Caribbean cruising by tall ship

Dave Pattison
Special to the Sun Times
  • On the French side of St. Martin, the ruins of Fort St. Louis sit above the attractive town of cafes, croissants and the tricolor

Sailing on a tall clipper ship takes one back to the historic swashbuckling era of the 19th Century when wind propelled the vessels across the world's oceans. A recent voyage took me aboard the Star Clipper, which sailed from and to St. Maartin through the Caribbean, visiting several islands, some uninhabited.

Traveling aboard a clipper replica is a totally different way of cruising, especially around the Caribbean.

My clipper voyage was an exhilarating experience watching 16 sails on four masts unfurl as the ship is moved on the high seas by wind power. The Star Clipper was built in 1991, 140 years after the last clipper was built. It is an authentic recreation of the 19th century clipper ship, and is one of the largest full-rigged sailing ship in the world. It is a real working sailing ship with 85 cabins and up to 170 passengers.

In their heyday the clipper carried cargo and passengers in journeys across all the seas, encountering the thrill and danger of navigating around such places as Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. Our tall ship evokes memories of the legendary voyages of Sir Francis Drake and Ferdinand Magellan. It is reminiscent of the great age of sailing.

Author/photographer Pattison takes a symbolic turn at the wheel.

Our first stop was at Anguilla, one of the smaller Caribbean islands which boasts of 33 white sand beaches with blue and aquamarine waters. During our next 3 days we traveled around, by and at several of the British Virgin Islands, many unknown to American tourists. Our first stop, however, was at Virgin Gorda, the second largest BVI islands.

It was named the "Fat Virgin" by Columbus because he believed it resembled a pregnant woman. Its major attraction is a national park called "The Baths", were giant volcanic boulders carved and shaped by wind and water are scattered across the beach and water, creating remarkable grottos and caves and surreal boulder formations. After our return to our ship we stopped at a remote island named Prickly Pear for a barbeque on the beach.

The next day our featured stop was at the uninhabited Norman Island, reputedly the "Treasure Island" of Robert Louis Stevenson fame. Only some goats and a beach bar occupy the island.

Tiny Jost van Dyle island has just 200 residents

Our final day in the British Islands found us at Jost Van Dyke, an island named after a 17th century pirate. This small laid-back island is popular for its picturesque white sand beaches, one of which we visited. This small four-mile long island has only 200 residents.

St. Kitts, one of the prettiest and most popular islands in the Caribbean, was our next anchor. We spent a couple of hours in Basseterre, its capital and major city, and then moved anchor to a beach in a more isolated area. Basseterre is a major cruise and marine port, but has an interesting "Circus.” a circle in which traffic makes its way around a fancy Victorian clock tower. The island features large volcanic mountains and lush rain forests.

Our final stop on our 7-day cruise was at the French West Indies island of St. Barthelemy (Barts), which is acclaimed as one of the jewels of the Caribbean. We visited its capital, Gustavia, which sports a huge marina in a sheltered harbor containing some of the most luxurious yachts one would find anywhere in the world. Red-roofed bungalows in the French style dot the town and hillsides of this very chic postcard-pretty city. St. Barts deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful and exclusive islands to be found anywhere in the Caribbean.

Our clipper voyage ended in St. Maartin, but rather then returning home, I spent two more days in the Dutch capital of Phillipsburg.

Pattison stands outside the hotel he stayed in during a 1960s trip to the area.

Ironically, I stayed at the Pasanggrahan Royal Hotel, the same place I stayed on my last visit here in the early 1960's. It is the oldest inn on the island, dating from 1905, and was the former home of the royal family of the Netherlands. It still occupies a prime location overlooking the Great Bay. It was a trip down memory lane.

St. Maartin/St. Martin is unique because the island is divided between two countries -- France and the Netherlands. While I stayed on the Dutch side, I was also happy to spend some time at Marigot, the capital of the French side. The ruins of Fort St. Louis sits above the attractive town of cafes, croissants and the tricolor. It has a definite French flavor. The island is an interesting study in contrasts. The Dutch capital is the top Caribbean cruise destination for shopping, while the French side is dedicated to cuisine. The tourist has these choices.

Pattison anticipates the kind of meal one would anticipate anywhere in the Caribbean.

I returned home as a legitimate "Old Salt.”