2700 square metres of canvas, 10 kms of rope and 15 crew required to set the sails: the stats alone are enough to blow you away – but just wait until you step aboard Sea Cloud II. I joined her on a sailing from Antigua to Barbados visiting no less than 13 islands in 14 days.
Owned by Sea Cloud Cruises (based in Germany), most of the year the ship is sold primarily in the German and US markets but in recent years small ship specialists Noble Caledonia have been running selected charter sailings, finding that she is well suited to their more mature clientele who love the small ship experience.
As well as the glorious prospect of a voyage under canvas in warm Caribbean waters, the cruises are also sold with an emphasis on the educational aspect: guided tours are included in every port and on board there is a lecture programme, in this instance provided by maritime history expert Peter Warwick and focused on the strong links between the West Indies and the Golden Age of the Royal Navy.
Joining the ship in Antigua, I was immediately struck by the traditional decor – plush carpets, polished wood and gleaming brass all create an elegant nautical atmosphere and the crew, all dressed in whites for the welcome aboard were full of smiles and warm welcomes.
Somewhat jaded from our longhaul flight, we and other guests could be found, welcome glass of champagne in hand, wandering the corridors and decks with bemused expressions – trying to adjust our mindsets from the cold grey skies of Britain in February to the warmth of the Caribbean and our new, almost surreal surroundings.
The 47 cabins on Sea Cloud II are particularly impressive – more spacious than you might imagine and well designed to make maximum use of space. The beds are particularly comfortable with crisp linens and thick, but ultralight duvets that the cabin stewards delight in creatively folding in different ways each day. After a good first night of much needed sleep we were raring to go.
Our first morning was spent exploring Antigua, an island renowned for its 365 beaches. But beaches were not top of our agenda, not on this cruise. Divided into small groups for tours by minibus, in keeping with the theme of the cruise, we drove up to the famous Shirley Heights for stunning views over English Bay and Falmouth Harbour before heading back down to explore Nelson’s Dockyard.
Antigua turned out to be the only port where we were actually alongside in the dock among the BIG cruise ships. The physical contrast of size alone was enough to make the point that, although we had the word ‘cruise’ in common, the experiences we were to each have would be worlds apart.
As if to reinforce the point, that afternoon we saw the sails go up for the first time as we headed towards St Barts. Quite a high proportion of guests it transpired had previous sailing experience, either in their own boats or by virtue of a naval background. But for everyone, even landlubbers like me, the spectacle of the sails being set is simply breathtaking. Risking life and limb, the crew nimbly climb the rigging, hooking on only when they reach the first yard arms. They then spread out to untie the canvas so that, once back down on deck, the lines can be hauled and the sails be set.
The whole process takes half an hour or so and all under the watchful eye of the Swiss Captain Christian Pfenninger and on the command of First Officer, Kathryn Whittaker. Apparently the most junior crew are the ones sent to the top, and it is no mean feat. The top of the main mast is 57m above deck and in high winds, boy, does it move about. On our cruise the sails were up almost every day and although you do get used to it very quickly, I never tired of watching them.
So off we went sailing to a different island every day, sometimes motoring overnight and arriving either in the morning or early afternoon. That generally gave us a half day to explore – at times that felt like a frustratingly limited amount of time but it was enough at least to get a taste of each island and we certainly saw a lot.
Never once did we cross paths with the big ships again. Sea Cloud II offers the enormous advantage of being able to drop anchor in even the smallest of ports, allowing for an unusual and varied itinerary. We were also visiting some islands that, sadly, had been ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria just five months previously.
A case in point was the French island of St Barts, our second stop – but apart from the missing palm tops on the hillsides, you would be hard pushed to know that the capital Gustavia has been hit at all. The French coffers, it seems, run deep and the glitzy waterfront, complete with high end designer label shops and stylish cafes, has been miraculously restored.
Not so on our next stop in the British Virgin Islands. The beaches and sea are as stunning as ever, but beyond our beach stop on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke, we were told harrowing tales of the devastation on Tortola and other islands which are struggling to rebuild. Later on in the cruise, we were one of the few ships calling back in at Dominica, which also suffered badly. Sea Cloud and Noble Caledonia’s charitable efforts on the island and the fact that they have not cancelled their stops there was clearly genuinely appreciated by locals who of course rely so heavily on tourism.
Apart from those three, other islands visited on this itinerary had escaped any long term damage from the hurricanes. Highlights included St Kitts and Nevis for a slice of the authentic Caribbean; the charming and colourful islands of Iles des Saintes; magical Martinique; the spice island of Grenada and the tropical paradise that is St Lucia.
My favourite though was Bequia. It just happened that our visit there overlapped with the original Sea Cloud. Side by side, at anchor, we certainly turned a lot of heads. A short tender ride took us to the stunning St Margaret’s bay beach, the kind of palm-fringed, white sand, turquoise ocean idyll you picture when you think of the Caribbean. After a lazy morning on the beach, we then got to wander around the little town – there was not much going on but there was a really friendly vibe and it truly felt like a laid-back Caribbean dream.
Back on board, for the passengers at least the atmosphere was equally as laid-back and informal, the super-efficient crew ensuring that, behind the scenes, everything runs like clockwork. During the day when on board, mealtimes and lectures provide a loose structure. Otherwise most passengers were more than content to find a quiet space to read, sunbathe or doze.
This is most definitely not a party ship. That said though, there were a couple of entertaining evenings: a ‘pirate’ night (fancy dress enthusiastically embraced by some and ignored by others) and a ‘cabaret’ night highlighting some very amusing passenger ‘party pieces’. The most lively night was without doubt when a steel band came on board in Grenada – those infectious rhythms had everyone up and dancing. There were also the Captain’s Welcome and Farewell dinners. This is when the glad-rags came out (a few even going as far as black tie although that is certainly not a necessity) but otherwise, relaxed holiday wear was very much the dress code.
The relaxed atmosphere lends itself to sociability. Open seating dining at every meal means that you do get to meet a lot of people. Noble Caledonia definitely attracts like-minded guests and after a few days we moved on beyond polite small talk. The maturity and life experience of the crowd led to many intriguing and enlightening conversations.
A cruise on board Sea Cloud II is an unforgettable experience, but is different, very different, to what one might imagine a Caribbean cruise to be like. In this particular Instance, the West Indies provided not only stunning backdrops but also the historical context for the programme of on board lectures.
More than anything else, the ship is very much the star of the show – this is a dream cruise for people who just love being at sea.
Noble Caledonia Sea Cloud II chartered sailings for 2020 include a fabulous ‘Panama Canal, Corals & Cultures’ departure in January which combines a transit of the Canal with the natural wonders of Costa Rica. Plus two ‘Sailing in the West Indies’ cruises in February and March 2020. For more details visit www.noble-caledonia.co.uk.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Noble Caledonia.