Five masts, 56,000 square feet of sails, a stiff breeze, and a rolling sea. This was the recipe for an exciting, Southern Caribbean cruise aboard Royal Clipper, the flagship of the three-vessel Star Clippers line.
Commissioned in 2000, the 4,500-gross ton ship is a traditional clipper — a name given to high-performing, square-rigged sailing vessels in the mid-19th century due to their speed. They could travel the major trade routes faster than most merchant ships, typically reaching 18 mph and successfully “clipping” the length of a voyage, saving ship owners and customers time and money.
Royal Clipper is a replica of Preussen, a steel-hulled ship built in Germany that entered service in 1902 and sailed for eight years before a collision sank her in the waters off Dover, England.
The tall ship cruise experience one finds today aboard Royal Clipper is a world apart from the contemporary ships operated by popular brands like Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean, and even other small ship lines such as Windstar Cruises.
The four-deck Royal Clipper, with a capacity for just 227 guests, has one dining room, one indoor lounge, two outdoor bars, and a small library. Without an elevator, the ship is a challenge for anyone with mobility issues, since the only way to navigate the vessel’s interior is by climbing up and down narrow and steep stairways.
Ideal for sailing enthusiasts and those looking for a different kind of cruise adventure, Royal Clipper delivers a unique twist on modern cruising. With the romantic atmosphere of a bygone era, the simplicity of her design allows guests to experience the true nature of a sailing ship.
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Royal Clipper is 480 feet long, roughly double the wingspan of a 747 aircraft, and sports a narrow beam of just 54 feet. I embarked the ship in Bridgetown, Barbados, and from the cruise terminal I could see her rocking from side to side at the pier as a steady wind blew.
At the next berth, P&O Cruises’ 185,000-gross ton Arvia dwarfed Royal Clipper, and I began to wonder whether my sea legs would carry me through the 7-night sailing that was about to begin.
Our cruise in mid-December 2023 called at Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes, and Martinique. December falls smack in the middle of the Southern Caribbean’s wet season, and the weather was true to its reputation.
We had rain showers on and off throughout our weeklong sailing, but plenty of sunshine, too. What caught most guests off-guard, however, was the presence of a phenomenon called the Christmas Wind.
These east to west trade winds were exceptionally strong and steady, and caused large swells that made the ship rock virtually nonstop. On some of the most windy nights, Royal Clipper was up against 40 knot gusts, which kept many guests awake and reaching for their motion sickness meds.
Aside from the uncomfortable overnights, the high winds kept guests off the Sun Deck, where the ship’s three small pools were closed during the roughest days.
Cruisers looking for a smooth sailing aboard Royal Clipper in winter probably should book from mid-January through March, after the winds have settled and the wet season has ended, some of the crew advised.
On the up-side, the windy weather enabled the captain to sail the ship by wind power alone for about 65% of our cruise route, an extraordinary record and one that will appeal to environment-conscience cruisers. Generators remained on for hotel operations when the ship was under full sail power.
Most of the 150 guests on our cruise took the wind in stride, and appeared to become accustomed to the ship’s rocking. Holding onto handrails and bannisters became second nature, but unfortunately, the strong force of the winds put the kibosh on special events, like a barbecue lunch beachside and the use of the ship’s fold-down water sports platform at the ship’s stern.
The demographics of our cruise were interesting and, we were told, typical. The lion’s share of guests were British, followed by Americans, Germans, French, and Canadians. Guests were mostly middle-aged and older, with a few in their 80s and even 90s. Unfortunately, those older folks appeared unable to safely navigate most of the ship.
Our sailing had a few younger couples and some singles, who had paid hefty single supplement fees to join the voyage. The ship is not conducive to children, as it offers no programming or facilities. On our cruise, there was one young couple with a baby who appeared to be under 1 year old.
Guests doted on the adorable tyke, who was just attempting her first steps. On one of those windy nights, her father quipped, “I hope she doesn’t learn to walk on this ship, she’ll turn out looking like a drunken sailor.”
The one thing that Royal Clipper has in common with the contemporary mega-ships is the constant availability of food.
Continental breakfast is offered in the Piano Lounge starting at 6 a.m., followed by a full breakfast buffet in the dining room from 8 to 10 a.m.
Buffet lunch is served in the dining room from noon to 2 p.m., and a substantial array of afternoon snacks is set up in the Main Deck Tropical Bar at 5 p.m. Then it’s a multi-course dinner in the dining room from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., and the evening closes with a midnight snack, again at the Tropical Bar.
Breakfast buffets are typical, with a good choice of hot and cold items, but there were a few oddities, such as no fresh-brewed decaf coffee — only instant was available.
Lunches were themed, Caribbean specialties one day, Mediterranean the next, then seafood, etc. Dinners were excellent, and the chef outdid himself every night. Multi-course menus with salads, soups, appetizers, sorbets, main entrees, cheese plates, a selection of pastry desserts — all were superb.
Dinner entrees featured sea bass, duck breast, roast beef, and coco vin, plus vegetarian offerings such as mushroom quiche, vegetable stews, and spinach cannelloni. Overall, I’d give the food high marks.
Wine was available by the glass and the bottle. We found the prices to be fair, and as with other cruise lines, unfinished bottles are stored for the following night’s meal. In the dining room and the lounge, bartenders provided a generous pour, and cocktails cost about 8 euros.
The line does not offer beverage packages for individual guests, although one can be obtained for groups.
Royal Clipper has 114 staterooms, and most of them are quite tight. There are two owner’s suites, 14 deluxe outside balcony staterooms, two deck cabins, 90 outside doubles and six inside cabins.
Outside doubles have portholes and range from 118 to 145 square feet. Inside cabins reach just 108 square feet, and the deck cabins are 156 square feet. For two average-size adults, these are all challenging spaces.
Balcony staterooms are somewhat better, offering 280 square feet, and the owner’s suites measure 430 square feet.
I was booked into an outside double. Bathrooms, which are included in the square footage, were hardly large enough to turn around in. Shelving under the sink works well for storing items, but the sink top is miniscule. Showers are separated from the bathroom area by a low lip on the floor, which does little to prevent water from spilling into the main area.
Accumulating water is a problem, and in my cabin appeared to be the cause of rust stains along the lower levels of the bathroom walls. The bathrooms are in need of upgrades, no question, but the water in the shower is consistently hot, and one does get used to the cramped space.
One closet, with a safe, along with a small dresser and two additional drawers rounded out the storage space. Suitcases were hidden under the double bed, and a small chair at the foot of the bed came in handy.
A few of the guests I talked with were disappointed with the size of their accommodations, but most others took a positive view, saying that the unique aspects of the ship made up for the staterooms’ shortfalls.
Many guests had looked forward to the water sports platform at the stern of the ship, hoping to swim, kayak, and perhaps paddle board off the platform in some of the quiet harbors on Royal Clipper’s itinerary.
None of that happened due to the strong winds, which kept the platform closed during most of our sailing. However, most shore excursions went forward as planned, and a wide variety of tours were offered.
Island tours by mini-bus (from about 45 euros), hikes through the islands’ national parks, snorkeling trips, speed boat rides, kayaking on rivers and in harbors (about 85 euros), and some cultural activities, such as rum-making (72 euros), were offered.
There is no advance-booking option for excursions aboard Royal Clipper. Guests simply add their name and cabin number to sign-up sheets located at the cruise director’s desk, and tickets are delivered to their cabins.
Onboard our Royal Clipper cruise, one of the most challenging daily tasks was navigating the gangway and climbing on and off the tenders, since the unrelenting wind caused huge, dangerous gaps between the ship and the tender craft. There was no avoiding it, since tenders were used at every port call.
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The ability of the crew assisting guests on and off the tenders was excellent, but I know I was not the only one worrying about whether I’d be able to safely take the big step to board or exit the tender. Each time I made the leap felt like a major accomplishment.
In fact, just sailing on this ship felt like an accomplishment. Royal Clipper was definitely not the easiest vacation at sea, but it was easily the most memorable.
The ship is sailing four itineraries through winter 2024, all roundtrip from Barbados, and will depart the Caribbean on March 30, heading to the Mediterranean for the summer 2024 season.
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