As the pink orb sunk below the surface of the Caribbean, Vangelis' "1492: Conquest of Paradise" music was beamed across the StarFlyer's bow. The StarClippers' signature music was very apt. Christopher Columbus, himself, had come across Cuba's shores in 1492 claiming the island was the most beautiful land he had ever seen.
Cuba is still one of the most outstandingly beautiful lands on our planet and the new StarClippers' cruise along the southern Caribbean coastline offers a glimpse into the outstanding natural bounty of this tropical isle.
StarFlyer's ship – the onboard treatment
The StarFlyer tall ship with its smart teak decks sails from the French-founded city of Cienfuegos. Take a day or so to explore this pastel-columned city with its leafy park, long ocean promenade, and the outstanding Thomas Terry Theatre with its richly painted ceiling frescoes, before embarking at the port, close to the city centre.
The StarFlyer's tall ship is adorned with four masts and 16 sails and can carry 170 passengers in her range of comfortable cabins across four decks. The first day of the seven-day trip is spent at sea sailing east along the southern coastline towards the town of Trinidad. The onboard mahogany "Tropical Bar" was the most convivial spot on the vessel as fellow passengers would gather for cocktails or coffee, and snacks. Many would unwind on the sun loungers on the teak decks or take a dip in the two small onboard pools.
Active passengers had plenty of entertainment to choose from with cocktail classes, the art of knot tying, and sing alongs with the on-board pianist and guitarist, Gabor, available most nights. The Captain's tales story telling spot was also popular.
Gourmet meals were served up in the smart dining room by Carlos Ferreira and his hard-working team of waiters. Over the week, we enjoyed three-course meals and wines (detailed on the daily changing menus for pairing) at every dinnertime. Three-star Michelin chef Jean-Marie Meulien is the consultant chef to the StarFlyer menus.
Every cruise passenger knows that galley kitchens are small; this knowledge made what Carlos and his team executed below deck even more remarkable. We all enjoyed meals such as octopus carpaccio with apple saffron sauce, and chardonnay sorbet, followed by medallion of pork in an almond crust served with a fig and fennel compote, or grilled fillet of swordfish flavoured with olive oil.
The tantalising desserts included filo pastry parcels with soft cheese filling and orange slices in honey, or coffee and hazelnut parfait. The cheese board highlight was goat cheese marinated in honey with almonds. Long leisurely evening meals offered a welcome chance to get to know fellow passengers who had come from as far afield as London, Australia and Japan.
First call at Trinidad
The following morning we landed at Ancon beach, a slither of creamy white sand gently sloping into the calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean, south of Trinidad, the jewel in the Spanish colonial crown of Cuba. A large group of passengers booked the Trinidad excursion which took us into the neighbouring Valley of the Sugar Mills and later to Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We all enjoyed an ice-cold mojito at Ancon beach before we set off for the sugar mills valley. We climbed to the Valley Viewpoint (Mirador del Valle) where our guide explained the history of the sugar plantations and slaves and the riches that the sugar trade brought to tiny Trinidad in the 19th century. The valley no longer houses working sugar plantations. It's an historic sight of forested hills and green plains prettified with the tall fronds of the handsome Cuban Royal Palm. The daily steam train which powers through the valley from Trinidad weaved through the landscape as we contemplated the idyllic view.
After a buffet lunch at the old royal prison of Santa Ana in Trinidad, our guide led us on a walking tour through the cobblestone streets of the tiny city. Founded in 1514, 500 years ago in 2014, Trinidad's beautiful pastel-coloured buildings line pretty streets and squares while men on horseback ride by, and the odd American classic car rumbled past us over the huge fat river stones. At the "Cantero Palace", the home of a former sugar baron, we were shown marble statues, English crockery, and Italian frescoes in sumptuous surrounds. All that sugar wealth created one of Cuba's most exquisitely beautiful cities. All around us we saw big mansions, churches, and a few houses where musicians tinkled out stellar Cuban favourites - Guantanamera and Chan Chan to holidaymakers crowded around dancing and drinking famous Cuban cocktails.
Some fellow passengers used the day trip to take their own American yank tank the 13 kilometres into town while others played sports on the beach with the StarFlyer's sports' team.
Turtle and Stingray adventure in the Cayman Islands
Overnight we headed south to the Cayman Islands which were discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1503 while he was sailing from Hispaniola to Panama. We anchored off Cayman Brac, a small speck of land which is just one of three islands that make up the small Cayman Islands British Overseas Territory. The excursion onto Cayman Brac is not really worth the money. Swimming or snorkelling from the gangway is a better option. That way you can save energy for the after dinner dancing on board and the Rolling Stones tribute night.
More guests were enthusiastic about disembarking at George Town, capital of Grand Cayman island, where excursions included a visit to Stingray City Sandbar by catamaran or the Turtle and Stingray land and sea adventure.
The Cayman turtle farm is a breeding centre where you can encounter sea turtles through different stages of their life cycle. The most exciting trip, though, was out into the waters off George Town to where dozens of stingrays wait to dart around in the water amid the swimmers. Stingray City is a thrilling experience. The southern stingrays swim through the shallow waters enjoying the experience as much as the swimmers. Guides can help you stroke a stingray; these elegant grey creatures seem to love having their chins and foreheads tickled. It's a remarkable experience.
After all the excitement of Stingray City, back on board the StarFlyer it was time to learn about the secrets of ‘Galley and Storage' as Carlos Ferreira explained in a short talk how the gourmet meals were created in the tiniest of spaces below deck.
Back to Cuba it is!
The StarFlyer headed north back up to Cuba overnight and anchored off Cayo Largo, part of the Canarreos Archipelago, a necklace of coral islands which garland the turquoise seas off Cuba's southern coast. The StarFlyer's tenders brought us to the beautiful slither of white sand at Sirena Beach. This two-kilometre long beach had a restaurant and cafe as well as dozens of sun loungers to curl up on. Pelicans, plovers and gulls could be seen and heard as we relaxed under the tropical sun, pina colada in both hands! Most guests soaked up the rays on the beach but some of us walked as far as was possible east down the beach and enjoyed drinks at a rustic beach bar on the sand.
The highlight of the seven-day trip was the excursion to Cayo Rico, the Rich Island, also part of the Canarreos Archipelago. Tenders ferried passengers to and from Cayo Rico in time for a splendid BBQ cooked up by the StarFlyer's team. The huge BBQ spread was set up under a thatched open-sided restaurant area. Passengers eat on the picnic benches or took their lunch out onto the sand under the thatched umbrellas.
The water was very shallow at Cayo Rico which meant we could see dozens of huge bright orange starfish. This made it easy to take photos of the creatures in the clear water. Some of us walked as far as we could, east along Cayo Rico's sugary sands. At the tip of the island, we could see the elegant moored StarFlyer in the distance. There were pelicans swooping for fish in the silent sapphire blue waters, small steel-grey stingrays glided by us in the shallows, and behind us in the tropical scrub we spied a jutia, a giant Cuban tree rat, sniffing about for food. He was not the least bit perturbed by our presence.
After a couple of pina coladas served up in pineapples it was time to board the StarFlyer again for our last night on board.
The evening's entertainment was a highlight as the talent show drew a poet, singers and a comic – all cheered on by guests watching at the Tropical Bar. Seven nights was not enough on the StarFlyer Cuba's cruise. We welcome the day when they can circumnavigate the whole island!