Aboard Royal Clipper: Under and on the sea

Snorkeling off the beach
Snorkeling off the beach

ABOARD THE ROYAL CLIPPER-Access. It can make the difference in so many things in life. And on a cruise it’s the difference between going with the pack or charting your own course. The Royal Clipper, at 439 feet, can poke its prow into places the big cruise ships can’t manage to go.

Places like Tobago Cays.

This sprinkling of islands in the Southern Grenadines doesn’t get a lot of cruise traffic aside from the sailboats and yachts that meander its aquamarine waters. This morning the Royal Clipper anchored amid them and sent its tender ashore to set up camp for the day on a secluded beach of white sand fringed by palm trees. Local fishing boats painted in bright colors bobbed along shore, one loaded with live lobsters that would end up on some lucky person’s dinner plate. A few chartered sailboats anchored a few yards away and Zodiacs zipped from shore to a catamaran ferrying passengers on shore excursions.

Royal Clippers beach for the day Tobago Cays
Royal Clippers beach for the day Tobago Cays

I was one of them. Bill and I signed up for the Royal Clipper’s Discover the Southern Grenadines, a snorkeling trip to the Grenadines’ Marine National Park (64 euros per person).

Our skipper dropped anchor 100 yards from Horseshoe reef, since vessels the catamaran’s size are not allowed to come too close to the protected waters. We swam for it and snorkeled a few feet above the coral. I spotted a nurse shark lying on the bottom, parrot fish pecked at the coral and dozens of other varieties of marine life flitted in and above the reef.

Back on the boat, we lolled on the deck drinking rum punch as we cruised around Mayreau and Canouan islands. Mustique was off-limits, a crew member told me. Though all beaches in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are public, money talks and the rich and famous here somehow manage to keep us plebians away. Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan, Tommy Hilfiger, Puff Daddy and Britain’s Princess Margaret are among the celebrities who have, or had, homes here. No matter. We dropped anchor at Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau and spent a half hour or so swimming in crystal clear water before boarding the cat again for more rum punch and a ride back to the beach were the Royal Clipper crew had set out a barbecue on the sand. What a spread. Along with hot dogs and burgers there was fish, chicken, ribs, a whole table of salads and another of sweets.

Kayaking Tobago Cays
Kayaking Tobago Cays

After a rest to digest we were back in the water snorkeling among rays and grouper. I spotted an eel slithering along the bottom trying to hide from my camera by wedging itself in a conch shell.

The Royal Clipper’s sports staff had carted bright yellow kayaks to the beach and I couldn’t resist the chance to explore more of the island under my own power.

A fellow passenger, Paul from Toronto, described the setting as postcard perfect, the kind of beach that many people imagine when they think of the Caribbean, but almost never see: secluded, uncrowded, clean, pristine.

Fish in the Marine National Park
Fish in the Marine National Park

He’s been on the Star Clippers three times, he told me, after discovering the cruise line while killing time in a mall by flipping through brochures in a travel agency. Traditional cruises, with gambling in casinos and dressing up for dinner, aren’t for him, he said. The Star Clippers vessels offer a different experience: not cruising, but real sailing.

The line’s two other ships are excellent, said Paul, but the Royal Clipper is bigger. The other ships don’t have the Royal’s three-story atrium ringing the dining room and piano lounge. The ceiling appears to be a skylight, but it’s really the bottom of one of the ship’s three sundeck pools. You can sit comfortably inside having a meal or a coffee or a cocktail and see people kicking and paddling above you. Snorkeling in reverse.

Photos by Katherine Rodeghier

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