Seeing the Royal Clipper for the first time is a "wow" moment. With its five masts and 42 sails, this is no ordinary cruise ship.
Instead, it's a sailing vessel, reminiscent of those seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, but without the zombies. No matter where this ship is docked, people stare, take photos and circle it in their boats.
It's also a far cry from the trend in today's cruise ships of "bigger is better." New ships by Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Celebrity hold in upwards of 1,500 travelers. They're floating hotels, with casinos, full-scale movie theaters, multiple seatings for dinner and even rock-climbing walls.
The Royal Clipper does not compare. The ship is not about the amenities on board; it's about the sailing and the destinations. On this trip, the ship visited St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles Des Saintes and Martinique. During the winter, it alternates week-long trips between the Windward and Grenadine Islands. Both depart from Bridgetown, Barbados, and visit the smaller ports that many cruise ships can't reach due to their size. During the summer, the Royal Clipper cruises the Mediterranean, and, between seasons, 16- and 21-day transatlantic crossings are available.
At capacity, the Royal Clipper can accommodate 227 passengers, but, depending on the time of year, she may be only half full. This means you'll get to know practically everyone on board--both the good and the bad. The guest composition is about half European - primarily British and Germans - and half American. With free water sports, both tweens and teens will enjoy the voyage, but there are no programs for very young children.
The ship is the dream of Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft, owner and chief executive of the Star Clippers group. A sailor himself, Krafft has spent a lot of time sailing mega-yachts, and wanted to bring that experience to the masses as an alternative to the big cruise ships. His first ship, the Star Flyer, was commissioned in 1991, and a year later a second ship, the Star Clipper, started sailing. The Royal Clipper debuted in 2000 and is the first five-masted, full-rigged sailing ship built since 1902, and the largest sailing clipper ship in operation.
The cruises are heaven for beach lovers as they feature a stop at a different beach every day. The ship does the majority of its sailing at night and docks at a new port each morning. This gives passengers a full day to see the island, take an excursion, snorkel or simply relax on the beach.
The cabins range in size from 100 square feet for the bare-bones inside rooms to 320 square feet for the Owner's Suites. Fourteen of the cabins, all named after famous clipper ships, have outside verandahs. These deluxe suites, as well as the Owner's Suites, also offer whirlpool baths and 24-hour room service.
The cabins aren't fancy: there are no Frette linens, goose down comforters or Aveda bath products. But, with the mahogany and burnished brass décor, nautical artwork and platform beds, they fit in well with the relaxed, comfortable attitude of the ship and its able crew.
All meals are served in the main dining room, with breakfast and lunch being buffet-style. The dining room can accommodate all of the ship's passengers in one sitting. Dress is more casual than on the larger cruise ships, but T-shirts and shorts aren't encouraged. The company consulted on the cruise's menu with Jean-Marie Meulien, former chef of the two-Michelin-starred L'Oasis in La Napoule, on the French Riviera. The food blends international and Caribbean flavors and, as is the case on most cruise ships, you won't go hungry
After dinner, the majority of the passengers move to the outside bar. If there is one downside to the cruise, it's the entertainment. It's slim pickings on such a small ship: an employee talent show, a two-person band, a small dance floor and hermit-crab races [full disclosure: the reporter did win approximately $80 betting on a hermit crab named Luigi].
The daytime activities on board are much more interesting. It's not often that one gets a chance to climb the mast of a tall ship, sit in the bow netting while the ship is sailing at 12 knots or even take a tour of a ship's bridge - a location that, on the large ships, is off-limits to passengers in the post-Sept. 11 world. Having an all-access pass makes it seem like it's your own yacht, but leave the pillaging and plundering to the pirates.
Rates for a one-week cruise during the high season start at $1,495 per person, double occupancy, excluding port charges.
A clipper was a very fast sailing ship in the 19th century that was used to haul goods, such as tea. One of the last - and certainly most famous - was the Cutty Sark (Scottish for "short shirt"), which was built in 1869 for Captain John Willis. Constructed for the then-thriving China tea trade, a ship's speed could dictate the price its cargo would fetch back home in England. The faster the ship, the more money it could make. Unfortunately, the advent of the newly-opened Suez Canal and the invention of the steamship ended the need for clippers. The Cutty Sark is now dry-docked as a museum in Greenwich, England.