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What it’s like to sail on the world’s most extraordinary ship

Smooth sailing: Vicky Smith in Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia
Smooth sailing: Vicky Smith in Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia

Backlit by the setting sun, the clouds looked like glowing tufts of candyfloss against a red-gold sky. Saint Lucia’s forested peaks were slowly cast into shadow as I lounged in the Royal Clipper’s open-air Tropical Bar, enjoying the heat on my skin – a welcome change from nippy winter evenings back home. Soon, we’d set sail for Dominica, and a new day of adventure awaited.

This was the second evening of a voyage that had been a long time coming. For years, I’d dreamed of cruising in the Caribbean: of sampling rum-soaked shores and rainforests teeming with wildlife, alongside lesser-known regional delights. Yet I was deterred by the fact that sustainability, let’s face it, isn’t typically one of the cruise industry’s strong points.

I finally stumbled upon my solution in Star Clippers and its three tall ships: which not only use up to 80 per cent wind power, but are also naturally emission-free, with the relatively little oil they consume emitting less pollution than many fuels. Star Clippers also encourages investment in the places it visits, with detailed information on every stop and shore excursions hosted by local firms.

Another bonus? The vessels are spectacular. I had the fortune to travel on the Royal Clipper, which comes straight out the pages of a swashbuckling storybook and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest square rigger in service. Watching the crew hoist (most of) its 42 sails, to Vangelis’ rousing Conquest of Paradise soundtrack, always brought tears to my eyes.

The luxurious dining room aboard the Royal Clipper
The luxurious dining room aboard the Royal Clipper - Brian Matiash

I also loved the ship’s ethos. While the clipper’s interior gleams with its brass fixtures and polished rosewood, and staff dazzle in white uniforms with epaulettes, the vibes are casual and inclusive, and the maximum of 227 guests lends an intimate feel that big liners can miss.

My seven-night itinerary, which actually went beyond its “Windward Islands” label, started and ended in Barbados. Here, pre-cruise, I found sights that would often crop up in the coming week: forested slopes, low-slung brightly painted buildings and abundant vegetation spanning breadfruit trees to banana plants – not to mention the sugarcane that European colonies brought enslaved Africans to cultivate.

I boarded the Royal Clipper after getting a full-on flavour of Barbados – quite literally, thanks to a Lickrish Food Tour around its capital Bridgetown; “Lickrish” is a Bajan colloquialism meaning “gluttonous” and boy were we full afterwards. Keen to sample each island’s individual charm, my plan was to book a shore excursion pretty much every day.

And so I did.

ln Saint Lucia I took an aerial tram through the rainforest, where metallic hummingbirds flittered among pink hibiscus flowers under a Jurassic-like canopy. I felt sandpaper vine leaves rasp beneath my fingers, tasted the sour-apple kick of edible begonias and drank tamarind juice under the watchful eye of a Lesser Antillean bullfinch.

The Royal Clipper is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest square rigger in service
The Royal Clipper is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest square rigger in service

Featuring a humorous guide who called himself “Superman”, Dominica’s trip was a boat ride along the Indian River. The waterway starred in Pirates of the Caribbean and, with its milky-green appearance and crabs scuttling among tangles of mangroves, it wasn’t hard to imagine a heavily eyelinered Captain Jack Sparrow hanging around causing havoc – especially after the explosive rum punch we swigged in Cobra’s Bush Bar.

Saint Kitts saw another mildly boozy sojourn, on the aptly named Saint Kitts Scenic Railway, while an immersive tour in French Martinique spanned from candy-coloured Creole houses to a patisserie whose buttery croissants rivalled those of Paris.

But my favourite port of call was Antigua, where I followed a rum-making class on Galleon Beach – a Caribbean pin-up with its caramel sand and rustling palms – with a meander around Nelson’s Dockyard. A British Royal Navy base in the 18th and 19th centuries, this Unesco-listed Georgian complex is strikingly surrounded by the flashy yachts of English Harbour. The museum is cracking too, particularly (in my opinion) its tales on the revolting food that naval crews once endured.

Back onboard, excursions and other activities were contained on the paper itineraries delivered to our rooms each evening. It was a thrill to return from dinner and discover these, beautifully produced and curled up like a pirate’s treasure map.

The crew hoisting some of the Royal Clipper's 42 sails
The crew hoisting some of the Royal Clipper's 42 sails

Some guests preferred to spend hours relaxing and enjoying facilities like Captain Nemo’s Spa, but I found the ship’s entertainments – ranging from staff tours to stargazing and assorted evening events – kept me occupied, as did the water sports off the marina platform and yoga classes (all of which are included).

Then there were highlights exclusive to vessels like Royal Clipper: whether lying on the bowsprit netting – a lattice of rope the only thing separating you from the sea – or climbing the main mast and taking in panoramic views from the crow’s nest. Looking out across the terracotta roofs of Bourg des Saintes, the Guadeloupean town where I’d spent the morning browsing boutiques and eating tourment d’amour (a sweet local tart), was a treat indeed.

Blending diverse island delights with the novelty of a five-masted, full-rigged sailing ship – the only one built since its predecessor Preussen over a century ago – had, for me, been a superlative way to travel in the Caribbean. With its flag parade and soppy singalong, our last dinner was cheesier than a Swiss fondue, but I nonetheless felt a twinge of sadness to be leaving. I’d never considered myself a “cruise person”, but given the right ship and the right destination, this experience certainly won’t be my last.

Essentials

Vicky Smith was a guest of Star Clippers (01473 242666; starclippers.co.uk), which offers Caribbean itineraries from November to March.

A seven-night Windward Islands sailing (Barbados to Barbados via Saint Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, Saint Kitts, Îles des Saintes and Martinique) costs from £1479pp, departing Dec 14 2024; this includes a 20 per cent early-bird discount, applicable when booked by April 30 2024.

Other departures, plus flight and hotel packages, are also available.

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