The giant sailing ship rolled lazily in the Pacific Ocean as I climbed the ever-narrowing rope ladder to the first spar. Climbing higher, I carefully squeezed each foot into a rung. I dared not look down.
Finally, I arrived at a platform. I hoisted myself up.
“Ho, ho, ho,” a fat, red-suited man greeted me. “Welcome aboard!”
It was Santa Claus!
Over the Christmas holidays, my wife, 2 daughters and I spent a week cruising Costa Rica’s Pacific coast on the Star Flyer, a 360-foot, four-masted barkentine.
(Wait a minute! you say. What’s a train man doing on a ship? Just this: many of our rail travelers ask us for cruises, safaris, hotels, you name it. Now, through our Virtuoso membership, we can offer them, often with special perks. Star Clippers, in fact, is a Virtuoso partner.)
The Star Flyer is an authentic sailing ship whose foremast boasts square sails. With her identical sister ship, the Star Clipper, and their “big sister,” the 439-foot Royal Clipper, they compose the entire Star Clippers fleet. They’re certainly among the world’s most authentic sailing cruise ships.
Authenticity was important to me, because, a thousand years ago, I worked on such a ship. But even those who don’t know a beam from a barnacle will love the Star Flyer. What it sacrifices in glitz it more than makes up for with charm, friendliness and adventure.
The ship boasts a staff of 72, many of them seasoned Star Clippers veterans, who hail from Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Sweden, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The ship can carry up to 170 passengers; our cruise was a comfortable 105.
The meals are ample and extraordinary, but don’t expect “specialty restaurants.” For that matter, don’t expect a casino, a workout room, or Broadway shows either. On the Star Flyer, the fun is more home-made.
The dining room is open seating. The dress code is relaxed, although many of the passengers on our cruise, who hailed equally from N. American and Europe, spiffed up for dinner. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with everything anyone could want. Dinner offers a choice of three options, including a separate cheese course, dessert and an incredible, palate-cleansing sorbet, whose flavor changed nightly.
I give special kudos to the on-board bakery, which turned out some of the best breads, rolls and pastries I’ve had anywhere. And since we were traveling over Christmas, we also enjoyed a sumptuous array of cookies, petites fours, cakes and a genuine gingerbread house.
But our double bed was comfortable, the shower gushed with ample amounts of hot water (the Star Flyer “manufactures” 80 tons of fresh water daily) and the two 110-volt outlets made converters unnecessary (although I was glad I brought my 15-foot extension cord).
The crew is friendly. They smile as they work – surely a good sign. Chances are, your captain will be one of the Müllers, Jürgen or Klaus, who are identical twins (how to tell them apart? Klaus plays the bagpipes).
Our adventure began minutes after boarding at Puerto Caldera. The captain invited us topside for the daily “sail-away,” the thrilling moment when sails unfurl, the anchor is hoisted and the crew scampers to its tasks. Over the loudspeaker, we heard phantom sailors singing a low, minor-key dirge (Vangelis’ music from the 1992 movie “Conquest of Paradise” about Christopher Columbus) Goosebumps ran down my spine.
Therein lies the only drawback to the Star Flyer’s authenticity: in order to use its sails, a sailing ship must have wind blowing in the right direction and at sufficient speed. That doesn’t offer much wiggle room for a cruise ship keeping to a strict itinerary, as off-board activities are offered daily. (Captain Klaus advised me that I should choose a Caribbean itinerary for the best chance of experiencing true sail power.)
I soon dismissed my pouting, however, and enjoyed the ship’s flapping sails for what they were: objects of beauty, just like the teak decks, polished brass fittings, highly varnished woodwork and brilliant, red-and-white Maltese flag snapping at the stern.
We “sailed” all that first day. Several passengers spotted porpoises off the stern. At the forward end, others had stretched out on the rope mesh fitted over the bowsprit, allowing them to gaze straight down into the ocean. They watched some 100 porpoises playing among the bow waves – including a baby reluctant to follow its mother when it was time to go.
Other passengers relaxed in or near the ship’s two miniature swimming pools. Still others read books, iPads, etc. on the many deck chairs about. Some enjoyed drinks in the outdoor Tropical Bar amidships.
Other onboard activities included lectures by the captain and crew, dancing to music provided by the Hungarian pianist “Charly,” a talent show, “Pirate Night,” climbing the mast and, of course, Christmas Eve.
Maybe that was the truest test of the Star Flyer’s soul: how to celebrate this most personal of all holidays, with so many of us away from our dry-land homes.
The celebration started that afternoon, when I encountered Santa in the rigging. At dinner, Captain Klaus read a brief but heartfelt address – almost a prayer – before dinner, thanking God for the love that binds all the world’s peoples, whatever their race, creed or culture.
After dinner in the lounge, Santa gave out gifts, and we sang Christmas carols. And after that, we went up on deck.
The moon was nearly full, its light streaming along the water. Elsewhere, we gazed at the stars, as the deck gently rolled under our feet. A light breeze whistled through the rigging.
On the Star Flyer that night, with my wife and daughters at my side, I felt as close to heaven as I’m likely to get on this earth. You can’t ask for more authenticity than that.
(Next time: Tracking the wily sloth, as we discover wild Costa Rica on the Star Flyer.)