Adventures in the Windward Islands with Star Clippers

Jane Archer sails on Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper, stopping off for river tubing in Dominica and snorkelling in Saint Lucia

“Quick, grab my hand!” I shout as hubby Mark floats past me, totally out of control, and I get tangled up in bushes along the river bank – again.

We’re whirling and twirling down rapids on the Pagua River as it courses through the Dominica rainforest, on a wacky excursion that involves sitting in a giant inner tube and literally going with the flow. Or not, in my case.

We’re here on Royal Clipper, a five-masted tall ship that is not only the real McCoy for sailing but comes with a captain who is under orders to hoist the canvas whenever the weather allows.

On our cruise, a one-week voyage around the Windward Islands calling into Saint Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts and Barbuda, that turns out to be most of the time.

But there’s also a short burst of engine power on the penultimate day so the ship is steady enough for brave souls to harness up and climb a rope ladder 20 metres to the main top. That’s one of the more unusual activities offered by Star Clippers and quite a contrast to the production shows favoured by mainstream lines.

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Stars and Knots

I try my hand at knot tying and stargazing with the officers, and listen in as Captain Sergey gives a talk about pirates (not the yo-ho-ho Disney variety but scary guys armed with AK-47s).

Hotel director Peter also reveals the trials and tribulations of running a ship with a majority of Brits on board. ”God forbid that I should run out of gin and tonic,” he says, probably only half-joking.

In all, 79 Brits have jumped through various hoops to get on this cruise – a negative PCR test to get into Barbados and a lateral flow test to get on the ship. Germans and Americans make up the next biggest groups, at 31 and 12 respectively, and various other nationalities bring the total to 129 passengers – social distancing rules in the Covid era limiting the figure to just over half of Royal Clipper’s 229 capacity.

Once on board, again due to Covid, it’s masks on inside, and open seating at meals is replaced with allocated tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner so we eat in dining bubbles.

While other lines made a big hoopla as their ships returned to service last year, Royal Clipper quietly got going in mid-September.

It sailed a few cruises in the Mediterranean then set off across the Atlantic for a winter season of one-week voyages around the Windward and Grenadines islands from Barbados.

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British interest

The restart wasn’t missed by UK travel agents, though – hence all the Brits on my cruise. “The trade has been just brilliant supporting us,” says Fay McCormack, Star Clippers’ UK general manager.

She attributes the company’s success since the restart to the trade sales team, which kept agents engaged during the pandemic with training sessions and by co-hosting customer events over zoom.

The line, represented in the UK by Fred Olsen Travel, is again offering trade rates and fam trips (there is one planned for summer) to encourage agents to experience the product.

McCormack says passenger loyalty has been complemented by the line’s generous change or refund policy, adopted in March 2020 as governments worldwide forced shipping to shut down and which she says has paid dividends.

“Our customers were desperate to get back on board,” she adds. “They love Star Clippers and many sail three, four or five times a year with us. We have also seen a lot of new customers attracted due to Covid by the small ship and the outdoor lifestyle.”

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Anchors aweigh

Our cruise starts and ends in Barbados, which turns out to be the only time Royal Clipper docks in a port.

The rest of the time, we anchor in small bays and go ashore in tenders, landing on beaches or piers away from busy towns, where we are whisked off on tours or free to do our own thing.

We swim and snorkel in Saint Lucia and Barbuda, where we find ourselves some much-needed local beer and shade on what is otherwise a deserted stretch of sand.

In Antigua, we anchor in picturesque Falmouth Harbour and, while the crew prepare a lunchtime BBQ on the beach, we wander over the headland to English Harbour, where the Royal Navy was based while battling the French for control of the West Indies during the 18th and 19th centuries.

In St Kitts, we opt for a ride on one of the only trains in the Caribbean. Opened in 1912 to take sugar cane from the fields to the port, the St Kitts Scenic Railway bumps and rattles its way along 18 miles of narrow-gauge track, hugging the coast on one side and passing villages and chimneys where farmers used to boil the cane on the other, while we down the odd rum punch or three.

Back on my river-tubing adventure in Dominica, I am heading back into the bushes, only to be rescued this time by Curwen, the guy in charge of making sure we get safely down the river.

His dos and don’ts before we started were brief: in a nutshell, don’t fall out and do have fun. As I’ve managed to do both, I’m chalking this tour down as a success

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New from Star Clippers

Star Clippers is returning to Costa Rica in winter 2022, offering two one-week round-trip itineraries from Puerto Caldera on the 166-passenger Star Clipper.

Both will explore Costa Rica’s beaches, volcanoes and cloud forest ecosystems, and include lots of time to spot humpback whales, dolphins, sea turtles, monkeys, sloths, macaws and other wildlife.

One itinerary takes in Isla Coiba and Isla Parida in Panama; the other calls into San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua. Prices start at £1,530 cruise-only (or £1,251 including a 20% discount available until April 30).

Closer to home, a new 10-night Rail, Sip and Sail cruise-and-stay holiday pairs hotel stays in Bordeaux and Cannes with a one-week cruise around France, Corsica and Italy on Star Clipper.

Departures are July 13, 20 and 27 and August 3, with prices from £3,169 including Eurostar travel from London, a wine tour in the Médoc and non-UK transfers.

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Tried and tested: Royal Clipper

With room for 229 passengers, Royal Clipper is the largest of three ships owned by Star Clippers that really do sail (the other two are sister ships Star Clipper and Star Flyer, which can each carry 166).

It was modelled on Preussen, a full-rigged tall ship built at the turn of the last century, and has five masts, 42 sails and 5,000 square metres of canvas. With its brass fittings, teak decks and miles of ropes and rigging, the ship certainly looks the part.

It has three small pools, an indoor lounge and an outdoor bar where passengers gather for drinks and music under the stars. All cabins are en suite and most have portholes, but a few are inside, with no window, and a handful have balconies.

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Book it

Star Clippers offers a seven-night Windward Islands cruise round-trip from Barbados on Royal Clipper, with ports of call in Saint Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique, from £1,675 cruise-only departing December 10, 2022, and January 7, 2023. There’s a 20% discount for bookings made by April 30.

PICTURES: Shutterstock/Sean Pavone, Umomos, Gemma Fletcher; Star Clippers.

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