. Star Clipper Ship Review by Benjamin Lyons : Road and Travel Magazine

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Sailing on a Clipper Ship By Benjamin Lyons

Star Flyer cruises the Far EastReturning from our SCUBA dive, we bounced our way across the sea in a small Zodiac until our ship, the Star Flyer, came into view around the next point. Her four masts seemed to stretch as high as the surrounding hills and the elegant, tapered stern and lengthy bowsprit reaching forward seemed graceful and swift. Seeing this beautiful clipper ship, sails furled and anchored in an otherwise empty cove, was a stunning sight that seemed incongruously retrieved from the past.

One of three clipper ships operated by Monaco-based Star Clippers, the Star Flyer is a modern day creation inspired by the speedy 19th century sailing ships. Built in 1991 as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream by Swedish owner Mikael Krafft, she and her fleet mates cruise the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Southeast Asia with a perspective that seems literally ages apart from the rest of the cruise industry.

The Cruise Director set the tone the first day by saying, "Forget everything you know about cruising. This week, we want to give you the opportunity to sail a tall ship- to climb the mast, to steer the ship or learn about navigation."

Happily, Star Flyer did just that during my one-week trip out of Phuket, Thailand around the Andaman Sea. In an age where cruise ships are becoming larger, more impersonal and in some cases just a bit bizarre (have you seen pictures of passengers shaking elbows due to fear of the Norwalk virus?), Star Clippers is a refreshing contrast.

Star Flyer passengers relaxMake no mistake - these are true sailing ships. Walk around and marvel at the myriad of rigging stretching skyward like a vertical spider web. Winches, cleats and line are scattered on all open decks, and whenever possible, the sails are used as the vessel's main propulsion. (More so than their upscale competitors Windstar or the party-oriented Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Star Clippers are insistent upon sailing as much as possible. Several times on my trip, we actually spun the ship completely around with sails only and proceeded out of the anchorage without even engaging the engines.

Carrying a maximum of 170 passengers, Star Clippers attracts a wonderful mix of ages from all around the globe. While the average around hovers just below 45, honeymooners happily mixed with those celebrating significant wedding anniversaries. Generally, the Asian sailings attract the most international crowd, and on my sailing the 112 passengers hailed from no less than 17 countries! The Mediterranean and in particular the Caribbean sailings tend to be less diverse and attract mostly Americans, British, French and Germans, with English still the predominant language.

During the day, life centered around the open decks and water sports, including using the ship's sailboats, water-skis or banana boat free of charge. Snorkeling and swimming were always on the agenda, and some of us would venture off on short hikes around the islands. I frequently partook in the SCUBA diving program and loved the convenience - you had all your equipment onboard, stepped into a Zodiac directly from the ship and returned onboard an hour and a half later.

Dining, like life onboard, was easygoing, with breakfast and lunch buffet style and open seating at dinner allowing everyone to sit wherever they wanted. Even the dress code was relaxed, as polo shirts and slacks sufficed at night except for the Captain's dinner, when most put on a button-down shirt.

After dinner, there were hokey games or silly talent shows on deck, which while hardly sophisticated, accomplished the goal of bringing everyone together. Small ships tend to foster an instant, good-natured camaraderie among like-minded passengers, and seeing a 75-year old Japanese man dancing onboard with a 30-year old woman from New York underscored that inherent friendliness. Most enjoyed the opportunity to meet others, and within a few nights, a large crowd stayed around the bar talking and being jovial until 1AM.

While late nights at the bar might not have been found on earlier clipper ships, the company does believe in keeping alive many nautical traditions. Fitted with brass and wood, not to mention a real parrot, the ship exudes maritime ambiance and at only 360 feet, is small enough to seem like your own private yacht. Other touches, such as the large flags flying from the rigging or the Officer on Watch ringing a bell to announce the loading of a tender, further keep the sailing ship ethos alive.

For those wanting to embrace sailing as much as possible, the Captain and Cruise Director held "story time" every morning to talk about the ship, its rigging and the region in which we were cruising. Those wanting to steer the ship only had to ask, and one morning was even set aside to demonstrate sailing maneuvers with the ship. Passengers could, and often did, stroll up the bridge anytime they wanted, and some always stood next to the Captain when sailing out of port, as if to discreetly look over his shoulder.

Happily, in this age of litigation and self-protection, Star Clippers still trusts passengers' common sense. The bowsprit stretching 30-feet forward of the bow was open to passengers during the day, and the hammock-like netting suspended over the ocean affords probably the most unique- and delightful- setting on any cruise ship afloat. Passengers are also given the opportunity to climb into a harness and scramble up the ratlines to a platform part way up the mast. It is an amazing experience, to be lost high up amidst the sails, looking at your ship below being driven through the waves by the wind.

It didn't compare, however, to the morning we were underway under full sail and allowed to enter a Zodiac or a ship's tender to photograph the ship. While standing on deck under the towering masts overhead was always spectacular, seeing the ship from the water, with the billowing white sails set against the turquoise water, was simply stirring. Forget those megaships- the tiny Star Flyer seemed far more impressive than any 100,000-ton ship
I've seen.

Like most Star Clippers itineraries, we sailed to small, remote ports away from the tourist track, with a strong focus on natural beauty and water sports. We mostly anchored off an island in the early to mid morning, allowing passengers to experience some daylight sailing, and then sailed around 6PM after a day at the beach. (In fact, only two formal shore excursions were offered during the week as there was no infrastructure - or need - to support any others.) Some ports were truly remote; when we stopped at the Surin and Similan Islands near the Burmese border, we found out they were national parks and the Star Flyer was the only foreign commercial vessel permitted to call here.

Everywhere we went it seemed like the Caribbean long before it was discovered by the megaships - or even before chartered sailboats. It was easily the best diving and snorkeling I have done, and while we didn't see any elusive Whale Sharks that frequent the region, we did see Leopard Sharks swimming around us and one seven-foot wide Manta Ray circling effortlessly right above our heads.

In fact, the only disappointment with the Andaman Sea was the lack of a consistent wind. In the Mediterranean and Caribbean, the ships are frequently under sail alone and move at speeds around 10 knots or more. While we did go under sail alone several times, it was often only at speeds of around 3 knots. Still, the overall outdoor lifestyle, the natural beauty of the islands and the fun international passenger list make these itineraries popular, and as the only American market ship based in Thailand, the Star Flyer is a natural add-on to a land vacation in Southeast Asia.

Library onboard the Star FlyerWith so much of our time spent outdoors, there didn't need to be much interior space, but the ship did offer two pleasant lounges. The Piano Bar is centered underneath one of the ship's two small splash pools, and was comfortable with round banquettes and sailing ship paintings and prints hung on the bulkhead. Aft of the outdoor bar is the ship's small Edwardian Library, complete with faux fireplace. While rarely used, these attractive spaces provide a nice respite from those who have had too much of the sun but still want to be out of their cabins.

Unlike most other small ships, Star Clippers are reasonably priced, with fares below their more posh but less authentic competitors Windstar Cruises. Cabins, while comfortable, are much smaller than you'd find on Windstar and range from 97 to 150 sq feet, including some bathrooms where the space for the shower and toilet seem to be the same. Some cabins on the lowest deck can occasionally hear engine room machinery quite clearly, and the most expensive cabins open directly onto the deck. Four cabins surrounding the dining room can be a bit noisy - especially cabins 310 and 311 which have doors that actually open into the dining room. I found the best positioned cabins to be forward or aft on Clipper Deck-away from the engine room noise and generally avoiding any noise on deck.

While the food left something to be desired for the first few days, it steadily improved throughout the week, although it would never be called gourmet. A local Thai chef brought onboard for the season drew especially high marks for his daily local specialties. Service, while always friendly, can be a bit busy, especially when full, and so dinner may take a long time. Occasionally, ordered items were forgotten or certain requests had to be repeated, but it rarely mattered. We came aboard for the sailing experience and not for flawless luxury, and with the overall experience so enchanting we always overlooked any minor gaffes.

On the last night, I climbed out onto the netting of the bowsprit and watched the crowd gathering of deck to see the sails being set. From my vantage point overhanging the ocean, I could see the lines of the bow taper into the sea and listen to the waves lap the hull in disorderly unison while the sails slowly rose and
met the wind.

Sunset on Star FlyerAhead of me, the sun was setting into the sea, turning the sky delicate shades of orange, red and pink, while behind me, the sails stretched 226 feet into the air to create a veritable wall of canvas that caught every breath of air. As the ship slowly moved ahead into the night, we seemed to find ourselves simultaneously drifting into the past, and relaxing on the netting, I wondered if I would ever find a more peaceful scene in the present.

For more information on Star Clippers, click here.

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