Cruising to paradise on Royal Clipper, the world's largest full-rigged sailing ship

Cruising to paradise on Royal Clipper, the world's largest full-rigged sailing ship

RODNEY BAY, St. Lucia — Jenna Furger is having a Pirates of the Caribbean moment. 

The 25-year-old alumni association staffer from Madison, Wis. is standing near the wheel of the world’s largest full-rigged sailing ship, Royal Clipper, watching as more than a dozen deck hands scramble across its teak deck to set the sails. 

Like in a scene out of one of the Pirates movies, officers barks out orders as the crew pulls on thick ropes connected to massive sheets of sailcloth. Soon the first of a dozen triangular staysails lining the middle of the vessel begins to unfurl. Then another one opens up. And another. Moments later the giant rectangular mainsails begin to come down, and the massive Star Clippers ship — four decks high and 439 feet long — catches the wind.  

It’s a dramatic beginning to the ship’s departure from St. Lucia, made all the moreso by the blasting of the triumphant theme song from the movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise across the deck from loudspeakers.

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“It feels like I’m on a real pirate ship,” says Furger, one of dozens of passengers out on deck to take in the spectacle as Royal Clipper sets off for nearby Guadeloupe. “I’m just waiting for Johnny Depp to walk up.” 

In a cruise industry increasingly dominated by floating mega-resorts that carry thousands of vacationers and are chock full of gee-whiz attractions, Royal Clipper is an anomaly — and a throwback to a bygone era.  

Carrying just 227 passengers, it’s a true clipper ship of the sort that famously sped across the world’s oceans in the 1800s. But it’s no relic of the grand age of sail. While it’s modeled on an iconic sailing vessel of old, the Preussen, it was built just 17 years ago and features such modern comforts as cabins with marble-lined bathrooms, a spa and three deck-top pools. 

By far the biggest of Star Clippers’ three ships (the other two are nearly 80 feet shorter and carry just 170 passengers a piece), Royal Clipper offers a taste of what crossing the world’s oceans was like before the arrival of propeller-driven vessels.

In the place of such mega-ship attractions as theater shows and deck-top water parks, Royal Clipper boasts such allures as lounging in the bowsprit nets that jut out from its sleek bow. Climbing the ship’s soaring masts is another draw. 

“If you don’t look down, you’re fine,” quips Tony Carlson, 60, of Ottowa, Canada, after scrambling up a 65-foot rope ladder to the crow’s nest on one of Royal Clipper’s forward masts. 

Wearing a ship-provided harness that’s tied into a safety line, Carlson gazes across Royal Clipper’s elaborate rigging, which contains 56,000 square feet of sails spreading out from five masts. There are 42 sails in all. 

“It’s as fantastic as I thought it would be,” he says. 

Later in the cruise, Carlson and other passengers will have the chance to help hoist the sails. They also can pop into the bridge to talk sailing with ship officers. The bridge has an open-door policy.  

Still, the experience is about more than the novelty of traveling on a cruise vessel powered by the wind. Just as notable: Royal Clipper’s relatively small size as compared to modern mega-ships allows it to access destinations that often are off limits to bigger vessels. 

On this seven-night Caribbean voyage out of Barbados, Royal Clipper anchors off such off-the-beaten-path hideaways as Terre-de-Haut, a tiny French island with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants that’s part of the Iles des Saintes archipelago. Tendering to shore on small launches, passengers wander the island’s single, picturesque village or strike out down the trail to its hilltop fort, named after Napoleon. 

Other stops include one of the beach-lined coves of Les Anses-d’Arlet, a fishing village along the southwest coast of Martinique that sometimes goes months without a ship visit, and the picture-perfect yachting haven of Falmouth Harbor along the south coast of Antigua. Located near historic Nelson’s Dockyard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the latter is far from Antigua’s more touristy main cruise hub in northerly St. John’s.   

As compared to cruises on mega-ships, a sailing on Royal Clipper is much more of a laid back affair. At many of the stops on this itinerary, the vessel offers just a handful of shore excursions. At two of the six destinations on the trip, there are no excursions at all.  

Indeed, a Caribbean sailing on Royal Clipper has more in common with a yachting trip than a traditional cruise. Sailing overnight from island to island, the ship anchors during the day in scenic coves and harbors where the main attraction is basking in the warm Caribbean sun, either on Royal Clipper’s top deck or along the nearby shore.   

Often the ship offers a tender operation to a nearby beach, where its sports team sets up for the day with paddle boards, kayaks and other water toys available at no extra charge. One day even brings a beach barbecue. Royal Clipper also has a built-in marina at its stern that opens up while the ship is at anchor, offering passengers the chance to swim and kayak directly from the vessel. Passengers also can take out the ship’s small sailboat.  

On board, the diversions are limited. Entertainment consists of the occasional after-dinner talent or fashion show (with passengers encouraged to take part). One night a steel drum band comes aboard to play the outdoor Tropical Bar. But for the most part, passengers are left to make their own fun. 

“This isn’t a cruise for the kind of people who need a lot of (on-board) entertainment like Broadway shows,” says Larry Kleiman, 77, of Montreal.

Speaking moments after snorkeling on his own just off a Terre-de-Haut beach, Kleiman notes Royal Clipper is full of people who seem to prefer less-programmed vacationing. “We’d rather be doing this.” 

Like Kleiman, who owned a 30-foot sailboat for years, many Royal Clipper passengers are longtime sailing fans who know the difference between a jigger staysail and a lower-mizzen topsail. But demographically, the on-board crowd is a diverse lot. A bit over a third of passengers on this voyage (50 out of 136) are Americans, but there also are significant numbers of German, French and British travelers on board as well as a handful of Italians, Swiss, Austrians, South Koreans and New Zealanders. Announcements are made in three languages: English, German and French.

The diversity is part of the appeal, says Carol Donnelly, a 61-year-old psychology professor from Chicago who has sailed with Star Clippers twice before. But there’s no getting around the main attraction of the ship: Its soaring sails and the wind-in-your-hair, slicing-through-the-waves cruise experience that they allow.

“There is something about authentically sailing that makes this very special,” Donnelly says, pausing to talk at a private reception for repeat passengers. “I can’t think of another type of vacation that I would rather be doing.” 

If you go …

Royal Clipper sails out of Barbados from November through March. A seven-night Windward Islands itinerary features calls at St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique. Also available is a seven-night Grenadine Islands itinerary that offers stops at Grenadine, Grenada, Tobago Cays, St. Vincent, Martinique and St. Lucia. Fares for both routes start at $2,200 per person, based on double occupancy. 

A smaller Star Clippers vessel, Star Flyer, also sails in the Caribbean during winters. It operates cruises between Havana and Cienfuegos, Cuba that include stops in Cuba and the Cayman Islands. It also sails to the Leeward Islands out of St. Maarten.

During summers, both Royal Clipper and Star Flyer move to the Mediterranean for a range of three- to 17-night trips. A third Star Clippers ship, Star Clipper, sails year-round in Asia. Information: 800-442-0551; starclippers.com.

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Cruising to paradise on Royal Clipper, the world's largest full-rigged sailing ship

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