Sailing the Secret Caribbean

Thanks to Michele Peterson for this fabulous story in The Montrealer about sailing the "secret" Caribbean with Star Clippers.

I realize something as soon as our ship sets sail. It’s not about the posh cabins, the exotic ports of call or even the 5-course gourmet dinners, the magic of the Royal Clipper, the world’s largest sailing vessel, is all about the wind. A warm gust catches the sails lifting our schooner high on the water and waves splash the bow as we glide away from port of Bridgetown, Barbados. Its 10 pm, the moon is high in the indigo sky and the captain’s white uniform bright against the teak bridge. A crescendo of symphonic music from 1492: The Conquest of Paradise fills the air. An audible sigh at the sheer beauty of it all, rises from the passengers on deck.

“This is unlike any cruise I’ve ever been on,” says the woman next to me, as she raises a glass of white wine.

I have to agree. The romance of great sailing vessels certainly captures the imagination. From the earliest Egyptian mariners to the great explorers of the British Empire, mankind has long relied on the power of the wind to take him to unknown territories. In my case, I’ve chosen the Royal Clipper, modeled on the Preussen a 1902 merchant ship, because unlike larger cruise ships, at just 439 feet she is able to access hidden ports and less-visited islands of the Caribbean. Our itinerary is the Windward Islands of Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts, Îles des Saintes and Martinique.

Although the ship is inspired by the past, it offers all the modern conveniences. My room Category 2 gets me an outside cabin with a double bed and marble bath with shower and a porthole window, TV, writing desk and closet. Located on the Clipper Deck, one level below the main deck, it’s compact but comfortable.

St. Lucia and Dominica
The next morning, the ship drops anchor at Rodney Bay, St Lucia and we awaken to the sight of the pitons, dramatic rainforest-clad volcanic mountains. While there are plenty of shore excursions available – from a rugged 4 x 4 jeep tour to a Segway experience. I decide to play castaway and go for a solo hike.

The tenders, small boats with gangplanks for easy disembarkation, drop us off on a white sand beach and within minutes I’m at Pigeon Island, a 40-acre (16 hectare) islet connected by a causeway to St. Lucia’s northwest coast. There, I discover the remains of an 18th century British fort and Fort Rodney, reminders of the days when the Caribbean was a naval battleground. For a post-hike cool-down, I find a secluded cove where my only company is a pair of dappled grey horses grazing on sea grass. I float on my back daydreaming of pirate ships until it’s time to return to the Royal Clipper.

[caption id="attachment_16812" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Walkway to Champagne Reef on Dominica. (Photo by Michele Peterson)

More seclusion awaits at Dominica our next port stop. Although sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, it’s still relatively undeveloped and is so lush it’s known as the ‘nature island.’ I opt for an easy 15-minute hike to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trafalgar Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park where we’re surrounded by hummingbirds, giant ferns and graceful orchids. At the end of the misty trail, twin waterfalls (one as high as a 10-story building) cascade into reflecting pools and I feel as though I’ve stumbled into an undiscovered corner of the Caribbean.

To cool off after the steaming rainforest, we journey to Champagne Reef, a snorkelling site with a unique geo-thermal spring. Warm bubbles caress our bodies as we float across a colourful reef just a few steps from shore. “It’s like swimming in a glass of sparkling champagne,” says Clem Johnson, the owner of Champagne Reef Dive and Snorkel as he points out parrot fish, sea sponge and hawksbill sea turtles.

Back on the Royal Clipper, with my appetite whetted by all the exercise, it’s soon time to head to the dining room. Set in a soaring three-storey atrium with curving staircase, the Edwardian décor of polished brass and mahogany woodwork is formal but the dress code casually elegant – no evening gowns required. The open seating plan encourages mingling. The ship’s 227 passengers are an eclectic mix of nationalities; many of them repeat cruisers on the Star Clippers sailing fleet. My tablemates are a group of well-travelled couples from Florida and we enjoy a five-course meal, featuring Chateaubriand with truffle sauce and fresh-caught grouper in delicate meunière sauce, and chat about our island experiences.

“Join me for dolphin and sea turtle watching in the morning,” encourages Clara, the staff biologist as she stops by our table. “The best time to see them is in the early morning.”

Antigua and St. Kitts
Although looking for dolphins is tempting, I begin the next day with a 30 minute class of gentle aerobics held on the open-air deck beside the Tropical Bar and Library. Energized, I’m ready for the island of Antigua.

Naval history looms large here so it’s fitting to sail into Falmouth Harbour. With its pretty Easter egg hued buildings with Caribbean fretwork, it’s hard to imagine Antigua was once Britain’s most strategic colony due to its protected bays and location on important trade routes. I immerse myself in history at Nelson’s Dockyard, named for Admiral Horatio Nelson, the famous commander in the Napoleonic wars and then walk to secluded Pigeon Beach to enjoy a group barbecue under the palms, dance to live music by local steel drum band and swim in tranquil waters.

More tranquility awaits on the next shore excursion, the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, on the island of St. Kitts. Built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane from the island’s plantations to processing factories, the restored double-decker “Sugar Train” makes a 2-3 hour loop around the island on a narrow-gauge railway while we sip rum punch and take in the 360 views.

Taking the sun topside
Taking the sun with only the sounds of the sea and the wind in the rigging

Ship Life

With so many islands to explore it would be easy to overlook the pleasures of ship life. That would be a mistake. With more outdoor space per passenger than conventional sailing ships, it’s easy to find solitude with a paperback, socialize at one of the three swimming pools or indulge in a Thai massage at the Captain Nemo spa.

Other diversions include chatting with Captain Sergey Tunikov, Chief Officer Dominique Rollin and the crew on the bridge who are happy to explain the difference between a mizzen-mast and a jigger-mast. While some passengers climb the rigging, help raise the sails or scramble up to the crow’s nest under their supervision, I enjoy steering the ship and feeling the power of the 42 sails.

[caption id="attachment_16813" align="aligncenter" width="550"] Large cruise ships can’t dock at tiny islands
such as Îles des Saintes
(Photo by Michele Peterson)

Îles des Saintes and Martinique
Sailing into the island archipelago of Iles des Saintes is so picturesque, the bay has been designated a member of Les Plus Belles Baies du Monde (The World’s Most Beautiful Bays), an association established in Berlin in 1997. On shore, we soak up some French flair by sipping café au lait in local cafes, shopping for lacy French lingerie and exploring the tiny island by scooter. Îlet à Cabrit offers pristine swimming, easy snorkelling and the rustic studio of French artist Ulrich, who offers hands-on pottery lessons.

Few things are as vital to the French lifestyle as cuisine and our final stop in the city of Fort de France, Martinique doesn’t disappoint. It offers an inventive blend of French haute cuisine and Creole culinary traditions drawn from a mix of African, Indian and Caribbean influences. There’s no better place to dive in than at the colourful market brimming with spices, madras tablecloths, vanilla and fine aged rum.

Cuisine, beaches, history—as intriguing as each Caribbean island is, the highlight of each day is when we join Captain Sergey and his crew as they raise the sails and we launch into the seas like the great explorers before us. While private yachts are certainly quicker and mega cruise ships larger, no other boat plying the waters of the Caribbean sparks the imagination more than the sight of the Royal Clipper under full sail.

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