Quiet Caribbean Harbors on the Sea Cloud Yacht
Make no mistake, I am not some privileged millionaire, but as I sat on the stern with the verdant islands of St. John and Great Thatch Cay on either side of me, I was doing a good job of imitating one. Above me, a complex web of lines and masts supporting almost an acre of sail stretching 178 feet into the sky, while one deck above, 34 other passengers were enjoying a festive brunch complete with champagne and freshly made Crepes. Here onboard the Sea Cloud, the romance of a tall ship and the unhurried luxury of a yacht had combined to create one of my most pleasant mornings ever at sea.
During my week onboard we bypassed the
larger shopping havens that now define the Caribbean
and instead called at more tranquil islands. We shared
quiet harbors like Isle Des Saintes, Guadeloupe or Jost
Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands with private sailboats
instead of mega ships and shared the road with goats
and chickens instead of taxis. And while the scintillating
turquoise sea and soft sand were as perfect as any postcard,
they had nothing on the classic nautical lines of Sea
Delivered in 1931 for American cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Sea Cloud was then the largest private yacht ever built. Ms. Post spent years designing the ship and spared no expense in its fitting out. Just to make sure everything was perfect, a Brooklyn warehouse was even rented where she constructed full-scale mock-ups of the interior.
Sailing as Ms. Post’s beloved
yacht until 1955, Sea Cloud had a remarkable career
entertaining royalty and being used on diplomatic missions
for one of her husbands. During World War II, the ship
saw service against German U-Boats when loaned to the
US Coast Guard over the initial objections of President
Roosevelt, who felt she was simply too beautiful to
be sacrificed. Eventually sold to the dictator of the
Dominican Republic, her career was more checkered until
she was bought in 1978 by a German group of investors
who cared about her as much as Ms. Post did. After a
large refurbishment, she entered passenger service in
1979 with the capacity for 65 passengers and a 61 person
dining aboard Sea Cloud.
Today, Ms. Post’s personal touch
and elegant lifestyle are still felt onboard and Sea
Cloud feels less like a cruise ship than a beautiful
personal home (if you happen to be one of those privileged
millionaires…) Rich mahogany woods and constantly
shined brass form the superstructure while varnished
wooden railings and benches line the teak promenade
deck. Gilded chandeliers and oil paintings grace the
intimate dining room and library, probably the most
beautiful room at sea, and Carrara marble bathrooms,
antique dressers and decorative fireplaces can be found
in the original cabins.
The real beauty, however, is in the rigging, masts and sails. A four masted barque, the Sea Cloud has 29 sails and hundreds of lines that run from the deck to the very top of the mast. Seen without the sails up, the rigging was stark and haunting in its complexity, and with full sails set, it was an evocative call to the past.
Boarding in Antigua in the late afternoon, my father and I were soon underway for Virgin Gorda and eager to see those sails used. Waking up the next morning, the ship was moving comfortably to the swells under a brilliant blue sky and fresh trade winds. As the Captain explained what was going on, we watched as the 18-person deck crew, comprised of both men and women, climbed aloft to unfurl the sails. Unlike the more modern Star Clippers’ ships, the deck crew onboard Sea Cloud has to scamper up the shrouds and ratlines before moving horizontally to the very end of the yardarms above the sea. Supported only by a small wire that swings wildly about, they seemed to be floating in the air, draped over the yardarms, while untying the sails. No matter how often we saw this, it never failed to amaze.
With the sails set and the engine off,
we sailed closer and closer to Virgin Gorda and by 6
pm; we had anchored in its North Sound off the Bitter
End Yacht Club. (Passing Richard Branson’s private
island in the entrance channel, I wondered if, for once,
he might be more jealous of me if he saw the Sea Cloud.)
We spent the next two nights there anchored, giving
those who wanted the opportunity to dine ashore or sample
the nightlife at Saba Rock, a popular sailors’
bar perched on an exposed rock.
In the morning, we took the ship’s complimentary shore excursion to The Baths, where strewn house-sized boulders form cathedral-like grottos ideal for climbing, exploring or swimming, and I happily noted that 14 years after my first visit, the island was still unspoiled and lacked facilities for larger ships. In the afternoon we returned to the ship for lunch before a Zodiac took us to a beach on Prickly Pear Island National Park. The scene was idyllic-- a deserted beach, a small bar and the warm sea lapping gently at our feet with the Sea Cloud anchored just offshore.
The rest of the week was similarly organized, anchoring usually for half a day off some perfect beach (White Bay on Jost Van Dyke) or small town (Charlestown on St Nevis.) Two other tours were offered, including a visit to Brimstone Hill Fortress, an 18 th century fort called the Gibraltar of the Caribbean on St Kitts and a visit to a botanical garden in St Nevis. The rest of the day was spent underway, and each afternoon the sails would go up and the engines shut off, much to the delight of the passengers onboard who craved the sailing experience. (Because the traditional rigging requires so much extra manpower to operate, the Sea Cloud does not sail at night and the sails came down by 6pm.)
The afternoons at sea were tranquil, low key and casual, and usually spent reading on the open decks or chatting at the shaded bar. Without TV, a pool or other facilities, passengers mostly entertained themselves and delighted in having truly nothing to do. At night, dress was more formal for two nights a week where jackets and ties or suits are expected, but otherwise, smart casual was the norm. We ate a traditional dinner with waiter service three nights, but for the rest buffets were set up on the Lido deck, allowing us to eat outside under the stars. Lunches were always buffets on deck and all meals were jolly, thanks in large part to the ever-flowing complimentary wine.
I had expected excellent and fresh food from Sea Cloud and did not come away disappointed, but with the ship’s small galley, I found that there wasn’t the same astounding variety of food that you expect from larger ships. While I never had to search for something I liked, the formal meals in the dining room were fixed menus and the buffets usually had only two entrees or so to choose from. With offerings such as Veal steak with Calvados sauce and Potato strudel or Duck breast with Cumquat sauce, Leek and Risolee potatoes, the food and sauces were angled towards German tastes and are adjusted for cultural differences when more Americans are onboard.
The best meal, however, was at 4pm, when the baker set up afternoon sandwiches and treats along the promenade deck. One day, it was freshly baked scones with cream and a variety of jams, while another day, he cooked waffles to order and topped them off with sugar, ice cream and cherries. How indulgent, and wonderful, it was to be sitting in the late afternoon air, watching the waves lap regularly against the hull and be eating such delights under the welcome shade of the sails!
All this joy does not come cheap, however, and you’ll pay a premium especially for the eight original cabins, which are reached by a curved wooden stairway directly from the library. Each cabin is unique and elegant, with generous closet space (my cabin had not one but two walk-in closets) and beautiful wood details that make these cabins some of the most desired at sea.
These cabins are so fabulous that they are opened up one night in a Sea Cloud ‘open house.’ Much like New Yorkers inspecting neighbors’ apartments on a Sunday afternoon out of curiosity alone, everyone dresses up and inspects the cabins before dinner while the crew gives out champagne and canapés. While opening up your cabin is not required, this would hardly be in keeping with the communal atmosphere onboard and everyone participated in the jovial comparing and contrasting.
Marjorie's Original Bedroom
The majority of cabins, however, are
modern additions located on the upper decks and have
windows overlooking deck space. (Cabins on the top level
are elevated above the deck and do give a fairly private
view.) While attractively furnished and fitted with
quality materials, they are significantly smaller than
the original cabins and even what you’ll find
on most cruise lines, especially given the high price
With fares so high, passengers tended
to range from their late 30s to 60s and all were well-to-do,
accomplished and sophisticated, but rarely stuffy. Several
were sailors or had boats themselves and were used to
the steep ladders and numerous raised ledges that make
Sea Cloud a poor choice for anyone that has trouble
Because the ship is hugely popular in Germany you may find the ship operating bilingually. While Americans usually form the majority of passengers onboard (especially in the Mediterranean season, when they vastly outnumber the Germans), my sailing was a bit of an anomaly, with only 6 English-speaking passengers and 29 Germans. But as happens on a small ship, a wave of friendliness spreads around everyone onboard and the Germans made great efforts to speak to us in English and went out of their way to include us.
No matter the cabin occupied nor the nationality, however, everyone still shared in the Sea Cloud experience and witnessed the instant admiration and envy that the Sea Cloud commands in port. An authentic remnant from another era, Sea Cloud is one of those few great ships with a mystique and cache that simply cannot be duplicated. With her loyal staff and excellent service, the friendly camaraderie between like-minded passengers, the magic of the billowing sails and the ship’s storied history, Sea Cloud must not only be considered one of the nicest cruises available, but also one of the most wonderful travel experiences possible.
If You Go:
Sea Cloud winters in the Caribbean and summers in the Mediterranean and takes passengers on westbound Atlantic crossings in November when the trade winds allow for long, uninterrupted days of sailing. A modern running mate, Sea Cloud II, was built in 2000 and is also traditionally rigged and beautifully appointed, including larger standard cabins. Itineraries are similar, but Sea Cloud II also sails to Northern Europe, including the UK, Baltic and up to St. Petersburg. Both ships are very popular as charters for alumni groups and museums, and offer more of a cultural slant in the Mediterranean.
For more specifics on the vessel, visit www.seacloud.com