Caribbean cruise guide: Small ship cruising with Star Clippers
By Jane Archer | 6 Apr 2022
A small-ship Caribbean cruise is the perfect antidote to winter blues, finds Jane Archer on a Star Clippers cruise across the islands of the Caribbean.
Discover Jane Archer’s review of Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper as she embarked on a small-ship cruise in the Caribbean during winter.
Guide to small ship cruising in the Caribbean
“I’m gonna repeat that,” Patricia shouts down the mic. “Rum punches and pina coladas are free.” A cheer goes up. I’m in St Kitts on a railway carriage that was brought here from Seattle in 1926 to carry sugar cane from the fields to the factory for processing. It’s set to take two hours to cover just 18 miles of track.
Sugar was the main industry on St Kitts from the 1600s until 2005, when the island decided it was no longer financially viable and the train was remodelled for tourists, with an open-air top deck. The farmers’ loss is our gain. We trundle past abandoned sugar fields and over worryingly thin bridges, always keeping a sea view throughout the journey. It’s a delightful way to spend the morning, and certainly very different.
Modelled on Preussen, a full-rigged tall ship built at the turn of the last century, it’s a vision of teak and brass, has five masts, 42 sails – and really does sail.
As we set off from Bridgetown, capital of the new Republic of Barbados, the haunting strains of 1492 Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis fill the air as the sailors hoist the canvas. Magical doesn’t do it justice.
The music becomes our theme tune for the week as we set sail each evening for another island. Saint Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts and Barbuda – we’re visiting them all and still have time for a sea day.
Royal Clipper is the largest of three sailing ships owned by the cruise line Star Clippers, but with room for just 227 passengers, the ship is still very small. Even better, there are just 129 on our cruise (blame Covid).
Most of them are Brits, spanning everything from an activity-loving honeymoon couple who have never cruised before to adventurous septuagenarians who have, but there are a lot of Germans and a handful of Americans as well – it’s like being on our own private yacht. And as it is yachting rather than cruising, don’t be surprised if your legs take a day getting used to the motion.
We’re in cabin 209, which is much like every other room on the ship – small, en suite and with portholes (there are some inside cabins and a handful of suites with balconies for those who want to splash out).
It feels in keeping with the sailing ethos, as does the entertainment. In place of lavish shows, we tie knots and stargaze with the officers and learn about pirates (not the rollicking Captain Jack variety, but guys armed with AK-47s looking for a ship to hold to ransom).
My lack of a head for heights means I chicken out of climbing the mast, but hubbie Mark has no qualms. He harnesses up, shins the rope ladder 20 metres to the main top and returns raving about the great view from on high.
In a nod to the pandemic, Star Clippers has halted open-seating dining, instead allocating everyone a table for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the duration of the cruise, and put the bridge off-limits to passengers.
Hopefully things will revert once Covid restrictions are eased, because meeting new people over dinner and talking navigation with the officers are important parts of the Star Clippers experience.
Having to wear masks indoors is less of an issue as we just hang out among the ropes and pulleys on the top deck or at the bar, which happily is outdoors. Drinks are not included in the fare; likewise tours, tips and Wi-Fi.
It’s noon on the first full day of the cruise as we sail into Saint Lucia – not the port at Castries where the big ships go, but an anchorage in Rodney Bay, from where we tender ashore to the beach. The sand is soft, the water inviting, and the rainforest to one side with hilly Pigeon Island on the other look gorgeous under the blue skies.
“Is that really a cruise ship?” a British couple ask. They have spotted Royal Clipper out in the bay and are so enthralled by the idea of a sailing that I reckon they’ll book for next year.
Saint Lucia sets the pattern for the week. We might be going to well-known islands, but Royal Clipper always stays at anchor in bays and beaches away from the crowds while we go ashore in a tender that doubles as a landing craft when we’re disembarking onto sand.
In Dominica, we anchor off Portsmouth, a small town in the north of the island. The sensible people are going on river boat tours but we’re off river-tubing – an activity that entails sitting in a big rubber ring, swirling uncontrollably down rapids and getting very wet.
Ironically, given we’re in a rainforest, the Pagua River is low on water so there are no rapids, and progress is slow. However, even Mark, who usually objects to any activity that involves getting wet, admits it’s been great fun as we dry off at the end in the banana plantation that doubles as a changing room.
In Antigua, we go ashore on Pigeon Point Beach in pretty Falmouth Harbour and wander over the hill to English Harbour, where the Royal Navy had a base in the 18th and 19th centuries. Naval enthusiasts head to Nelson’s Dockyard but we wheel back to the beach for a swim before a yummy lunchtime barbecue the crew has prepared.
In Barbuda, an island devastated when Hurricane Irma swept through in 2017, we anchor off River Bay, a beach that cruise director Mino warns has no shade or facilities – but more than makes up for it by being very pretty. He’s almost right. An enterprising local has opened his beach bar, much to everyone’s delight, although I’m not sure which is the bigger attraction – the beer or the shade!
There’s another Robinson Crusoe moment as we anchor off a deserted beach in Friar’s Bay in St Kitts. We thought that was great but the best was yet to come.
As we get ready to leave the bay, Mino says anyone who wants to see the ship in full sail should head to the tender. We don’t need telling twice. Taking the tender out so passengers can watch as all sails are hoisted is a classic Star Clippers moment and no one wants to miss it. The tender driver is brilliant, getting us in close and positioning us in just the right places, including one spot with the ship coming directly at us. Spectacular, but also a little scary.
And just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, a pod of dolphins appears, leaping back and forth beside the tender in threes and fours, as if synchronised swimming. The driver switches off the engine and we just sit and watch their antics. Entertainment doesn’t get better than this.
How to book a Star Clippers small ship Caribbean cruise
A seven-night Windward Islands sailing round-trip from Barbados on Royal Clipper costs from £2,379 per person departing December 10, including flights and transfers, based on two sharing a category six cabin.
The ship calls at Saint Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique. Drinks and Wi-Fi cost extra; a tip equivalent to €8 per person per day is recommended for the crew. Contact your local travel agent or call 0845 200 6145 to book or visit starclippers.co.uk.