Cruising small

Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

There are cruises. And then there are cruises for people who hate cruises--at least of the big-ship variety.

Some of the newer ships are so monstrous you might as well be in Vegas instead of on the water. There’s as much temptation to stay aboard as to explore the ports. And for those of us who book cruises to sample several foreign cultures at once, big ships defeat the purpose.

But on little ships, there’s little to do. As a result, passengers are more likely to venture off to excursions and, on rare occasions, wander beyond the ports.

For those of us in the latter category, we’re lucky to have a ship like the Royal Clipper.

First of all--and this is obvious--it’s gorgeous. Operated by Star Clippers, the Swedish-owned company of international sailing ships, the Royal Clipper looks like something out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Modeled after the German-built Preussen--a steel-hulled windjammer famous when it was built in 1902 for being the first five-masted sailing ship--the Royal Clipper is all grandeur and sails. There are 42 of them in all--think about that for a minute: 42 sails--rigged to five tall masts, and together they catch enough wind to power the ship sans engines. (There are two on backup duty, just in case.)

Since the Preussen’s 1910 wreck in the English Channel, the Royal Clipper inherited upon its 2000 completion the title of the only five-mast sailing ship--and largest full-rigged sailing ship--in the world.

It’s a title worth bragging rights. With the heavy-duty Dacron sails comes the potential to capture enough wind to carry the 5,000-ton ship around the world--if it did globe-circling cruises.

Sailing vessels such as the Royal Clipper are the ships of pioneers, of pirates. It’s the real deal. And its passengers--many of whom are people who would otherwise hate cruises--are well aware of it.

There were 223 of us aboard the Royal Clipper for a week on a late-March sailing tour of the Caribbean’s Windward Islands. A few folks nearly missed the boat (yes, literally) due to a tardy connecting flight, but when the vessel’s this small, it can afford to wait for stragglers. So it did, for nearly two hours past our scheduled departure time from the port of Barbados.

But when we finally sailed just after midnight, nearly everyone was still on deck, anticipating the sail-off.

On a ship like this, it’s worth the wait.

It’s all about those sails, dramatically unfurling one by one. There was mood lighting, there was stirring music and, for those of us gazing up at those huge masts scraping against the Caribbean splay of stars, it was--and this is going to sound goofy--kind of magical. The Royal Clipper’s sail-away ceremony is genuinely moving--and I’m not talking about the boat.

That came later.

The first night was so rough, it was scary. I’d experienced rough seas before on overnight ferries, but this was roll-helplessly-from-side-to-side-of-your-bed rough. This was entire-contents-of-the-medicine-cabinet-spilling-onto-the-floor rough. This was sleep-with-your-life jacket-at-the-foot-of-your-bed rough. During our briefing the following morning, the captain’s cheery call for a count of seasick passengers was met with several green-faced glowers.

Capt. Sergey Utitsyn summed up the experience succinctly. “This is a sailing ship,” he said, a knowing twinkle in his eye and a thick Estonian accent on his tongue. “If it’s not rolling, something is wrong.”

So it goes on the Royal Clipper, where Mother Nature, not the cruise director, is boss.

And for the most part, she complied.

In perfect, sunny, 75-degree weather, the Royal Clipper sailed with ease through the Lesser Antilles, gently escorting its passengers to the rain-forest-covered wilds of St. Lucia and Dominica.

Our shallow draft allowed us to anchor in the tiny harbor off Terre-de-Haut, an impossible stop for typical cruise ships with deeper drafts. There we spent an afternoon in the refreshingly untouristy seaside village of Le Bourg, brushing up on rusty French with patient locals.

We took Zodiac rides with the very young, very tan Scandinavian aquatic sports team to explore remote white-sand beaches on Antigua. And on the French island of Martinique, in Fort de France, our most populated port town, I stocked up on lingerie at a satellite location of Parisian department store Galleries Lafayette while several of my shipmates stayed on board, spoiled by the smaller ports leading up to it.

Besides, most of them had been there before. About 60 percent of the Royal Clipper’s passengers are repeat customers.

Fifty-something Beth from Orinda, Calif., was on her third Royal Clipper cruise, which she loves for its intimate scuba dives. Robert and Debra, an outgoing couple in their 60s from Glasgow, Scotland, were on their fourth and weighing route options for their fifth. Veronica, a twenty-something from New Zealand by way of Frankfurt, Germany, was on her second cruise in just six months and had recruited gal-pal Victoria to join her. Pat and Pam, two very tiny, very energetic, very white-haired British ladies who were rumored to be pushing 90, were on their sixth Royal Clipper cruise together and outdanced the other passengers nearly every night.

At some point during the week, I asked each of these folks if they had ever been on a larger cruise. Most of them looked at me like I was crazy. These are people who hate big-ship cruises. And they love the Royal Clipper.

They’re not alone either. Dexter Donham, owner of Sailing Ship Adventures, a specialty travel agency that represents only sailing-ship operators, said bookings on sailing ships are more popular now than ever. Why? Blame the big boats.

“What’s happened in the cruise business is that the ships have gotten exceedingly large and much more impersonal, so it’s like going to a Las Vegas hotel for a week,” he said. “Many people have been turned off. They feel like they’re one in a herd of cattle, so they’re looking for something different.

“There’s a romance to sailing that’s very different from a cruise ship. It’s a gentler experience.”

Still, sailing ships the size of the Royal Clipper, with a capacity of 227 guests, are not without their big-boat moments. My clean towels were subjected to embarrassment in the form of being folded into frumpy sea creatures. There was a dress-up Captain’s Dinner (although there were still a few flip-flops present), a few bad meals and more than a few nights of eye-rolling entertainment courtesy of Misha and Katya, the Russian musical duo who appeared to have made a cruel pact with one another: When in doubt, do another ABBA cover.

Misha and Katya are forgiven, though, if only because their shtick was so well suited for its context. On a typical cruise, they might have gotten lost in the shuffle of Vegas-style revues. Here is this odd-couple--tall, slinky Katya towering over wee, round Misha and his cheap acoustic guitar--who gracefully sway with the swells from a corner of the Royal Clipper’s modest Tropical Bar, keeping time to a pre-recorded keyboard track. Rumor has it, they’ve been performing on the Royal Clipper year-round since its maiden voyage eight years ago. This ship is their life, its passengers their people.

After experiencing the camaraderie that comes with rolling over the sea for a week with 200 strangers, I can see why.

Details on the cruise


The Royal Clipper, operated by Star Clippers, offers its six-day, seven-night Caribbean Windward Islands cruise every other week, beginning Nov. 15, through April 4, 2009, and again in November 2009. The cruise begins and ends in Barbados and calls in St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique.


Capacity is 227 passengers plus 106 crew. There were 223 in my group and, best I could tell, only two of us were traveling solo. Probably half of my shipmates were 60 or older and only a half-dozen were under the age of 20. A few excursions were teen-friendly--basic snorkeling tours and zip lining, for example--but younger kids are likely to be bored. Folks who have serious mobility issues should know that there are no elevators on board, and it tends to get rocky during evening sails.


The Royal Clipper is 439 feet long and 54 feet wide. It’s decorated in an Edwardian style--lots of gilded swirliness everywhere--and is regal looking, but the vibe is decidedly easy-going. Also, it rocks. A lot. Bring Dramamine, magnetic seasickness bracelets or both.

Cabins are well-appointed with brass and mahogany details, oil paintings of famous clipper ships, surprisingly decent closet space and ample breathing room. All cabins come standard with hair dryers, safes, TVs and DVD players; all bathrooms (except mine, apparently) are lined with marble. Rooms are small, but not claustrophobic. Six rooms are on the ship’s interior; all others have at least one porthole or window.

There are three “swimming” pools, the largest of which could comfortably accommodate 20 people sitting shoulder to shoulder, if it came to that. There’s a spa and fitness room with a few strength-training machines and two no-frills treadmills. (If you stand taller than 5 feet 9, watch your head when jogging.) Most socializing takes place in the Tropical Bar on the main deck, and if there’s poor weather, everyone moves in to the Piano Bar inside.


For no fee, passengers can borrow snorkeling equipment for the week, but it’s on a first-come, first-served basis. The only other on-board activity seemed to be mast-climbing, which was unfortunately canceled due to rough swells. Also canceled were a few sea kayaking excursions.

Onshore excursions run the gamut from rain-forest zip-lining to seaside horseback riding. Most of my shipmates went on at least one excursion during the weeklong cruise, but most folks were content with lounging on obscure little beaches or strolling through port towns.


Typical cruise fare, from a staff-and-guest talent show to crab races on deck. The best attended was Tuesday’s performance from Antigua’s Hell’s Gate Steelband, which came on board while we were anchored off Falmouth Harbor. Everyone was dancing. The Tropical Bar--the only one of the three on board that was really utilized on our cruise--stays open until . . . it closes. Last but not least, there’s dancing every night to late-'70s disco covers (and little else), courtesy of Misha and Katya, the Russian guitar-and-vocals duo.


The highlight, I’m told, is a beach-side barbecue on Antigua, but ours was canceled due to poor weather. Dinner is typically 7:30 to 10 p.m. with no assigned times, but everyone eats early. Though there’s no assigned seating, people tend to sit at the same tables night after night, kind of like a high school cafeteria: elderly Norwegians in one corner, the couple from Tennessee at the booth in the middle, Dutch kids in the back, and so forth. Dress was fairly casual--sundresses or skirts for women, casual slacks and no ties for men--even on the night of the Captain’s Dinner. A few entrees were excellent; most were average or slightly above. The wine list is international and all over the map as far as pricing is concerned, so watch those euros.


From $2,100 per person (including port fees) for the smallest shared cabin; average $2,570 for roomier accommodations. Alcoholic beverages are extra, and a no-tipping policy is in place.


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