“The Golden Age of Sail” can be experienced on the tall ships of the specialty line, Star Clippers. These are as luxurious as private yachts and small enough to visit ports that are unreachable by big cruise ships.
It was on the line’s Star Flyer that I sampled all that was wonderful on a “real” sail - for clients who are able-bodied, active, have a sense of adventure and understand that this kind of cruise bears little resemblance to a trip on a big cruise ship.
My warm weather cruise in Europe took me from Barcelona to Cannes, with an excellent itinerary that included calls at Palma, Mahón, Bonifacio, Calivi and St. Tropez.
My first look at the Star Flyer was a definite photo op: The clipper is simply beautiful. The welcome aboard was warm and accompanied with champagne. My Category 3 cabin, situated on the Commodore Deck (Deck 1) measured 118 square feet. It was small but attractive, with lots of polished wood and brass with touches of navy blue and a porthole. Though the bathroom was small, there was a generous amount of storage. I had a phone, hair dryer, safe and wall-mounted TV, which had two English channels-which meant that I would be using the DVD player for entertainment. (It was easy to borrow a couple of DVDs every few days from the purser’s large collection.) Laundry service (but no dry cleaning) is available and very reasonably priced compared to the service on most big ships.
Given the clipper’s size and layout, climbing up and down stairs would be part of every day, so this is not the ship for anyone who has mobility issues.
As is appropriate for a 170-passenger vessel, all meals were served in the spacious wood-paneled Clipper dining room, which was brightly decorated in blue and gold, with paintings of clipper ships on the walls. Breakfast and lunch, with open dining, were served buffet style, with a chef station for the preparation of eggs in the morning and a regional or themed hot dish at lunch. (Before the dining room opens and after it closes, it’s possible to have a continental breakfast in the Piano Bar, where there’s also a hot beverage station available 24 hours.) Dinner was a seated meal, and there were always several options (including steak and pasta) as alternates to the menu choices. Prior to dinner, the menu is posted in the Tropical Bar; starters and main courses are displayed so that passengers can see what the various dishes will look like. The Tropical Bar is also the setting for the five o’clock “cocktail hour,” when finger sandwiches, fruit, cookies and a warm dish (quiche, chicken fingers, etc.) are served. A midnight snack - a hot dish like meatballs or chicken fingers - is served at the Piano Bar. There is no room service, but when passengers are not well, food may be brought to them. Coffee, tea and soft drinks were complimentary at meal time. A decent selection of wines at reasonable prices was always available.
The Edwardian Library, a wood-paneled beauty decorated nautically in maroon and gold served multiple purposes: as the excursion desk, as the place were ports and port activities are discussed when the weather is poor, an inviting venue for reading, playing board games or using the ship’s two computers. There are charges for not-always-okay Internet. Some passengers solved the Internet problem by signing up for temporary service with their phone providers and creating personal hotspots on their own computers.
Shore excursions were fairly standard, as was the pricing. Each day the ship’s sports team offers a complimentary activity. In Bonifacio, for example, this was a walk up to the Pertusato lighthouse. During some itineraries, the crew arranges complimentary watersports. Snorkeling equipment is complimentary and may be checked out for the entire cruise. Daily yoga classes are offered. There are two small pools-with windows on the bottom, so passengers in the Piano Bar can check swimmers out while enjoying a cocktail. While there is no theater or big-ship-style entertainment, there are casual activities like games and contests and dancing in the evening. There’s no need to dress up, and with the small number of passengers, the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial.
Although the Star Flyer is motorized, the ship’s engines are not employed as long as conditions permit. On a typical cruise, the 36,000 square feet of billowing sails are unfurled to catch the wind about 25 to 35 percent of the time. A popular activity of each day is standing on deck and watching the clipper sail out of port in full sail.
The highlight of a cruise like this is the opportunity to take part in the sailing experience: to lie in the bowsprit net suspended above the rushing sea, to climb the mast to the Crow’s Nest for a panoramic view. I saw passengers of all ages participate; what they had in common was fitness and mobility and a desire for
It’s also important to note that the sailing experience feels very different from the experience on a mega-ship, when it’s possible to sometimes forget you’re at sea. The rhythm of a sailing ship can be very pleasant and even soothing-when the weather and the sea cooperate. In rough seas, however, there can be considerable pitching, and some passengers experience seasickness. Hardy sailors, however, are undaunted by the weather. One passenger on my cruise, a retired Navy man, went up on the open deck during a rough patch and declared that it was “heaven.”
Bottom line: As is the case with many travel products, a good fit is key, and the significant number of repeat passengers on the ship indicates that for the right client, this kind of cruise is a perfect fit.
Note: Star Clippers will launch a new vessel, the 300-passenger Flying Clipper, late in 2017. At 8,770 tons and flying 39,288 square feet of sail, it will be the world’s biggest sailing ship. www.starclippers.com