Tarheel Tourist – Sailing the Carribean
Sailing the Caribbean in a tall ship with Star Clippers Cruises is the ultimate way to escape the winter doldrums.
Welcome to Tarheel Tourist, a new quarterly feature for North and South Brunswick Magazines in which longtime contributor Jason Frye will inspire readers to explore North Carolina and beyond. Jason is the author of more than a dozen travel guides to North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and throughout his travels he’s met fellow North Carolinians on every continent he’s visited. He’s sailed with Tarheels in Asia, Europe and South America, and he’s found that no matter where he goes, he’s not far from home. To celebrate the inaugural column, Jason is giving a pair of readers signed copies of his most recent travel guides. To enter, follow him on Instagram (he’s @beardedwriter) and follow North Brunswick Magazine (@northbrunswickmagazine) or South Brunswick Magazine (@southbrunswickmagazine), then keep your eyes peeled for posts related to this story, drop us a like or two, and comment telling us where you’d like to travel. Then cross your fingers because you might be the lucky one.
There’s this moment onboard the Royal Clipper when everything changes. All around, sailors in their crisp whites haul lines, and it seems an acre of cloth rises along the masts and spars to blot out the sun. And then the cloth snaps to life. An audible pop that transforms the wind into a tangible thing. The sails fill, bellow, seem to be ready to burst but instead of ripping they pull against lines made fast, and the ship settles in the water, bow slicing through easy Caribbean waves, and you’re sailing.
Nothing else feels like sailing. That instant the sails unfurl fills you with a feeling akin to love. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. I feel lighter. I feel something in the center of my chest being pulled toward the horizon. I feel settled and steady but moved by something invisible, uncontrollable, beyond my understanding. I felt this the first time I saw the sails go up and fill with wind, and after a week of calling on seven of the Windward Isles I felt it just as strongly.
Could there be a better way to escape the winter doldrums than to find yourself falling in love surrounded by blue skies and bluer waters and green islands filling the space between? Even here on the North Carolina coast, where winters are mild, the season has a way of wearing on you, so why not shake it off and get away for a little while? No better place to recharge than the Caribbean. No better way than by ship.
You have plenty of options when it comes to a Caribbean cruise – chartered yachts, mega-ships with 24-hour buffets and go-karts and a mall-like promenade lined with duty-free shops, even smaller ships with party-till-you-drop vibes and DJs that seem to never take a break. But if you’re the one to say “cruises aren’t for me,” then I say you just haven’t found the right one. Let me introduce Star Clippers and their fleet of three sailing ships inspired by historic vessels. Star Clippers sails the Mediterranean and Caribbean and, for the most adventurous, ocean crossings. Two of the three ships – the Royal Clipper and Star Flyer – sail the Caribbean from November to March, and I joined the Royal Clipper in Barbados to sail the islands the week before Christmas.
Star Clippers is at the other end of the cruising spectrum from the everything-all-the-time mega-ships. Where those floating cities can carry upwards of 6,000 passengers, the Royal Clipper, currently the largest ship in the Star Clippers fleet, sails with only 227 passengers.
Sails being the key word. Unlike other ships, the Star Clippers fleet sails. They use wind power to take passengers from port to port, building and altering their sailing itineraries with wind charts and forecasts. On the five-masted Royal Clipper they take sailing to the next level with 54,000 square feet of sail (that’s well over an acre, if you’re keeping score), and they hold a Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest full-rigged passenger sailing ship.
All these sails and all these masts give the Royal Clipper and her sister ships a pirate-y look that Tarheels will find particularly intriguing. Seeing how the North Carolina coast is rife with pirate lore, just seeing this ship puts those stories – and our history – into context, and when you’re underway with the wind and salt spray against your skin, the connection goes deeper. I could picture Wilmington’s waterfront busy with cargo and passengers on the deck of clipper ships and on the docks; I could picture Brunswick Town as General Cornwallis sailed by, the Sons of Liberty taking shots at his crew from hidden nests along the riverbank; I heard the rippling of Blackbeard’s sails as he gave his ship her head in pursuit of riches.
But the pirate appeal doesn’t stop with the look of the ships, it comes with the trips ashore as well.
Throughout the Caribbean, mega-ships call on the biggest ports at every island, but the Royal Clipper calls on smaller ports, slipping around the back of the islands, approaching coves, bays and marinas silent and under sail, dropping anchor and sending tender boats full of passengers to shore like raiding parties. Instead of fearsome pirates armed with cutlasses and braces of muskets, these raiding parties are pleasure cruisers outfitted with snorkel gear and credit cards.
On my December sailing trip, we called on Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antiqua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique, and every time I felt a thrill when we furled the sails and dropped anchor. On the tender to shore it wasn’t hard to imagine oarsmen pulling us toward the town while our ship’s cannon bombarded whatever fortifications there might be. It didn’t matter that when I set foot on the sand of Iles des Saintes, I bought a watercolor painting and drank a bottle of wine while I ate a lobster on the beach, or that in Martinique I skipped pillaging in exchange for a beach that was empty save a few fellow passengers and a handful of locals. Leave pirating to the pirates and leave the same-on-every-island ports to the big ships, we found the real heart of the Caribbean when we explored these places with the Royal Clipper.
Ports and shore visits are only part of your cruise, and you spend as much time onboard as you do on land. The Royal Clipper didn’t miss a beat with its 19,000 square feet of deck, where you could lounge and laze, go for a dip in a saltwater pool (the bottom of which is glass and looks down on the dining room two decks below), or sip the afternoon away at an open-air bar.
Want to climb to the crow’s nest? Step into a safety harness and shimmy on up to your new perch 75 feet above the water. Think a nap in the bowsprit netting sounds appealing? You’re not alone, many passengers like the view of the sea, the ships, the sails and the scenery from the net. The bridge is open to visitors (and every passenger who owns, has owned or wants to own a boat ends up spending some time there). There are knot-tying demos, a library loaded with maps and charts so you can follow your trip on paper and orient yourself among the islands. Oh, and you can help hoist the sails, standing shoulder to shoulder with the sailors and hauling line to help get the ship underway.
While the ship’s at anchor, the stern opens and transforms into a watersports platform: a little deck where you can swim, snorkel, get on a standup paddleboard or kayak, or take out a windsurfing board or dinghies (provided you’re a sailor yourself). All this means if you don’t want to go ashore there’s plenty to occupy your time.
Throughout, the ship is all mahogany and brass and nautical touches, adding a wistful, nostalgic feel to the space. Nostalgic as it may feel, don’t expect salt beef, hardtack and grog at any meal; instead it’s fine dining fare at dinner and excellent buffet spreads at breakfast and lunch. Given the international appeal of experiencing the Caribbean by sailing ship, you’ll find international flavors at every meal, and a variety of accents and some stimulating conversation from your fellow passengers, some of whom have sailed three, four, 10 or even 20 times with Star Clippers.
That’s the ultimate testament to this trip: return guests. I’m ready to go again, ready to pack my bathing suit and a big bottle of sunscreen and head back to the Caribbean this winter, or maybe eat my way along the coast of Italy next spring. Regardless of where, I’m ready to join that legion of seasoned Star Clippers passengers and feel that heartstring tug when the wind fills our sails and we head into the waves toward our next destination.
North Carolina Pirate Lore
Sailing in tall ships brings to mind North Carolina’s pirate lore.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, sailed the North Carolina waters. He and one of his captains, Stede Bonnet – The Gentleman Pirate, were known to sail into the mouth of the Cape Fear and hide behind Bald Head Island as they looked for prey passing just offshore. Blackbeard and his pirate fleet frequented Ocracoke Island, and he even owned a home in Beaufort, North Carolina. He was killed off Ocracoke Island, and his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, later sunk in an inlet near Beaufort. After years of searching, the wreck was located and researchers from East Carolina University have recovered many artifacts including cannon, swords and pottery. Pieces of the Queen Anne’s Revenge wreck have been restored and are on display in the state’s Maritime Museums.
Ready to go?
Ready to book your Caribbean adventure with Star Clippers? Head to starclippers.com to book and find all those key details for your specific itinerary. Rates for Caribbean sailings on the Royal Clipper start at $2,300 per person. Trips are available for winter 2019-20 and for 2020-21. Other itineraries – ocean crossings and Mediterranean sailings including Italy, Greece and Turkey – are available as well. Check out the site for specifics or take a peek at their Instagram (it’s tantalizing): @starclipperssailings.