Cruising the traditional way
According to the Berlitz Cruise Guide, Sea Cloud is “the most beautiful cruise-sail ship in the world… and one of the world’s best travel experiences.”
It was therefore with great anticipation that we boarded this historic windjammer at the Barbados Cruise terminal. It was docked next to several huge cruise ships and looked like it came from another era. Actually, it does.
Sea Cloud, 110 metres long, was built in Germany in 1931, a gift from U.S. financier Edward F. Hutton to his wife, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. At the time it was the largest private yacht ever built with no expense spared for teak decks, burnished brass and furnishings in mahogany and elaborately carved oak. The two master bedrooms, filled with Chippendale furniture, were huge with marble fireplaces and ornate gold faucets in the bathroom. They remain intact.
The tallest of its four masts rises 56 metres above the waterline. The square rigger has 29 sails that are raised and secured by several kilometres of ropes and rigging, all by hand.
Sea Cloud has gone through many changes over the years including time as a weather observation ship in the Second World War. In 1979 a group of German investors bought the ship, spent $7.5 million refurbishing it and making it available for charters and scheduled service. Further enhancements added more cabins and modern safety features.
Sea Cloud can now accommodate 64 guests in a wide variety of cabins. The eight ultra-luxury suites are on the first deck with the others on decks two and three being modest in size (our room had narrow, twin beds) but with quality furnishings and excellent L’occitane toiletries in the generously sized bathroom. There are no televisions but internet is available in public areas and each day a newspaper summary is delivered to staterooms.
Many of the efficient and friendly crew of 60 are kept busy doing constant maintenance and setting the sails. It’s a stunning spectacle to see the young men and women climbing up the rope ladders to the topmost sails where they untie the lines, then return to deck to wrestle and tug on the coils of rope which unfurl the vast expanse of billowing sheets. Several times each voyage, guests are invited to help pull the ropes.
Outstanding cuisine is a highlight of every Sea Cloud cruise. Buffet lunch, often with fresh fish brought aboard at various ports, is carved, grilled and served on the Lido deck. There’s an adjacent bar with an excellent array of complimentary wine, beer and spirits, including high end rum and single malt Scotch.
In the evening, elegant meals are served in the original lounge (one wall is a fine library) and adjacent dining room where the rich and famous dined and were entertained in the 1930s and ‘ ‘ ‘40s. Surrounded by dark woods, hand carved mahogany and oak and nautical oil paintings, guests are pampered with fine wines and extraordinary cuisine like duck breast, rack of lamb, tender filet of veal or black halibut. We counted more than 20 different cheese choices during the cruise.
Entertainment on Sea Cloud is minimal but a pianist played each day, a knowledgeable historian gave lectures about the islands we were visiting, an officer talked about star gazing (visibility at night is excellent, of course), a local band was brought aboard one evening and, as a highlight, the crew assembled in traditional sailors’ outfits to sing sea shanties.
Our Barbados round trip itinerary was a treat. It included Bequia in the Grenadines where we boarded safari trucks to tour the island and visit a sea turtle rehabilitation centre. After a relaxing sea day we docked in Dominica by Cabrits National Park and adjacent Fort Shirley, built in 1765 to deter the French.
A short visit to St. Barths with its fancy yachts and high end shops was followed by a fascinating tour of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. The highlight was “The Baths”, a series of huge, volcanic seaside boulders with small, pristine beaches. We went swimming the next day at Iles de Saintes in Guadeloupe. The lovely beach alongside the village is filled with fishing boats where the fishermen unloading their daily catch are surrounded by hungry pelicans.
At our last stop, Saint Lucia, we anchored in Soufriere Harbour, close to the famous Twin Pitons. Most guests took the complimentary tour to the lush Diamond Botanical Garden and Waterfall plus the world’s only drive-in volcano, still steaming after 400,000 years.
Sea Cloud lacks many of the attributes of modern cruise ships so it’s not for everyone. But, for Atlantic Canadians, it’s a wonderful opportunity to experience a pampered life in the Caribbean on an authentic sailing ship that’s been at sea for close to 90 years.
The Sea Cloud is seen under full sail.
Crew members climb the masts to set the sails.
One of two owner’s suites on Sea Cloud.
A view of the Baths on Virgin Gorda.