by Heidi Sarna.
Experienced cruisers all know that something special takes hold on a cruise, that a real connection develops between you and the other passengers and crew, and that you find yourself with the kind of proprietary feeling you never have about a hotel: this is my ship.
Since my friend Dolan had never taken a cruise before, she didn’t have a clue what it was all about. So when I invited her on one, she was willing to give it a try. How bad could a Caribbean cruise be?
Well, obviously not very. The cruise has come and gone and Dolan is still smiling, and her husband’s been a little suspicious ever since.
To be fair, this wasn’t any typical cruise. Our journey began in Barbados, the wintertime base for the 227-passenger, 439-foot-long Royal Clipper, a five-masted, fully-rigged tall ship modeled after the great German clipper Preussen of 1902. The Royal Clipper is a casual, comfortable ship with a seriously adventurous attitude as it island hops across the Caribbean to off-beat, less touristy islands like Les Saintes, Bequia, Dominica, St. Lucia, and the Grenadines. And it didn’t take my protégé Dolan long to fall for it.
Cruise Realization No. 1: “I love these people.”
The passengers and crew weren’t your garden-variety Joe’s next door. Dolan loved the people on the ship, an international stew of mostly Europeans and North Americans, and they loved her too. The charming 30-something cruise director, Demitri, a former circus performer from Russia, took an immediate shine to her. Pronouncing her name Dolannaaaaa with great theatrical flair and plying her with endless compliments. Likewise for the Peruvian bartender, Herman, who was always at the ready with Dolan’s favorite libation. Suddenly, my quiet chemist friend was a movie star with a fan club and a serious new penchant for the lime light.
Young hunks aside, we made lots of new friends from all walks of life. We hiked up to Fort Napoleon on Les Saintes with an endearing Chicago couple, a wise-cracking salesman and his doting young wife, and shared a meal with a charming, French Ben Kingsley lookalike and his glamorous wife, who had sailed with Star Clippers many times before. We raised our glasses with a group of fun-loving Austrians at the bar and gossiped with a young couple from New Jersey on their honeymoon. As with all small ships, the atmosphere on the Royal Clipper is intimate and socialable, and everyone gets chummy fast. That’s what makes a journey on this ship so wonderfully different than on a 2,000-passenger mega, where you’re just another face in the crowd.
Cruise Realization No. 2: “Whoa, are these things comfy!”
Dolan didn’t expect the cabin, outrageously roomy for a tall ship at 148 square feet, to have a marble bathroom and such smart finishings, with its navy-blue and gold fabrics, nautical prints, and wood paneling. She was seriously thumbs-up about our room: the cool portholes, the all-day movies on the TV and the pillow chocolates at night.
Launched in 2000 as the third build for Star Clippers, which introduced the 170-passenger Star Flyer in 1991 and sister-ship Star Clipper in 1992, Royal Clipper took the line’s comfort standard up a few notches. With its three-deck atrium and its multi-level restaurant done up with plush red velvet chairs and banquettes, white-fluted columns, and frilly ironwork railings, you could forget you were on a sailing ship if it weren’t for the very ship-like creaking and rolling. Likewise at mealtime, there’s no roughing it, though don’t expect anything too exotic as the chef needs to please a very international crowd, heavy on the Europeans. Cuisine is continental and dominated by cheeses, marinated fish, potato salad and meats at the breakfast and lunch buffets, along with basics at dinner like Fussili in a tomato sauce, grilled Norwegian salmon, and a herb crusted rack of lamb, accompanied by a decent wine list. Vegetarian Dolan always had one or two dishes to choose from, but you don’t go on a Star Clippers cruise for the food. It’s all about the ship baby.
The spacious piano bar, which wraps around the top level of the atrium, is equally as refined as the restaurant and filled with comfy upholstered and leather seating, and on the same deck is even a clubby library with a fireplace (faux, of course). On the lowest deck, there’s an underwater observation lounge (with below-sea-level portholes for spying flood-lit fish) and a mini spa and gym (careful with those barbells!).
Still, despite the cushy amenities, the atmosphere is homey and the dress code is casual, though some men do wear jackets on the night of the captain’s cocktail party.
Cruise Realization No. 3: “Hey, that’s my baguette.”
The Royal Clipper’s ports of call aren’t tourist-clogged, Disneyified islands, but instead exotic little pockets of palm tree paradise where your ship is often the only one in sight and you can blend into the local culture in a way you never could if you arrived on a ship carrying thousands.
Dolan the rookie cruiser was smitten. On French-flavored Les Saintes, a darling little speck of an island surrounded by candy-colored wooden fishing boats, we set off on foot down a gently rolling road through picture-postcard countryside and ended up on a slice of quiet beach at the other side of the island. A family of hungry goats was already there, and didn’t budge even after we climbed a tree to finish the baguette and cheese we had purchased from the cute old man selling them nearby. We spent the next hour quietly reading at the water’s edge and revelling in our good fortune; I couldn’t help but hear Dolan sigh like a woman in love.
We were impressed with the rainforest tour in St. Kitts too. In the thick of it, our guide Addy had our small group of 10 pause for 5 minutes of complete silence to listen to the sounds of the pristine jungle and give the natural world time to really soak in. All that communing with nature made us a bit peckish, so good thing Addy passed around homemade banana bread and passion fruit juice at the end of the tour. Dolan was all smiles yet again.
Cruise Realization No. 4: “Wow, it’s adventurous like a real yacht!”
Dolan’s pre-cruise fears of seeing Kathy Lee stroll past in sequins crooning show tunes wore off quickly, and she was relieved to see the Royal Clipper didn’t have a gltizy casino clanging away the hours or Vegas-style shows to fill up the evenings. As we all did, she became quite entertained by the ship itself. We crawled into the bow net one day, just for the thrill of it, gingerly straddling the bowsprit boom before climbing into the spongy net and splaying out in the warm sun for a spell. Dolan and I decided to pass on climbing the masts (although many of our shipmates lined up for the chance), but she did help pull in the sails one afternoon while I snoozed by the pool. There’s no obligation to lend a hand, but most passengers feel a compulsion to have a go at it.
For true sailors, wannabes, and newbes like Dolan, the web of ropes and cables stretched between Royal Clipper’s 42 sails, masts and decks — along with the winches, Titanic-style ventilators, brass bells, wooden barrels, and chunky anchor chains cluttering the deck — are constant reminders you’re on a real ship, one that’s a far, far different animal than today’s homogenous mega ships. Creaking, gently rolling and pitching like a true sailing ship, Royal Clipper can easily make 15 knots under sail alone, though most of the time the engines are used too (especially at night) so the ship can maintain its port-a-day schedule.
Cruise Realization No. 5: “I barely have time for a massage, but I’ll try real hard.”
Not only wasn’t Dolan bored, she never even got past the first chapter of the book she brought along. Since the Royal Clipper is in port every single day, there’s no pacing the decks on this ship. When at anchor in some gorgeous bay, we enjoyed complimentary watersports like kayaking, snorkeling and banana boat rides right from a mini marina at the stern, while aboard ship there was the little gym, morning exercise classes on deck, and masseuses waiting to rub away our knots. Ok, so they weren’t the most private massages — a single massage room is divided into two treatment areas by a curtain — but for a reasonably-priced hour-long Thai or sports massage, we gladly left our American inhibitions behind and blocked out the muffled whispers and massage sounds on the other side.
Of course a favorite pastime of many passengers didn’t involve any activity at all unless you count lounging by one of the three pools on the Sun Deck, an unheard-of luxury on a ship the size of the Royal Clipper much less any tall ship. Two are basically over-sized hot tubs, while the third, amidships, is on par with the average pool found on mega ships carrying eight times as many passengers. For those not into sunbathing, many enjoyed sitting on one of the benches surrounding the open bridge, watching the captain and mates navigate, and the sailors climbing the masts and pulling in the sails. Unlike the others which are controlled by hydraulic winches, the sails on the lowest boom on the forward mast must be manually unfurled (an intentional feature added by company owner Mikael Krafft merely for the delight of old salts who crave as real a sailing experience as possible). It’s a sight for passengers to watch a clutch of sailors shimmy across the huge boom, like the Liputians on Gulliver, to unleash the massive Dacron sails.
Cruise Realization No. 6: “Who knew a corny talent show could be so much fun?”
It was clear Dolan had never had so much fun before. Cruise director Demetri breezed around the wooden decks of the Tropical Bar like an MC at the Oscars, introducing the evening’s acts, one after another, with dramatic flair. First Herman the maitre’d on the guitar, then a Swedish guest singing a rabble-rousing western song, followed by the young Scandinavian watersports dudes in drag doing a song-and-dance routine. The performers played to a packed house of wildly applauding guests. Dolan, normally a teetoodler, grabbed her pina colada and waved it into the air like a groupie at a Jimmy Buffet concert. Considering there isn’t much else vying for passengers’ attention, the entertainment by the open-air Tropical Bar, however sophomoric, was always well attended by the fun-loving unpretentious passengers Royal Clipper attracts. Another evening, a performance by a local steel band was a huge hit, and on others, Demitri energetically drummed up interest in a humble repertoire of entertainment which included a trivia contest and a silly musical-chairs-style dance contest. The captain hosted a cocktail party in the piano lounge one night, and when there wasn’t much planned, passengers were content relaxing and socializing around the Tropical Bar, where pre-dinner hors e’oeuvres are offered.
Cruise Realization No. 7: “I don’t want to leeeavvve!”
Dolan packed on that last night like a kid leaving for summer camp. She didn’t want to go and her long face proved it. We had lived in another world for a week, where reality as we knew it was suspended. We made new friends, visited new places, and truly lost ourselves in a life at sea on a wonderfully quirky small ship. All good cruises must come to an end. But, I already knew that, and now Dolan does too.