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Lest we forget, the term "cruise ship" encompasses a lot more than just megaships. At the opposite end of the spectrum there's a type of vessel that's been around, in one form or another, for thousands of years, and allowed mankind to explore the seven seas long before diesel power and room service.

I'm talking about sailing ships. Where once they hauled everything from princes to paving stones, these days most commercial sailing vessels exist for one reason: to allow modern men and women to experience the nostalgic beauty of traveling by wind power across a mighty sea. It's as close to a "green" cruise as you can get in the Caribbean, though all of these ships do operate on a combination of wind and engine power.

For 2007, four lines are offering sailing-ship travel in the Caribbean, with varying levels of luxury, adventure, and true sailing vibe.

Lindblad Expeditions

Operating cruises worldwide for nearly three decades, Lindblad Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com) is the most international and education-oriented of the small-ship cruise lines, offering trips designed for intellectually curious travelers. This winter, they're heading to the Caribbean with Sea Cloud II, an 86-passenger, 3,849-ton, three-masted schooner built in 2001 on the model of the great 1931 Sea Cloud, E. F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post's private yacht. Both Clouds, the original and the reproduction, are owned and operated by Sea Cloud Cruises, which has chartered the newer vessel to Lindblad for these and other voyages.

The square-rigged Sea Cloud II is most elegant sailing ship in the Caribbean this year, combining rich interiors with the grace of 30,000 square feet of canvas rigged on 20-story masts. On deck, passengers can take instruction in navigation and sailing principles and observe the crew going about the busy business of keeping a sailing ship sailing. Inside, accommodations are designed with the flavor of an early 20th century luxury yacht, featuring dark-wood furnishings, period maritime upholstery, and, in most cases, porthole windows. Public areas include a sauna/fitness room, library, and an elegant, sun-filled lounge overlooking the ship's forepeak, designed with rich mahogany woodwork, ornate ceiling moldings, leather club couches, and overstuffed bucket chairs. A holistic "wellness" program offers massage therapy, body treatments, and fitness activities, plus integrated swimming, snorkeling, and exploring activities.

Sea Cloud II's 2006Â?2007 Caribbean season features two distinct 7-night itineraries:
  • Leeward Isles: Departing December 17 and 31, 2006, and January 14, 2007, sailing round-trip from Antigua to St. Kitts, Virgin Gorda, and Anguilla, plus two days at sea, under sail.
  • Windward Isles: Departing December 10 and 24, 2006, and January 7 and 21, 2007, sailing round-trip from Antigua to Bequia, Tobago, St. Lucia, and Dominica, with two days under sail.

Prices start at $5,210 per-person, double occupancy.

On January 28, Sea Cloud II will offer a special 14-night journey from Antigua to Barbados, calling at Bonaire, Curacao, Trinidad, Venezuela, Grenada, and Tobago, with four days at sea. From January 31 to Feb. 5, the vessel will host special guest Gil Grosvenor, former editor of National Geographic magazine and current chairman of the National Geographic Society. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of the Society's leadership in geography education, Grosvenor is also an avid sailor who will share his experiences at sea with Sea Cloud II's guests. Also aboard will be Sven-Olof Lindblad, Lindblad Expeditions' founder and president. Prices for the two-week itinerary start at $10,750.

Star Clippers

Few other lines offer such an appealing package as Star Clippers (tel. 800/442-0551; www.starclippers.com), which operates three fast, powerful clipper ships built between 1991 and 2000 by Swedish-born industrialist and now cruise line owner and CEO Mikael Krafft.

Krafft invested more than $80 million to build the 170-passenger twins Star Flyer and Star Clipper at a Belgian shipyard in 1991 and 1992, working from 19th-century clipper ship models updated with modern materials and construction. In mid-2000, Krafft went a step further, launching the 227-passenger Royal Clipper, a five-masted sailing ship inspired by the Preussen, a German clipper built in 1902. The Royal Clipper now claims the title of the largest clipper ship in the world, and she's a stunning sight.

All three 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. Like all the ships in this article, they're equipped with engines to aid in keeping to their itinerary schedules, but generally rely on sails alone about 25% to 35% of the time, at other times operating through a combination of sails and engines. Each ship performs superlatively -- during Star Clipper's maiden sail in 1992 off the coast of Corsica, she sustained speeds of 19.4 knots. Royal Clipper was designed to make up to 20 knots under sail (14 max under engine alone).

Decor on Star Clippers is conservative, with touches of mahogany and brass. Public rooms on the Star Clipper and Star Flyer are comfortable and almost cushy, while Royal has a small gym, spa, and larger, more plush restaurant. Royal Clipper's cabins are similarly larger and better appointed than those of her fleet mates, with marble bathrooms and nautical decor. Fourteen veranda suites offer butler service.

This winter, Star Clippers is offering four Caribbean itineraries on two of its vessels:

  • Windward Islands (Royal Clipper): 7 nights round-trip from Barbados December-April, visiting St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique (December-April).
  • Grenadines (Royal Clipper): 7 nights round-trip from Barbados December-April, visiting Grenada, Tobago Cays, St. Vincent, Bequia, Martinique and St. Lucia (December-April).
  • Leeward Islands (Star Clipper): 7 nights round-trip from St. Maarten December-April, visiting Nevis, Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Antigua and St. Barts (December-March).
  • Treasure Islands (Star Clipper): 7 nights round-trip from St. Maarten December-April, visiting Anguilla, Virgin Gorda, Norman Island, Jost van Dyke, St. Kitts and St. Barts (December-March).

Weeklong rates start around $1,575 per person for Star Clipper and $1,675 per person for Royal Clipper, double occupancy.

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

And then there's Windjammer (tel. 800/327-2601; www.windjammer.com), which operates as a kind of outlaw biker of the cruise biz. Founded in 1947 by the legendary Cap'n Mike Burke after he mustered out of the navy, the company started with one ship (prophetically named Hangover) and has expanded and contracted ever since, based on the availability and continued seaworthiness of the kind of fixer-upper tall ships the company has always preferred.

A Windjammer cruise is a study in the zen of partying. Whereas most cruisers plan their trip based on the itinerary and some sense of seeing the world, Windjammer passengers seem to seek only the cosmic Caribbean trifecta of beaches, booze and a schedule-free license to party. Often (and this I can vouch for personally), returning Windjammer people can't even properly remember which islands they've visited, though they're sure they had a damn good time.

The line currently operates a four-ship fleet comprised of the 122-passenger Legacy, the 112-passenger Polynesia, the 72-passenger Mandalay and the 64-passenger Yankee Clipper. The latter three are true vintage vessels, with build dates between 1923 (Mandalay) and 1938 (Polynesia). Legacy, on the other hand, began life as a sailless research vessel in 1959, and was bought and massively rebuilt by Windjammer between 1988 and 1997, adding four steel masts and 11 sails. All the Windjammer vessels are bare-boned by design, with tiny cabins, narrow corridors, and few if any public rooms below deck. Most action takes place outdoors, around an on-deck bar and around the long, traditional decks. While the line deliberately deemphasizes the activities that dominate life aboard larger vessels, there are traditions such as the captain's daily "Story Time" (a short talk that's 20% ship business, 40% information about the day's activities, and 40% pure humor), the free evening Rum Swizzles, and such oddities as on-deck crab races. Just about every day is spent in port, and generally at least once per cruise, on one of the ships' beach visits, the activities mate organizes team games reminiscent of mid-1960s cocktail-party movies. It's the usual drop-your-inhibitions stuff: Passengers twirl hula-hoops while dressed in snorkel gear, pass cucumbers to each other via their thighs, or flop onto slippery foam mats and try to swim to and around a landmark.

There are a handful of theme cruises every year, including several for singles only, plus typically a photography theme sailing and a few focusing on astronomy and even pirates -- the later described by a company source like this: "We get a bunch of insane Windjammer types together to enjoy a lot of pirate-theme crap," including costume parties, treasure hunts, and serious rum swigging.

More than possibly any other cruise line, Windjammer is an experience you'll either love or hate, but the people who love it really love it: A huge percentage of passengers are repeaters, and many have sailed with the line more than 20 or 30 times. The typical passenger mix is wide, from honeymooning couples in their 20s to grandparents in their 70s.

For winter 2007, Windjammer is offering six different itineraries.

  • British Virgin Islands (Legacy): 6-night cruises sail round-trip from Tortola, visiting Cooper Island, Jost van Dyke, Norman Island, Peter Island, Salt Island and Virgin Gorda (December-January).
  • Treasure Isles (Legacy): 5-night cruises sail between St. Maarten and Tortola, visiting islands that may include Anguilla, Jost Van Dyke, Norman Island, Tortola and Virgin Gorda (January-March).
  • St. Lucia & the Grenadines (Yankee Clipper): 6-night cruises sail round-trip from St. Lucia, visiting Carriacou, Bequia, St. Vincent, Mayreau, Union Island and Tobago Cays (December-March). Beginning in May, the itinerary sails round-trip from Grenada.
  • French West Indies (Polynesia): 6-night cruises sail round-trip from St. Maarten, visiting islands that may include St. Barts, Anguilla, Tintamarre, Saba, St. Eustatius, Nevis and St. Kitts (December-March).
  • British Virgin Islands & French West Indies (Polynesia): 6-night cruises sail from St. Maarten and Tortola, visiting islands that may include Anguilla, Jost van Dyke, Norman Island, Tortola and Virgin Gorda (December-May).
  • Windward & Leeward Islands (Mandalay): 12-night cruises sail from Grenada and Antigua, visiting a selection of islands that may include Bequia, Tobago Cays, Carriacou, Dominica, Grenada, Iles des Saintes, Martinique, Mayreau, Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent (December-March).

Windjammer's ships stay in the Caribbean year-round. Prices start at approximately $1,100 for 5-night cruises, $1,200-$1,300 for 6-night cruises, $2,400 for 12-night cruises.

Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises (tel. 800/258-7245; www.windstarcruises.com) is an anomaly in big-time cruise industry. Though part of a huuuge corporate empire (Carnival Corporation, via immediate parent company Holland America), that side only manifests itself in the back-office. Out front, it's a friendly, almost old-fashioned operation, small-scale and full of employees who've been with the line for years. Reportedly, many repeat passengers check to make sure their favorite cabin steward, waiter, captain or host/hostess will be aboard before they'll book a particular sailing -- and sometimes the line has even asked an employee to reschedule their off-ship time so they can be aboard when longtime passengers are sailing. How nice is that?

From the company's start, back in 1984, it was all about the sails -- and specifically about a new cruise ship design by the Finnish shipbuilding company Wartsila. Dubbed the "Windcruiser," the concept combined 19th-century sailing ship technology with modern engineering to create a kind of vessel never seen before: huge by sailing-ship standards, with at least 21,489 square feet of computer-controlled staysails that can propel the ship on their own or work in concert with a diesel-electric engine. The concept worked then, and it works now, providing a distinctive home for a product that walks the tightrope between luxury line and sailing-ship line. The onboard vibe is always casual, the itineraries are beyond the norm, and service and cuisine are first-class. It's a graceful, intimately sized alternative to megaship cruises, and a consistently lower-priced alternative to similarly sized ultra-luxury ships.

In the Caribbean, most Windstar cruises either hit a port every day or spend just one day at sea per week, so the ships offer few organized activities, leaving days relaxed and unregimented. At ports where the ships anchor offshore, passengers can enjoy kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, snorkeling, windsurfing, and banana-boat rides from a watersports platform that's lowered from the stern, weather and sea conditions permitting. There's also a scuba diving program that was recently expanded to include new double-tank dive sites in Dominica, Grenada, and St. Martin. A Discover Scuba diving program, as well as a PADI Advanced Open Water Course and Adventures in Diving program, are also offered.

The line operates three vessels. The 148-passenger sister ships Wind Spirit and Wind Star and the 308-passenger Wind Surf. Wind Spirit and Wind Star are identical, with all outside cabins, large portholes, and teakwood-decked bathrooms. Wind Surf was built at the same shipyard and is a super-sized version of the same sail-cruiser concept as the others, with more lounges and dining venues, a handful of suites, and excellent outside sitting and walking areas.

For 2007, Windstar is offering Caribbean voyages aboard Wind Spirit and Wind Surf:

  • U.S. & British Virgin Islands (Wind Spirit): 7-night round-trip from St. Thomas, calling at St. John, St. Martin, St. Barts, Tortola, Jost van Dyke, and Virgin Gorda (December-March).
  • Eastern Caribbean (Wind Surf): Round-trip from Barbados, visiting Nevis, St. Martin, St. Barts, Guadeloupe, Iles des Saintes, and St. Lucia.
  • Soutnern Caribbean (Wind Surf): Round-trip from Barbados, visiting Bequia, Dominica, St. Lucia, Mayreau, Grenada, and Tobago.

Weeklong rates start around $1,949 per person for Wind Spirit and $1,749 per person for Wind Surf, double occupancy. Wind Star offers Costa Rica sailings December-March.

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