Who hasn’t dreamed of sailing a tall ship on the forever sea, lulled by pink dawns and moonlit roadsteads? In 1989, Mikael Kraft did more than dream. The Swedish entrepreneur built one tall ship and then another and another, recreating with modern technology the many-masted rigs of a century past. One recent evening in Bridgetown, Barbados, a friend and I slid away to the Grenadines on Royal Clipper, flagship of Kraft’s Star Clipper fleet and, at 439 feet, the largest true sailing ship in the world. An hour before midnight, 200 or so passengers gathered on the main deck. The strains of Vangelis’ “1492 filled the air. All at once, 42 sails unfurled from the rigging and we were slicing into the darkness, canvas blazing like candelabra from five masts.
The moment changed my mind, perhaps not about all cruise ships, but at least this one: a windjammer from topgallant to waterline with the amenities of a luxury yacht below.
The shipboard life of Royal Clipper, without casinos, nightclubs or a thousand other passengers, agreed with my friend Margaret and me. Instead of lavish entertainments, our captain, Klaus Mueller, held forth on the bridge with charismatic presence: on one evening recounting the era of giant windjammers, such as the Preussen of Germany’s Flying P line, which inspired Royal Clipper; on another, giving the most eloquent account of celestial navigation I’ve heard. Sunsets were an unearthly experience, for when the mood took him, Mueller shouldered the bagpipes of his adopted Scotland and played until twilight swallowed our bow.
Margaret, who had sailed the QE II in its glory days, found an unusual degree of large-liner élan for a ship of this size. Harkening to the elegance of a bygone era, a spiral of stairs descended gracefully to the single dining room where guests received their meals at the seats and times of their choice. Manta rays and grouper flitted past the underwater portals in the spa. The shaded Tropic Bar hosted house and invited musicians, which included a fine steel band. The megayacht amenities of two owners’ suites sternward were rivaled by the romance of the staterooms with verandas, and even small, lower-category cabins enjoyed an ambience of richly finished hardwoods, marble baths and brass portholes to the watery world outside.
At any time of day, the open main deck was my favorite haunt, for along with pools, bar and lounge chairs, it offered 360-degree views of the sea. Mornings found me there with a few early risers, admiring the pinnacles of Union Island, or St. Lucia swathed in lavender light.
“This is the fascination of the sea,” Mueller said. “No matter how many came before, you always feel you are the first, like fresh-fallen snow. To don a harness and climb the main mast, which most of us did, was to feel like Columbus sighting brooding St. Vincent, sleepy Grenada and the Tobago Cays for the first time.”
Of all Caribbean passages, this one stippled with reefs and shallows shows what Royal Clipper does best. Anchored alongside private yachts at Carriacou, Palm Island and Bequia, she creates the finest moments in the simple pleasures of a pure beach lapped by beautiful water. A full day in the Tobago Cays gave us the run of a gem of an island to try every conceivable water toy, explore the terrain on all sides or simply chill under one’s personal palm with a brief wander to the RC barbecue pit and bar. Rare, by the standards of cruise ships and some charter yachts, the day’s shore excursion offered a chance to snorkel or dive the remarkable Horseshoe Reef.
On larger islands, excursions catered to the adventurous and comfort-loving alike. On Grenada, some guests toured historic St. George’s by Creole bus while others hiked to the Seven Sisters waterfall in Grand Etang National Park. A group that went mountain biking in the central range of St. Lucia came back smiling. Another group exploring St. Vincent’s Mesopotamia Valley by jeep returned amazed. Shoppers stormed Forte de France’s shops looking for the latest in Paris fashions.
As I discovered, however, liner cruising has more to do with ship than shore. It is the sea sliding by and new landfalls seen fresh and perfect from a distance. It is a small time-slice of exploration, and a long, lazy interlude of escape.
As on most ships, we were never far from superb food. Executive chef Rodolfo Soledad showed a flair for presentations in the style of his native Philippines and for sinfully rich desserts. As more cruise lines tighten their budgets, Royal Clipper still insists on authentic ingredients and prepares each portion individually. Despite diminishing sources of local produce in this part of the Caribbean, hotel manager Francesco Mazzoni obtained young coconuts for our delicious rum cocktails and fresh lobster for the captain’s dinner at two of our stops.
Even so, food did not take first prize on Royal Clipper. That honor goes to its distinguished guests and crew. As one blue day dissolved into another, many would say they had seldom sailed in such intelligent and gentle company, spanning seven generations. Margaret became instant friends with an uproarious group from Australia. I took to a couple from Devon, living on the former farmland of Sir Francis Drake. Mingling became part of the adventure in this small crowd, where a night’s dinner conversation might range in several languages over topics from horse breeding to the geology of Tibet.
Whether it was a Russian sailmaker bent over his sewing machine, a bartender from Dominica or the Swedish sports staff, the Royal Clipper’s crew in their jaunty stripes was no less fine. It surprised me to learn that despite more confining quarters and job descriptions, their tenures are longer and camaraderie greater than the average megayacht crew’s. Day and night, this team of 103 from 25 countries swabbed the teak decks, vacuumed miles of carpet and still had a winning word for every passing guest.
Royal Clipper converted me to its style of cruising and proved the merits as no larger ship could. A DVD of her construction provides additional evidence. The movie shows yard workers in Gdansk welding a clipper bow to the hull. In the Netherlands, Merwede juggles 180 companies and 40 subcontractors to finish it out. As cliffhanger sea trials proceed to a gala launch attended by the Queen of Sweden, carpenters hammer behind the scenes.
“I have been fortunate in my life to build and own some major sailing megayachts,” Kraft tells reporters. “I had the opportunity to move around the world with my best friends in an intimate atmosphere, anchoring in out-of-the-way ports that no cruise ship could reach.” Kraft announces his tall ships will offer “the megayacht experience as an alternative to mass market cruising.”
Royal Clipper did.
Contact information: Star Clipper, (305) 442-0550; Reservations: (800) 442-0551; www.starclippers.com,