The Panamanian port of Balboa lies at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal.

There are superyachts from all over the world here, but the towering mast and glittering lights of the Star Flyer stand out well above the rest.

Stepping on board this beautiful vessel is like going back in time to the days of the classic clipper ships that ruled the waves during the 19th century. The brass fittings and mahogany rails positively gleam, and the teak decks and antique decor pay homage to the nautical heritage that Star Clippers has re-created with its fleet of three barquentine and fully rigged sailing ships.

Ducking under booms, stepping over coils of rope and watching sailors work the winches are constant reminders that you’re on a real working ship. I feel as though I am in a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean and that a swashbuckling Johnny Depp could appear any minute. But Star Flyer is also a well-appointed, contemporary ship equipped with all the comforts of 21st-century cruising.

Star Flyer‘s engines are switched off when conditions permit, and then the crew unfurls billowing sails that can propel her along at a comfortable eight to 10 knots. On a typical cruise, she relies exclusively on sail power about one-third of the time.

We head up on deck for the traditional and dramatic “sail away” to the soundtrack of Vangelis’ 1492: Conquest of Paradise. It’s an appropriate tribute on this seven-night voyage from Panama to Costa Rica, as it was Christopher Columbus who discovered the country.

Our fellow 118 passengers are a mix of nationalities: a few Australians, Americans and Brits, but the majority are Europeans. Most are couples, either travelling alone or with friends. Our cruise director, Philip, briefs everyone about the next day’s activities consecutively in flawless English, French and German. Many passengers were returning for their second or third voyage; Star Clippers boasts that about 60 per cent of its guests are repeat customers.

Dinner is a relaxed affair with a casual dress code, although some guests choose to dress up. Porthole-shape skylights create an atrium-like effect in the Piano Bar, which leads to a graceful staircase and the dining room one deck below. All meals are open seating and there’s plenty of choice on the à la carte menu. A typical menu comprises appetisers, soup and salad; a selection of entrees and main courses that include seafood (lobster and grilled Atlantic salmon), meat (herb-crusted rack of lamb), pasta and a
daily chef’s special.

Life on board is blissfully relaxed, much like travelling on a private yacht. We spend our sea time basking on the sun deck, taking a dip in one of the two saltwater pools or lazing in the net that hangs off the bow of the ship to watch dolphins dancing in the water just a few metres below. True sailing devotees can lend a hand with deck duties, learn navigation or knot tying, climb the mast or visit the open bridge.

Natural paradises

Shopping and nightlife don’t feature on Star Clippers’ ships and itineraries. There are lectures by the onboard naturalist and star-gazing is a perfect evening activity. On our cruise, most passengers headed for their cabins either directly after dinner or the nightly show put on by the crew.

South and Central America are natural paradises so dazzling and diverse that they almost defy adequate description. The first stop on our adventure is the uninhabited Isla Iguana, where masses
of frigate birds soar and dive overhead in breathtaking aerobatics. The deserted beach is enticing, so we grab our snorkels and take the first tender ashore. Some guests take advantage of the complimentary waterskiing, kayaking and windsurfing; others are content to doze in a hammock under a palm tree.

Virtual Noah’s ark

Overnight we cross into Costa Rican waters and anchor off the port town of Golfito. With 9,000 plant species, 850 bird species and about 10 per cent of all mammals on earth, Costa Rica is a virtual Noah’s Ark and one of the world’s top ecotourism hot spots.
The local tourism body sums up this living laboratory perfectly with its slogan “Pura Vida” or “plenty of life”.

We take an optional excursion to the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary and after a “wet landing” (be prepared, there are quite a few of these) we’re welcomed by the raucous greeting of scarlet macaws.
We meet some of the rainforest residents: howler monkeys, white-faced chocolate-coloured capuchin monkeys, toucans and the cutest baby two-toed sloth.

The next day’s excursion is to Corcovado National Park, one of the wildest jungle habitats on earth. In this part of the world you can sit, stand, lie or look in any direction and watch nature perform around you. Hummingbirds flit through the air like miniature jet fighters while giant blue butterflies play over brilliantly coloured flowers. There are mushrooms that glow
in the dark and delicate orchids that bloom for only a day.

All too soon, our week-long adventure is over. It’s been the ultimate sea-going experience, balancing the grandeur, adventure and tradition of open-ocean sailing with superb service, amenities and accommodation. No wonder so many Star Clippers passengers come back for more.

This review was published in Cruise Passenger 53 and was written in 2013.