If you ask me, there’s no better way to experience the idyllic Thailand coast than by sailing on the Star Clipper, an 1830s replica schooner taking guests on Star Clippers tall-ship voyages. I recently spent a week aboard her (itinerary here), and top among the highlights were the intimacy and tranquility of a ship with a maximum capacity of 170 people. On our voyage, there were only 78 passengers from all over the world—and 77 crew. Today’s large modern cruise ships regularly carry more than 6,000 passengers and beyond that must anchor in deep water, prohibiting access to the remote island beaches we were able to visit on Star Clipper.
Checking in for the cruise: Phuket
My journey began in Phuket, Thailand, at a beachside hotel, where I was able to check in and hand my baggage over to stevedores, as is standard. The porters promptly delivered my bags directly to my stateroom. From the hotel, I took a launch to the ship’s gangway, the stairs that lead to the ship’s main deck. I immediately felt very comfortable and welcomed by officers and staff, who were extremely helpful and cheerful in introducing me to my home for the next week.
The 350-foot Star Clipper was built in 1993 and outfitted with modern amenities like air conditioning, a reverse-osmosis fresh-water-maker, and a diesel engine for getting around when there’s no wind. With wind, the ship’s 36,000 square feet of sail can propel the elegant vessel silently through the water at up to 17 knots.
I found the layout to be spacious and just about perfect. The mid-ship main deck has a comfortable indoor/outdoor bar for drinks and conversation as well as fore and aft sundecks, each with a small swimming pool filled with fresh seawater every morning. There are lots of chaise lounges on the decks—some in the sun, some under the large awnings—so reading and relaxing aboard is blissful.
Days aboard (and off) the ship
Each morning brings an awesome sunrise and a buffet breakfast. Then the blue sea beckons, and you’re off to a secluded beach for watersports activities that include snorkeling, scuba, SUP, kayak, and laser sailboats. The ship’s tenders shuttles passengers to the beach and back all day so you can decide when to go and for how long. The watersports team, meanwhile, is extremely helpful and enthusiastic.
Our first day’s beach was notorious for having some very bold monkeys. We were warned that the creatures get curious about the contents in your beach bag. It was great fun watching them plot and attempt raids on bags that had been hung on tree branches.
I’m an avid snorkeler, and I really enjoyed exploring the reefs close to the beaches we visited. The water is crystal-clear and teeming with brightly colored fish, pulsating sea anemones, sea urchins, and turtles. Each day was a new beach, a new reef formation, and new discoveries of fish and corals that I’d never seen before.
During the week there are landside excursions available as alternatives to the beach visits. On one day, we docked in the Malaysian port of Penang, which began as a trading post for tea and opium to/from India and China and is today a cultural paradise of colonial buildings, ancient temples, and Chinese fishing villages built out into the sea on stilts. Known as “The Pearl of the Orient,” it’s marked with the colors of China, England, Holland, India, and Portugal, all preserved in the colonial-era architecture that has survived the centuries and now protected as historical sites.
On the same day we were in Penang, we were also given the option to take a trip to an orangutan rescue center, where orphans are raised until they’re able to be released back to the wild. Both excursions included transport by comfortable, air-conditioned coaches.
Our voyage through the Andaman Sea brought us close to the awesome rock formations that give shape to this part of the world. They rise out of the emerald sea like skyscrapers, with sheer rock faces adorned with green foliage. Some had caves and stalactites and our small tenders enabled us to get very close for some excellent photography opportunities.
Every evening at around 6:30pm, the crew raises the sails. As they draw the ropes, the sails fill and the majestic clipper ship gets underway for the evening. The captain gives heading orders to the helmsman, and—navigating around local fishing vessels, the ship is off to the next island destination. While under sail, my favorite place to relax was in the bowsprit netting that hangs out over the sea beyond the bow of the ship. You’re high over the water as if in a giant hammock, admiring the huge sails against the sky with the sea rushing by below. It’s magical! The sunsets, too are dazzling. Since you’re on the water, there’s always a clear view of the horizon. Each night includes the special moment at which the last bit of orange sphere dips below the sea and evening begins.
Food and drink
Each morning, there’s a buffet breakfast ready to go in the dining room that includes local exotic fresh fruits, a wide range of baked pastries and breads, and an omelet station. With lots of yogurt and cereal options, it’s great way to begin the day.
Lunch and afternoon cocktails
Lunch is also buffet style with a wonderful choice of salads, meat and cheese, plus something special each day like turkey carved off the frame. Afternoons are great for cocktails and relaxing on the comfortable chaises on deck, where you can stretch out under the large sunshades or in the sun. There are also two small pools to cool off in.
One of the beach days included an on-beach barbecue, for which the crew (dressed in Hawaiian attire) brought massive grills from the ship to the beach and cooked up an amazing feast. There was music and dancing and everyone had a great time.
Dinner is slightly formal. Gentlemen are asked to wear long pants and collared shirts and the waitered service is from the menu, which changes every night. I found the food to be delicious and diverse with a local Thai dish always included among the imaginative chef’s creations. The service is impeccable, and special requests are gladly accommodated.
The mahogany-trimmed staterooms are extremely comfortable and well-appointed, nearly all with en suite bathrooms. As mentioned earlier, the boat produces its freshwater from seawater, which means there’s lots of cool and hot water for showering—and it’s as pure as bottled water.
There’s daily maid and evening turndown service, and although you don’t spend much time in your stateroom, the time you do spend there is easy to enjoy. The boat doesn’t rock much, but as a true sailing ship, it does list slightly when heading into the wind. For me there’s no better sleep than that which is earned on a sailboat, and upon crisp white sheets and a firm mattress the gentle motions of Star Clipper bring calmness and a wonderful rest.
I simply can’t overstate how great my week aboard the Star Clipper was. The Star Clipper and its sister ship—the Star Flyer—run trips closer to home, including in the Caribbean (embarking from St. Maarten that calls in the islands of Nevis, St. Barth, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Antigua). There are also voyages out of Greece that call in the Greek islands and Turkey.
For more on Star Clippers and its tall ship itineraries around the world, visit starclippers.com.