I seem to have carved out a niche for myself: I'm kind of a "go-to guy" when it comes to sail-powered cruise ships. Mind you, I'm not complaining -- far from it. Nor am I surprised. First of all there's my predilection for small ships, a category into which most sailing ships fall. I'm also an avid sailor, and spend up to eight weeks a year on my own sailboat in the British Virgin Islands, which gives me a pretty good handle on the logistics of getting a wind-driven vessel from Point A to Point B. And since a majority of ships in the class are keyed to water sports, it doesn't hurt to be passionate about snorkeling, diving, kayaking and the like.
So I've been incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to sail with Windstar, with Windjammer, aboard Peter Deilmann Cruises' 50-passenger tall ship, Lilli Marleen, not to mention on more yacht charters -- both crewed and bareboat -- than you can shake a jib at. But I'd yet to have the chance to sail with Star Clippers, and had always wanted to, so I jumped at the chance to go on a one-week sailing aboard Star Clipper, one of the two original 170-passenger ships in the Star Clippers fleet.
Though all members of this industry niche claim the mantle of "the one true motorsailing cruise experience," and therefore reject comparisons with the others, it's inescapable not to draw those comparisons, especially in four key areas: level of luxury and service, cuisine, amount of structured activities, and how they prioritize and handle the sailing experience itself.
I was fairly certain that, in the first three categories, Star Clipper would fall midway in the spectrum between Windjammer's funky, casual, no-frills atmosphere and the more pampering, deluxe, refined ambience of Windstar. The fourth category was the one I couldn't get a handle on -- and the aspect I was most curious about.
There is an inherent conflict between itinerary and travel under sail. Most of these cruises are destination-intensive, and thus have few sea days. Yet a satisfying sailing experience ipso facto requires time spent making passages under sail during daylight hours, which then cuts into time ashore. Windstar generally opts to prioritize the itinerary, sailing most times at night, much like conventional ships. When I sailed Lilli Marleen, its Teutonic captain was so insistent on having a few hours each day under sail power that shore experiences were often truncated or rushed. How would Star Clipper approach the issue? They present themselves as the purest sailing experience available, yet the printed itinerary showed no sea days whatsoever. Hmmmmm.
Embarkation and First Impressions
The whole arrival process was a breeze. Our departure port was Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Customs and immigration at Princess Juliana International Airport progressed so fast one almost had to trot to keep up. Within an hour of arrival we had all been loaded on the local taxi-vans used for transfers.
The actual document processing could not have been simpler. At a counter near the marina dockmaster's office, keys were issued, documents and passports collected, and flyers handed out. We were quickly on our way, trundling down the concrete cruise pier, then up the steep narrow aluminum gangway stairs to be welcomed aboard by Frederic, our Belgian cruise director, and stewards bearing trays of fruit punch. Inside the piano bar -- the ship's only lounge -- entertainer Csaba, a Hungarian keyboard artist, provided entertainment while we helped ourselves to a spread of canapes and sandwiches. This initial experience provided a couple of surprises. The first was the larger-than-expected number of European guests. (In actuality the passenger list was split about 50-50 between Americans and Europeans.) The lounge was crowded and smoky. (Later in the cruise the rules would be more stringently enforced.)
I decided to relax in my cabin for an hour or two before dinner. I found the stateroom predictably nautical -- lots of varnished wood trim, brass accents and a porthole rather than a window. At 120 square ft. it certainly qualified as "cozy," though in truth I've sailed in much more cramped-feeling quarters.
Emerging to enjoy my first dinner I was pleasantly surprised. The number of selections, though hardly extravagant by cruise ship standards, was sufficient to satisfy most tastes, and with two appetizers, two soups and three entrees to select from, there was plenty of choice. Dinner is served open seating, with tables and banquettes for four being the smallest available. Most passengers chose to seat with new acquaintances throughout the cruise, as did I, taking my place at a long oval table for six.
Departure from St. Maarten was an anticlimax. At 10:00 p.m. the winds were almost dead calm, but with only 12 nautical miles or so separating St. Maarten from our first port of call, Anguilla, we didn't need to set any speed records.
Road Bay, Anguilla
The morning winds were as calm as the night before, but our proximity to our destination allowed us to shut off the engine at 6 a.m., and wallow our way slowly -- but vibration- and noise-free -- while we tended to the obligation of the lifeboat drill, after which Captain Sergey, Star Clipper's master, introduced the officers and staff and Frederic conducted a shore excursion presentation for Virgin Gorda, tomorrow's port of call. As with all his presentations, it was made in three languages: English, French and German.
By 11:30 a.m. we were anchored at Road Bay, Anguilla's yachting hub, and tender service began to the beach. (Star Clippers ships seldom dock during Caribbean itineraries. Water sports are the centerpiece of these sailings, including snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, banana boat rides, waterskiing, etc., all of which are conducted by crewmembers either at a beach off the anchorage -- as was the case in Anguilla -- or directly from the anchored ship.)
A cruise call to Anguilla is a special treat, as this beach-oriented and restaurant-sophisticated island has made no effort to attract cruise ships and remains blissfully off the proverbial beaten path -- despite the fact that it's so close to St. Martin/St. Maarten that you can easily see them from its shores.
I had heard many times about Johnno's Beach Stop, the quintessential beach bar and grill located right on the sand a hop, skip and jump from our tender drop-off. I had planned to have lunch there, and then catch a taxi to visit the nearby upscale and top-rated resort, Cap Jaluca. However, I was so enchanted by the live entertainment that I wound up staying put. Expecting to hear typical island music, I was surprised to find a fantastic jazz sextet performing, led by a dead ringer, both physically and musically, for the great flugelhorn player, Chuck Mangione. This, I learned, was a weekly Sunday event at Johnno's.
At 5 p.m. we departed for Virgin Gorda, with many passengers choosing to assist with the raising of the sails. It was clear that the wind was picking up a bit, though at dinner the vibration of the engine could still be felt.
At 6 a.m. I rolled out of bed ... literally. We were clearly under sail and sharply heeling and rocking. I made my way up to the open deck area around the bridge, favored by passengers to watch the trimming of the sails and the navigation of the ship, which has an outside helm station in that area. I found myself in brisk breezes, gusting to 25 knots across our beam. Star Clipper has neither stabilizers nor anti-heeling tanks, and, though we were sailing smartly, the swells striking us across our beam made for uncomfortable conditions for many onboard. (I'm happy to report that all the guests who were suffering "Neptune's Curse" that morning managed to get their sea legs by the end of the voyage, and were much happier sailors on the equally rough second-to-last night of the cruise.)
I also noted a pattern, an ingenious approach to itinerary planning that solved the port call vs. sailing time dilemma I'd found on other sail-cruises. By cruising under power until sunrise, then shifting to sail power at the crack of dawn, it was usually feasible to go under pure sail the rest of the way, since we were typically scheduled to reach our anchorages by late morning/early afternoon. Then, to allow sufficient time in port, departures were scheduled for either late at night or early the next morning, as it would be at Virgin Gorda, which had the added benefit of allowing for dinner or clubbing ashore.
That morning I chose to go on the ship's one-tank scuba dive excursion. Although the dive team onboard was helpful and earnest, the ship is not really well laid out for water sports. Most modern small ships have transoms that fold down into sports docks, so it is simple to walk down a corridor and onto the Zodiac inflatables to go on excursion. Star Clipper's more traditional high transom makes it necessary to haul heavy gear up and down stairways, then walk down the steep outside gangway to reach Zodiacs or tenders, exacerbated by the fact that Star Clipper uses the heavy European steel scuba tanks as opposed to the lighter aluminum ones favored by Americans.
After enjoying dinner ashore with friends who live in Virgin Gorda, I returned to the ship for the first evening's "entertainment" (other than music from the single keyboard player), listed as "Crazy Frog Races." I expected live frogs, passing on the mantle of hermit crab races pioneered by Windjammer. Instead, they turned out to be a typical cruise-style passenger-participation game requiring manual dexterity to move wooden "frogs" along a rope stretched across the deck. Even though the game seemed rather silly -- and extremely challenging, especially for those who had enjoyed the offerings at the bar (a mere hop, skip and jump away for either human or frog) -- on a ship this size there is really not much choice of places to hang out. But Frederic's superlative emceeing and the over-the-top reality show-type personalities of the participants kept us all in stitches.
We anchored here overnight.
The Bight, Norman Island and Sopers Hole, Tortola
The morning's winds were reduced but steady, and we continued with our sailing pattern, departing Virgin Gorda at 7:30 a.m., easily covering the 10 nautical miles or so to Norman in the four hours before our scheduled call at 11:30 a.m. Passengers were encouraged to help raise the sails, and even to take the helm. Others chose to relax in deck chairs around the pool, or to venture out onto the "widow's net," an over-the-water rope platform strung from the tip of the bowsprit back to the forward deck.
At Norman those whose encounters with the BVI had heretofore been limited to port calls on conventional ships got a peek at what a true, off-the-beaten-path Virgin Island looks like. Norman Island and the Bight have long been central to the age of piracy. A bight is a deeply indented bay, one with a narrow opening and a wide deep basin, which makes an anchorage with great protection from either storms or the prying eyes of the Royal Navy. In fact, Norman was reputedly the model for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," a reputation helped along by the fact that the cliffs edging the western flank of the Bight are pocked with caves along their waterline. Rumors still abound that there's still some pirate treasure secreted in some of these caves.
Water sports activities were scheduled at the beach next to Pirate's Bite, a funky little waterfront establishment on the inside-most shore of the Bight serving West Indian and pub fare. Others departed by boat for shore excursions to Tortola, just across the Sir Francis Drake Channel, or a ship-conducted snorkel trip to the Norman Island Caves. Though I've done it many times before, I always enjoy snorkeling the Caves, where there may no longer any gold to be found, but which nevertheless conceal their own treasure: clouds of thousands of silversides, tiny little fish only found in caves or under deep ledges.
Then, at 4 p.m., we weighed anchor and set sail for the two-hour crossing to another legendary pirate landmark called Sopers Hole, at the west end of Tortola. During that passage there were various nautical diversions, including a knot-tying class and mast-climbing in safety harnesses for a fabulous view from the yardarm. Like the Norman Island Bight, Sopers Hole is protected both from view and weather, in this case by the arrangement of three islands (Tortola, Frenchman's Cay and Little Thatch), which block the anchorage from all sides. These attributes were not lost on Captain Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, who made Sopers a base and hideout. Now it is a hangout for yachties, who are drawn by the excellent anchorage, marina, restaurants and a slew of shops done up in colorful pastel gingerbread trim.
Since we would stay overnight at Sopers I took the opportunity to meet another friend for dinner at Pusser's Landing. Pussers earned its reputation in the 17th century when it began provisioning the Royal Navy with its potent rum. From 1655 through 1970, British sailors were given a daily ration of Pussers. This strong (95.5 proof) drink is still sold worldwide, and since Pussers' corporate operation is located in the British Virgin Islands, its presence is widespread there, in the U.S. Virgins, and increasingly in cities on the southern seacoast of the U.S. A typical Pussers operation includes a bar, restaurant, and nautical clothing and logo store. Each one is a little different, but the Pussers at Sopers is my favorite, as the food is the best in the system, and the layout includes a broad, wooden waterfront deck large enough for tables, dancing and a live band.
I returned to the ship bringing with me my friends the Shooting Stars Pan Band, a local Tortola steel band, who put on a high-energy concert on deck. The Shooting Stars have toured Europe, Asia and the U.S., and regularly play the annual steel band festival in Trinidad known as "Pan-A-Rama." These guys are totally un-amplified, made up of four different sizes of steel pans and two percussionists. Their performance set toes tapping and even spurred a few passengers to dance.
White Bay, Jost van Dyke
It's only about five nautical miles from Sopers Hole to Jost Van Dyke, so our 7:30 a.m. departure put us comfortably at anchor in White Bay three hours later. A scuba trip, water sports from the beach, and ATV and island tour excursions were offered, but the centerpiece of the port call was the once-a-cruise beach barbecue. Though the food and beverage service was fine, the event failed for a number of deficiencies. First, there were no tables at which to sit while eating; nor were there any lounges or other beach seating arrangements, and there was virtually no shade.
Besides the ship-sponsored water sports, one could simply lie back on the beach, swim or snorkel on one's own. There were also local operators who would sell passage on fastboat rides, parasail trips or the like. I chose to simply lay low, having had a very late night with the Shooting Stars. Seeking shade, I made my way to White Bay Sandcastle, the bay's major resort, where I had a bit of post-lunch lunch, and sampled the drinks at the resort's Soggy Dollar Bar, famed as the creator of the BVI's signature drink, "the Painkiller." Not wishing to stretch my time ashore, and looking forward to a nap, I caught the next tender back to the ship.
We departed Jost later that afternoon so that we could manage the span of about 140 nautical miles to St. Kitts by 11:30 the following morning. Almost as soon as we had raised our sails, once again we could feel the elements both in our speed under sail power, and in the ship's heeling and rocking motions.
Entertainment for the night was the second evening of passenger-participation high jinks, dubbed "Best Couple Games," which included such standbys as couples breaking a balloon held between them by running at each other, passing a spoon on a string in and out of pants legs, etc. The added element of a rocky passage added to the challenge, but I was pleased to note that faces that were green the first long passage were now bearing smiles, and laughter had replaced moaning.
Basseterre and South Friar's Bay, St. Kitts
Today was another split port call, with half the day devoted to shore exploration and excursions and the other to beach and water sports. After tendering passengers ashore at Basseterre, Star Clipper moved to South Friar's Bay for the beach portion of the day.
Every time I visit St. Kitts I am amazed at its similarity to Hawaii's Maui Island. The rounded slopes of the sugarcane-covered hillsides start the impression, which is completed by the vision of the rain forest-capped peaks further up snagging the clouds and wrenching from them the gray slashes of tropical rains.
Though I have been to St. Kitts a number of times, recently there has been a good deal of buzz about a recent addition to the list of available shore excursions here, the St. Kitts Scenic Railway tour. Using the rails in service some 100 years ago to haul sugar cane to the refineries, it was converted three years ago to a sightseeing rail tour, with small diesel engines pulling double-decker rail cars (lower level air-conditioned, upper level open).
Based on my experience, three years wasn't quite enough to get their act together. First of all, the motor coach to take us to the actual train station was 20 minutes late. The train broke down twice during the circuit of the island, the second time forcing to us abort the tour and disembark along a road where we were picked up by buses summoned by radio to take us back to South Friar's Bay. In a sense we were fortunate; had the train broken down a quarter-mile later it would have been in the middle of a spindly trestle bridge over a precipitous ravine. Understandably, none of us were in a very forgiving mood when the drivers dropped us off at the wrong end of South Friar's beach, necessitating a half-mile trek to meet up with the rest of the Star Clipper group.
Dinner tonight was both Thanksgiving and Captain's dinner, which takes place on the Thursday of every one-week itinerary. Interesting. First time I've ever seen turkey and lobster qualify as surf and turf!
My tablemates were surprised that I opted for steak over lobster at last night's dinner. Actually, my logic was sound. To my palate, lobster is one of those foods that drastically loses quality when frozen (a necessity on all but the most upscale cruise ships, which maintain tanks to keep their lobsters live till served). In the back of my mind I viewed this itinerary as seven days bookended by fresh lobster lunches (Anguilla, for instance, is often touted as the location of the Caribbean's tastiest lobsters).
But I had an ace in the hole: Le Repaire, my favorite restaurant in St. Barth's Gustavia harbor, mere steps from the tender pier. I had bypassed it several times, always choosing to explore the entire horseshoe of the harbor and all the posted menus before settling on a restaurant. Invariably once on the far side of the harbor I would be too hungry to trek all the way back, till one time I decided to try Le Repaire. Then I was hooked. The grilled lobster is magnifique, and its outdoor deck is a great spot to dine while watching life in Gustavia pass by.
Tonight was occupied with the nuts and bolts of packing and tipping. Star Clipper's gratuities policy is to suggest 8 euros per passenger per day (5 euros for the waiters and 3 euros for the cabin steward). At the time I sailed 8 euros equaled approximately 10 U.S. dollars. Guests may tip in cash or charge to their onboard accounts. Tipping is an immensely personal decision, and though I have been on ships with better service in dining room and cabin, my personal take is that it's only a difference of couple of dollars per day between Star Clippers' guidelines and what I would consider a minimum acceptable tip for just adequate service, and I was perfectly comfortable tipping in complete agreement with their guidelines.
Disembarkation: Phillipsburg, St. Maarten
One of the things I like best about small ships is embarkation and disembarkation. Getting aboard was simplicity itself, and leaving the ship was even easier. No colored tags, no wait in the public rooms till you are called; you may simply disembark as soon as the ship is cleared. And, of course with only 100 or so passengers' bags to look through, finding one's luggage was simple and quick.
Star Clipper has a terrific shore "excursion" for those with late flights (i.e., after 3 p.m.). It includes transportation to the Beach Plaza Hotel on Marigot Bay on the French side (St. Martin), where the hotel stores your bags and provides a beach towel, changing and shower facilities, and use of the swimming pool and beach. The hotel is also a short walk to the shopping in Marigot and the shops and waterfront restaurants in the new Marina Royale, an option I chose. It was, thereafter, an easy matter to catch a taxi to the nearby Princess Juliana Airport for the short flight back to Miami.
As I left the ship I had to make a personal comparison between my pre-cruise expectations and my post-cruise impressions. In a nutshell, the two opinions pretty well comported with each other. Where they differed most was the quality of the cuisine, which exceeded my expectations. I was also surprised at the lack of stability of the ship. It didn't affect me, but for those who learned the cruise experience on stabilized ships, and are motion-sensitive, Windstar may be a better option if they want to try a motorsailer. I also felt a greater degree of distance between ship's officers and guests, which set the Star Clipper experience apart from what I had sampled on Windstar and Windjammer. Lastly, the onboard dive, sports and shore experiences were well below expectations, but that is a red flag only for those who seek scuba or shore tours on their cruise agenda.
--by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic contributor
All photos except image of St. Barth's are copyright Star Clippers and appear courtesy of www.fotoseeker.com.