As we lounged on deck on the Royal Clipper, moored off Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, we couldn’t help but notice the flotilla of pleasure craft that slowly cruised past, and then circled around for another look, their passengers snapping photos. Had hunky “Aquaman” Jason Momoa boarded the ship without our knowledge?
Nope — it was the Royal Clipper drawing all the attention. Even with its 42 sails down, this 439-foot, five-masted, square-rigged clipper ship is a stunner. It draws attention even in a port that’s wall-to-wall with mega yachts. You’ll feel like a celebrity (a young Sophia Loren, perhaps, if you’re sailing off the coast of Italy) as you languidly wave at passersby.
The Guinness Book of World Records cites Royal Clipper as the largest square-rigged ship in service, with 54,000 square feet of sail. If you love sailing, or even the idea of sailing, you’ll appreciate a clipper ship. On this one (holding 227 guests), you will be transported to the glorious Age of Sail as you climb up the mast (wearing a harness) to the crow’s nest, 75 feet over the water, or sneak away to a cozy bowsprit net, suspended above the waves.
Although the Royal Clipper does have an engine, it is truly majestic when under sail, and you don’t have to know a jib from a jibe to appreciate it. “We try to use the sails as much as possible,” says cruise director Mino Alvarez. On Caribbean routes, the ship is under sail 70 percent of the time, Alvarez says. On this day, we had 12 knots of breeze and were powered by full sails. This ship draws folks who are keen to sail but don’t want to charter their own vessel — or be the person responsible for shimmying up the mast if something goes terribly wrong.
Kymber Habernicht of Chattanooga, Tenn., cruising from Cannes to Rome with her husband, has sailed with Star Clippers, the Royal Clipper’s cruise line, seven times, to ports in Tahiti, Thailand, and the Caribbean. Having sailed traditional cruise lines like Holland America, she says that this is a different kind of experience. “We love the sailing aspect, we love the small size of the ships, and we love that they go to some ports that other ships don’t,” Habernicht says.
Differences are apparent right away, as you notice things like a crew member repairing a sail with a sewing machine, right out on deck, or the sailor-suited guys polishing winches and, yes, climbing up the masts. “We’re always outside. It’s beautiful,” Alvarez says of working on the Royal Clipper. Other ships are “like a floating building,” in comparison, he says.
Inside, it looks like a classic yacht — all polished wood and gleaming brass, with gold brocade curtains and nautical blue upholstery. Guest cabins are located on three decks; some have a porthole, others have sliding doors (=more sunlight). Some are set up for families, with bunk beds; most have a queen-size bed. There’s Wi-Fi for a fee, but it is intermittent, and nonexistent when you’re at sea. All cabins have small flat-screen TVs that play DVDs (you can borrow movies) but nobody we met on the ship bothered. Better to be outside taking in the views from a lounge chair or one of the swimming pools. You sure won’t find the soaring waterslides and surf pools that characterize the bazillion-passenger mega-ships. On the Royal Clipper, the heart of the action (besides the Tropical Bar) is the marina platform. Here, you can leap into the sea, or do something sporty, like snorkeling, water skiing and wakeboarding, windsurfing, kayaking, and sailing a Laser. Or go the indolent route and float around on one of the rafts tied to the back of the ship — perfect for watching those other (puny) yachts cruise past.
Guest Kelly Habernicht (no relation to Kymber) of New York City declared the marina activities her favorite part of her first cruise aboard the Royal Clipper — her first-ever cruise, in fact. “I love it because it’s an intimate setting,” she said. She also gave high marks to the service, the food (“good options for vegetarians”), and the ease of getting to know other passengers, many of whom hail from outside the US. On our sailing, the 202 guests came from 16 countries, while the crew of 110 represented 50 nationalities.
Unlike big ships with multiple seating times and various specialty restaurants, the Royal Clipper offers one seating time in its three-level dining room. You can sit with whomever you wish, but we recommend asking the host to seat you with people you don’t know, sometimes. We had some of our liveliest, most interesting dinners with shipboard strangers. On our Mediterranean sail, announcements were made in English, Italian, and German to reflect the passenger mix. (Prices onboard are in euros.) The food was good, but not spectacular — making it easy to justify indulging in local specialties (gelato!) while ashore.
Speaking of that, we found that shore excursions — an expensive “must do” on many cruise lines — aren’t necessary on the Royal Clipper. Since the ship is moored or docked at each port’s main marina, in the heart of town, guests can typically go ashore and explore on their own, no tour needed. On our cruise, we walked to museums and cathedrals, Napoleon’s residence in Elba, Sardinian beaches, and charming seaports.
As for onboard activities, there’s the Captain Nemo Lounge (a spa and health club), a library with games and books in several languages, guest lecturers, and a daily afternoon snack with live music. There’s music nightly at the piano bar, too, and after-dinner dancing — plus, a very popular talent show performed by guests and crew. No Cirque de Soleil shows or Broadway-style products here.
Keep in mind that this is an actual sailing ship — when the seas are rough, you’ll feel them, and you might feel like you’re inside a washing machine as you peer at the waves outside your porthole. “Today, we experienced the thrill of 40-knot winds and 3-meter seas,” said captain Brunon Borowka one night during our seven-night cruise. “People sail on this ship to feel the wind in their face — well, you definitely had that experience!” he added.
If that sounds dandy to you, consider a sail aboard the Royal Clipper (or sister ships, the Star Clipper and Star Flyer). As someone who loves to sail described it, you get the feel-good aspect of a sailing trip, minus the grunt work. Just don’t volunteer to hoist the sails.
Star Clippers currently sail in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Panama Canal, and do ocean crossings. Cruises from three to 28 nights. Seven-night sail from Cannes to Rome, as above, from $1,880 per person.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com