about 2,000 of them – most of which are fully accustomed to the photo op. We docked at Esperanza Bay and wandered the waterfront. Jeeps or ATVs were available to rent for those who wanted to beach-hop, but we settled into the sand at Sun Bay. And when we sailed into Cruz Bay on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John the next day, there were yachts and catamarans everywhere – and the Sakara fit right in.

The crew outdid itself the next day at White Bay Beach on Jost Van Dyke, the smallest of the British Virgin Islands. A barbecue feast awaited us, along with beach loungers, steel drum entertainment, and all the paddles and water toys from the ship. Later, we wandered down the beach to find a young yacht crowd, groups of friends who have rented their boats, all knee-deep in their mojitos.

“I get a real kick out of driving the Emerald Sakara into St. Barths, muscling in and anchoring next to all the other superyachts,” O’Leary said. “It looks good in the pictures.” A stop there brought a snorkeling excursion, a bit of high-end shopping and a few rosé-soaked hours on Plage de Saline.

Emerald Sakara Owners Suite
Emerald Sakara Owners Suite

Back on board, the creature comforts of the Sakara included plenty of outdoor space to connect with the ocean, a small infinity pool, a full-service spa and a large, elegant dining room and terrace. It’s all part of the cushy yacht lifestyle.

The ship will spend the summer and fall cruising the Mediterranean Sea – heading for the French and Italian rivieras, Croatia and Greece – with eight-day itineraries from $5,100. The Emerald Sakara will be back in the Caribbean next December, with eight-day cruises starting at $4,100.

Editor’s note: The contributor of this story received access to this cruise from Emerald Cruises. USA TODAY maintains editorial control of reviews.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Here's what it's like onboard a luxury yacht vacation