Star Clipper--Barbados to Panama Canal, 15 January 2011—14 Days
Overall, we had a very good trip. However, we were a little disappointed with the "on board" experience compared to our 5 previous Star Clipper voyages. I identified the major issues below, and just took the smaller issues with a grain of salt. It is all part of the adventure. We made some great friends and laughed ourselves silly. I hope this info helps you with your planning!
Stayed at Butterfly Beach Hotel—Good value, on the water, had A/C, great rum punch with Bitters and nutmeg. Walking distance to food store—our room had a kitchenette. Used the local buses and small white vans-- very easy--$1 US each way. On Friday, went to Oistins for the fish fry. It was crowded and loud (as expected). Flying fish are very tasty. The locals take pride in the preparation—they are not fishy tasting or boney.
Star Clipper (SC)
SC had just arrived at noon for a 1600 boarding. They had just been in dry dock in Martinique for 10 days. She has a rebuilt engine and new hull paint. Not sure what else they did. Ship was in "Good" condition. The 4 hour turn was a little tight for them, as they were still cleaning up when we boarded at 1645. There had been a change out of some crew, and also there were some "brand new" crew. The Royal was also in port for its standard 7 day sailing.
This itinerary does not sail very often—when I booked in May 2010 (8 months prior) there were only about 5 or 6 cabins left. We ended up with an interior room, #404-cat 5. It is a little smaller than cat 2 & 3. The location was very quiet. I didn't mind it, but my DH did not care for it—he called it the "Rabbit Hole". It is very dark at night, and in the morning you have to depend on your watch as there is no morning light. That being said, we spent most of our time on deck anyway. Some people were wait-listed for this cruise, and some of them made it after some cancellations. Only 2 cabins were empty on the cruise and some cabins that held 3 people (like ours with a fold up bunk) had just 2 people. There were 157 passengers on board, one half were Americans, next came the UK, followed by Germans. The passengers represented 9 nationalities--80% were returning passengers!
The Royal left at 2200; we departed next and trailed her for awhile.
Captain's Best Grenadines
Anchored Chatham Bay, Union Island, 1200-1600
The Royal anchored here just before we arrived. She left right before we did—good picture ops. Water toy day. Snorkeling at the rocks on the left side (looking from the boat) of the bay was good. Nice beach to walk all the way down. Beers at Bollhead's (left side of beach) $3 US—bring small bills, esp. $1. We met Bollhead several years back. Smart guy, fun to talk to—lived in the US for quite awhile.
Docked, St Georges, 0900-1700
The Royal arrived after us and anchored out. Because we were at the dock the sports team could not take out the toys or even take scuba divers out—"it would take business away from the locals". Nice terminal, free Wi-Fi in secured area. Duty free and a lot of shopping in terminal; supermarkets nearby if you need supplies. We had already toured the island during previous trips—waterfalls, gardens, nutmeg/spice farms, hiking, etc. A newbie might consider the tours. We took a water taxi to Grand Anse Beach ($8 pp return) which you can see from the dock. Very nice clean beach @ 2 miles long. There is a nice bar/ restaurant with clean restrooms at a small hotel at the right end of the beach. The inner harbor is also a nice walk. A few people did the "challenging" hike. Some fell on the trail, and most were muddy when they returned. They had a good time.
Isla Margarita, Venezuela
Port area remote, @ 45 minute taxi ride to largest town—Porlamar. I don't know if anyone went to that town. We got off the ship, looked at the local vendor stalls, looked at the beach, and went back to the ship. An Aida cruise ship was there, and this is also a favorite of Venezuelan day trippers. Some shipmates said the tiny/crowded beach was full of rubbish and broken glass. Two tours offered—not too thrilling according to the takers. Island very third world and dirty, with partially built abandoned buildings. Very arid. Most shipmates did not like this port. There might have been a political reason why the ship visited this port---in order to visit anywhere else in Venezuela. The immigration team came by boat with @ 10 people!
Blanquilla, Venezuela -------This was substituted for Los Roques by the Venezuelans, not the Star Clippers.
Another immigration team by boat—with a dog! Beach/water toy stop. Flat, scrubby island. Nice beach, no buildings in sight. Cruisers anchored. Weather was rainy and windy with whitecaps upon arrival. Went toward beach via tender, transferred to zodiac for final wet landing. Worked OK, except some people had a hard time getting back into the zodiac. It eventually got sunny, but the wind was off and on. Many people just chilled out on the ship. Only 3 divers went out with the dive team—not the best conditions. Snorkeling "fair to good" depending on sea state.
Docked at Kralendijk, 1400-2000
Wonderful clean, clear water everywhere—even under our boat at the dock (could see the bottom). You could swim and dive just N of Karel's pier—a 5 minute walk along the nice waterfront promenade. It is located by the boats on moorings. A lot of parrot fish and other types can be viewed from the promenade—a very nice walk. We walked around to the marina. A few waterfront bars. The Caribbean Princess was also in port (3000+ people) and had hired most of the water taxis to take passengers snorkeling to Klein Bonaire (a small island just across the harbor). Some people on the SC hired a taxi ($12 return per couple) to go to a nice beach south of town near the airport. They said the visibility was great. The town had some standard shopping—not much else. It was a nice stop. This island is known for its pristine waters and great snorkeling and diving.
Docked at Willemstad, 1000-2330
Fun arrival, passed through the Queen Emma swinging bridge—docked in the middle of town. You can walk to everything in town. Very colorful—don't forget your camera. Floating market, narrow alleyways, old buildings, lots of shopping opportunities. Waterfront cafes, friendly locals. Punda side was more interesting. We stayed in town all day, some took the tours. Most people thought this was the best stop. Grand Princess (3000+) in town-they left @ 1700. Town pretty much shuts down at 1800 except for bars and restaurants (even on Friday).
Docked at Oranjestad, 1000-2000
Main area seemed like a tacky little Las Vegas. A lot of jewelry and watch shops. Walked around the marina and checked out the big yachts. Island Princess in town, but it left @ noon. Internet/Wi-Fi was $5 an hour in main terminal building. Bus station a 5 minute walk from ship. #10 line to low and hi-rise beaches--$1.30 one way, or $2 return pp. Driver has US dollars and gives change. Nice A/C bus. About a 12-15 minute ride—runs @ every 20 minutes. These beaches are for walking and swimming—nothing to see underwater. You can take a good long walk on the sand or the paved walkway. Hi-rise area (Eagle and Palm Beaches) has lots of bars and restaurants (Hard Rock, Fridays, Tony Romas, Burger King, etc). Some people took a taxi to Arashi Beach (past Palm Beach) for excellent snorkeling. Only 2 people signed up to dive, the sports team wanted a minimum of 5, so that was cancelled. Tour was supposedly "so-so". It is a very small arid island. Recommend walking the main town, then head out to Eagle and Palm Beaches.
At Sea 2 days
Lots of activities—mast climbing on day one (second time so far), but cancelled the next day due to large swells and 33 knot winds. Great sailing! A pod of dolphins played with the bow for @ 15 minutes the first afternoon. The second afternoon, there were thousands of flying fish off the bow. Even though they were asked not to, quite a few people "reserved" their lounge chairs by leaving books and towels on them all day—even when they were gone for hours at a time (this happened everyday). Some passengers got pretty upset with this and there were some heated exchanges.
The modern cruise terminal is about 10 minutes from Old Town (Centro) by taxi. The terminal is in an industrial area—you will need transportation. Most passengers took the 3 ½ hour ships tour of the Old City—33 Euros. That tour was well received by most, especially since the city is very hot and the buses had A/C. We took a taxi to town. Unfortunately when we walked out of the terminal, we were harassed by way too many taxi drivers/ tour guides that had a "special deal" for us. The going standard is $10 US for a cab to or from Centro. Current rate $1 US= $1860 pesos (they use the dollar sign too). Some drivers were quoting as high as $20 per person one way. There is actually a taxi rate sign in front of the larger terminal building, but we came through the smaller building and the drivers steered us away from that sign so we never saw it until we returned. The Old City is very interesting to stroll through. Great photo opportunities. You can walk part of the wall. It does get hot and crowded by mid-morning. The cruise terminal has a very nice Wi-Fi area. $1 US for 15 minutes, $5 for 2 hours. The ship took on a full container of food during the afternoon. It was loaded through the service elevator in the Tropical Bar floor—check it out if you can. At 2215, the ship had a "Local Folklore" program. It was "OK" according to some passengers that attended.
At Sea 1 day
A following sea—a lot of rolling. Mast climbing cancelled. Sails were lowered and we slowed down during meals. Standard day at sea.
San Blas Islands
Hot, humid, and hazy. Quite a few cruisers anchored off the islands. The local "chief" came aboard to negotiate with the ship's Captain and officers about what we could do. Negotiations took about 80 minutes. Tenders started taking people to the village on Crab Island (Sugtupu or Suitupo) first. It is very poor and sanitation is nonexistent. The Kuna's are friendly and not too pushy. The cloth molas were lovely. Some mola favorites of the shoppers were: purses, bags, potholders, eyeglass cases, and molas to frame or use on pillow covers. There was a mola table set up in the tropical bar until about 1700.
The beach was another tender ride to Needle Island (Abjuja?). This was a beautiful, clean little island full of coconut trees and sandy beaches. The sports team set up all the water toys there.
Panama Canal Transit
We were originally supposed to arrive at Cristobal for the "authority arrangements" by 0600, and then expected to go through the Panama Canal in the evening. We lucked out. Due to mast clearance and the tides, we had to be through the canal by 1700 in order to get under the Bridge of the Americas. We got "bumped up" on the list and were headed to the first set of locks by 0600. Star Clippers brought on a Panama Canal expert, so we had live commentary throughout the journey—very informative. It took about ten hours. We cleared the canal, and had to kill about half an hour for the tide to finish going out. We made it under the bridge by 1700 (boy, was that tight!) and anchored off Isla Flamenco by 1800. There is no pier here and cruise ships have to tender people in. Although it was not scheduled to arrive until 0800 the next morning, the ship was cleared through customs and immigration, and provided tender service until midnight. There are quite a few restaurants in the area and on the Causeway. Regular disembarkation started the next morning around 0800. Suitcases went out first in the wee hours of the morning.
Stayed at a nice 4 room B&B, Dos Palmitos, on Ancon Hill. Very international flair—guests and owner. You could walk or take a $2 taxi ride to Old Town, which was a fun place to go. Had a wonderful lunch there at Cafe Rene'. For $8.50 you get an appetizer, salad, entrEe, rice, and dessert. It was great and so light tasting. Another day, we walked to the summit of Ancon Hill. Lots of fauna and wildlife; and views of the canal, Old Town, and Panama City proper. It was a $30 taxi ride to the airport—about 25 minutes at 0600. Allow two hours for international check-in/security. You cannot take drinks or water bottles on the planes even if you bought them in the terminal after going through security. There is another security check where they go through your carry-ons right at the gate.
Sailed quite a bit on this cruise.
House wine---glass 3.5E, bottle 14.5E
Draft beer---glass 2.8E
Ships laundry—cost in Euros: Dress-4.5, blouse-3, pants-3.5, shorts-1.5, sports shirt-2, regular shirt-3, t-shirt-1.5 with 24 hour turn time.
This sailing lacked good port info (do your homework ahead of time). Also, we have been used to daily updates made by the Captain (via intercom) on sea status, depth, weather, and ships progress—it did not happen on this voyage.
The ships temperature was warmer than normal. People complained about the heat, especially in the dining room at dinner time, and in their cabins. The heat was almost unbearable during the Captain's Dinner.
Smoking (cigarette and cigar) was an issue. People left scheduled programs due to the smoke. The Captain smoked in most public places--including the bridge.
There appeared to be a lot of crew change-outs and brand new crew on board, so it took quite awhile for the teamwork to develop.
Due to all the new technology, internet cafes with computers seem to be a dying breed. Mostly found Wi-Fi places. Bring your own notebook or I-Pad or whatever.