Love Letter to the Star Flyer from a Noncruiser
By David CogswellFull disclosure: I’m not an experienced cruiser. I can’t talk with authority about the cruise industry. I love river cruises, expedition cruises and small ship cruises. I’ve had good experiences on a variety of small craft. The big cruise ships, however, have not yet won me over.
My first experience on a big cruiseline was a four-day cruise from Florida to the Bahamas that left me with enough bad memories to last a lifetime and keep me away from big ships forever. I’ll spare the name of the cruiseline, in case it was just one big ghastly pileup of errors and not indicative of the company’s regular offerings. Later I had a couple of sample cruise experiences that showed me that a big ship cruise can actually be a pleasure. I’m still not really drawn to big ship cruising, but I remain open. I am waiting for a Scrooge-style transformation when I suddenly see the light and realize why I should love the megaships. Maybe it will happen someday, but for now small ship cruising is much more my style. Last week I cruised the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua on the Star Flyer, one of three clipper ships of Star Clippers. This to me is the ideal cruise experience. Each to his own. Some like Cadillacs, I prefer a Jaguar.
The Star Flyer is the first of three tall ships built by Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft, the founder of Star Clippers. It’s a clipper ship, an authentic replica of the clipper ships of early America. It has four masts. The front mast holds the rectangular sails, the square rigs. The other three hold the graceful triangular sloop sails. Whether the sails are unfurled or stored, the ship cuts a stunning profile. It is a thing of beauty and during the week I lived on it I took pleasure looking at it from every angle and enjoying it from every perspective. Every time I was leaving the ship for an excursion or returning, I found myself staring at the ship, admiring its beauty. I understand the aquatic tradition of referring to ships as “she.” This one inspired a kind of adoration in me, and I know other passengers felt the same. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, said Keats, and the aesthetic pleasure of the ship’s conception and design is an important element in Star Clippers’ value proposition. As a passenger, you have the pleasure of experiencing a ship that is an elegant beauty.
Also appealing is the fact that it is to a large degree wind-powered. Though the Star Flyer has engines that it keeps running to power the generators to keep the electrical systems going and for propulsion, it is a sailing vessel. The captain told us that the policy is to power the ship with wind as much as possible within sailing conditions and port deadlines. In the age when so many problems stem from our dependence on petroleum, it seems to me that a sailing vessel becomes increasingly attractive. For those who are concerned with the size of their carbon footprint, sailing vessels present one elegant way to reduce fuel consumption.
I greatly admire Krafft not only for fulfilling his lifelong dream in building these ships, but also for creating a viable cruise operation that makes the tall ship sailing experience available to others. Running a smooth hotel operation on a ship is a very complex and labor-intensive job, almost completely unrelated to the skills involved in building or operating ships. So when it is done well, that too is a thing of beauty. The service on the Star Flyer is very effectively realized. The on-board experience is a great pleasure in terms of all the necessary services. The restaurant service was excellent and the food was as good as it gets. And the housekeeping service was flawless and unobtrusive. And beyond that, the crew is like a warm and friendly little family, one gathered together from 16 nationalities. In a week’s time you begin to feel like part of it.
The ship holds 180 passengers in 90 cabins. It’s an intimate group and in a week’s time you are likely to become acquainted with many of the passengers. Entertainment is modest, no grand productions a la the big cruise ships. There is a ship musician who plays grand piano in the piano bar, then plays synthesizer with built in drum sounds for happy hour or dancing at night, sometimes playing recorded music. The crew offers informal entertainment, such as a fashion show and a talent show. And a variety of shore excursions are offered along the way.
The excursions are expedition style, often with zodiacs and wet landings, which means that the inflatable boats pull up to the beach and passengers climb out in water a couple of feet deep. The ship can access many places that no large ships can go, which is another of the many pleasures of this kind of cruising. On this cruise we visited a variety of places that were relatively uncommercial, untouristed or even practically uninhabited.
On our last stop, however, we did pull into a port where the big ships also go, and one of the giants was blocking the dock disgorging thousands of passengers so we had to disembark via small boats. It provided one more comparison between the small and large ships and it only confirmed my preference for the small ones. The massive cruise ships seem to me to have evolved into a product remote from the actual experience of cruising. They seem to be out to replicate the on-land experience and make you forget that you are even on the ocean. That would be impossible on the Star Flyer.
I may yet learn to love the big ships. Meanwhile, I’m happy to help Star Clippers and other small ship lines to get the word out on what is really a superior cruise experience. -- David Cogswell