“Oh so you’re going on the real sailing ship, and I’m so jealous” remarked the elderly American lady as we sat at the beach bar at Philipsburg, St. Martin (or Sint Maarten as it is called on the Dutch side of the island). Like many thousands of others, she was a day tripper from one of the huge cruise ships which dwarfed our Star Flyer in the port. However, there was no mistaking the four distinctive masts which peeked out to greet us.
Climbing back on-board after 2 years’ absence combined the reassuring familiarity of returning to a favourite holiday home with the excitement of new places to discover. It’s reassuring to know the drill and routine, and a pleasure to be welcomed by several of the crew who recognised us. We were of course happy to advise some of the Star Clipper ‘newbies’ about what they might expect. Not that there were many of these: our fellow diners on the first night were on their 18th cruise, and many others were already in double figures. Norman from Albuquerque topped the loyalty list, now on his 45th sailing and with 3 more booked already for 2020.
Most of our fellow guests were at least a decade into their retirement, but they were far from old or decrepit. In fact, it was quite the reverse. Many had chosen to retire in their mid-50s, and they were fit, active and looked a whole lot healthier than the people taking a week’s holiday from work!
Our Star Flyer cruise was to take us around the Leeward Islands, and mainly to ports that were too small for the big cruise ships to stop, which gave us access to some very special places, relatively untouched by tourism.
Our first stop was Nevis, once called Oualie (land of beautiful waters), and renamed by Christopher Columbus, who thought that the clouds appearing over the mountains were snow (nieve in Spanish). Not that I would dare to question Columbus’s knowledge of geography or climate, but Nevis must be the only island in the Caribbean with a name associated with snow!
It also has an association with well-known people, past and present, and none more famous than USA founding father Alexander Hamilton, who was born on the island. We took an excellent tour which included the eponymous Museum, followed by Montpelier House where Lord Nelson married Fanny Nisbet, and now a stunning Relais & Chateaux hotel where Princess Diana often visited with William & Harry. More recent celebrity guests include Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep and Michael Douglas.
Back on board, and what a marvellous sight the next morning to spot the sister ship Royal Clipper through the porthole of the cabin. We raced alongside by side, many of the guests up on deck enjoying the photographic opportunities and urging our ship to edge ahead. The crew too were visibly excited at the race, with full sails, plenty of wind and Vangelis providing the musical soundtrack.
This was to be a special day as it marked the return to Iles des Saintes which I had previously visited three years earlier and fallen in love with. It’s an exquisite unspoilt island, and really a tropical extension of France, separated by a few thousand miles of water. “Of course, we are French” said the charming lady serving us croissants at the idyllic Hotel Lo Bleu, “not Caribbean, but French. We are from Normandy and Brittany and with light skin and eyes”. And I found myself at the tourist office before we went back on board enquiring about long-term rentals on this paradise island.
Talking of paradise, the next stop was Deshaies on Guadeloupe – home of TV drama Death in Paradise, which meant a mandatory visit to the Police Station (a former presbytery) and the Madras Restaurant. Clearly a budget from the TV production company had been allocated for sprucing it up, as it was by far the smartest restaurant along the front. We then had a recommendation to visit the Botanical Garden, and what a treat that turned out to be. Created in 1979, the gardens have matured into a blaze of colourful and exotic plants, topped off with flamingos, parrots and a herb garden.
After the next day in Antigua with beach barbecue and steel band entertainment, our final port of call was to be elegant St. Barth’s, another island where we were the only visiting cruise ship. Think of St. Tropez combined with St. Moritz. A playground for the rich and famous, the harbour was lined with superyachts and impossibly beautiful people strolling along the pristine boardwalk. Lear Jets arrived into the tiny airport every few minutes, and we soon realised that this was the formula for the weekend: take a private jet to St. Barth’s on Friday afternoon followed by a quick hop to your superyacht, with tanned trim uniformed staff awaiting your arrival and ready to serve dinner on board, and then a weekend of sunshine, relaxation and designer shopping. Oh yes, I could get used to that!
Or perhaps not… after all that A-list glamour and decadence, it was a welcome relief to climb back on board Star Flyer in the company of people like us and low-key, thoughtful service.
And so it was on that final evening in the bar that we met Bert, who provided the most enduring memory of the cruise. A sprightly 90-year-old, he had proposed to his wife on board Star Clipper in 1992, and returned many times with her since, enjoying numerous wedding anniversaries with special parties laid on by the crew. Now nearly 30 years later, his wife can no longer travel due to illness and lives in a nursing home, so Bert was there with his son, and together they played and sang a poignant duet for the assembled guests. What a fitting end to the week and a tribute to Star Clippers which had provided the backdrop and accompaniment to many years of happy marriage. I’m sure you wouldn’t find that on a super yacht!