By Heidi Sarna.
With our beach bags and snorkeling gear slung over our shoulders, we filed down the metal staircase extended along side the 170-passenger Star Clipper and into a tender that would transport us to a Thai beach for the day. A short ride later, the boat was nudged into the sandy shoreline and we climbed out of the forward hatch, up and over the bow, and down a short ladder into the surf. These wet landings would be the norm for the week, part of the adventure of visiting beaches without infrastructure. This was precisely why most of us had signed up for the 7-night Andaman Sea cruise in the first place, to go somewhere warm, sunny and remote, and to get there on a cool tall ship.
Tall Ship Beauty
Star Clippers‘ four-masted Star Clipper itself was a destination. In fact some passengers didn’t care where the ship was going, they were there for the nostalgic sailing ship experience. About 25% to 50% of the time the engines are shut off and the ship moves under sail power alone — otherwise a combination of the two are used to propel the ship at speeds of about 9 to 14 knots — and it’s a sight to behold.
On the Star Clipper cruise I recently took with two friends Beth and Sheila, each evening, usually before dinner, passengers gathered on deck, many of us with a glass of wine or tropical concoction in hand. We were there to watch the Indian sailors nimbly handle coils of thick rope, wrapping and unwrapping it from pegs and cleats and pulling it along winches, to unfurl whichever of the 16 sails the captain wished to release to help us on our way.
As the sails inched skyward, the solemn theme song from the film “1492: Conquest of Paradise” was broadcast to set the mood. Passengers fixed their gaze on the sails and the twilight sky as the canvas flapped in the wind and the ship creaked through the waves like ships did centuries before.
This appreciation for the experience is exactly what Swedish businessman Mikael Krafft had in mind when he started Star Clippers. He spared no detail or expense to design and build his fleet of three square-rigged clippers in the likeness of their speedy predecessors. Krafft and his team were guided by the original drawings and specifications of Scottish-born Donald McKay, a leading naval architect of 19th-century clipper-ship technology.
The result is a trio of tall ships with few rivals and lots of repeat passengers. The four-masted Star Clipper and twin Star Flyer were launched in 1992 and 1993, respectively, while in 2000, came the 227-passenger five-masted Royal Clipper. A fourth new tall ship, the Flying Clipper, is being built and will debut later this year. The fleet plies the waters of the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Asia, aiming for yacht harbors and remote bays and islands.
Andaman Sea Island Hopping
Round-trip from Phuket, we traveled 533 nautical miles around the Andaman Sea, as far north as the lower tip of Myanmar and south again to Langkawi in northern Malaysia. Most of our ports for the week were part of national parks and clusters of islands with names that weren’t easy to remember. But it didn’t matter what the kohs (also spelled ko) were called, what you remember about this itinerary are the beaches, the bright teal-blue water and those craggy towers and mounds of ancient limestone — partially submerged hills and mountains formed over millions of years.
Each day took on a similar rhythm. After breakfast was a port talk up on deck by the captain or the funny and unflappable Brazilian Cruise Director Monica who loved repeating each morning on the approach to a new port: “Let’s go to paradise.”
The first visit was to KOH SURIN to the north of Phuket. We first snorkeled around reefs some distance from the beach, hopping in the sea right from a tender, ogling giant clams, brain coral and rainbow-striped fish. Then we hit the beach, where the ship’s watersports team had set up kayaks, sailboats and paddleboards. After successfully paddleboarding, a pleasant triumph when you’re no longer a spring chicken, we relaxed on the sand sipping water from coconuts.
The busiest beach we’d encounter all week was in the SIMILAN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK archipelago. As one German passenger joked after attempting to snorkel: “There were 3 fish and 2,000 legs.” Dozens of buzzing speedboats brought the mostly Chinese tourists on day trips from Phuket or Krabi, their revving outboard engines spitting water as they dropped off and collected their passengers from the beach. We joined the multitude, finding a space for our towels in the soft, white sand that was surprisingly clean. We enjoyed the people watching, smiling at the throngs in their orange lifejackets taking endless selfies and playing in the sand. Most of the boats had departed by 4pm, leaving the beach nearly deserted with just a handful of Star Clippers passengers.
In KOH KRADAN, part of the Hat Jao Nai National Park, we snorkeled near spiny sea urchins, mounds of brain coral and schools of neon fish. We floated in the water to keep cool and Beth went paddleboarding again, her favorite new activity. Dressed in floral shirts and white pants, the crew set up lunch on the beach, grilling delicious chicken, sausages and burgers that we ate sitting in the sand or on low hanging tree branches.
The perfect ending to our favorite beach day of the week was a half-hour walk across the island to the other side and down a steep path to a secluded, rock-framed cove that could have been the setting for a cover of a Harlequin romance novel.
The week’s two non-beach days included LANGKAWI, the one Malaysian port of the week. Beth and I signed up for the guided kayaking through the mangroves of the Kilim Geopark followed by lunch and then a sweaty 3km jungle hike in the Raya mountains with an enthusiastic machete-carrying guide Hizam who pointed out monkeys and exotic birds the likes of the Great Horn Bill and Longtail Macaque. Sheila chose a thrilling tour I couldn’t have handled — a mile-long 2,000-foot-high cable car ride between the peaks of the Machincang Mountains on Langkawi’s west coast.
We anchored in AO PHANG NGA (Bay) on the final day or our cruise and signed up for the “James Bond Island” speedboat excursion. We stopped at the Panyi Muslim village on stilts for a walk around the maze of small wooden shops and homes crammed together on rickety boardwalks. The other stop was scenic James Bond Island, otherwise known as Khao Phing Kan, where parts of the “Man With a Golden Gun” were filmed back in the 1970s thanks to its spectacular rock formations, some resembling giant dripping icicles.
The best part of the tour was sitting at the back of the boat near the outboard motors as the speeding vessel bounced through the water for several hours between stops. The views of the karsts, some smooth, some rough and covered with tufts of green foliage, unfolded like a 3D movie.
Besides the handful of excursions offered during the week, there were optional daily diving opportunities with the ship’s dive master. There was also Star Clippers’ beloved “photo safari,” when passengers pile into the tenders to circle the ship and take photos under full sail.
Onboard Fun & Games
On board, the main activity for the week was mast climbing, when those interested strapped on a harness and climbed up some 65 feet onto a small platform. For me, massages were the favorite extracurricular; the masseuse was excellent and the prices reasonable, probably because the treatments were doled out in a humble canvas cabana wedged between the diving tanks and ship tenders. Book a massage when the ship is moving to avail of the breeze and soothing ocean sounds.
With three of us sharing a cabin, we didn’t spend much time hanging out in the room, a cozy 130-square-foot abode with portholes, twin beds and a bunk-style third berth. Designed in nautical navy blue fabrics and wood trim, there was a TV, safe, decent storage space, and bathroom with showers. The ship also has eight deluxe cabins that open right up to deck; one large owner’s suite with a sitting area, mini bar and whirlpool bath; and six inside cabins.
A Social Affair
Chatting and mingling on a small ship like the Star Clipper is inevitable. We became buddies with Monica and Doug, two easy-to-talk-to fellow Americans in their 50s, and Mark, a good-natured 30-something English chap traveling solo. A group of Germans, led by the gregarious Roland, had an infectious sense of humor that made many of us laugh out loud. Of the 114 passengers our week, a third were Germans, 18 were from the UK, a dozen from North America, and the rest a mix from Australia and other corners of Europe — most were 50+.
Mealtime encouraged socializing as tables were open seating for 6 or 8. Breakfast with a made-to-order omelet station, and lunch with a featured pasta or meat, were buffet-style and generous, while dinner was ala carte with continental choices and a few Asian offerings as well such as Pad Thai. Dishes ranged from so-so (a rib-eye steak and pork stir fry were disappointing and the cheese plate came with Ritz crackers) to very tasty, including the chicken curry, shrimp tarts, and raviolis. But a Star Clipper’s cruise isn’t about the food, it’s about being outside on deck.
The open-air Tropical Bar with its thick wooden bar top was the hub, where passengers congregated before and after dinner as the ship’s musician played happy pop tunes on his electric piano. Each evening, some light-hearted entertainment was featured, including a crew and passenger talent show, a traditional Thai dance from a shore-side troupe, and a silly “Pirate Night” party that was great fun.
Afterward, hits from the 60s and 70s were played on the sound system, putting us and new friends in the mood for some dancing as our gorgeous tall ship sailed through the Andaman Sea to our next port of call.
Itineraries & Fares: Back in Asia after a long absence, through 2019, Star Clipper is doing 7-night Andaman Sea cruises between October and April starting at $1,360 per person, and spending the other half of the year cruising the Indonesian archipelago round-trip from Bali on mostly 7-night sailings.
Getting There: Most US flights come through Bangkok or Singapore, then it’s a short flight to Phuket. We stayed one night in the pretty Amari Phuket hotel along Patong Beach, near the ship’s anchorage.
Weather & Dress Code: Thailand is just north of the equator, so it will be hot in the 80s and 90s and with short rain storms the norm. You’ll live in beachwear and cover-ups most of the time; at dinner, smart casual works — sundresses, skirts and pants for women and for men, khaki’s and polo shirts or short-sleeved button-downs.
Money Matters: The Thai Baht is the official currency, but there is virtually no opportunity to shop.
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