It is often said that travel in the 21st century has become too generic and that it has become difficult to find unique travel experiences, even at the luxury end of the market. Well, I’m pleased to report that a week spent sailing in the Southern Caribbean aboard the 4 masted, square rigged, sailing yacht ‘Sea Cloud’ is certainly something out of the ordinary!
Unusually, for many of the maximum 64 guests she can accommodate today it seems Sea Cloud has actually become the destination. She has a legendary, iconic status in her native Germany as a ship with an immensely colourful history stretching back some 86 years.
She was built in Kiel in 1931 and was at the time the largest private yacht in the world, a dream realised by American cereal heiress Marjorie Mayweather Post and her second husband, the financier Edward Hutton. Famously, Post later built the Mar A Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, a property which has been in the news quite a bit recently due to its famous present owner!
Stories abound of an extra mast being added to the shipbuilding plans at the last minute to ensure she would be the grandest yacht among the freewheeling social elite of the day. Post apparently drew an outline of the ship’s dimensions in a warehouse in New York so she could position the furniture to her liking in each of the 8 original staterooms, lounge & dining room. The furniture was then shipped to Germany to be installed before she was sailed back to New York.
Sea Cloud survived all of Marjorie’s four divorces and her hull was repainted to white from the original black after her second divorce from Hutton. During her third marriage to a US politician, she served as a US diplomatic vessel moored in St Petersburg before WW2, hosting many high level meetings between US and Soviet officials and even saw action as a US navy ship during the war. She was eventually sold to the Dominican Republic dictator Trujillo and used in California and the Caribbean for jet-set parties with the Hollywood A-listers of the day hosted by his playboy son.
Strolling around the ship today you do feel immersed in
her history; if the walls could talk, I’m guessing she would have some stories to tell! After Trujillo’s death, Sea Cloud eventually lay rusting in Colon at one end of the Panama Canal, before being rescued in the late 1970’s by enthusiasts in Hamburg and sailed back to her birthplace in Kiel for a major renovation and makeover.
Today the ship has added 24 more cabins, all but 2 of them above decks, to the 8 original staterooms below, but has lost none of its original old world charm and grace. The ship was refitted in 2010 to ensure compliance with modern cruise ship health and safety standards but such was the attention to period detail that you’d never know that steel walls lie behind the ornate wooden panels in the dining room. Teak and mahogany abound and the crew of up to 60 are working constantly to keep woodwork varnished and brass polished.
The original 8 staterooms personally designed by Post are the most popular on the ship and of course now have air conditioning and great plumbing, the shower in mine was fantastic; but they are still adorned with vintage furniture and art work and a fascinating ship tour of these staterooms is a real highlight for passengers during a voyage. My deluxe original cabin had a decorative marble fireplace, a walk in closet and decorative gold bathroom fittings. None of the 32 cabins have keys, such is the relaxed ambience of the ship.
It’s impossible to compare Sea Cloud to any other cruise vessel in that she is unique, designed as a private yacht rather than a modern purpose built cruise ship and still feels that way today. I’m told that even her very popular sister sailing ship Sea Cloud II, slightly bigger with a maximum of 94 passengers, feels quite different, with all the modern conveniences you’d expect. She sails in the Baltics as well as the Meditteranean and sometimes sails itineraries in tandem with her venerable sister.
The silver service and fine dining on board Sea Cloud are excellent, 5* at the very least, with the best food I’ve experienced on a cruise ship. Breakfast and lunches are buffet style while dinners are taken in one sitting in the original dining room with fine wines provided. The lobster was particularly sensational and while dining you do feel transported back to the glamour days of the 1930’s. Today, the ‘hotel’ operation is exceptionally slick with seamless transitions between the five meal times (this is a cruise after all!), tender operations and onboard entertainment, which essentially consists of port talks on local history and culture (offered in both English and German) and then cocktails poured in the bar or lounge! Dress code is relaxed in the day and smart casual at night, with opportunities to throw on your glad rags for the ‘elegant’ Captain’s Dinner and the 5 course Gala Dinner.
Our itinerary began with embarkation in Bridgetown, Barbados, an island often described as being more British than Britain itself as it was under continuous Crown control for 339 years until independence in 1966. The bloody history of European colonisation and empire in the Caribbean, of the battles fought by the Spanish, French, Dutch and British navies and their pirates, privateers and buccaneers is covered in detail during the fascinating ship lectures. The prize fought over was initially control over trading in cocoa, nutmeg and other spices but quickly the sugar plantations took over, initially reliant on a slave labour force, and fortunes were made. Our cruise takes us to four other island states, but like Barbados, the economies of Tobago, Grenada, The Grenadines and St Lucia today are more heavily reliant on tourism.
Any cruise is by nature a kind of a ‘travel tapas’ of a country’s highlights and you can sometimes feel short changed with such limited time in each. Fortunately Sea Cloud’s small size enables us to enjoy pretty villages like Bequia in the Grenadines and Soufriere in St Lucia, sheltered anchorages far away from the crowds disembarking the larger cruise ships in bigger ports. If you’d like to try a particularly memorable rum punch, a cocktail ubiquitous in this part of the Caribbean, try the tiny ‘Suck Hole’ bar in Man-O-War bay in the village of Charlottesville, Tobago. All I could say was ‘Whoa’! After leaving Barbados, we saw no other cruise vessel in the entire week, and all shore excursions were exclusively for Sea Cloud guests.
Naturally, a ship with 4 masts and up to 30 sails is quite the sight to behold under full sail, and to journey aboard this vintage windjammer is clearly a real ‘bucket list’ experience for many of the guests aboard. She attracted admiring glances and plenty of attention in each port we visited too, with plenty of ‘wow, are you on that ship?’ comments.
Highlights of our cruise included a catamaran tour into the Tobago Cays Marine Park archipelago where we snorkelled with turtles in warm crystal clear water and lazed on white sandy beaches, one of many ‘pinch me, have I stumbled onto the set of a James Bond movie?’ experiences! Later that same day we were treated to a beach barbecue in a bar at Chatham Bay on Union Island, an anchorage only accessible by boat. The ship’s crew had magically reappeared ashore to set up an incredible feast, one of several surprise ‘treats’ of the voyage.
A real highlight was watching the ‘sail unfurling’ process on the first day at sea, uniquely still done ‘by hands’ in other words, manually, by the crew climbing the rigging, up to 178ft high on the main mast! Later in the voyage the guests are invited to hop into one of the ships two zodiacs and photograph Sea Cloud from the water under full sail. So large is the yacht at 360 feet that the deck area never feels crowded and there’s a couple of prime ‘secret’ spots aboard for watching the sunset or star gazing. The experience was best summed up for me as a ‘tremendously romantic friendly pirate ship’!
I’m not sure whether it was due to the 29C heat, regular swims in sea the temperature of bathwater, refreshing sea breezes or the infectious reggae rhythms played in every beach bar, but by the end of this week time had slowed right down. I realised I was now on ‘island time’, Caribbean style! In no rush, returning to the ship each afternoon on the last tender became an easy habit, always to be greeted by the crew with a friendly ‘welcome back’ and a cool face towel.
As a vintage ship, Sea Cloud is a fine weather sailing vessel and so divides her time between offering 7-14 night cruises around the Caribbean from December to April and 7-10 night cruises around the Mediterranean from May to November. There’s also an epic 16 night Trans Atlantic voyage offered in early December to connect these two seasons. In the Caribbean I’m told that Germans are usually the largest nationality group aboard, whilst in the Mediterranean there are often more American guests aboard.
I was amongst the first New Zealand guests, and made to feel very welcome for travelling so far across the oceans to investigate this maritime legend. The effort was well worth it, Sea Cloud is everything I’d hoped for and more, definitely one of the world’s most unique travel experiences!