My wife and I have cruised four times previously, three times with Celebrity, which we really enjoyed and once with Princess on the Grand, which we also enjoyed but found the ship to be too large and impersonal. So, we were looking for something different and smaller and, after much research, decided on the Royal Clipper with its maximum complement of 228 passengers and an interesting itinerary. We chose the February 15th , 2003 Windward Islands itinerary, leaving from Barbados and visiting five islands which we had never before visited. From the time we embarked in Barbados to the time we disembarked back in Barbados a week later, we had the best cruise and vacation of our lives. There were only 125 passengers on this cruise, which I am sure contributed somewhat to the feeling of never feeling crowded.
We were the only two Canadians on board as the main mix of passengers was British, German, American and French. Age mix was probably on average, between forty and sixty-five, with some passengers being below or above both ends of this scale. The ship is amazing and its officers and crew were outstanding, all being very approachable with a positive, can-do attitude. Following are various points of reference concerning the ship and our overall cruise experience on the Royal Clipper.
Truly magnificent. Five masts, 42 sails and over 50,000 square feet of sail. It is a true sailing ship and we spent most afternoons and evenings under full sail. Take note though, that there is a lot of ship movement, depending on the strength of the wind. Our entire week, the wind was strong but perfect for sailing, resulting in quite a bit of "rocking and rolling". However, you soon get your sail legs and become used to the movement. During the dinner hour, the Captain does lower the sails each night and proceeds under engine power to reduce the ship's movement. The most movement was felt on the first and last nights, leaving from and going back to Barbados as the ship is sailing in the Atlantic Ocean on these two legs of the journey.
The Royal Clipper is beautifully appointed, with all decks being finished in teak and the interior rooms and cabins sporting loads of wood. Cabins are very comfortable, with marble bathrooms. We were in cabin 315, which was one of two cabins located at the ship's stern on the main deck, with the entrance directly off the rear of the deck. We even had a real key. Our bed was a true queen and had two thick duvets on it. My wife and I both agreed that the bed was the most comfortable we had ever had, including hotels and other cruise ships. The bathroom was also the best of any cruise ship we had been on to date. It had a full size Jacuzzi tub with a great shower (tons of pressure) and never, ever any shortage of hot water. The room was well kept over the week by our cabin steward.
The heart of the ship is the Tropic Bar area, amidships on the main deck. It is a large, open-air area (but covered overhead with wood and canvas) where all activities take place. It's where you arrive, where all the entertainment takes place and is the meeting place for all excursions or other activities that take place. It is also where you meet a lot of the passengers as it is the social center of the ship as well.
The atrium area consists of the piano bar on the uppermost level, a mid level walk around and the dining room on the lower level. The piano bar is a comfortable lounge area, perfect for before dinner drinks and chats. Each of the dinner selections are set out here on plates each night before dinner, so you can see exactly what the dishes are (a very good innovation). Light snacks are also served here later at night for an hour from 11:30 pm. The dining room is also very comfortable and well appointed. Both outside walls have portholes, which, when going through large swells, fill with water and look like front-loading washing machines. There is also a small purser's desk and store on the mid-level, which sells a nice line of various types of sportswear with the Royal Clipper logo. A reasonably well-equipped gym and spa area is located on the lowest level and it has underwater portholes on the walls. Finally, there is a forward Observation Lounge where lectures can be given but this room was not used once during our cruise.
Every night around 11:30 pm, myself and a regular group of passengers went up to the Bridge deck and stood under an incredible starry night, with the wind in our faces and the ship under full sail, cutting through the large swells. It was a great experience. I also went into the bridge a few times (the Royal has an open bridge policy) to talk with the Watch Officer to find out exactly where we were and how fast we were travelling. They are very accommodating on the bridge and will patiently explain how all the bridge equipment works and what it does as well as answer any questions you may have. Try doing that on one of the mainstream cruise liners!
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style and the food was very good at both these meals. Breakfast has all the items you may want as well as a chef cooking you custom eggs and omelettes. Lunches had lots of selections and had a very fresh and varied salad fixings bar as well as a number of just cooked hot items. The sweet trays at lunch were to die for! Dinner was served "a la carte" from a menu that usually had three different entrees to choose from as well as a vegetarian dish. Not the full selection available on the large ships but more than sufficient for most people. My wife and I and the other three couples we ate with each night never had a problem finding something that appealed to us. The food was well prepared and nicely presented and portions were more the "European" style (smaller) but were very sufficient. Again, desserts (usually three choices) were delicious. Dinner is open seating and served from 7:30 to 10:00. Our group sat at the same table each night and had top class service from our waiter, Romeo. The other waiters seemed to also be providing very good service as well and I didn't hear one complaint all week about the food or service.
Drinks and wine were very fairly priced. A can of soda pop was $1.50 and bottles of wine ran around $22 to $30, a very reasonable price, although wine selection was somewhat limited. It was also interesting to note that gratuities on the drink bills were 12.5%, as opposed to the 15% universally charged on the large ships. Never, ever were drinks pushed anywhere on the ship, and, in fact, a lot of the time you had to just go to the bar and get your own.
Officers and Crew:
The Royal is captained by Captain Sergey Patchenko, Ukrainian born, who appears to love his job. He is always around and gives talks and lectures throughout the week. He is extremely approachable and will stop to talk with you at any time. He gave a very interesting talk one morning on the different types of sailing ships and how you identify them. My wife and I were standing near the bridge one morning and he just came over and started talking to us. A very amenable person with great knowledge of the sea and sailing.
The Cruise Director / Social Convenor / Excursion Manager (and a number of other jobs) is a wonderful lady from Sweden, Jenny. Without a doubt, she is the best and most personable CD we have ever come across. By the second day she seemed to know almost every passenger by name. Each day as we arrived in a new location, she would give a talk about the island port and what we should look for. No pushing of stores or shopping or anything like that. She would also hold talks each night in the Piano Bar to describe upcoming excursions, complete with pictures and personal insight and was always able to answer any questions. Again, she was not pushing any excursions but was just giving great descriptions of what to expect. Jenny fluently spoke at least five languages and had no problem switching from one to another, sometimes in midstream of a sentence. She is an absolutely lovely lady (her current contract expires in May and she is going home to Sweden for a while and hopefully she will return to the Royal after her time off). The rest of the Officers and crew were also extremely personable and were a lot of fun to be around. We also noticed that the crew were very friendly with each other, which only added to the great atmosphere on the ship. All the officers eat in the dining room as well and will sometimes sit with passengers during meals as space and time permits.
The whole atmosphere is very casual and laid-back. No rules, no "you can't do that" attitudes and no fancy dressing up, the only thing they ask is that long pants and shirts with collars be worn for dinner. A few people did dress for the Captain's dinner one night but they were very much in the minority. During the day, shorts or bathing suits were the "dress of the day". The passengers mostly seemed to be well-traveled people and were very friendly. Nobody was trying to impress anybody else and there didn't appear to be any pretentious passengers among us. Also, no complainers in this group. Some 60% were repeat customers, so this should tell you how people feel about this ship and cruise line. You should note also that there are no late nights, as everything pretty well finishes up each night after midnight.
No theater or casino on board. Entertainment was mostly organized and provided by the staff and crew and we really enjoyed it. One night was a crew talent show, which was very entertaining, another night was a fashion show of the Royal Clipper sportswear line, which was also a blast. There was also a night where live crab races were run, with people betting on individual crabs and the eventual winner walking away with some $300 in prize money. The entertainment really was a lot of fun and everybody seemed to have a good time in the evenings.
The ship has a fold down dock marina at the aft and the watersports team uses it as a center for offering free sailing, banana boat rides, scuba and snorkeling excursions and some zodiac tours. When there is a beach day, all the equipment is located to the beach, where the same activities are offered. We were interested in snorkeling and managed to get in three different excursions, two of which were okay and one which was incredible, off of the beach near St. Kitts. We did have to press the watersports team (who I think were both relatively new to their jobs and were still learning it) somewhat regarding snorkeling as they didn't seem to be overly interested in providing snorkeling opportunities (this was the only minor complaint we could find all week). We took our own snorkel equipment but the ship offers you all the equipment you need free for the week.
Three times during the week, you are offered the opportunity to climb the main mast up to the crow's nest (in a safety harness), weather permitting. My wife did it and said the climb was a little hair-raising (the ship was rolling at the time) but said the view was amazing and she loved the experience. You can also go out onto the netting around the bowsprit and laze around in it, high above the water as the ship cuts through the waves (it is like a huge hammock). Other interesting things, such as an engine-room tour and a knot-tying course were offered through the week.
The Captain also makes "sailaway" from each port a big event. The hoisting of the sails while music is played is very soul stirring, especially on the night sailaways. We never missed this event and you have to experience it to understand it.
Once during the week, the Captain offers a "photo tender" opportunity. All interested people are taken out in a tender, while the ship hoists all sails and begins sailing away. The tender then circles the ship for about 15 minutes allowing everyone to get incredible pictures of the ship from all different angles. Getting back on the ship is also a bit of an adventure as the tender pulls up to the ship while it is fully underway. Not dangerous but exciting.
One of the highlights for us was the night we were sailing around the tip of Montserrat at around midnight. This is the island that has a very active volcano and just as we rounded the tip, it began spewing lava. One burst absolutely covered the mountainside with red-hot lava and fireballs. Better than any fireworks show we've seen and almost all the passengers were on deck, cheering and clapping at each eruption. Great fun and an awesome spectacle.
Ports and Excursions:
We enjoyed the different islands we visited. One thing we noticed was that there were never any "immigration" problems at any of the islands. No early morning lineups waiting for the immigration officials to come on board. In fact, it seemed that the ship was cleared each time within about 15 minutes of arrival. In one port, the officials even joined everybody for lunch after they had done their business.
We anchored in every port except Martinique and had to tender in. However, there was never a problem with the tenders, never any line-up, no "take a number and wait to be called" scenarios or anything like that. You merely used your card to sign out and jumped on the next tender. There was also never any problem coming back on board with any purchases (such as soft drinks or liquor) as there are no scanners and no one is checking your bags. The crew simply swipes your card so they know you've returned and always had a word of welcome as you returned.
We took three excursions and found them to be excellent value for the money (in fact, one was a bit too long and offered too much). The costs ranged between $40 and $52 per person, which, for the good quality they offered, seemed to be very reasonable. The one excursion we really recommend is the Eco Kayak Adventure in Antigua. This was one of the best excursions we have ever taken.
Embarkation and Disembarkation:
We could not believe how simple and easy both these procedures were. We arrived on Saturday afternoon at the Barbados terminal at 4:00 pm and were checked in within 5 minutes. The ship's Officers handle the check-in procedure and make it a very pleasant procedure. We then proceeded down the dock to the ship, were handed free welcome aboard drinks at the top of the gangway and then we were shown to our cabin. Our bags arrived within another 5 minutes. Incredible! Disembarkation was much the same. No rules or colour tags handed out, the only thing they ask is that you have your bags outside your room by 4:30 am and then be off the ship by 10:00 am as Barbados customs closes then. A full breakfast buffet is served all morning. We left at 9:30, had various crewmembers give us hugs and wish us goodbye and a safe journey home, picked up our passports (they were taken at embarkation) as we left, went into the terminal where our bags were waiting, took thirty seconds to get through customs and were on our way to our friend's house within a few minutes of leaving the ship.
You can tell, we really loved this whole experience. However, it is definitely not for people who are looking to be constantly told what to do, where to do it and who want to be constantly entertained. It is also not for people who are prone to motion or seasickness, as there is a lot of movement to the ship. There are no elevators on the ship and a lot of stairs so anyone with a mobility problem might find the ship to be a bit of a challenge as well. This is a ship for people who want to experience a great sailing ship that has a very friendly and casual atmosphere. We met more people on the first night of this cruise than we would normally meet during a whole cruise. We made some great new friends and will keep in touch with them going forward (we all had a small tear in our eyes as we all said our good-byes on departure day). When I was telling my daughter of the new friendships we made, the way the crew interacted with everyone and all the positive experiences we had, she said that it sounded like we at a "great summer camp for adults". And you know what, that is a perfectly simple way to describe our overall cruise experience on the Royal Clipper and we are already planning next year's cruise on the Royal Clipper to the Leeward Islands.