Our March 2009 cruise on the SPV ROYAL CLIPPER was a delightful experience that exceeded our expectations. The ship is beautiful, the crew extremely friendly, professional, and helpful, and our fellow passengers were great and interesting cruise companions. We had the good fortune of fair weather with plenty of sun and only the briefest of rain, and, considering the sailing nature of this ship, we had plenty of wind all week to make our way under sail.
We picked the SPV ROYAL CLIPPER primarily for propulsion by sail and for the smaller passenger complement. We have owned boats and done a lot of boating in the past 25 years, including living aboard and cruising for several weeks at a time on our own boats, principally in the northern Great Lakes. Our previous cruising experience is limited. We spent a week aboard the NORWAY (formerly the SS FRANCE) in the eastern Caribbean in 2002.
The food was excellent, served in elegant fashion, and in great variety. There was a bit of a European style to the cooking and some of the dishes. Breakfast and Lunch are buffets. Dinner is a grand meal, often stretching to almost ten o'clock at night. The main dining room is wonderful, filled with mahogany and brass, very nautical, with large port holes just above the waterline which are often filled with white foam from waves as you enjoy dinner under sail.
The dinner menu offered fish, meat, and vegetarian choices each night. Wine can be bought by the bottle, and if you don't finish the bottle, you can have it stored and brought out the next night. The waitstaff is very congenial. Don't expect to eat and run.
With our permission the Maitre d'Hotel seated us each evening at a different table with an interesting variety of dinner companions. He seemed to have a knack for mixing up congenial groups at each table. For the reclusive, there were a few tables for two available. Most people dined in parties of four, six, or eight.
Our cabin was large, comfortable, and beautifully appointed. It was one of the better cabins on the ship, but we discovered that other than a bit more room and the luxury of a tub with a jacuzzi, there really was not much difference between our cabin and the less expensive ones. They are all quite elegantly furnished.
We were in Cabin 316, an aft cabin on the main deck, somewhat removed from most of the other passenger accommodations. We could walk out our cabin door directly to the open deck and railings. Most of the time there were no other passengers in our deck area, so it was almost like being aboard a private yacht. Although we were near the Tropical Bar area, the sounds of its music or other activities were never intrusive. Being near the stern there was a bit more vertical motion from the ship. Cabins located amidships and lower will have less movement.
ACTIVITIES ON BOARD
Being a smaller ship, there are not a great deal of on-board activities, which was fine for us. Each evening around ten o'clock the Tropical Bar (on-deck but under canvas) hosts some entertainment or dancing. Passengers have free run of the ship and its decks. You can climb 60-feet to the first crow's nest on the main mast under supervision of the crew, or you can scramble out on the bow sprit's netting whenever you feel like it. The Chief Engineer gives a tour of the engine room.
There are water sport activities each day, and you can go to the beach to swim, snorkel, sail small boats, or kayak for no additional charge. There are also diving activities almost daily, but at added cost. The snorkeling was conducted by a marine biologist, and it was every informative and pleasant. The marine biologist also presented one or two lectures during the cruise.
The principal on-board daily activity is the sail-away each evening. This usually brings all passengers on deck to watch the sails being hoisted and set, done to the accompaniment of music by Vagelis, "CONQUEST OF PARADISE" (from the sound track of the cinematic feature "1492"). This literally puts a tear into everyone's eye as it is a very moving experience. The process of hauling the anchor, raising the sails, and gently gliding under sail from the many cozy anchorages we visited was universally enjoyed by all passengers. The Captain is an excellent ship handler and often sailed us into or out of crowded harbors without resorting to any assistance from the engine or bow thrusters.
Every day is a new port and there typically are multiple shore activities available. We only went on one excursion, snorkeling at Dominica, which was billed as being some of the best available in the Caribbean. The snorkeling was good, but the overall excursion was not quite what we expected. It was too long, included a luncheon, and too much bus riding. We were very glad to get back to the ship.
The most impressive element of the trip was the ship itself and the amount of time it spent under sail. The captain truly likes to sail, and the SPV ROYAL CLIPPER moves from port to port under sail power as much as possible. As a result, there is more motion to the ship than might be comfortable for those accustomed to very large and very stable ships. My wife and I are both experienced sailers and have spent a lot of time underway and living aboard moderately sized sailboats boats. For a 430-foot ship, the SPV ROYAL CLIPPER surprised me with how nimble it was. It has a rather quick roll period, must faster than I expected for a big sailing ship. I got a chance to take the helm on afternoon while under full press of sails and at 11-knots. The ROYAL CLIPPER is very responsive to the helm and responds quickly to any rudder input.
We embarked at Barbados, which is quite separate from the other islands. You have at least 125-miles of open water sailing to the closest island, and the trip from and to Barbados generally brings higher seas than any other portion of the cruise. On our week the winds were unusually strong. We left Barbados on Saturday evening with a Force-6 (25- to 30-knot) wind on our starboard bow. Once we cleared the lee of Barbados, we were in open seas with significant waves, their tops being blown off into spray by the wind. There was considerable motion on the ship. The Captain had the cabin stewards deploy the lee boards on all berths as a precaution. With large seas and the wind well forward, the ship was put under motor propulsion, although several staysails were up for steadying. Quite a few passengers did not fare well on this first night at sea, including me. I used to be able to say I had never been sea sick, but I can no longer make that claim. I would recommend taking Dramamine or similar anti-motion sickness medication for this first night unless you are truly immune to sea sickness.
Compared to the rough first night, we sailed comfortably after that, and with our sea legs regained, we never had any problem with sleeping or discomfort again. The run back to Barbados was again in rougher seas, but the wind was just far enough aft we could sail all the way. In general, sailing gives a more pleasant motion to the ship, in my opinion, and although we were rolling down the seas, the last night was not a problem.
The ship is a thing of beauty and it is maintained in tip-top condition. If you arise early you will see the crew washing down the teak deck every morning, wiping down all the varnish and brightwork, and polishing the brass. They even re-painted the huge anchors during the trip so that they looked perfect. While you are ashore during the day, the crew goes over the side and touches up any little blemish on the hull. The mast and rigging all appear to be in perfect order, and the sails themselves are mainly new and without stains or patches.
Even when you are ashore, your gaze will be drawn back to the ship as it rides at anchor in the harbor. It dominates every setting and attracts attention wherever it goes. It is beautiful.
The other passengers were an interesting mix of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and South Americans. On our trip there was a large German contingent, so all announcements were conducted in English and repeated in German. The several French speaking passengers were comfortable with English, so we avoided a third language in the public announcements. Menus and other ship information are printed in English, German, and French. Americans were probably about 40-percent of the passengers. The rest were mainly European, with a few Canadians and South Americans in the mix.
The crew is composed of men and women from many countries. The Captain, Chief Engineer, and one of the senior Officers were Russian, which is probably due to the necessity of having proper licenses and ratings for a very large sailing ship. Russia had or has a fleet of large sailing ships, so there are more officers qualified on large sailing ships from Russia than anywhere else these days. Every one of the ship's crew with whom we came in contact was very pleasant and friendly, and we never lacked for service or assistance.
Our weather was wonderful, with sunny skies and warm temperatures, made even more comfortable by a constant sea breeze. The many shades of blue of the Caribbean Sea sparkled at us day and night. We enjoyed several sun sets from the aft deck, including a rare Green Flash sunset one delightful evening while at sea.
The rhythm of the cruise puts you into a new port each day, generally arriving in the late morning. The ship sets anchor, and tenders are deployed. You can go ashore to explore, swim from the beach, or just remain onboard and enjoy the expansive deck. The last gangway is typically in the late afternoon. The anchor is then hauled and the ship sails away. After sunset, everyone retires to their cabin to prepare for dinner. After dinner the ship sails into the night to the next port. Repeat this six times. A delightful week of cruising.
We were told that Star Clippers has a very high repeat business rate, and I am not surprised. After this trip we are very likely to cruise with Star Clippers again. Most of the people we met aboard were veteran Star Clipper cruisers and were on their second, third, fourth or even tenth trip with the line. Most other passengers had more cruising experience than us, and they expressed a strong preference for the Star Clipper style of ship and cruise.