What surprised me most about my cruise on Star Flyer was how much the social element became the highlight of the trip. I expected to be blown away by the lush, volcanic beauty of French Polynesia (I was) and to revel at traveling pirate-like on a real sailing ship with old-timey masts and nautical decor (I did). But I thought for sure my social interactions would be limited to polite chit chat with well-off retirees.
Boy was I wrong! Some of my favorite memories of the cruise include a very rowdy game of team trivia won by our team of Americans, Mexicans and Brits; a lesson in constellations given by a 70-something fellow passenger who'd sailed around the world in his own boat; dancing to tragically out of date 70's music with the Swedish water sports team; and an introduction to World Cup soccer and Turkish music by one of the chatty bartenders. Because it takes a certain type to embrace the sailing experience on a small ship, shipmates tend to be kindred spirits -- active, open to new experiences, not at all stuffy or spoiled -- and after a few days passengers really begin to click. And suddenly, the trip is that much better for all the new friends you get to share it with.
Star Flyer was built in 1991 for Star Clippers as a four-masted, 170-passenger, tall clipper ship. The ship currently ranks as the loftiest tall ship in the world, with a mast that rises 226 feet high. Sailing on Star Flyer is like stepping back in time to when clipper ships ruled the waves. The unfurling of the sails, to appropriately bombastic music, is a highlight of each day, and passengers can live out their nautical fantasies by climbing the mast or sunning in the widow's net hanging off the bow of the ship.
Although the ship is motorized, Star Flyer's engines are switched off as long as conditions permit, and the crew unfurls 36,000 square ft. of billowing sails to capture the winds that can propel her along at a comfortable 8 to 10 knots. On a typical cruise, she relies exclusively on sail power around 25-35 percent of the time.
Star Flyer had been dividing its time between the Mediterranean and the Far East, but in 2008, Star Clippers repositioned the vessel to French Polynesia for year-round South Pacific cruising. Since the departure some years back of Windstar, which had long offered the only year-round "sailing" experiences in the region, only "big ships" and traditional luxury cruises have been operating here. So Star Clippers emergence offers a refreshing new option.
The ship's laidback atmosphere and its focus on sailing and water sports dovetail nicely with the French Polynesian experience. The islands' lagoons are calm enough for windsurfing, waterskiing and kayaking, yet are teeming with marine life to the delight of avid snorkelers and divers. And simply standing on deck, watching the ship sail out of port and past the jagged peaks of the surrounding islands, as the sun slowly sinks behind the horizon, never fails to be one of the most popular, and most romantic, onboard activities day after day.
It can't be forgotten that there is a less idyllic side to sailing. Rough seas and bad weather can turn sea days into nightmares of seasickness and cause the ship to delay or cancel its arrival into port. A Star Flyer cruise is best for hardy sailors -- if you're prone to motion sickness, opt for a larger ship with stabilizers. Unlike on some mega-ships, you never forget you're on a sailing vessel when you're onboard Star Flyer -- but most of the time, that's a good thing.
Star Flyer Fellow Passengers
The French Polynesia itineraries attract a wide range of passengers from young honeymooners to retirees, but the average age range is 50's to 70's. The ship also attracts a variety of nationalities, but the South Pacific cruises are attracting more Americans than the average Star Clippers cruise. On our cruise, 92 of 120 passengers were Americans. Australians, Brits, French, Germans, Dutch and other Europeans make up the rest, and announcements, daily programs and menus are always presented in English, French and German. Many passengers are repeat Star Clippers cruisers and/or are sailing aficionados. Most are couples, either alone or in groups of friends, with a few families. A surprising number on our cruise worked for the military or were ex-military.
Passengers are typically well off, but are active, adventurous and friendly -- not stuffy or entitled at all. While single travelers may not wish to travel solo to such an overtly romantic destination, open seating at meal times and the sociability of the ship would seem to be welcoming for people traveling by themselves (though fewer than 5 percent of Star Clippers travelers go solo). I wouldn't recommend the ship for passengers with mobility difficulties -- lots of stairs, ledges to step over and rocking tender transfers could present a problem.
Star Flyer Dress Code
Daywear is quite casual -- shorts and T-shirts for land tours, swimsuits and cover-ups for beach days or lying on deck. Swim apparel is not permitted in the dining room. Eveningwear is, in my mind, the ambiguous "resort casual." Women tended to wear nice slacks or skirts and tops or sundresses, while men stuck to slacks and button-down or nice short-sleeved shirts. Jackets and ties are definitely not required. Shorts and T-shirts are not allowed in the dining room at night.
A few nights were themed -- nautical colors (blue and white), pirate night, Tahitian night -- where the dress code was even more lax than usual. Passengers can opt for slightly dressier apparel for the Captain's Dinner (the waiters and bar staff change to black vests and ties, like pseudo tuxes), but it's definitely optional, and no one goes really formal.
Don't forget to bring hard-soled water shoes -- Polynesian sand tends to have spiky bits of coral and seashells in it -- and a sweater or sweatshirt for more blustery sea days.
Star Flyer Gratuity
The suggested gratuity is 5 euros per person, per night for the wait staff and 3 euros per person per night for cabin stewards. You can hand envelopes of cash to the purser's office or sign a form to charge the gratuities to your shipboard account. Passengers are free to give additional cash gifts to other crewmembers who they feel deserve recognition for outstanding service, but it is not required.
--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor
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