Setting sail for the past in Cuba

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Jeannine Williamson heads for Havana on board Star Clippers’ four-mast ship Star Flyer for a Caribbean cruise with a difference

I am standing on the crow’s nest high above the wooden deck and releasing my inner Captain Jack Sparrow. Ahead, the sparkling waters of the Caribbean stretch as far as the eye can see, and behind me 16 cream sails propel the ship further away from Havana and onwards to our next Cuban destination.

It might not be the Black Pearl, but Star Flyer could easily be straight out of a film set and it’s a world away from the image that automatically springs to mind at the mention of cruise ships. There’s no rock climbing wall, Broadway-style entertainment, casino or multiple dining venues. Instead, the various activities, such as climbing the mast, are totally in keeping with this modern-day recreation of a clipper; the sleek vessels with lofty canvas sails that ruled the waves as the world’s fastest oceangoing vessels in the mid-19th century.
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Cuba is fascinating, and totally unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. Sultry, pastel coloured colonial Spanish cities are filled with cigar sellers, salsa beats and growling American cars from the 1950s, a living legacy of the trade embargo that severed US imports after the late communist leader Fidel Castro came to power. However, shortcomings include a lack of good quality hotels and service standards on a level with other Caribbean islands, along with things often running to exible local time – if at all. All of this makes a cruise a hassle- free way to experience Cuba.

Following the relaxation of travel arrangements for American citizens, the floodgates have opened with a number of US-owned cruise lines now setting sail to Havana. But for a really authentic experience that’s a perfect t in a country where the clock often stands still, Star Clippers really fits the bill.

Cuba is fascinating, and totally unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean

We boarded Star Flyer in Havana for an 11-night sailing around Cuba and to other Caribbean destinations. Launched in 1991, the ship was the realisation of a childhood dream for Swedish entrepreneur Mikael Krafft. The 170-passenger, four-masted vessel – technically a square-rigged barquentine for those in the nautical know – was later joined by sister ship Star Clipper and the 227-passenger Royal Clipper. A fourth ship, the 300-passenger Flying Clipper, is scheduled to launch next year.

Star Flyer might have been dwarfed by the huge cruise ship moored alongside, but the first glimpse made a big impression with the elegant sweep of its hull, masts topped by twinkling lights and a welcome cocktail and nibbles in the teak-decked al fresco Tropical Bar.

shutterstock_280154465From the maritime knots that form patterns in the carpet to nostalgic seafaring paintings and a wealth of polished brass and varnished wood, the ship’s interior has a lovely retro feel. This extended to our cosy cabin with its round porthole. A total of 79 of the 85 cabins are outside facing and they range in size from 97 sq ft, for the inside cabins, to the 226 sq ft owner’s stateroom. There are seven cabin grades and all feature bathrooms with a shower, ample storage, TV, DVD player, hairdryer and safe. Extras in category one cabins include a mini-bar and bath.

The focus is firmly on the Star Clipper experience, rather than the man-made attractions you find on large cruise ships

After settling in, it was time for our first meal in the restaurant which serves buffet breakfast and lunch, with live cooking stations, and a waiter-served evening meal. A bell heralded the start of mealtimes and – synchronised exactly with the first peal – the onboard musician Jerry struck up on the white grand in the namesake Piano Bar, wishing everyone a cheery “bon appetit” as they went downstairs. Although there’s a generous time slot for meals, we ended up like Pavlov’s proverbial dogs as it was hard to resist the call of the culinary bell. To whet appetites further, sample dishes are set out next to the menu in the Piano Bar prior to dinner so you can decide what to choose.

We spent our first day in Havana, where the cruise terminal is conveniently situated in the old city. If you decide not to take the optional excursion it’s easy to get around on your own. The vintage cars are everywhere, from spluttering taxis to gleaming models in a kaleidoscope of colours which are used for tourist tours of an hour or more. We can’t resist a bright pink 1950 open-top Cadillac and set off on a tour of the city’s highlights, which include enormous Revolution Square where Castro addressed more than one million supporters. Afterwards we stroll around narrow streets that are refreshingly free from famous name fast food chains and coffee shops, stopping for an inexpensive mojito and to listen to a live band that has people dancing in the street at 11am.

That night brought the spectacle of our first sailaway, with 36,000 square feet of sails unfurling to the rousing sound of the 1492: Conquest of Paradise theme by Vangelis. It’s a real goose-bump moment. Although motorised, Star Flyer sails by wind power wherever possible and that was around 70 per cent on our cruise.

IMG_8911The focus is firmly on the Star Clipper experience, rather than the man-made attractions you find on large cruise ships. All free onboard activities complement this philosophy, from the mast climbing to lying out on the bowsprit nets, watersports, stargazing sessions, talks by the captain and low-key entertainment, such as quizzes and nightly music. The social hub is the Tropical Bar where passengers – around 60 per cent repeaters – gather to swap seafaring tales over the cocktail of the day, enjoy generous complimentary pre-dinner snacks and mingle with crew and off -duty officers, the latter
a pleasant surprise for anyone used to the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ hierarchy on large ships. There is also an open bridge policy and you’re welcome to drop by and chat to the captain and officers at any time, except when Star Flyer is manoeuvring in and out of port. Even during these times, the captain often provides a brief explanation about what’s going on.

There are many shore highlights, including a stop at upmarket Grand Cayman where we take the excursion to Stingray City. In Jamaica we quickly fall into the famously laid-back lifestyle by taking a lazy raft trip along a tranquil river lined by lush forest outside Montego Bay. Back in Cuban waters, Star Flyer’s tenders ferry passengers back and forth to islands with pristine powder sand beaches, such as Cayo Largo with its turtle sanctuary, and Cayo Rico where the crew cook up a fantastic beach barbecue. Our planned stop on Isla de la Juventud, with a national park and dive sites, is scuppered by the vagaries of the Cuban authorities. By way of an apology, the captain throws an impromptu cocktail party and everyone is happy.

Whatever the many delights on dry land – and Cuba is a captivating destination – this is a cruise where the joint star of the show is the ship. One day, with no sight of land, we’re offered the chance to go out in the tender to photograph Star Flyer under full sail. It’s yet another wow factor moment on this amazing cruise with a difference.

Star Clippers’ Cuba itineraries range from seven to 11 nights (prices from £1,705pp).

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