Jeannine Williamson sets sail on a romantic tall ship.
As I scrambled out into the bowsprit cargo net in a rather ungainly fashion, and settled down into the giant hammock at sea, the surrounding scenario encapsulated the fact that this was no ordinary cruise.
Below me the sparkling water of the Caribbean scudded past at a speed of 10 knots while the afternoon sun reflected on Star Flyer’s billowing sails stretching 226ft overhead.
Earlier I’d climbed 65ft up the rigging into the crow’s nest to gaze down at the immaculate teak decks and take in the surrounding seascape from a totally different perspective. For anyone who ever harboured childhood fantasies of running away to sea after reading Treasure Island and the Hornblower novels, or watching The Onedin Line TV series, a voyage with Star Clippers is as close as it gets.
Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft indulged his own boyhood dream in 1991 when he launched Star Flyer, the first sailing clipper to be built since 1910 to recreate the golden age of sailing combined with modern creature comforts. It has since been joined by Star Clipper and Royal Clipper and - when it launches next year - the 300-passenger Flying Clipper will become the fleet’s largest ship.
We boarded Star Flyer in Havana for an 11-night itinerary sailing around Cuba and visiting other Caribbean islands and immediately I became immersed in a world that was a throwback to another era, both on dry land and at sea. With the demand for good quality Cuban hotels far outstripping supply, a cruise is a fantastic way to experience this beguiling and intriguing country before it starts to change. Following the relaxation of travel constraints for Americans, five US-based cruise lines have announced they will soon start sailing to Havana, but for something really different Star Clippers is the way to go.
The complete opposite of the cruise world’s all-singing all-dancing nautical giants, the 360ft Star Flyer might lack floating shopping malls, multiple restaurants and West End-style entertainment, but it provides an authentic seafaring experience that’s in a league of its own. If you’re a first-timer you can forget any cruising misconceptions, and if you’re a seasoned seadog it won’t compare to anything you’ve done before.
Havana’s cruise terminal is right opposite the old town, and on the first day we decided to explore under our own steam rather than take the optional coach excursion. Top of our ‘must do’ list was a trip in classic American car, an historic legacy from the 1960 trade embargo that severed US imports after the late communist leader Fidel Castro came to power.
Now one of the main tourist attractions, we walked past a beauty parade of gleaming vehicles lining the waterfront before stopping at an eye-popping pink 1950 open-top Cadillac and embarking on a one-hour tour around sights including vast Revolution Square where Castro regularly addressed more than a million people.
Afterwards we sipped mojitos in one of the many individual pavement cafes and bars - thankfully no fast food or coffee shop chains here yet - and listened to strolling Cuban bands.
Back on board that evening we witnessed the 16 creamy sails unfurling for the first time - a real wow factor moment that will stay with you long after you’re back on dry land. The 36,000 square feet of sails, none of them computerised, are winched by hand or with electric-powered winches by the team of riggers. The resulting sailaways, particularly at night, are unmissable events accompanied by the stirring strains of 1942 Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis.
With just 170 passengers and 77 crew, you’ll get to know plenty of your fellow shipmates by the end of the cruise. Passengers are encouraged to chat to the crew and ask questions, and the captain hosts informal talks on different aspects of sailing.
A really nice touch, and impossible on large cruise ships, is the open door policy on the bridge. Unless the ship is entering or leaving port, you can visit at any time and talk to the captain and first officers.
On sailing days many people head to the top deck where sunbeds are laid out between the masts and there are two small pools to cool off. There’s also a library and plenty of room to lounge in the piano bar.
The social hub is the open-air Tropical Bar, sometimes used for al fresco meals and where popular pre-dinner snacks are set out each day. It’s also where low-key evening entertainment takes place, including nightly melodies from the resident musician - who also plays in the adjoining piano bar - and light-hearted activities such as quizzes and a weekly fashion show and crew/talent night where passengers can strut their stuff. I particularly enjoyed a star gazing session and film screened on deck under the inky night sky.
Wood-panelled cabins, the majority outside facing with portholes, are cosy and comfortable and you get real sense of being rocked gently to sleep.
Akin to Pavlov’s dogs, a bell heralds the start of mealtimes, which are all open seating with a buffet breakfast and lunch followed by waiter served dinner. Meals were delicious, rather than gourmet, with plenty of variety and choice.
The cruise from Havana to Cienfuegos - covering 1,039 nautical miles with around 70 per cent under sail - included an excursion to the UNESCO-listed town of Trinidad. The perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement built its wealth around Cuba’s sugar industry and is another outdoor museum where time stands still, with pastel-coloured buildings, horse-drawn carts and locals playing dominoes at pavement tables in streets lined with more classic cars.
That said, I never tired of the thrill of returning to port and seeing Star Flyer waiting for us to board, particular at night with twinkling lights strung above the four masts. One morning, in the middle of the Caribbean, we were taken out in a tender to photograph the ship under full sail. It was a majestic sight and yet another high spot in an exciting seafaring experience coupled with a charismatic destination.
Star Clippers offers a variety of seven to 11-night cruises between Havana and Cienfuegos in December and January. The itineraries include at least one night’s stay on board in one or both cities. A nine-night cruise only sailing departing December 18, 2017, is priced from £1,705, including all meals. Packages with direct Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick and transfers can be arranged. Call 0808 231 4798 or visit www.starclippers.co.uk.
This featured in the March edition of etc Magazine, pick up your copy now.