Joining Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper for a Cruise through the Southern Caribbean
Saturday, December 12, 2015
Tucked within the maze of gleaming white cruise ships that loomed tall over the piers in the port of Bridgetown, Barbados was a smaller, more unassuming cruise ship. She doesn’t have row upon row of balcony staterooms, nor does she have poolside movie theatres or rock climbing walls that scale her funnel. In fact, Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper doesn’t have a lot of things that the big megaships have – and that’s entirely the point.
Royal Clipper isn’t your average cruise ship. Royal Clipper is a masterpiece of design and engineering; a classic throwback to the glory days of ocean travel. She is the world’s largest full-rigged, five-masted sailing ship in the world.
The masts are the first things that guests arriving in the Port of Bridgetown are likely to notice. I traced them down with my eyes to Royal Clipper’s striking blue-and-white superstructure. I’ve seen her before – ironically, twice here in Barbados. Once in 2010, and again in 2012. Yet I was unprepared for the surprisingly opulent world that awaited me once I stepped onboard.
Guests embarking the other ships in port – Azura, Oosterdam, Seven Seas Navigator and Wind Star – would never imagine that there is a three-story atrium on Royal Clipper that leads from the dining room on Commodore Deck all the way up through Clipper Deck and rising through Main Deck and the adjacent Piano Bar. The atrium terminates with a massive skylight that cleverly doubles as the glass-bottom of the midships swimming pool.
Have you ever seen thousands of litres of water literally suspended over top of a three-story atrium with glass panes separating it from the interior elements? It sure is a first for me – and a very cool one at that.
Embarkation was quick and painless. Star Clippers advises guests that embarkation will begin at 16:00 (that’s 4:00 p.m. for North Americans), and they mean it. I arrived at 3:30 p.m. in the hopes that I might sneak on earlier; the 4:00 p.m. rule was enforced unyieldingly.
While waiting in the air-conditioned terminal, I filled out the standard health questionnaire, and signed the required Star Clippers liability waiver. It’s a standard boilerplate document that is designed to limit the cruise line’s liability in the event you got butt-over-teakettle after a day of adult beverages, mixed with the onboard watersports equipment.
At 4:00 p.m. sharp, we were walked over to the Royal Clipper – literally located straight outside the terminal gates. Our names were checked against the Passenger List, and gradually we were allowed to embark via the gangway.
At the top of the gangway, Captain Mariusz Szalek personally greeted each and every guest with a hearty handshake. A cold towel was placed in my hand by the Spa Attendant, and a slimmed-down version of the Drink of the Day – a “Bon Voyage” – was served, gratis.
Check-in formalities were conducted just through the forward shell doors, in the gorgeous Piano Bar. The social hub of the ship, the Piano Bar is where most guests will gather throughout the voyage to socialize, enjoy a few cocktails, and listen to the melodies of Gabor, Royal Clipper’s onboard musician.
Check-in could not have been easier: I handed in my passport (along with my Barbados Customs and Immigration Departure Card; don’t forget this!), my completed forms, and showed my printed cruise ticket. A keycard was created for me, and an imprint of my credit card was taken for onboard incidentals. I was then escorted to my room: Category 3 Stateroom No. 116 on Commodore Deck 1.
Located on the port side of the ship, Stateroom 116 is located just at the point where the ship’s sheer starts to climb; that is, the decking begins to angle upwards as it approaches the bow. This is a feature that has been all but eliminated with modern shipbuilding, but was once considered a sign of great beauty. It also served a practical purpose for early sailing ships, allowing water to wash off the ship’s decks at its lowest point. Although Royal Clipper was built in 2000, her sheer – or camber, if you prefer – was restored in order to better mimic the sailing vessels of old.
Inside, my room is panelled with “wood” (really a fireproof wood-like surface required by SOLAS – Safety of Life at Sea – regulators) and features attractive moulding and brass accents throughout. It’s like 1901 called, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
But don’t think that Royal Clipper’s staterooms are lacking in modern amenities; my room also includes a small flat-panel television; a DVD player (movies can be rented free of charge from Reception. Don’t bother bringing your own unless you have a large PAL format collection); and a marble bathroom clad with all the latest fixtures.
Closet space is tight but manageable since Star Clippers encourages a relaxed dress code. No need to bring your suits and ties here; informal is the word of the day. Luggage can be stored under your bed, and a small dresser with three drawers is situated by the aft bulkhead of the room.
I alluded to the fact that you’ll need PAL, or European, DVD’s if you want to watch them on the DVD player in your stateroom; that European-ness is a common theme throughout the ship. In your room, you’ll find two European two-prong style 220V outlets. It was probably enough in 2000, but it’s far from adequate now, and its placement above the dresser isn’t ideal.
Onboard purchases are also made in Euros (€). This is good news for Americans thanks to the fact that both the American Dollar and the Euro aren’t that far from parity, but bad news for Canadians: the Euro is well over 1.5 times as much as a Canadian dollar, as of December 2015. It’s little wonder then that the vast majority of my fellow guests hail from Germany, England and, to a much lesser extent, the United States. If you like your cruises international in flavor, this is the one for you.
It’s also worth noting that with the exception of the stern-mounted Owner’s Suites on Clipper Deck; the Deluxe Suites with Veranda (all 14 of them) on Main Deck; and the two Category 1 staterooms aft of the Library deckhouse on Main Deck, most of the Category 2-5 Staterooms are similar in terms of look and feel.
For the budget-conscious, six Category 6 Inside Staterooms are located on Clipper Deck 2. Numbered 212, 216, 220, 224, 228 and 232, these are the smallest accommodations onboard. They’re also some of the best-sellers, so book quickly if you’re interested in these economically-priced staterooms.
After I’d unpacked and had become acquainted with my wonderful stateroom, guests mustered on-deck at 6:45 p.m. for the sternest lifeboat drill I’ve attended in over 80 cruises. “If you’re here, you raise your arm and say, ‘here.’ I don’t want to hear another word from you,” our 20-something cruise director barked. This was followed by the usual rundown of muster locations, instructions on what goes into the vacuum toilet system (not much), and the location of the ship’s many amenities.
As we departed Bridgetown, the Vangelis theme from the movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise was played over the loudspeakers on deck. Windstar Cruises does the same thing on their sailaways, and I feel it’s more moving aboard their ships. The sound crackled unbearably on Royal Clipper, the speakers belting out a static-ridden, distorted version of what is a very beautiful instrumental song.
However, Royal Clipper came alive in a way that Windstar’s ships do not. Windstar’s ships have sails, yes, but they’re still primarily built to be driven by their diesel-electric propulsion motors. This isn’t the case with Royal Clipper: aboard the ships of Star Clippers, it’s sails first, diesel propulsion second.
If the soundtrack didn’t move me, the sounds of Royal Clipper setting sail did. There was the whirring of flywheels and the straining of lines, the unfurling of sails flapping in the breeze and the creaking of wood. Moreso than any other ship I’ve been on, save for perhaps the few sailing vessels that are a fraction of the size of the massive Royal Clipper, this ship came alive when it left Barbados.
Once the sails were deployed, we increased speed dramatically. Soon, we were zipping out of the harbour, buffeted by the strong trade winds that frequent this area. We sped past the incoming Thomson Celebration, ex Westerdam, and were clearly an object of fascination for her passengers: camera flashes went off with reckless abandon in our direction, illuminating the night sky with hundreds of tiny white bursts in an otherwise featureless evening.
We may be a quarter of the size, but we’re already turning heads on this voyage of discovery to the beautiful Grenadines in the Caribbean. We’re not cruising; we’re “clippering” – and I’m excited to see where the week takes us.
So come along as Star Clippers shows you the Caribbean you never knew about, just like the days of old.