And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.
And so it begins . . . I am on Star Flyer as she heads out into the Atlantic making for Barbados and winter in the Caribbean.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a tall ship is the stuff of dreams. Rope and cable thrumming in the breeze, the crack of a sail filling with wind: these are sounds old in human time — these sounds lie deep within our collective consciousness.
Star Flyer is a barquantine with four masts, and the first of the Star Clipper’s tall ships.
A group of 129 like-minded people boarded Star Flyer, either in Malaga, Spain, or Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, for the Trans-Atlantic sailing. This voyage attracts a different sort of passenger, and a surprising number return for the Atlantic crossing many times over.
A true tall ship. A BIG ocean. Sunrises and sunsets. Stars. The Milky Way. Endless water.
It is a voyage into our past, a voyage into ourselves. The thirteen days at sea give the time and the quiet to internalize the sounds of the ship, to think. At night, standing on the bridge of the ship looking forward, all is dark. I am surrounded by stars and the sound of wind, canvas, and water. That bright swath of sky — The Milky Way — is resplendent with no other light to distract.
What color is the sea? How many shades of blue exist?
At dawn today, the sky turns a powdery bare-blue. Grey clouds edged with pink light add a subtle contrast.
Later, a silvery light breaks a deep blue swell — the shimmering of a dolphin’s skin during a short, curving leap.
In a circle we move, dragging the horizon with us, re-describing it as the day passes on.
Sometimes the ocean is a blue-black velvet. At other times, a sapphire.
Then the sun turns the ocean a golden yellow and white of reflected thunderheads — and only the horizon line remains blue — a thin ribbon of cobalt.
A Little Weather
The first night out of La Gomera, I wake at 3:00 a.m. to large swells rolling me back and forth in my bed and the sound of unsecured items being tossed to the floor. Folks with cabins near the dining room hear crashing china.
Northeast ofus near the Strait of Gibraltar, a large low pressure system has formed suddenly. It causes 12 meter seas near Madeira, and 5 – 6 meter (16.5 to 19.5 foot) seas for us. At sunrise, the crew strings lines along both sides the upper deck of the Flyer, as well as in the open Tropical Bar — we need them to keep our balance as the ship moves with the waves.
I find the whole thing exhilarating. I’m spending a lot of time in the open Tropical bar, and some up on the top deck. The 5 – 6 meter seas don’t frighten me — but they require me to watch my step. As a big wave rolls under the ship, one side of the deck tips deeply downward, then slants back to the other side in equal measure. When this happens, you’d better hang on to something, or you’ll go sliding across the ship.
Throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover. — Mark Twain
In a glint of sunlight, the sea produces a momentary rainbow on a wave’s edge. The ocean sucks and swells, a lacy froth – a crest – and she roils on, building here, falling there. She lifts the ship high on a swell, then pulls us down — holding us close and dear, before sending us up again.
For these two days, I am in the society of people who feel the same way about the waves. However, when the sea flattens out after nearly 60 hours, we are all thankful. Thankful and tired. The constant rolling means balancing each step and being sure to hold on always. Showers are difficult to impossible — too much movement to risk it. Every meal is spent holding onto the table, the plate, and the glass with only two hands.
There is the sun, there is the sea, there is me.
On the fourth day, the Atlantic relaxes into a flat mirror, and the population of the ship increases. I realize that nearly a third of the passengers never left their cabins during the rough period.
Too much of a good thing?
Yes, it is calm, but there is little wind. The sails hang slack, and then there is a great, cracking THWOMP as they fill, catching the wind and holding before losing it again. Then another crack a minute later. The sea is a flat shield set with silver stones. Inscrutable. Endless.
While we are not becalmed, I start to understand the doldrums. The water glints diamond hard, and we are making less than two knots with the sails. Captain Sergey turns the engines back on.
The sounds of the ship are the sounds of a workshop. A saw, then a hammer striking wood. The smell of sawdust and varnish. The whir of the industrial sewing machine. A chisel chinging on a bit of swimming pool rust. The rustling of a fisherman’s sail, bustled together by six seamen before it’s hoisted into position.
The storm damaged the main staysail badly that first evening, ripping it all along the bottom seam. The sail repair advances slowly, a work in progress for at least ten days. Now and again the Captain and first officer stand looking at the ruined sail with the sailmaker — along with the huge new sections of Dacron that have been cut to size. The sailmaker kneels and measures with the sail tacked into the deck for cutting.
The two most magical events of the day, every day. I’m sharing “Seattle Bill” Palmer’s series of of sunrise/sunset images:
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 1. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 2. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 10. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 9
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 5. Photograph, Bill Palmer.
Star Flyer Sunrise-Sunset Series 7 Photograph, Bill Palmer.
For those of you considering an Atlantic crossing with Star Clippers, here is a review of the more practical aspects of my westbound Trans-Atlantic cruise on the Star Flyer in the fall of 2016.
I was onboard Star Flyer for three weeks. The first week was a cruise from Malaga, Spain to Las Palmas. The second two weeks were the Trans-Atlantic portion of the trip, going from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, to Bridgetown, Barbados. This way, passengers may choose either a longer or shorter Trans-Atlantic experience.
So, is thirteen days at sea boring?
I had never been this many days at sea with no ports of call, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how I would feel. I figured I would know halfway into the trip. The answer for me, was no — I wasn’t bored at all. I found it deeply relaxing. I brought things to read, movies on my iPad, photos to edit in Lightroom. The ship has a library and a substantial DVD collection as well.
The cruise director and her sports team staff prepared a schedule of activities each day, so truthfully, passengers could be as “busy” or relaxed as they wanted to be. Star Flyer also had a special yoga instructor on for the crossing. Typically, there were two yoga classes each day, as well as two or three other fitness offerings. Four or five days out of La Gomera, it was warm enough to take a dip in the pool and lounge on the deck.
And — mast climbing anyone?
Some of the activities I participated in were the Olympic Games, the daily trivia quiz, and Captain’s story time, a navigation class on the bridge, and a star class after dinner. Oh, and the first-time Atlantic crossing baptism.
Olympic Games: four teams, five days, three events per afternoon. It was great, silly fun!
One thing to note: generally, the ship would have had wifi internet access; however, the storm near the Canary Islands knocked out the ship’s wifi, and we were without internet access for the crossing. Important communication could still be handled through the purser’s office. Honestly, I enjoyed being unplugged.
Worried about Being Seasick?
If you are thinking of taking a cruise on the Star Flyer clipper ship, being seasick is a real concern for many people. I was not sick — but then I did take Dramamine proactively, particularly on the couple days during the bad weather. After being on Royal Clipper for two cruises this year, I felt confidant that I could handle the Atlantic Crossing.
My advice is this. If you get seasick really easily, this is probably not for you.
However, if you simply haven’t done much (or any) sailing, but you are really captivated by the idea of taking a voyage on one of these beautiful ships, try a week long cruise in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean to see how you feel.
Star Clippers has even scheduled several three night cruises out of Venice specifically for people who would like to try sailing on one of their tall ships but aren’t ready to commit to seven or more days.
Another thing to be aware of: due to the size of the ship, there are no elevators. You need to be capable of climbing stairs in both calm and rough weather.
On most Star Clipper cruises, 50% to 60% of passengers are repeat customers. On this trip, of the 129 people aboard, 92 had sailed with Star Clippers before — so over 71%. Most of the ship attended the Captain’s champagne reception for repeat passengers.
On this voyage, the passengers were predominantly American, British or German. There were several French couples as well.
More than half of the passengers had also crossed the Atlantic before, but there were many of us were first timers. Jane, originally Canadian, now from Colombia, came out of a deep love of the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brien. After reading the twenty books in the series, crossing the Atlantic was a compulsion for Jane. She simply had to experience it on a tall ship.
Then there were many passengers who had made the crossing many times. There was Spanish Bill, also known as William the Conqueror (there were four Bills on the ship, so they each got a nickname based on their home). Spanish Bill is actually British, but now lives in Spain. Years ago, Spanish Bill had built a 35 foot sailboat in his backyard in England; then he and his wife sailed her back and forth across the Atlantic several times.
Seattle Bill, very introspective, thoughtful, captured every sunrise and sunset. He served in the US Navy in the 1970’s and loves the Atlantic crossing, which he has made several times now on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper. He was kind enough to share his series of sunrises and sunsets, which you will find above.
I think very highly of the Star Clipper crews. I’ve spent almost seven weeks on their ships this year, and the people who work for this company are one of Star Clipper’s great strengths.
Many of the crew members have made their careers with the company. On my three cruises with Star Clippers, I have found the crew members to be highly skilled, very professional, and genuinely warm people. They are a big part of what makes passengers continue to return to the Star Clipper ships.
Star Flyer versus Royal Clipper
Many of Star Flyer’s Trans-Atlantic passengers fiercely prefer either Star Flyer or Star Clipper to their bigger sister, the square-rigged Royal Clipper.
Why? Star Flyer heels over further — this enhances the feeling of sailing. Captain Sergey laughed at people who thought this meant that Star Flyer sailed better than the Royal — he thought this was silly. I will say this though. Sailors like to feel the ship move, and I think Star Flyer and Star Clipper attract more hard-core sailing people, and I really liked this aspect of my fellow passengers on this trip.
36,000 square feet
56,000 square feet
4 masts, 16 Sails
5 masts, 42 sails
The standard cabins on Star Flyer and Royal Clipper are so similar that the minor differences aren’t worth discussing, but it is important to note that the cabins are smaller than cabins on large cruise ships.
I found my cabin on Star Flyer to be roomy and comfortable, with plenty of storage. However, Royal Clipper does have a group of cabins with private balconies, while Star Flyer does not — this can be a deal breaker for some passengers.
Additional differences: Royal Clipper has a small fitness center and two massage rooms. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have fitness centers. Massages are given in tent on a very private part of the Sun Deck. Royal Clipper has a marina platform that opens on the stern of the ship. Passengers can swim or windsurf off the back of the boat when she is moored. Star Flyer and Star Clipper do not have marina platforms. Royal Clipper has taller ceilings in the dining room, which makes it somewhat more quiet because the noise isn’t as compressed.
When the ships are sailing directly in front of the wind, Royal Clipper is faster. She can make 14 to 16 knots, while Star Flyer and Star Clipper have a top speed of 8 to 9 knots. However — and this is a BIG one: Star Flyer and Star Clipper can sail much closer to the wind than Royal Clipper can. This means they can sail more under more varied wind conditions than Royal Clipper without resorting to the engine.
All of the Star Clipper ships have bow thrusters and anti-roll tanks. However, Star Flyer and Star Clipper do roll more in rough seas than Royal Clipper, which is larger and more stable feeling. This might be a consideration for someone concerned about seasickness.
Look – I loved both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, equally. I can’t tell you I have a favorite. They each have different strengths, and I’d be back on either ship in a heartbeat.
Note: food on both Star Flyer and Royal Clipper was very good. I wrote about the food on Royal Clipper at length in my first article on the Royal Clipper, and everything I had to say there pertains to the food on Star Flyer as well.
If you are interested in reading further about the ships, or looking at upcoming sailings, you’ll find Star Clippers website here.
Ports of Call
I boarded Star Flyer in Malaga, and spent the week visiting Tangier, Morocco, Cadiz, Spain, Funchal, Portugal, before winding up in Las Palmas, Grand Canaria, where the Transatlantic crossing segment of my trip truly began.
Las Palmas is, of course, an appropriate place to begin the Atlantic journey, following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. As part of my tour of the island, I visited Casa de Colon (The Columbus House) — really the mayor’s house where Columbus stayed before continuing to San Sebastian in La Gomera. One interesting note. There was a model of the ship La Nina — that ship was approximately 50 feet in length. Star Flyer: 360 feet. As small as Star Flyer seems next to large cruise ships, she would have dwarfed the ships in the Columbus fleet.
Las Palmas is large and fairly urban. I found the old section of the city interesting, but over all I was not captivated by Gran Canaria. It is of course, an important port for the ship — capable of resupplying the Star Flyer before its fourteen day crossing to Barbados.
Columbus House in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Cross section of the ship La Nina at the Columbus house in Las Palmas. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Model of the ship La Nina, Columbus House. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary islands, was our last port before beginning the voyage to Barbados. Columbus stayed a month on the island of La Gomera, doing final outfitting of his little fleet, laying in supplies. It was his final stop before his 1492 voyage.
While Grand Canaria did not captivate me, La Gomera did — and in a big way. La Gomera has micro-climates from one side of the island to the other. I loved the stark differences between the misty laurel rainforests, and the arid, sun-baked southern point where San Sebastian lies. It’s easy to see why Unesco has declared it a world heritage site. One of the unique rock formations on La Gomera is the Roque de Agando, a volcanic plug — very dramatic and beautiful part of the island.
Rainbow sailing into La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Roque de Agando (Agando Rock), La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Laurel Rainforest, Garajonay National Park, La Gomera. Photograph, Ann Fisher.
Would I make the Atlantic Crossing again? Yes. It simply was not like anything else. It was beautiful, and it spoke to my soul.
I have written about my two other trips with Star Clippers on the Royal Clipper in 2016, in both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. You will find those articles here:
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The first glimpse of her, across the harbor in Civitavecchia, made my heart jump — how I love this ship!
And then our driver blew right past Royal Clipper . . . he was looking for, you know, A SHIP — one of the current behemoths carrying 3,000 passengers or more.
My sister and I were saying, “No, no — she was right there — go back, go back! Royal Clipper is a sailing ship!”
As we pulled even with her, I could understand the driver. Royal Clipper is diminutive in comparison to the Royal Caribbean ship just down the dock. She looks like she’s time traveled to sit between huge modern ships.
In an era when the mainstream cruise lines race one another to see who can have the largest ship, bigger has become the norm. Companies like Royal Caribbean build ships that look like a cross between resort hotels and shopping malls.
In comparison, the pure ship-ness of Royal Clipper is magical. I have enjoyed modern cruise ships, and I would definitely go on a regular cruise again. But having traveled on the large ships makes the experience of sailing on Royal Clipper even more amazing. It is so different. It is so special.
For people who love tall ships and sailing, Royal Clipper is a destination all by herself.
A destination, you say? But isn’t that huge Royal Caribbean ship just that? Rock climbing walls and zip lines and diving shows and an ice skating rink and Central Park and 20 dining venues? How could a little ship with one restaurant, no theater, and no wave pool be a destination?
Michael Kraft, the Swedish entrepreneur who founded Star Clippers, believed that people who loved sailing and tall ships wanted something different. The first two ships, Star Clipper and Star Flyer proved he was right. The Star Clipper experience is akin to being on a private yacht, and it’s offered at a price that is close to the cost of better mainstream cruises. Royal Clipper can anchor in small ports — in whatever part of the world she is sailing. It means her guests see things large cruise ships cannot offer.
The Star Clipper company likes to say, “small is beautiful.”
Royal Clipper, which launched in 2000, was modeled on the great ship, Preussen. Royal Clipper is 439 feet (133 m) long, with a beam of 54 feet(16.5 m), and she has 42 sails comprising 54,000 square feet of sail. 9 kilometers of steel ropes and 14 kilometers of regular rope hold the masts and rigging in place. She is only the second five masted full-rigged ship ever built, and she is the largest squared-rigged ship in the world. To be on her under full sail is extraordinary.
This cruise on the Royal Clipper in June of 2016 in the Mediterranean and Adriatic was my third cruise with the ship. In January of 2016, I spent one week sailing on her in the Windward islands, and liked it so much that I didn’t want to leave — so booked a second week and stayed onboard for the Grenadine Islands (Review of my southern Caribbean cruise is here: Onboard the Royal Clipper). Yes, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. I am a big fan of the Star Clipper experience, but I am not alone. On any given Star Clippers cruise, 40% to 60% of the passengers are repeat customers which often means that half the ship attends the Captain’s champagne reception for returning passengers.
A very special part of taking a cruise with Star Clippers, is that with this small ship — the crew remembers you. Stewards, the bar staff, the spa masseuses — start to feel like family. My waiter Marlon gave me a big hug, “Miss Ann – you came back!” Well, of course I came back — how could I not?
How does the sailing experience in the Mediterranean compare with sailing in southern Caribbean? It was different. On this particular itinerary, we did not sail as much as we had in the Caribbean. Why? Two reasons. First, Royal Clipper is a square rigged ship. Square sails work best when the ship is sailing before the wind. Obviously the wind is not always going to come from directly behind the ship, which is why sailing ships tack back and forth. In parts of the Mediterranean with heavy shipping traffic, particularly ferries, this is not practical. We often had a combination of sail and engine going.
My sister and I shared cabin 116, a category 4 cabin, and we found it worked well. Staterooms on all Star Clippers ships are smaller than rooms on the big ships — obviously. It is more appropriate to compare the cabins on Royal Clipper to those on a yacht. There was ample storage and I found the marble bathroom very spacious for a sailing ship.
I have listed the approximate sizes of the Royal Clipper staterooms below..
320 sq. ft. (39.7 m2)
255 sq. ft. (23.6 m2)
226 sq. ft. (21 m2)
Category 2, 3, 4**
148 sq. ft. (13.7m2)
113 sq. ft. (10.5 m2)
108 sq. ft. (10 m2)
Cabin size: Please note: In categories 2, 3, and 4, there are exceptions to the average size of 148 square feet. Please look at the deck plans — you will see that as the ship tapers towards the front, the most forward cabins are slightly smaller. Also, cabins near the atrium vary. Be sure to verify with Star Clippers the exact size if it is important to you.
Sailing on Royal Clipper is an intimate experience. You are close to the water, not 5 to 10 stories above it. The ship’s bridge? As a passenger, you are right there. Time to raise the sails — move out of the way — the deck crew is on it! I have had friends ask whether passengers act as crew on Royal Clipper, and the answer is no. If you want to do the sailing yourself, you are looking for a different company. You may spend time asking the captain questions on the bridge, you might raise a glass of champagne as the ship sets sail, but you do not crew the ship.
What is there to do on the Royal Clipper? On most of their cruises, there are ports of call every day, so there is no time to get bored. On a day at sea, there are typically talks presented by the crew or the captain, and the Captain Nemo spa is always a treat. When we were in Sicily, a group of folk dancers came onboard following supper and entertained us with music and dancing. For the brave of heart, there is mast climbing (with a safety harness) as ship sails. One of my favorite pastimes is riding in the widow’s net on the bowsprit of the ship, the water rushing just below me.
The food on Royal Clipper continued to be excellent on this trip in the very capable hands of Chef Rudy from the Philippines. The galley on Royal Clipper is the size of two standard state rooms, so approximately 300 square feet. And what a feat it is to serve the ship of 227 passengers and 105 crew!
There are six meal offerings each day; in addition to the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there is also an early bird breakfast, afternoon snack (British tea), and a midnight snack. Dinner is full-service, and the other meals are served as buffets. Each evening there is a selection of two appetizers, always a soup, a salad, at least four entrees — one of which is vegetarian, and the two desserts. Additionally, sirloin steak with pommes frittes and a pasta dish of some type is available every night. I found our server Marlon to be outstanding at selecting the best thing on the menu for the evening.
Interested in reading about the ports of call? Part II of the cruise is coming soon, with a focus on the ten ports we visited in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic.
History of the Clipper Ships
Clippers: the fast ships of the final period of the great age of sail. Even as the most famous clippers made their record setting voyages, it was obvious that steamships would soon make sailing obsolete for the shipping industry.
Narrow for their length and built for speed, clippers could not carry as much cargo as many 19th century ships, but they were fast. Very fast. Tall spars (masts) designed to carry massive quantities of sail meant these ships could “clip” the waves, and dramatically cut sailing time on long voyages. Think of them as express services for special cargo and passengers.
Tea clippers and opium clippers were designed to handle the two major cargos coming from China. Then the gold rush made fast travel between New York and San Francisco desirable. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Between 1848 and 1852, nearly 160 ships set sail from the east coast, bound for San Francisco. Pre-goldrush: only two ships per year made the trip from the Atlantic to San Francisco.
Long distance shipping: Early steam engines on ships were inefficient, ran at low pressure, and consumed a lot of fuel. Steamships couldn’t carry enough coal to make long ocean voyages and still have enough space for cargo to be commercially viable.
Then in 1869, the clipper trade with China collapsed. The Suez Canal opened, making it possible for steam ships to make the China run quickly. Sailing ships couldn’t get through the Suez without tugs to escort them — which was expensive and impractical. Steamships could carry more cargo, were more reliable than the sailing ships, and cost less to insure. Clipper ships continued to do service all over the world, but the numbers of them being built each year dropped dramatically. Transcontinental rail across America caused the clipper trade between the east and west coast to decline.
The Preussen (pronounced Proysin), built in 1902 was first five-masted fully rigged ship ever built. Under full sail, she was capable of 20 knots, making her faster than any steamship of the day. It was her speed that led to her untimely demise in the English channel. On November 5, 1910, a small British channel steamer, the Brighton, grossly underestimated Preussen’s 16 knot speed and attempted to cross in front of her bow. Preussen rammed the Brighton, causing severe damage to the sailing ship. She drifted onto the rocks under the cliffs of Dover. Gale force winds in the channel prevented her rescue.
Wreck of the Preussen
Note: The Star Clipper’s new ship, Flying Clipper is due to launch in late 2017. Word from the crew on the Royal Clipper is that the build is running behind schedule, so perhaps early 2018 is more likely. She is modeled after the great ship, La France II, built in 1911. La France II was the largest merchant sailing ship ever built, and Flying Clipper will be bigger in beam than Royal Clipper. However, if Flying Clipper is a jubilee rigged ship (also known as a bald-rigged ship) like La France II was, she will lack the royal gallant sails above the upper top gallants, and then Royal Clipper would retain the title of the largest full-rigged ship in the world.
Planning to do a cruise from Civitavecchia?
We spent a week in Rome, pre-cruise: Beating the Crowds in Rome;you may find the information on seeing major attractions like the Colosseum and the Vatican helpful.
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I sailed for two weeks on the Royal Clipper to the Windward and the Grenadine Islands.
I boarded the ship in Barbados, only scheduled for a single week. Then I fell in love with this tall ship. Four days into the trip, I placed a call to my travel agent and arranged to stay.
I’m not sure I can pay a higher compliment to a vacation.
I’ve been on half a dozen cruises in the last five years, all on larger cruise lines. Why did I choose Star Clippers for this trip? I’ve spent time sailing on 45 to 60 foot Hunter and Beneteau yachts on vacations and really enjoyed the experience.
The Royal Clipper caught my eye several years ago. How could she not? As the largest fully-rigged true sailing ship in the world, well — yes, I’ve wanted to sail on her. Secondly, I love the Southern Caribbean, so the chance to visit some of the smaller islands I had not seen was intriguing. Third, I was planning to do this trip solo, and I had a feeling it would be a good fit. I was correct.
Why is the Royal Clipper so Special?
Trying to answer this question almost puts me at a loss for words. The ship is so very beautiful.
Being on her under sail with no engines running . . . well. It’s enough to make a grown woman cry. And I did.
Traveling on a real clipper ship is different from the other cruise or sailing experiences that I’ve had. The big cruise ships are like enormous floating hotels.
This is elemental. This is time travel to another era, at least in the calmest way possible — I have to grin thinking about how 21st century people would actually handle being on a clipper ship from 1905 . . .
Each week, weather permitting, passengers will take tenders out to motor around the ship as she sets sail. Both weeks it was a beautiful experience. The first week, we were in St. Kitts, and the second, our ship sailed past the Pitons in St. Lucia as we were out photographing her.
Cruising on any of the Star Clipper ships will present you with opportunities to do things like climb the rigging up to first crow’s nest, or my favorite, hang out in the netting under the bowsprit. Sailing on a tall ship in the Caribbean is a wonderful experience.
Here is a full review of my January 2016 cruise on the flagship of the Star Clipper line.
Ports and Excursions
What’s it like traveling on a tall ship? One of the most wonderful parts of cruising with Star Clippers is dropping anchor in small bays. Often, there were only sailboats and motor yachts.
If you are accustomed to large ships, this is going to be different. This clipper ship is typically not in port for as long as larger cruise ships are. Additionally, you will not know what the mooring times will be before you board the ship, which means you can’t make private excursion arrangements before your vacation.
Before I got onboard, the inability to make excursion plans ahead of time bothered me.
Then once I was there I realized, with this kind of cruise, it really wasn’t necessary. Many of the stops you have a choice of taking a tender to the marina or to a beach. The ship has snorkeling equipment I borrowed and kept with me, and there was often great snorkeling just off the beaches.
I did take two ship sponsored excursions each week, and they were well done. Swimming with the rays in Antigua was fun. A benefit of the small ship is that it was a small group that went on the excursion — no feeling of being crowded, and we all have plenty of time with the rays.
I particularly liked the Shadowfax sailing excursion in Grenada which included snorkeling and a grilled lobster lunch on the beach. Ever seen the hugely over-crowded catamaran trips go out of port? — and they look justawful, don’t they. I have to compliment the excursion planner with Star Clippers — the group from our ship was well-sized. We all had good space on the cat, and it was a highly enjoyable day.
Balata Gardens in Martinique was very special. Fort de France in Martinique is the only place the Royal Clipper actually docked during the two weeks I was on the ship, and it is docked only for the morning. Having a port where the ship docks is important for potential re-provisioning. The first week, I simply wandered into Fort de France. I didn’t care for the city at all. I would strongly recommend a shore excursion here because the island of Martinique is very beautiful and getting away from town is the only way to appreciate it. Since the ship is in port for so few hours, doing something independently is not feasible.
My favorite island the first week was Terre de Haut in Les Saintes. Charming village, perfect for wandering and a little shopping. We had a great lunch at Ti Kaz La, lovely bistro on the waterfront that I would highly recommend. If you would like to have lunch, make a reservation by contacting them on their website, or simply go directly there when you get off the tender and have them add your reservation. Once you get off the tender at the marina, Ti Kaz La will be to your right several blocks down the street that is closest to the water.
On the second week, I really enjoyed Union Island in the Grenadines. We dropped anchor in a quiet bay, the tender landed directly on a perfect beach. The water was quiet, and there were schools of silvery fish and nice snorkeling. Lovely beach bar with live reggae. It doesn’t get much better.
Docking in Soufriere on St. Lucia is great because you are a fifteen minute water taxi ride from one of the most picturesque beaches in the Caribbean — Jalousie Beach, the white sand beach that lies between the two Pitons. Two hotels share the beach, and there is a great restaurant — very happy to serve you just drinks, if you so desire. Good snorkeling along the right side, as you are on the beach and face the sea.
Advice for Booking Excursions
After you book your trip, you will get a .pdf document describing all of the excursions. The best shore excursions will depend on you and your preferences. Take the time to read through it, and decide which ones suit you. You will not be able to sign up for the excursions until you are on the ship. Once you have checked in onboard proceed directly to the excursion area to sign up for the ones that interest you – particularly if there are a small number of people who can go. Many of the most popular ones that have limited spots will fill very quickly.
General advice about your ports, regardless of itinerary
Read about your ports of call before your trip. The satellite internet service on the ship is slow, so doing homework once your are on the ship is not so easy. (Tip: the internet is the fastest early in the morning. I had to do some work on the ship, and I had no problem early before breakfast started). If you have some knowledge of your ports, then you will easily be able to choose whether it’s best to do an excursion, wander the town, or simply head to the beach on the tender.
Will I be seasick on the Royal Clipper?
How does it feel to be on a tall ship compared to a large cruise ship? You may be asking, “will I feel sick?” This is a valid concern. The Royal Clipper does have the stabilizers she still moves MUCH more than bigger ships. You will feel the ocean. It’s what she is meant to do; it is part of sailing. I have had some seasickness on smaller vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. I brought plenty of Dramamine, and I took it proactively. I had no problems.
I found the motion of the ship and the water exhilarating.
I loved the feeling of rocking in my bed at night. I loved that I could hear the water. On the nights that the clipper had to cross open ocean, coming and going back to Barbados, there is more motion at night. It did wake me up several times, simply because the motion of the ship would change. It did not worry me in any way, I would snuggle back into my pillow and think of the ship and the waves.
Accessibility: Please be aware that there are multiple staircases in the ship and there are no elevators. Additionally, the ship moves with the water. You need to be able to climb stairs, and you need to be steady on your feet.
Who were my fellow passengers?
Over my two weeks, I would say that a very large percentage were British and Americans, in nearly equal numbers. There were also many Germans and a few Canadians. Add a few Swiss, a Swede or two, throw in a couple of Irishmen and stir. A recipe for a multi-national experience. I really liked this about the ship. Age, you ask? They were predominantly from their mid-forties to mid-seventies.
The exceptions? A 93 year old lady who was with a yacht club from Connecticut. Let’s call her Rose. I was fortunate enough to sit next to her one evening. She’d been married three times, had a wicked sense of humor, and had sailed her own sailboat up to perhaps ten years ago. Then the second week there were some thirty-something newly weds. Most seemed to be fifty to sixty-five, in varying degrees of fitness, and very interested in the ship.
There were no children when I was onboard. Could you bring the kids? If you have mature, very well-behaved children, it could work — but only if you are invested in keeping them occupied. There are no children’s programs, and this ship is not designed for them. Noisy children dashing around the decks and the dining room would not endear you to your fellow passengers. My advice? Leave the kids at home and embrace some time with yourself and your significant other.
Compared to staterooms on a large cruise ship, the cabins on the Royal Clipper are small. I had two different cabins since my second week stay was a last minute impulse.
I had two Category 3 staterooms (150 square feet), room 206 the first week, and room 201 the second week. Once I unpacked my luggage, it was easy to store my 26 inch tall rolling suitcase under my bed on Royal Clipper — the standard thing do do in all ships. The bathroom is all white marble, and very nice; it is as large as most bathrooms I’ve had in standard balcony cabins on large cruise lines. We had ports of call every day of both itineraries, and I was only in my room to sleep, shower and change clothes. I was traveling solo, and for one person the cabins were perfect.
For two people, the cabins I had would be small, but workable. One note I would make is that cabin 206 was wider than cabin 201. Have a look at it here in the Royal Clipper Deck Plan, and you can see that as the ship tapers towards the bow, the cabins would have to be smaller.
If you really want more space, then consider the larger cabins. The Category 1 rooms are 205 square feet, and the Deluxe Outside Suites are 215 square feet, plus a verandah. The largest are two Owner’s Suites at 355 square feet, plus verandah. Looking at the virtual tours of the different cabins on the ship will help answer space questions. I met two sets of friends over the two weeks who were in luxury cabins and were very happy with them.
After trips on sailing yachts, I thought the cabins on the Royal Clipper were large for a sailing ship. The experience of being on this tall ship is simply nothing like a standard cruise. And for all of the wonderful things that this means, having a smaller cabin seemed a small trade-off. So when you start thinking about your cabin and the clipper ship, remember, think yacht, not CRUISE SHIP.
Electricity is European 220 volt, which most passengers knew. The warning I would give you is that standard American converters are chunky, boxy by nature — and due to the recessed electrical plugs — those chunky converters would NOT fit. I had a Bestek 200 watt International Travel converter with multiple charging ports which worked fine. In fact, I charged many friends’ iPads and cameras over the two weeks. Hey, maybe that’s how I made so many friends :).
The food was very good on the Royal Clipper. Dinner was full service each evening. There was always a selection of four entrees, one of which was a vegetarian dish, and additionally, there was always a pasta. Each evening you also had a choice of two starters, and there was always a soup, a salad and a sorbet, in addition to a selection of three desserts.
How many stars would I give it?
Well, ask the Michelin people how many times they give three stars . . . what, is it 26 in the entire world? So someone who gives a meal a five star rating, wouldn’t it — shouldn’t it be that rare? I’m pretty picky. I’ve eaten at some of the finest restaurants in the world.
So you ask me how many stars out of a five star rating would I give the food? Three. And that is high praise from me. Chef Devon from Jamaica produced consistently very fine food, out of a very small galley, for 200 or more people at a time. I think he rocks!
So truthfully, the food here is as good as any cruise ship I’ve been on, and some nights it was even better.
Breakfast and lunch were buffets; at breakfast there were omelettes and fresh eggs cooked to order. The buffet offerings were designed to appeal to a broad variety of tastes, and they were well done.
Dinner service begins at 7:30. It is open seating, but be aware, while they say you can come at any point over the two hour period that dinner is being served . . . almost everyone is seated by 8:00.
I liked the open seating. I had dinner with many different couples and groups over the two weeks, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I really like people, so it was perfect. The second week, a British couple adopted me, so I had a steady home.
And I almost forgot . . . there are three extra meals, just in case the regular three aren’t enough :-). There is an early-bird continental breakfast, an afternoon snack, and then a midnight snack. The afternoon “snack” is an incredibly lovely offering served in the Tropical Bar. It’s afternoon tea for the British passengers.
I think very highly of Star Clipper’s crew members.
My cabin steward, Dennis, was efficient and very thoughtful. When I arranged to stay the second week, the entire crew seemed to know it by the next morning. Muslim, who was in charge of the housekeeping staff, came to find me. “Ms. Ann, you do not need to pack your things. Dennis will move everything to your new cabin for you.” All I could think was, oh, poor Dennis. So we compromised. I packed all of my small things, and then he moved my suitcase and the hanging clothes.
The ship’s master was Captain Mariusz Szalek from Poland. The first officer was from Italy, and the engineer from Russia. The bosun was from India. Common language on the ship among the crew was English. Captain Mariusz, while absolutely focused on sailing and taking care of the ship, was also quick to smile and very gracious with the passengers. Allen Littell wrote a fine article about Szalek sailing the Star Clipper in French Polynesia.
One big difference between the two weeks was we had two different Cruise Directors. The second week, our cruise director, Monja did a fine job.
The first week was not so good. Then our Cruise director was a young German woman who frequently came across as overly authoritarian and it was a topic of conversation among both the English and German speaking guests. Significant additional training would be necessary to get this young lady to a place where she could represent the Star Clipper line in this particular position. Being cruise director takes an inordinate amount of patience. One must have the capacity to smile, regardless of how many times one has answered the same question. Other than the captain, the cruise director is the most public face of the company to every passenger on the ship. Based on a training consultant I saw onboard the first week, I am sure this problem will be rectified.
Both the bar staff and the waitstaff did fine jobs. They were highly professional, personable and often funny. They made the time onboard the ship very pleasant.
There was a single entertainer onboard. Gabor played the piano, the guitar, sang, and acted as DJ for dancing evenings. One night each week, a steel band was brought onboard. Each week there was a talent show with a mixture of crew and passenger offerings. I would call it “good fun.” I went one week, and chose to go up with an after dinner drink and wander the deck the second week.
The stars and the ship were the best after-dinner thing going. Who could ask for more?
If any of the things I have said speak to you, then you will love sailing on this ship. I can hardly wait to return.
Update on Cruise Review, Spring 2017
How to find the Best Prices for a Cruise on Star Clipper’s Royal Clipper
I’ve had a dozen people contact me over the last year to ask how to find the best prices for a cruise on Royal Clipper.
We all have our favorite methods for finding good prices on flights and hotels. For cruises, I favor the Vacations to Go site, where I regularly troll for good prices on cruise lines I like — and prices on Star Clippers are no exception.
I search on Vacations to Go two different ways, one — simply searching Star Clippers cruises, and the other — searching for Single Supplement deals (found under Singles Discounts).
As of today (April 27, 2017), I see three Star Clippers cruises with no single supplements charges. Since I often travel solo, this is often a good deal for me. Will these deals be there tomorrow? No way of knowing. They’re deals on cruises launching VERY soon — and obviously, Star Clippers is trying to fill those cabins.
I do know this — following prices does help you know when you are seeing a good deal. Having flexibility about when you are going to take your vacation helps tremendously. Most of my life, I have not had that option — I had to take vacation at certain times of the year. And frankly, I rarely managed to get a bargain.
A great time of the year to shop for good cruise prices is always January – March.
If you work with a particular travel agent, I’d contact that person and have them watch prices on Star Clippers cruises. You could still check Vacations to Go periodically, and call your travel agent if you see a deal — they’ll probably be able to match it.
Additionally, I recommend familiarizing yourself with information on cruises by visiting the Star Clipper site. It’s a great way to do homework on their standard prices and cabin categories.
If you have questions you would like to ask me about my experiences on Star Clipper’s cruises, please feel free to send me a message via my Contact page. I’ve talked with two different couples in the last few months — sometimes it’s nice to chat with someone who has done a trip before deciding whether it’s for you.
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It is an old feeling. A deep feeling. In it we are connected, even to the ancient Phoenicians daring to explore the Mediterranean. We feel that first voyage into the unknown — the sea surrounding us.
Climbing over the prow of the moving ship into the damp rope of the bowsprit net,
I rock there, rising and falling as the bow cuts through the waves, see the sun fall behind low clouds with one great flash, as she disappears until morning.
The Lightness of Being
I am all the ships that ever went to sea and
The joy of an updraft under a falcon’s wing.
I am as a swell that lifts a ship leaving harbor.
I am the quiet under the hand of my beloved,
The sweetness of my daughter nestled in the crook of my arm.
I am all of these things.
I am none of these things.
In the peace of the setting sun,
I will slip the lines tying me here.
As the captain takes me out for the last time,
I am deeply content in this journey to a new world.