Ever since I was a little girl, I was always fascinated by the sea and the seafarers. No wonder my favourite children books were Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea instead of Snow White. Growing up I became a sailor and a scuba diver and start to spend as much time as possible on/in/around the sea.
The sight of a boat under full sails still makes my hearth beat a bit faster. And the clipper ships, once built to be the fastest trade ships on earth are maybe the most beautiful sea going vessels ever designed.
I knew that there still were tall ships that were used for training purposes but I wasn’t aware that they were used for cruises until one day, around Gorda Sound at the British Virgin Islands, I saw one.
I later learned that a Swedish entrepreneur and enthusiast had a dream about bringing back the 19th Century trade ships to here and now and his company www.starclippers.com has built three clipper type ships that cruise the world all year round. So when my husband told me if we should take a voyage on board one of them I was ecstatic. We set off on a cruise from Barbados to Panama on the Star Flyer, mostly because of the Panama passing.
It was the second time I went on a cruise. The first one was a tour of the Mediterranean with my parents when I was around 7 so I don’t know if it counts. This second one , I enjoyed a lot. The best part of taking a cruise on a sailboat – albeit a very large one- is that it is still a sailboat. Although it is of course very modern and comfortable and most of the things are done automatically rather than manually, you still enjoy the sound of the wind filling the sails and spend the nights on the fore deck watching the sailors mind the sails.
Today the ships have all the state-of-the art navigation tools, so the steering is done via GPS rather than looking at the stars , but they are still there, showing the way in a silver light in the dark seas. And after a night of heavy winds, you can see the crew mending the sails. One can easily imagine the 19th century traders doing exactly the same when they used to carry opium and tea between England and China on similar clippers.
As for Star Flyer, she is a beauty. She is a 360 ft or 110 meters clipper with 4 masts and 16 sails (all with different names of course) which was built with the wind as the main source of power but including all the touches and style of a modern super yacht, down to the last detail. Her interior is decorated with softly varnished maroon mahogany and warm yellow brass that is so lovely to touch.
She’s been built to accommodate some 170 guests and 70 staff. We later found out that Panama crossing was one of the most popular destinations so she was almost full but thanks to her design not overwhelmingly crowded. And the crew were outstanding. Although they do it all year round and have a new group of passengers every two weeks, they still managed to made us feel special and part of the team. The officers and the captain were constantly around, explaining everything from their hot tips on the next port to how the sails operate to how to tie a knot. It was also possible to climb the masts (under supervision) or lay down on the net while the ship sails and the sprays from the waves hit your skin. Thrilling !
In the original clipper ships, the food should have been horrible and sparse, one imagines heavily salted beef stored in barrels accompanied by sea biscuits most often infested with maggots. On board the Star Flyer, the food was very good, the wine list excellent and the cocktails superb. The only things I can complain are the amount of the food and the frequency that they served the meals.
As for the fellow passengers, I have mixed feelings. In order to pick this particular ship and destination one has to be relatively active and more adventure friendly than the average cruise passengers and they definitely were. But most of them were not exactly international. The passengers list was dominated by Americans with some Brits and a few other odd nationalities sprinkled in. As it turned out, we were the oddest.
If you know us, you would know that we are from Turkey, living in Belgium for the last 10 years and travel a lot, both for business and for fun. So naturally we speak three languages to varying degrees and have a grasp of a few others. And this is quite the norm for a great number of Europeans. With most of our fellow passengers, not so much. Our background made us very popular with half of them and very invisible to the other half. Everyday we found ourselves explaining that Belgian and Belgiumish are not real languages but Turkish is. After the 7th or 8th time it started to get a bit boring.
On the other hand we have met with a number of very interesting and fun people and had a great time. There was one very special lady from Switzerland who despite her age (she was over 80) was one of the most dynamic and interesting people I’ve ever met. She had a great sense of humour and told me stories about her life and her travels. I sincerely wish to have her wits and her charm one day.
Over the course of two weeks we have covered 1400 NM and visited nine countries between Barbados and Panama. I’ll be writing about most of them in separate posts but one I have to mention here, which was Venezuela. Venezuela is oil rich, in fact we spent day after day of cruising among Venezuelan offshore drilling rigs. It also has many problems from corruption to violence and is not on anybody’s top holiday destinations list despite its natural beauty.
But since it was en route to Panama, we made two stops to its islands; Isla Margarita and Isla Blanquilla.
Isla Margarita was the largest of the two and was our first stop. It has a formidable reputation among international sailors for the reported robberies and murders that occurred in the last 4-5 years. So instead of going for a walk along the island, we decided to join a 4×4 tour to the Macanoa Peninsula and the famed La Restinga National Park.
The first thing I’ve noticed after disembarkation were the flamingos. A part of a nearby lagoon was a deep pinkish coral thanks to these graceful creatures. The second thing I’ve noticed were the armed soldiers. And there was nothing graceful about them nor their rifles. It turned out that they were assigned to us by the government for the whole tour. They accompanied our 4x4s on their motorbikes, stop the traffic in dense areas so we can pass without stopping and when we were doing some off-road on the sand dunes, they entertained us with their mastery on the bikes. In the end I understood what it means to be a real VIP where you have to be surrounded by security all the time. Not so good, but it has its uses and maybe the worst part is you get used to it real quick.
The roads were surprisingly good, the houses run-down, the cars anything between brand new to 70’s American models along the way. We passed some fishing villages that seemed unchanged for generations.
As for the La Restinga , it was impressive with its intricate network of canals , dense canopy of mangrove trees and fat and lazy pelicans. We – and our soldiers – boarded peneros , small wooden fishing boats with a pair of eyes painted on either side of the brow to guide the fishermen safely home.
After La Restinga we stopped at a beach at Punta Arenas for a swim and drinks. The punch was especially good, our guide prepared it with the help of the soldiers with huge chunks of fresh banana and water melon, some fruit juice and lots of Diplomatico, the local brown rum. Yummy.
The second island was incredible. Isla Blanquilla is the quintessential tropical island; small , untouched, surrounded by an azure sea and white sands. Swimming and snorkelling were both great, as was walking around the island. I’m sure scuba diving would also be a joy there.
I can’t wait for Venezuela to solve its problems so I can go back to these beautiful places, this time preferably on a somewhat smaller sail boat .
The Star Flyer has a custom. Every time she enters and leaves a port and raises her sails, they play the theme song of 1492- Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. It may sound corny to some, but there’s something thrilling on approaching an ancient port under sails at dusk with this music on full blast. Just for a minute all work at the wharf halts, people stop what they are doing and watch a great ship enter the harbour as her sisters have done for centuries. It’s pure magic.
All good photos are by my talented husband Erbil. The rest are mine.