Barbados • St Lucia • Dominica • Antigua • St Kitts • Iles des Saintes • Martinique
“I absolutely must go on that ship.” Carolyn (a vibrant 65-year-old Norwegian, now on her fourth Star Clippers cruise) explained over a sundowner rum punch that she had been in Barbados a few years earlier on board a large cruise liner, and her eyes were drawn across the marina to the most beautiful sailing ship she had ever seen. It was love at first sight, and she has never looked back.
There were many such tales on board the Royal Clipper. At the captain’s ‘returners’ drinks party on the upper deck, almost half of the guests (out of 200 or so) assembled to toast their much-loved ship and cruise line, and of course to compare notes – how many cruises, which ships, which destinations, personal favourites, and who were the staff and crew members they recognised (and importantly, who recognised them, even down to their personal taste in wine). Loyalty like that can’t be bought – it’s deep in the soul of the warm-hearted and friendly guests and staff who return year after year.
The secret? The essence of a Star Clippers voyage is that it’s a genuine sailing experience on board the largest full-rigged ship in the world with all of the comfort, superb dining and service of a 5-star cruise.
“I still want to enjoy sailing but not with all that responsibility.” This time it was George’s turn to explain why he had the Star Clippers bug. A retired civil servant from Massachusetts, he had captained many a small yacht in the past and still wanted to experience the buzz from travelling by sail power. His wife however, preferred luxury holidays with a little pampering in the sun. The two of them had found the perfect solution to ensure marital harmony for their golden years.
January is the perfect time of year for a Caribbean cruise. Escaping from the UK with a direct flight to Barbados and then a quick hop to join the Royal Clipper, transitioning from the chill to the warmth in just a few hours. And what a welcoming ship it is, by far the most elegant and photogenic in the port, a vision of beauty with comfort and charm in equal measures.
The cabins are well-appointed with an excellent shower room, TV (with a choice of free movies on DVD) and an easy walk to the restaurant (although no lift). There’s no getting lost with just three levels of cabins (the upper floor with balconies), the lower with double portholes. Our steward had a great sense of humour, with a different animal each day fashioned from the towels, which gave a real sense of anticipation when returning to the cabin!
There’s one main restaurant with an upper lounge area and choice of bars and two decks. Free tea and coffee are available 24/7 (a great place to meet fellow Brits). Outside, there’s the tropical bar on the main deck, and a spacious upper deck with three small swimming pools and plenty of loungers in amongst the ropes and other workings of the ship.
Cruising with Star Clippers is delightfully informal and relaxed, so getting to know other guests on board is very much part of the experience. Visit the top deck and watch the mechanics of the sailing experience, the moving of the masts, the hoisting of the sails, the endless adjustments to set them and even a chance to climb the rigging and visit the engine room. With 56,000 square feet of sail and a mast height of 197ft, there’s a constant movement of the crew as they go about their jobs with quiet professionalism and pride; this is very much a working ship and you feel right at the heart of its operation.
Wander to the front and there’s the captain standing on the bridge directing his crew with understated but absolute authority. And an unbeatable theatre took place one afternoon when we watched the man himself scale to the very top of the mast on an unscheduled working visit. Perched at almost 200 feet in the air, with a fresh wind, he was completely at ease in his surroundings. It certainly must beat a desk job!
After just a day or two, life on board the Royal Clipper established a delightful and relaxed daily routine. Rising early to enjoy the sunrise with a dazzling display of oranges and pinks through the clouds and over the hills of the islands, accompanied by the water performance of the flying fish and the birds swooping to catch them on their brief dart out of the water. Then with my appetite likewise awakened, it was high time for a buffet breakfast (the bread choice and quality alone rivalled any top hotel), and the not too arduous task of deciding on the plan for the day ahead. The ship called in at a different island each day (St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique), and a carefully selected range of excursions were on offer on most islands. Read more about the islands visited.
Usually we would return to the ship for lunch which was also a buffet with different themes each day (including a fabulous beach barbecue in Antigua – what a way to lunch in style!), and any thought of hunger later in the afternoon was soon dispelled by a fabulous tea served at 5pm in the tropical bar area where a soulful singer and keyboard player entertained.
Then it would be time to ascend to the upper deck, cameras at the ready, to savour the setting sun, cocktail of the day in hand, and enjoy the Sailaway – the highlight for many guests. Dramatic and emotional music (Vangelis, `1492 Conquest of Paradise’ – one of those tunes you recognise but can’t quite place) provides the atmosphere while the crew hoist the sails, the captain watches over and the guests step to the side of the incredible web of ropes and pulleys, some with a tear in their eye as our elegant ship sets sail for the next destination.
Dinner is a la carte, where guests can choose to sit separately to eat if they choose, although it’s more interesting to be on a mixed table for 6 or 8 and join in the lively discussions with many different nationalities. Evening entertainment was very informal, with a highlight being a steel band.
For guests who love to discover sea life, snorkelling equipment is available free of charge, and for those who prefer a little self-indulgence, there’s also an excellent spa with a range of treatments. And a gym should all that wonderful food be resulting in a couple of unwelcome extra inches around the waist.
The seven days went by all too fast, with experiences to savour that will last a lifetime. New friendships made, stories told and a true sense of well-being shared; it is rare to find a group of guests who are collectively having such a ball – usually making their own entertainment but also enjoying the talent show, or cheering the staff as they danced around the restaurant on the final night!
So where to next? I consulted with Carolyn, George and many other guests on board. What were their future plans and could they inspire me? There are currently three ships in the Star Clippers fleet, and loyalties are divided as to personal favourites. Some prefer the smaller Star Clipper and Star Flyer which tend to heel over with a fuller sailing experience; and others are faithful to the larger Royal Clipper which is buffeted less by big seas and so provides a more stable voyage. But make no mistake, both are true sailing ships. To add to the discussion, there’s a new ship on the way, rumoured to be called the Flying Clipper, which will be longer, taller and will have a capacity for three hundred guests.
Back-to-back cruises were recommended, taking in two weeks (and in fact a good number of guests were staying on board to do just that, with a week’s cruise in the Grenadines beginning as we reluctantly disembarked). Others raved about the Rome to Venice cruise, an island tour of Sicily and an Atlantic crossing. The only choice appears to be which of the clippers to book and when. There really is no other choice – a love affair that is destined to last.