The Line in a Nutshell
It's easy to fall in love with the Star Clippers experience -- it's simply intoxicating. With the sails and rigging of a classic clipper ship and some of the cushy amenities of modern megaships, a cruise on these beauties spells adventure and comfort. Sails to: Caribbean (plus Costa Rica and Europe).
The more ships we've sailed on, the more Star Clippers stock goes up. Few other lines combine the best of two worlds in such an appealing package. On the one hand, the ships have comfortable, almost cushy public rooms and cabins. On the other, they espouse an unstructured, let-your-hair-down, hands-on ethic -- you can climb the masts (with a harness, of course), help raise the sails, crawl into the bow netting, or chat with the captain on the open-air bridge.
On board, ducking under booms, stepping over coils of rope, leaning against railings just feet above the sea, and watching sailors work the winches are constant reminders that you're on a real working ship. Furthermore, listening to the captain's or cruise director's daily talk about the next port of call, the history of sailing, or some other nautical subject, you'll feel like you're exploring some of the Caribbean's more remote stretches in a ship that really belongs there -- an exotic ship for an exotic locale. In a sea of look-alike megaships, Royal Clipper stands out, recalling a romantic, swashbuckling era of ship travel.
With no more than 227 passengers aboard, each Star Clippers cruise seems like a triumph of individuality and intimacy. The line's unusual niche appeals to passengers who might recoil at the lethargy and/or sometimes forced enthusiasm of cruises aboard larger, more typical vessels. Overall, the company reports that a whopping 60% of passengers, on average, are repeaters back for another Star Clippers cruise.
While you're likely to find a handful of 30-something honeymoon-type couples and an extended-family group or two, the majority of passengers are well-traveled couples in their 50s to 60s who are active and intellectually curious professionals (such as executives, lawyers, and doctors) who appreciate a casual yet sophisticated ambience and enjoy mixing with fellow passengers. During the day, polo shirts, shorts, and sandals are standard issue; and for dinner, many passengers simply change into cleaner and better-pressed versions of the same, with perhaps a switch from shorts to slacks for most men. However, men in jackets and women in stylish dresses aren't uncommon on the night of the captain's cocktail party.
With a nearly even mix of North Americans and Europeans (most often from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and the U.K.) on a typical Caribbean cruise, the international onboard flavor is as intriguing as the ship herself. Announcements are made in English, German, and French.
Clipper ships -- full-sailed, built for speed, and undeniably romantic -- reigned for only a brief time on the high seas before being driven out by steam engines and iron (and then steel) hulls. During their heyday, however, these vessels, including famous names such as Cutty Sark, Ariel, and Flying Cloud, engendered more romantic myths than any before or since, and helped open the Pacific coast of California during the gold rush of 1849, carrying much-needed supplies around the tip of South America from Boston and New York.
By the early 1990s, despite the nostalgia and sense of reverence surrounding every aspect of the clippers' maritime history, nothing that could be technically classified as a clipper ship had been built since Cutty Sark in 1869. Enter Mikael Krafft, a Swedish-born industrialist and real estate developer with a passion for ship design and deep, deep pockets, who invested vast amounts of personal energy and more than $80 million to build Star Flyer and Star Clipper at a Belgian shipyard in 1991 and 1992.
To construct these 170-passenger twins, Krafft procured the original drawings and specifications of Scottish-born Donald McKay, a leading naval architect of 19th-century clipper-ship technology, and employed his own team of naval architects to solve such engineering problems as adapting the square-rigged, four-masted clipper design to modern materials and construction. In mid-2000, Krafft went a step further, launching the 227-passenger Royal Clipper, a five-masted, fully rigged sailing ship inspired by the famed Preussen, a German clipper built in 1902. Royal Clipper now claims the title of the largest clipper ship in the world, and it's a stunning sight.
Overall, the experience is quite casual, and salty enough to make you feel like a fisherman keeling off the coast of Maine, without the physical hardship of actually being one. As Krafft put it during one sailing, "If you want a typical cruise, you're in the wrong place."
All the Star Clippers vessels are at once traditional and radical. They're the tallest and among the fastest clipper ships ever built, and are so beautiful that even at full stop they seem to soar. As opposed to ships such as Windstar's Wind Surf, a bulkier cruise vessel that just happens to have sails, Star Clippers' ships do generally rely on sails alone about 25% to 50% of the time; the rest of the time, the sails are used with the engines. Each ship performs superlatively -- Royal Clipper was designed to make up to 20 knots under sail (14 max under engine alone), and on a recent cruise, she easily hit 15 knots one afternoon. During most cruises, however, the crew tries to keep passengers comfortable and decks relatively horizontal, so the vessels are kept to speeds of 9 to 14 knots with a combination of sail and engine power.
A couple of years ago, Star Clippers announced its intention to build a new five-masted ship. Planned as the most expensive sailing ship ever built, the 7,400-gross-ton, 296-passenger barque is being modeled on France II, the largest sailing ship when she was launched in 1912 at 5,633 gross tons. The plan is for the ship to have 37 sails, measure 518 feet long, and have an Ice Class C hull so she can sail anywhere in the world. Though 48% larger than the Royal Clipper, she will only carry 30% more passengers. We hope it happens!
Star Clippers' cuisine has evolved and improved over the years as the line has poured more time and effort into it, with an enhanced menu that includes four well-presented entree choices at each evening meal. All meals are open seating, with tables for four, six, and eight in the restaurant; the dress code is always casual (though some guests don jackets on the night of the captain's cocktail party). Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style and are the best meals of the day. The continental cuisine reflects the line's large European clientele and is dominated at breakfast and lunch by cheeses (such as brie, French goat cheese, and smoked Gouda), as well as marinated fish and meats. Breakfasts also include a hot-and-cold buffet spread and an omelet station, where a staff member will make your eggs the way you like them. Late-afternoon snacks served at the Tropical Bar include such munchies as crudités, cheeses, and chicken wings.
Dinners consist of appetizers, soup, salad, dessert, and a choice of five entrees: seafood (such as lobster and shrimp with rice pilaf), meat (beef curry, for example), vegetarian, a chef's special, and a light dish. Dinner choices such as fusilli in a tomato sauce, grilled Norwegian salmon, and herb-crusted rack of lamb are tasty, but tend toward the bland side. Most dinners are sit-down (as opposed to the occasional buffet spread up on deck), and service can feel a bit rushed and frenetic during the dinner rush. Breakfast and lunch don't get as crowded because passengers tend to eat at staggered times. Waiters and bartenders are efficient and friendly, and, depending on the cruise director, often dress in costume for several themed nights each week.
A worthwhile selection of wines is available on board, with a heavy emphasis on medium-priced French, German, and California selections.
Snacks & Extras -- Coffee and tea are available from a 24-hour coffee station in the piano bar. At happy hour each day are complimentary canapés to go along with the daily drink special. At about 11:30pm each night, a cheese board, fruit, or another snack is set out by the piano bar for late-night noshing. Passengers staying in the 14 suites and Owner's Suites get 24-hour room service.
Service is congenial, low-key, unpretentious, cheerful, and reasonably attentive. During busy times, expect efficient but sometimes distracted service in the dining rooms; and during your time on deck, realize that you'll have to fetch your own bar drinks and whatever else you may need. Royal Clipper has a second bar on the Top Deck adjacent to the pools, so you're never more than a 30-second walk from a cool drink.
The crew is international, hailing from Poland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Romania, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and their presence creates a wonderful international flavor on board. Crewmembers are friendly and usually good-natured toward passengers who want to help with the sails, tie knots, and keep the deck shipshape.
Officers, the cruise director, and the watersports team may dine with passengers during the week, and if you'd like to have dinner with the captain, just go up to the bridge one day and ask; he may oblige you (it depends on the captain). Unlike a lot of other small-ship lines, Star Clippers has a nurse aboard all sailings (though don't be surprised when you see her busing tables in the restaurant or doing floral arrangements, too). Laundry service is available and so is dry cleaning.
Tipping is traditional, at your discretion.
If you want action, shopping, and dozens of organized tours, you won't find much of what you're looking for on these ships and itineraries -- in fact, their absence is a big part of the line's allure. For the most part, enjoying the experience of being on a sailing ship and socializing with fellow passengers and crewmembers is the main activity, as it is on almost any ship of this size. Plus, the ships are generally in port every single day, so boredom is not an issue.
The friendliness starts at the get-go, with smiling waitstaff offering guests complimentary fruit drinks as they board. Throughout the cruise, the captain gives at least one informal talk on maritime themes, and, at least once a day, the cruise director speaks about the upcoming ports and shipboard events. Within reason, passengers can lend a hand with deck duties, observe the mechanics of navigation, climb the masts (at designated times and with a safety harness), and have a token try at handling the wheel when circumstances and calm weather permit. Each ship maintains an open-bridge policy, allowing passengers to wander up to the humble-looking navigation center at any hour of the day or night (you may have to ask to actually go into the chart room, though).
Other activities may include a brief engine-room tour, morning exercise classes on deck, excursions via tender to photograph the ship under sail, in-cabin movies, and hanging out by one of the pools. Of course, sunbathing is a sport in itself. Best spot for it? In the bowsprit netting, hanging out over the water. It's sunny, it's a thrill in itself, and it's the perfect place from which to spot dolphins in the sea just feet below you, dancing in the bow's wake. Massages are available, too, at a reasonable $75 an hour.
Port activities are a big part of these cruises. Sailing from one island to another and often arriving at the day's port of call sometime after 9am (but usually before 11am, and usually after a brisk early-morning sail), the ships either dock alongside the shore right in town or anchor offshore and shuttle passengers back and forth by tender. On many landings, you'll have to walk a few feet in shallow water between the tender and the beach.
Activities in port revolve around beaches and watersports, and all are complimentary. That's partly because owner Mikael Krafft is an avid scuba diver and partly because itineraries focus on waters teeming with marine life; each ship allows (for an extra charge) the option of PADI-approved scuba diving. Certified divers will find all the equipment they'll need on board. Even noncertified/inexperienced divers can pay a fee for scuba lessons that will grant them resort certification and allow them to make a number of relatively simple dives (on every sailing, there's a certified diver on the watersports staff). There's also snorkeling (complimentary equipment is distributed at the start of the cruise), water-skiing, windsurfing, sailing, and banana-boat rides offered by the ship's watersports team in all ports. The ships carry along Zodiac motorboats for this purpose, and Royal Clipper has a retractable marina at her stern for easy access to the water. Because there are few passengers on board and everything is so laid-back, no sign-up sheets are needed for these activities; guests merely hang out by the gangway or on the beach until it's their turn.
The ships tend to depart from their ports early so that they can be under full sail during sunset. Trust us on this one: Position yourself at the ships' rail or dawdle over a drink at the deck bar to watch the sun melt into the horizon behind the silhouetted ships' masts and ropes. It's something you won't forget.
Some sort of featured entertainment takes place each night after dinner by the Tropical Bar, which is the main hub of activity. There's a crew talent show one night that's always a big hit with passengers; other nights may have a trivia contest, dance games, or a performance by local entertainers (such as a steel-drum band) who come on board for the evening. A keyboard player is also on hand to sing pop songs before and after dinner, which may or may not fit in with the ships' otherwise rustic ambience. Most nights, disco music is put on the sound system and a section of the deck serves as an impromptu dance floor, with the action usually quieting down by about midnight (if not earlier). Sometimes films are shown up on deck against a sail.
You can borrow DVDs from the library or watch the movies that are shown each day on cabin TVs in English, German, and French if you feel like vegetating. Besides that, it's just you, the sea, and conversation with your fellow passengers.
An experience aboard a sailing ship can be wonderfully educational and adventurous, especially for self-reliant children who are at least 10 years old. That said, this is not generally a line for young kids (though the line has no age restrictions, there are no supervised activities and no babysitting unless a well-intentioned crewmember agrees to volunteer his or her off-duty hours). The exception is during holiday seasons such as Christmas, when families are accommodated and some children's activities are organized by the watersports staff, including treasure hunts, beach games, and arts and crafts.