Fully rigged tall ship a most atypical clipper

Travel writer Heidi Sarna spent several days aboard the cruise industry's newest sail-powered vessel, Star Clipper's Royal Clipper. Her report follows:

fter a week on the new, 228-passenger Royal Clipper, a five-masted fully rigged tall ship inspired by the great German clipper Preussen, built in 1902, I wondered if I could ever set foot on a big ship again.

The romance and intimacy of the small ship and its offbeat ports were adventurous and exciting in ways a big flashy mega could never be. As company owner Mikael Krafft said on a recent sailing, "If you want a typical cruise, you're in the wrong place."

With a nearly even mix of Europeans and North Americans on a typical cruise, the international on-board flavor is as intriguing as the ship itself, with the sounds of English, German and French mingling like notes in a song.

For true sailors and wannabes, the web of ropes and cables stretched among Royal Clipper's 42 sails, masts and deck, along with the winches, Titanic-style ventilators, brass bells, wooden barrels and chunky anchor chains cluttering the deck, are constant reminders you're on a real ship.

The upper level of the Royal Clipper's dining room.Creaking and gently rolling and pitching like a true sailing ship (a little too much; in mid-February the ship spent a week in dry-dock to have 150 tons of ballast removed to ease the rolling), Royal Clipper can easily make 15 knots under sail alone (and up to about 20). However, the sails are more for show, and typically 60% to 80% of the time (especially at night) the engines are used.

As much as it's a hearty, hands-on ship where you can help pull in the sails, climb the masts or spend an afternoon sprawled out in the bowsprit netting, it's a plush one, too.

As the third new build for Star Clippers, which launched its first, the 170-passenger Star Flyer in 1991 and sister Star Clipper in 1992, the Royal Clipper has taken the line's comfort standard up a few notches.

At 148 square feet, the attractive standard cabins are 20 to 30 feet larger than those aboard her sisters (and equivalent in size to the standard cabins on many Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ships).

They also have hair dryers, TVs and safes.

Fourteen suites measure 255 square feet, including their private balconies. Suite guests have 24-hour butler service.

Elegant cabin bathrooms, on all but the six insides, are covered in marble and feature brass-and-chrome fittings and plenty of elbow room.

The decor of the cabins, like the ship's two lounges, library and corridors, follows a strong nautical thread, with navy blue and gold fabrics complementing dark wood paneling.

The elegant multilevel dining room is vaguely reminiscent of a room on an early 20th century ocean liner (and somewhat out of place on an otherwise rustic ship), with its brilliant blue sea-scene murals; white moldings and fluted columns; frilly ironwork railings, and dark red upholstery.

The open-air Tropical Bar is the hub of evening entertainment and pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres and drinks, while the more elegant piano lounge just inside hosts the weekly captain's cocktail party.

An energetic cruise director drums up interest in a humble repertoire of entertainment, ranging from a weekly crew talent show to a performance by a local band, from trivia games to nightly tunes by a lounge singer (Chattanooga Choochoo and Day-O, for example), accompanied by an electric keyboard.

Since the ship is in port every day, activities are minimal and include morning exercise classes on deck, excursions via tender to photograph the ship, in-cabin movies or hanging out by the three pools.

Via the ship's retractable marina, complimentary water sports in port include banana-boating, kayaking, snorkeling and waterskiing.

Diversions also include an impressive spa and gym on the lowest deck, where there is an underwater observation lounge for views of sea life as well as fitness equipment.

There's also a massage room that's divided by a curtain into two treatment areas.

Leave your inhibitions behind; not only is there no towel, you're close enough to hear the muffled whispers and massage strokes of the person on the other side. Hourlong massages are $62.

With such a large European clientele, cuisine is continental and dominated by cheeses, marinated fish, potato salads and meats at the breakfast and lunch buffets.

At dinner, dishes included fusili in a tomato sauce, grilled Norwegian salmon, and herb-crusted rack of lamb, which tended toward the bland side.

Dining is open seating and casual, although jackets and ties the night of the captain's cocktail party are common.

Service is friendly but often harried and a little slow.

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