Back after an eight-year absence, Star Clipper is getting passengers far from the madding crowds – well almost! Teresa Ooi hoisted the sails…
We are sitting in the sand on a tiny Thai island in the Andaman Sea when the invasion takes place.
Twenty high-powered speedboats appear over the horizon. On board, 800 Chinese holidaymakers.
The girls are wearing floaty dresses. Others in bikinis with matching silver backpacks. One or two are wearing mermaid tails (yes, you read that right!).
All are armed with smartphones and are intent on their favourite vacation pastime: dressing up and taking selfies.
Watching with amusement – and some trepidation – are the mostly Caucasian guests of the four-masted schooner Star Clipper.
The square-rigger is riding gently at anchor just off Similan Island, part of an archipelago that is largely national park. The unflappable crew, who warned their guests of the impending influx in the morning newsletter, is serving a buffet lunch.
Star Clipper is about as far from those Chinese speedboats as you could get. A beautiful reminder of a golden age of sail, she is on a return season to Southeast Asia after an absence of eight years.
The Thai national parks are perfect for this ship. She can pick and choose the best bays to stop and give guests a barbecue lunch or snorkelling experience, and raise her 16 sails to travel effortlessly through the Andaman Sea.
Even this invasion – it is two hours before the hoards of selfie takers are gone – cannot spoil the serenity of this location.
Star Clipper is one of three famous sailing ships whose favourite playgrounds are the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
A fourth is in the offing, so Star Clipper – once a regular in Asia until pirate attacks made visiting a rarity – is specking out a full season and many happy returns.
Most of its 113 passengers are couples from Europe or America, travelling on their own or with friends. There are two couples on their honeymoon. Tom Taylor from Brisbane is celebrating his 60th birthday on board with his wife Dolly and two friends.
Cruising on the Star Clipper is a special experience. Vangelis songs accompany the raising of the sails, and each morning guests gather with coffee to discuss the night with the crew on the bridge.
“I have been on 22 other cruises mostly in large cruise ships. This is different. Very relaxing atmosphere and we all love to chill out,” Tom tells us.
Our cruise will visit pristine beaches in Thailand’s national parks where guests are able to snorkel over shallow reefs where the water is crystal clear and the colourful fish abundant.
The beaches can only be accessed by tender boats with guests prepared to wade through thigh-high water to reach the shore, find a perfect spot with some shade and enjoy a beachside idyll.
It sounds like a cruise cliché, but it really is like being on your own private yacht.
After a hard day at the beach, there’s always high tea, followed by cocktails before a leisurely dinner.
And after dinner, most head to the open deck to watch the stars and nurse a brandy while lying on a deck chair.
There are no casinos or Broadway shows (thought the crew put on a mean cabaret). Star Clipper and her sails are the entertainers.
And Star Clipper’s silver-haired, Russian Captain Sergey Tunikov is the impresario.
“All sails up. Jibs. Square sails out,” he commands as the ship prepares to leave Patong Bay on the first day of our six-night cruise.
To the sounds of Vangelis’ 1492: Conquest of Paradise,’ the ship raises her anchor as she sails away to our first destination, Ko Surin, which we reach next morning.
It is a moving experience – one that is repeated and watched by guests – as she leaves one destination for another.
This cruise is not about visiting temples and floating markets. It is about exploring Phuket’s national parks in pristine waters, swimming and snorkelling by day and sailing by night.
Ko Surin is close to the Myanmar borders and is home to a community of reclusive sea gypsies called Moken. At Ko Kradan, the psychedelic fish are eating out of our hands, feeding on fresh bread that we smuggle from the ship. Over the hilly park, sea eagles ride the thermals.
At Ko Rok Nok, a few intrepid passengers take to kayaks to paddle around the bay returning with fascinating tales of lazy-looking monitor lizards and frisky monkeys.
At Ao Phang Nga we take a speedboat to visit the James Bond island made famous by Christopher Lee and Roger Moore in the 1974 spy thriller The Man with the Golden Gun.
The island is overrun with cosplay tourists, many re-enacting scenes from the movie. It’s becoming an occupational hazard at tourist destinations linked to Hollywood.
The trip to Ko Hoong to see the limestone caves, tunnels and mangrove swamps is spectacular. There is something rather eerie to look at the formation of stalactites hanging from the caves.
At the Malaysian island resort of Langkawi, we hire a local taxi-driver, Fikri, to take us round the manmade retreat known for its cheap duty-free liquor and cosmetics. Despite the steady rain, we visit Eagle Square, the island’s landmark display of an enormous eagle about to take flight. We also stock up on Malaysian coffee and ginger tea and enjoy a delicious meal at a seafood restaurant in Cenang.
From the ship, scuba divers can go on special trips to hot spots where the diving is great and the sea life plentiful. These trips are closely supervised by a Canadian scuba expert.
Life on board moves at a leisurely pace. There are lessons on knot-tying, napkin folding, fruit-carving and evening talks on slavery in the Andaman Sea.
The chance to scramble up the ropes to one of the four towering masts is eagerly taken up by the fit and not-so-fit passengers. They are rewarded with a magnificent, panoramic view. Others spend their days lying on the big nets on either side of the bows where you can gaze up at the sails and feel exhilarated. Each morning before breakfast, there are aerobic lessons but most passengers tend to read their books by the two swimming pools.
Holiday friendships are soon struck up at dinner time where tables are often shared and at the alfresco Tropical Bar. Music is provided by veteran Charly at the piano.
The ship prides itself in serving a full four-course dinner every evening. The mostly Western meals are occasionally spiced up with Thai curry dishes.
This has been a relaxing journey to discover stunning swimming haunts hugging Phuket’s national parks from the comfort of a tall, square rigger ship.
Like Captain Tunikov says: “There is no other experience like this.”
Cruise line: Star Clippers
Vessel: Star Clippers
Star rating: 3.5
Passenger Capacity: 170
Total Crew: 72
Passenger Decks: 4
Entered Service: 1992
Facilities: Tropical Bar, two swimming pools, library and reading room, Piano Bar, main dining room.
Bookings: Seven-night round trip from Phuket is priced from $2,905 per person, twin share (inside cabin), excluding beverage and gratuities. See starclippers.com
Highs: Discovering pristine beaches on Phuket’s national parks such as Ko Kradan with crystal-clear waters. Perfect for swimming and snorkelling.
Lows: Could do with a better choice of coffee and seafood.
Best suited to: Passengers who are fit as there are stairs to get on and off tender boats.