A Clipper in the Caribbean

The Royal Clipper lets clients set sail in casual elegance

By: Laurel Delp

At first sight, the Royal Clipper seemed small and almost dingy compared to the gleaming, white Windstar vessel moored one pier down at the harbor in Bridgetown, Barbados. But the closer I got, the more I could see how beautiful the ship was; that what had seemed dark was actually wood; and that the low-slung hull was more graceful than the boxy floating cities I was used to.

As the world’s largest sailing ship 439 feet long with five masts the Royal Clipper was designed as a replica of a schooner built in 1902 and evokes all the lost elegance of that era. She’s the perfect ship for those looking for a true sea-going adventure without having to give up the creature comforts. The Royal Clipper entered service in 2000 as the flagship of Star Clippers’ three-ship fleet. She is nearly always under some or all of her 42 sails, only falling back on her 2,500-horsepower diesel engines when the weather or seas fail to cooperate.

The ship accommodates 227 passengers in a variety of cabin configurations on three decks. My 105-square-foot standard cabin was sleekly designed with a tiny, but bright, white-tiled bathroom (the shower was actually part of the room, divided only by the drawn curtain), a built-in desk and closets in warm wood, jewel-colored patterned bedspread and two portholes. Later, when I had a chance to see the deluxe cabins (where doors opened onto balconies and the bathrooms contained small bathtubs), I could see why they are almost always booked far in advance.

Sailing on the Royal Clipper feels a bit like staying in a wonderfully quirky boutique hotel. By the end of the first day, the waiters, bartenders and maitre’d all knew me by name. The atmosphere is calm and unstructured, and dress is always casual although casual elegance is the custom in the evening.

There are no formal seatings for dinners, and since I was traveling solo, the maitre’d placed me at a different table each night, giving me an opportunity to dine with a variety of interesting people, including a family of glassblowers from North Carolina and an English neurosurgeon.

All meals are served in the main dining room (only the deluxe and owner’s cabins have room service), which is set dramatically at the foot of a three-story atrium. Breakfasts and lunches are buffet-style, with a chef preparing custom omelettes, manning a grill or preparing special desserts at lunch. Dinners were continental, with at least one Caribbean-inspired choice on the menu.

When not on shore excursions, passengers relaxed on the top deck by one of three small swimming pools. One deck below, the open-air Tropical Bar is a constant center of activity, where passengers gather for exercise classes, a cold luncheon buffet or the evening’s entertainment programs. It’s the perfect spot for a cappuccino or cocktail when the ship is arriving or setting sail, and on my cruise, people seemed to prefer it to the more formal Piano Bar inside, which was only popular at tea time.

I was unaware that the center swimming pool had a Plexiglas bottom extending down into the Piano Bar until I looked up and nearly dropped my tea cup when I saw someone swimming above.

Right off the Tropical Bar, the plush library is a small island of air-conditioned serenity on muggy afternoons.

Royal Clipper has no elevators or accommodations for disabled travelers. Passengers prone to seasickness may not be happy either, as the Royal Clipper doesn’t handle heavy seas as smoothly as larger ships do.

On the first and last nights of our sailing, when we crossed open ocean between Barbados and the rest of the windward Caribbean islands, many people were miserable.

Still, the Royal Clipper can be the perfect antidote to today’s massive cruise ships. She’s about the romance of the sea. Stand on the top deck at night, looking up at the cream-colored sails below a starry night sky, listen to the crashing waves and you’ll know what it really means to sail.


Ship: Royal Clipper
Company: Star Clippers
Passengers: 227

Hits: Weather permitting, passengers in safety vests can climb the ratlines 60 feet from the top deck to the first yardarm, for some spectacular views.

Misses: Treadmills in the gym are encumbered by an extremely low ceiling, leading to many bumped heads.

Itineraries: Between now and Sept. 23, the Royal Clipper sails the Western Mediterranean between Civitavecchia (Rome) and Venice. Cruises run 6-11 nights. In October, the ship repositions to Barbados, offering Western Caribbean itineraries for the Winter 2006-2007 season.