Star Clippers Cruise Line Royal Clipper by Philminn Eastern Caribbean December 15, 2001
We have cruised about a dozen times before, on the large cruise ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian, and Celebrity. We were intrigued with taking a cruise on a smaller-sized, real sailing ship (no big entertainment, no casino, no long lines). The Royal Clipper is a beautiful new sailing ship of the Star Clippers cruise line.
Judy and I flew out of Minneapolis on American Airlines on a Friday morning. We had decided to fly a day early to our cruise that started in Barbados, and spend one night in a hotel to ensure we wouldn't miss the boat. It was a long day of traveling. Our first plane was to Chicago. Second to Miami. Third to Barbados. We arrived in Barbados late, about 9:30 p.m., and got a ride over to our hotel for the night.
It was raining - the hotel staff told us December is usually their driest month, but they had been having a lot of rain this year (it figures). They have had some trouble with Dengue fever on the island,so our room had a mosquito coil slowly burning on the floor (nice touch). The cruise line was supposed to pick us up at 3:30 the following day (Saturday) to take us to the ship, which was supposed to dock at 6:00 a.m., unloaded the passengers, then let us new passengers on the ship by 5:00 p.m. for a 10:00 sailing.
We checked out of our hotel at noon, and sat around the pool and read our books and relaxed until 3:30 p.m. I had a funny feeling that nobody would actually come get us as promised. Then a taxi driver looking for someone else asked us who we were waiting for, and when we told him we were waiting for a taxi to take us to the Royal Clipper, he said he had overheard some bad news - it wasn't coming back until the NEXT day because of problems! I asked him if this happened often, and he said, no.
So I called the agent for the cruise company and found out that indeed, the ship was very late getting back from Martinique to Barbados (the longest leg of the cruise)they had run into very strong head winds (were probably relying on their engine), and were due in about 8 or 9 p.m. They said we could stay at the hotel until they were ready to take us to the ship, or they could pick us up now and take us to a bar/restaurant/beach area downtown (Bridgetown) where the other passengers would be arriving. They would take us to a restaurant for dinner (a pretty forgettable meal), and then when it was time to board the ship, they would take us to the ship. We opted for the second option - we did not want to hang around the hotel anymore.
While we were waiting in Bridgetown, we met some of our fellow passengers on the voyage, including a nice older couple from Florida, whom we spent a lot of time with on the trip, as well as couples from England, Germany, and Virginia. It turned out there were only 97 passengers on our trip, on a boat that accommodated over 200. September 11th definitely had something to do with it. There were many English and German people on the cruise, so all announcements were made in three languages. On the menus in the dining room, French came first, then English, and then German. I also met an Austrian man who had cruised more exotic, adventurous places, such as the high arctic and Antarctica, and was looking forward next year to a voyage on a Russian icebreaker to reach the North Pole.
We finally were taken to the ship at 10:00 p.m., and the captain got us underway a little before midnight. Once we got out of the harbor (at each port) by engine power, the crew would start hoisting the 33 sails (give or take a couple) to the theme music from the movie, "Christopher Columbus: 1492." It was all very interesting and moving.
The passengers were never made to feel they were in the crew's way. This was a beautiful 2-year old ship, not an old Windjammer, and the passengers WERE NOT asked to help with the sails.
Once we got underway, we had to cross the Atlantic from Barbados to the first destination, Carriacou, an island north of Grenada. The rocking and tossing of the boat made me feel a little nauseous, so I decided to just lie down on my bed (wishing I hadn't eaten dinner). It was not that bad, and apparently did not affect Judy much. I was happy to discover the next morning I had fallen asleep, and we were now on calm seas.
Some drizzling on and off, but we took the tender boat that landed on Carriacou, and then went on to a tiny island called Sandy Island, where we did some snorkeling before it rained again. It was not much more than a sand bar with about 5 palm trees on it, but somebody later told me the island had a lot more trees before the most recent hurricane decreased their number.
Breakfasts and lunches on the ship were always buffets (breakfast also featured a chef making omelets to order), and you sat anywhere and with whom you wanted. The food was good, but I thought the quality (and variety) was a little bit below what I've usually experienced on Princess. Dinner was a choice of two entrees, as well as salad, soup, appetizer, and dessert. Because they put out an afternoon snack at 5:00, we never went to dinner before 8:00. Dinner also was come when you want and sit with whom you want. We met some other nice people this way, including a travel writer from Manhattan who was on board with her mother, and a schoolteacher from England. One night we ate with three of the four young Swedish people who were the water sports staff. We met some other English couples on the trip who were also very charming. One of them had been on the ship the previous week (a different island itinerary) and told us it was so rough sailing back to Barbados the previous Saturday that two women fell off their chairs in the dining room, and the silverware and glasses were falling off the tables. I was glad we missed that voyage.
We took the tender from the ship to Grenada. The taxi drivers here were VERY aggressive trying to engage you in conversation so they could take you on an island tour in their taxis. I do not think they believed us when we told them we had been to and seen much of the island before (we had). We walked around the markets, but did not find much to buy except for the usual spices. We did find a store that sold some exotic flavors of ice cream, and after we bought two cones, the owner gave us a golden-foil wrapped nutmeg, which is the leading export of Grenada (without the gold foil), and even appears on their flag. We bought some real cinnamon bark and some locally made vanilla extract for presents to friends back home.
We had been told that our ship would be moved at 4:00 p.m. to dock at the pier, so we would not need the tender boats to get back to the ship later. We got back to the pier at 2:30 and waited and waited but no tender ever came. I was starting to become annoyed, as we were running out of time left in Grenada to get to a beach. There was a huge container cargo ship blocking our view, which it turned out, prevented us from seeing that our ship had moved EARLY, and was around the corner from where we were waiting. I finally asked a woman in an information booth if she had heard of anything, and a man talking to her told us our ship was docked around the corner! So we went back to the ship and got changed into our swimsuits and got our snorkeling gear together, and took a taxi to Grenada's probably best-known beach, Grand Anse. It is supposed to have good snorkeling, but it is a very long beach, and apparently where the taxi dropped us off there were no fish.
This was the highlight day of the cruise for most people. We were now in the Grenadines, which included many small islands, some of which had beautiful beaches and coral reefs but no inhabitants. We first took an excursion that showed us Palm and Union Islands, then we stopped at a beautiful beach (Salt Whistle) on Maryeau for a swim, where the water was nice and warm, and different shades of aquamarine and blue and teal. Then we went snorkeling on the famous Horseshoe Reef circling the Tobago Cays (four uninhabited islets), and then were let off on another small island, I believe named Petite Bateau, where the rest of the ship's passengers were enjoying a very tasty beach barbeque lunch. Just when we got our food, the skies opened up and everyone got wet. But it didn't spoil what had been a terrific day.
One of the few disappointments on the cruise was that the cruise/excursion director did not appear to be very familiar with some of the islands, where to go, etc., but only knew about the excursions he was selling. In fairness to him, I think he had only been in the islands for a few weeks. But it was frustrating that, unlike the large cruise ships, this did not supply us with any island or city maps except for St. Lucia, and we never knew where exactly the ship would be stationed if it took people to a beach. In fact, because of the low passenger level, several of the shore excursions had to be cancelled because they didn't get the minimum amount of people needed.
The more we cruise, the more independent we seem to have become, especially if we have been to an island before. It is usually a lot cheaper to hire a taxi to take you where you want to go or see by yourselves, instead of paying for a tour through the ship. The only drawback is that you have got to make it back to the ship before it sails - they won't wait for you if you are late and are not on one of the ship's shore excursions.
We were supposed to be in St. Vincent in the morning, and the small yet quaint island of Bequia in the afternoon. The whole day it rained. The only washed-out day of the cruise. Judy and I walked around the markets in Kingstown in the morning, but didn't find any place that sold any kind of tee shirts or souvenirs; but we did find an Internet Cafe, which was very reasonable - $2 for 15 minutes (the ship's PC available to send an e-mail for $35 did not work, and I had to argue a little to get a refund). I sent an e-mail to our younger son at college, to tell him that if our voyage was delayed getting back to Barbados (as the last week's one was), when he got to the airport the day AFTER we were supposed to come home (Sunday), and called us to pick him up, if we didn't answer the phone, to take a taxi home.
I had been planning on getting a taxi driver to show us around the small island of Bequia in the afternoon, as well as let us off for an hour at one of the beautiful beaches on the island to swim and snorkel, but the rain changed all of that. We decided to walk around the small main street of the harbor (Port Elizabeth) anyhow, and bought a couple of souvenirs. There is a famous wooden boat shop in Bequia (the models sell for $200-$300), but the place was closed. But at least we weren't disappointed about the excursion to the very exclusive island of Mustique (homes owned by Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, etc.) being cancelled (because of the bad weather). Because we were only going to be in Bequia for a few hours, we had to decide before today between taking the Mustique excursion or spending the time on Bequia, and we had chosen Bequia.
Nice weather today in St. Lucia. We did not think we had enough time to take a taxi down to the southern end of the island where the snorkeling was (Anse Chastanet) as well as a beautiful view of the Pitons (two green mountains rising out of the sea), so we took a taxi north to Pigeon Island, where the Hyatt Hotel (which was pretty empty) had a beautiful swimming beach. This brings up one minor disappointment with the cruise: in several places the ship left at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, unlike the usual 5:00 or 6:00 on the large cruise ships. So our time on any one island was more limited.
However, the second highlight of the trip took place in the afternoon. Since the weather was nice, the captain let people get onto a tender with their cameras, and after we sailed away from the ship, put up all the sails so we could take pictures of the ship in all of its glory. It was really something to see. Our tender even briefly maneuvered in front of the path of the ship, where it became very obvious how fast the sailing ship was really moving through the water, right at us!
The evenings on the ship were pretty quiet. One night they had a Caribbean party with a local steel drum band on board, another night a passenger talent show that turned out to be an all- CREW talent show, except for one older woman who belted out some aria from some opera we weren't familiar with. There were two channels on the in-room television showing year-old movies, one in English, one in German or French with the other language in subtitles. So I ended up rewatching some movies I had already seen, but were pretty good (like "Billy Elliot, Christopher Columbus: 1492," etc.) They showed "Columbus" because that's the movie whose music they played when the sails went up leaving port. The movie was over two hours long, but when it hit the two-hour mark, the movie stopped! Several of us at dinner shared our disappointment, and none of us (without the end of the movie) could remember if Columbus ended up being killed on his fourth voyage, or how his story ended. I found the answer on the web:
Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506, at the age of 54. He had suffered through a long terminal illness that first showed symptoms on his third voyage eight years before.
According to his son Fernando, the cause of death was "gout." But in those days, gout was a catchall diagnosis for anything that caused joint pain. Recent research by Gerald Weissmann indicates that the most likely cause of death was Reiter's Syndrome, a rare tropical disease.
Last island of the trip, Martinique. We signed up for our only other ship's excursion - a morning catamaran ride down to a black sand beach that had snorkeling. When we got down there, they took us in a Zodiac boat to see the only two bat caves on the island. For some reason I could not get a picture of the hundreds of bats in the dark in the caves. Then we spent an hour snorkeling before it was time to sail back to the Royal Clipper for the last time. On one side of the bay I watched thousands of small, silver fish circle around and around, a fish river in the sea.
We had little over an hour left when we got back to the ship, and we walked into Fort du France, Martinque - it was a long walk, but all we found were restaurants, grocery stores, and shops for the locals. Martinique is much more cosmopolitan, white collar, and upscale than some of the other nearby islands like St. Lucia. We almost got lost trying to find our way back to the streets we needed to take back to the ship but fortunately found our way back.
In the afternoon, I went up on deck to attend a knot-tying class conducted by a member of the crew from Trinidad. His English was a little hard to understand, and of the six or seven students, I had the most trouble with one or two of the knots. He went through about seven different knots, all of which sounded like they had the same name, yet a different specific purpose. He would check each student's knot, and say, "Very good, excellent, or sometimes in my case, "I've never seen THAT one before!" I would have been happy if he had stopped after the first couple of knots so that I would remember something. In fact, after the class was finished, I realized I had become so confused about tying knots, that I temporarily forgot how to tie a simple bow or shoelace! Fortunately this knowledge returned later on that day.
We had our last dinner, and Judy started packing. Our bags had to be out in the hallway by 4:30 a.m. (the big cruise ships have a midnight deadline). Thankfully the seas were not too rough, although we had some bad vibrations shaking the doors in the room all the way back to Barbados on Friday night/early Saturday morning.
We had our early bird breakfast and left for the airport to catch our 9:00 flight from Barbados back to Miami. When we got to the airport, there was a really long line with just one security agent working on our flight. She had on plastic gloves and was opening up EVERY piece of to-be-checked luggage, and going through everything, including lots of dirty laundry. It went so slow, I do not know how our flight was ONLY 30 minutes late. When we got to Miami, going through customs was awful - the place was a madhouse of hundreds and hundreds of people dashing one way or the other, or standing in very long lines. When we went to the baggage carrousels to claim our luggage, they changed the carrousel number (1 to 8) THREE times without posting it on the electronic signs. Then, after we rechecked our luggage and went to catch our next flight, when we went through security, I was taken aside, padded down and "wanded," and also asked to show the soles of my shoes (something new and odd). We did not know until we got home that night about the incident that day on another American Airlines flight with the "shoe bomber" who had plastic explosive in his shoe and was trying to ignite it.
Some Additional Thoughts
The ship had three tiny saltwater pools, but we didn't use any of them. The rear of the ship on the first level had a marina platform that went opened down over the water, where they offered scuba, sailboating, wind surfing, water skiing, etc. on a couple of the islands, but we didn't have the chance to use it. The cabins themselves had nice wood paneling, and the bathrooms had marble floors (but also a tiny shower with a curtain that tended to want to stick to your rear and become more intimate with you than you desired).
The captain and entire crew of the ship were warm and gracious. With only 97 people on our voyage, we got to meet a lot of people and sometimes it felt like one big family. Indeed, there were about 23 people on board having a family reunion, complete with some children.
One evening the captain of the ship gave a basic navigation lesson, and passed around a real sextent, which would be useful if the global positioning satellite system went down. I was disappointed the lesson did not get into actual information about how they use the sails to propel the ship, or what the different 33 sails were for. Another afternoon Louis, the chief engineer, gave us a quick tour through the engine rooms of the ship. Some of the engine rooms were very hot and very noisy.
Below the waterline on the lowest level of the ship was a small gym/health spa. I used the treadmills there several afternoons. One wall had portholes that were underwater, but I never saw any fish swim by.
All of the ports we visited accepted American currency. The other islands, except Barbados and Martinique, also took EC (Eastern Caribbean) currency.
Many of the people on the ship had only been on one or none of the large cruise ships before, yet were pretty negative about them. I found myself a minority of one saying I have enjoyed both types of sailing experiences. But understand that this type of cruise on a real sailing vessel is NOT for everyone.
All in all, it was a real fun week and cruise, and we were all saddened to have to leave the ship and the people whose company we enjoyed during the week.