ISLE OF WIGHT, England — We had been chugging along in a small vessel from Southampton for almost two hours before we glimpsed her dimly on the horizon--a square-rigged, four-masted clipper ship with all 30 sails billowing in the breeze.
The new 357-foot Star Flyer, first of two 180-passenger sailing ships from Miami-based Star Clippers, had left the shipyard in Antwerp, Belgium, two days before and made a call in Germany. Now it would stop for two days in Southampton to let British travel agents and press come aboard for a look, then cross the Atlantic at a leisurely pace for Miami and another round of introductory cruises.
On July 7, the Star Flyer will begin service of year-round seven-day cruises out of St. Martin to small islands in the Caribbean.
The Star Flyer and its sister ship (due in December) are classic sailing ships with sails set by hand, not computer, like those aboard the Windstar ships and the Club Med 1. Passengers are encouraged to help with the sails if they wish, and have free run of the ship--even the open bridge when the captain is giving commands.
"It's not a commercial ship, it's a yacht," said managing owner Mikael Krafft. He compares the experience to "sailing on Vanderbilt's yacht early in the century or Onassis' yacht in the 1960s."
Notwithstanding a 90-year-old who has already booked for a sailing, Krafft expects "a lot of our passengers will be what are called baby boomers."
Passengers booking a Star Flyer cruise during July will get round-trip air fare included, according to sales and marketing director Skip Muns. Prices range from $1,295 to $2,595 per person, double occupancy, for all July seven-day sailings.
Economy season departures from Sept. 22 through the sailing of Dec. 15 drop to a low of $995 and a high of $2,195 per person, double occupancy, but do not include air fare.
Because there are two itineraries, passengers who take a 14-day cruise will not repeat any ports except the ship's turn-around day in the home port of St. Martin. There is a $200-per-person discount on the second cruise when two are booked back-to-back.
Cabins aboard are comfortable, if not spacious. The most expensive have two lower beds that can be put together for a double, plus a Jacuzzi tub in the marble bathroom, while the least expensive have upper and lower berths and no windows.
From Southampton we ferried across the channel to look at another alternative vessel, the river cruiser Normandie from French Cruise Lines. She carries 100 passengers on seven-day sailings on the Seine between Paris and Honfleur, a colorful fishing village on the coast of Normandy.
Most passengers are American, sometimes charter groups of university alumni and professors out to see France. Optional shore excursions include a full day's tour of the D-day beaches, a visit to Monet's home and gardens in Giverny, and a walk around old Rouen. For most, the highlight of the sailing is an evening spent cruising the Seine in Paris while the monuments are illuminated, preceded by a dinner served while the ship is moored near the Eiffel Tower.
Breakfasts are served buffet style with both hot and cold dishes, while lunch and dinner are fixed menus served course by course. During our three days aboard, we found the food well prepared and tasty, although the service was so brisk that the first course was served the moment the passenger sat down. Smoking is not permitted in the dining room.
Rates for the seven-day cruise along the Seine range from $1,295 to $1,750 per person, double occupancy, without air fare, but there are some selected sailings through October that also include round-trip flights on British Airways from New York to Paris, the cruise and two nights in Paris at the Hilton for $1,675 to $3,375 per person, double occupancy.
For brochures or more information about these alternative cruises, contact Star Clippers in Miami at (800) 442-0551, or French Cruise Lines in Des Plaines, Ill., at (800) 222-8664.