I’m sitting on a wooden folding chair, feeling a slight slow churning in my stomach as I watch the moon appear to bounce up and down on the horizon. The lyrics of Lay Down Sally, tinged with a slight Bulgarian accent, echo in my ears as several octogenarian couples twirl effortlessly on the dance floor. When the crowd is instructed, in both English and German, to find a spectator to bring on the dance floor, my husband, Dan, volunteers me and before I can protest. I find myself standing face to face with 80-year old Charles as the familiar strains of Macarena begin and the group starts to go through the dance’s movements in unison. If the goal of travel is to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things – things you might never have expected – then I have definitely succeeded.
I’m on a cruise. But not your run-of-the-mill, floating-hotel, 3,000 person megacruise. I’m on the 170-passenger Star Flyer, one of the tallest sailing vessels in the world, rocking, a little too much for my stomach to handle, in the Pacific waters off Costa Rica.
As an independent traveler who prefers to spend at least a few days in each place and who tries to seek out places further off the tourist trail, I’ve never had much interest in cruising. But the idea of a more intimate ship that could get into smaller ports of call enticed me to give it a try. I’ll be the first to admit I can get very set in my travel ways, and this seemed like a great opportunity to shake things up a bit. So along with Dan, I confirmed my travel on the Star Clippers‘ Star Flyer, which would cruise along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Nicaragua for seven nights, spending one day at sea and stopping at five ports of call.
The first thing that struck me about Star Flyer was the size and beauty of ship itself. It was smaller than I expected but stunningly beautiful; I could have walked across the width of its teak wood floors in less than 10 seconds and from bow to stern under its sparkling lights in less than 60, if it weren’t for all the sails, rigging, booms and equipment to navigate, that is. Though it features many luxurious touches, this is a real working ship, and one that operates on pure wind power as often as possible. Guests can not only watch the team raise and lower the sails each day, at one point on the cruise, they’re given the chance to participate in the labor.
But on our first night, there was no work to be done. After an effortless five-minute check-in procedure, we stepped aboard and were greeted with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before dinner. We check out our cabin, which was predictably cozy with a comfortable bed, small closet, and tv with DVD player, and then headed back to the deck’s Tropical Bar, the main gathering point of the cruise. Here guests can enjoy cocktails all day long (not included in the cost of the cruise but very reasonably priced), sign up for excursions, and enjoy nightly entertainment. Adjacent is the indoor Piano Bar, with cozy couches and a unique view of the pool (glass windows offer legs-only views of swimmers in the pool above). We took a quick glance at the sample display of dishes for the night’s dinner and headed down to the intimate dining room to engage in what would become a nightly ritual for the rest of the cruise.
There’s no assigned seating on the Star Flyer, so guests are free to sit wherever and with whomever they like. Each night’s menu features a soup, salad, cheese, sorbet, and several appetizer, entree and dessert choices; guests can order as many courses as their stomach allows. Because the food was so rich, I stuck with no more than three, though I saw other people order as many as six. Throughout the cruise, I found the food ranging in quality. Meat dishes – filet, lamb, and pork – seemed to fare the best, along with seafood dishes like grilled lobster tail and salmon in caper sauce, while the vegetarian dishes were often disappointing. Perhaps most disappointing of all was the lack of local options; on only two nights where there locally-influenced dishes, and those were among my favorite meals.
Over the next six days, I discovered some of the pros and cons of cruising on a small ship, and of cruising in general. While I loved being able to explore a new port each day, it was disappointing to miss out on the nightlife of small towns like Playa del Coco. And when high swells kept our boat rocking so much that transferring to the tenders for a ride to shore was impossible, it was disappointing to miss out on the scheduled excursion and instead spend another day on the ship, which was beginning to feel a little too intimate at that point, especially for – ahem- those among us whose seasick-prone stomachs couldn’t handle the rocking. But, thanks to the Star Flyer’s small size, we were also able to navigate some smaller “ports,” including a pristine empty beach and the small surf town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, where larger ships simply can’t go.
One of my major concerns in taking a cruise was that the other passengers would all be on the older side of the age spectrum. And, with a few exception (a few 30-somethings traveling with their parents), they were. It’s not often that you hear the phrase, “I haven’t had that since the second war!” But what I found was that, due to the very nature of cruising on a sailing vessel and the more active excursions offered, the seniors on board were some of the “youngest” I’ve ever met. As I struggled with vertigo going down the stairs to the tenders, 60 and 70-year olds nearly sprinted down. When I cautiously hopped off the zodiac into the water on one of the many “wet landings” at the beach, they happily jumped in. After I decided not to climb to the top of the mast to go in the crow’s nest high above deck, I was gently teased by an avid sailor who was old enough to be my grandfather. And on most nights, one of the oldest couples outlasted us all on the dance floor. My concerns about the elderly passengers were unfounded in this case and I had more fun with this group than I think I would have with the college crowd.
I also worried that I’d be bored. Instead – with the exception of the second, unplanned, day at sea – I found there wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted. The entire cruise is built around a comfortable routine: have breakfast, go into port, get back on the ship in the afternoon for some pool time or an activity and lecture and then cocktail hour, freshen up for dinner followed by dancing or entertainment, retire to the cabin and watch a movie or go to bed, and then wake up and do it all again. But, there was enough variety in the activities offered – including nature lectures, spa treatments, shipboard “golf” and other games, knot-tying, mast-climbing and stories from the Captain – that I never found myself just waiting for the time to pass.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the cruise was the staff. On day one, the Captain introduced sixteen of the 70 or so staff on board. Hailing from the Philippines, Mexico, Ukraine, Russia, Spain and dozens of other countries, they came from all over the world to work on board the Star Flyer for months on end. And they couldn’t have been a better crew. From the pursur’s office to the engine room to the dining room to the bar, every crew member I came into contact with went out of his or her way to ensure all my needs were met. Special requests were honored without fail and problems were addressed immediately. The cruise director, Ximena, was no exception, organizing all of the day trips and planning nightly entertainment, including the main event – a staff and passenger talent show that ended with a dance party.
And that was how I found myself getting out-Macarena‘d by an 80-year old man on the second-to-last night of the cruise. After watching the sunset with a slushy pina colada in hand, and after a lavish Captain’s dinner that featured Champagne, filet mignon, grilled lobster and baked Alaska, and after a talent show that saw a duet of Proud Mary, a comedy routine, a magic show and hip-hop dancing, and after the final performance – dedicated to Ximena by one of the younger passengers – of I’ve Had the Time of My Life had come and gone, I was pulled on the dance floor at Ximena’s command. And there I watched as a group of silver-haired men in white pants and boat shoes and post-menapausal women in heels and “resort casual wear” shimmied and jumped in unison, laughing and smiling and clearly having the time of their lives.
I didn’t expect it, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself on the cruise. I don’t think it’s for everyone – the price may be prohibitive for some, and there are certainly some improvements to be made – but if you’re interested in a small ship cruise, want to cruise Costa Rica, or are looking for a vacation that blends more independent travel with package travel suitable for multiple generations in your family, I highly recommend Star Clippers. You might not have “the time of your life,” but you may be surprised by how much fun you do have. Just practice your Macarena. You don’t want to be shown up by someone’s grandpa.
Disclaimer: Star Clippers hosted me on the trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.