The trans-Atlantic eclipse voyage was organized by Betchart Expeditions ( 252-4910, http://www.betchartexpeditions.com), a California-based company specializing in science-oriented travel. It offers about two dozen science-themed trips a year to destinations around the globe.
I'd traveled with Betchart once before, on a trip to Antarctica 20 years earlier, and I trusted the company, the intellectually oriented clientele its trips attract and the experts it chooses for daily lectures. On this trip, Peter Kissner, the Star Flyer's cruise director, lectured each day, covering such topics as our position each morning, ship-building history and seafaring lore.
The Star Flyer and its sister ships are part of the Star Clippers fleet, http://www.starclippers.com/us-dom, the dream child of a Swedish mega-millionaire. The Flyer was built in Belgium in 1991. Its twin, the Star Clipper, followed in 1992. The youngest in the fleet is also the biggest — the Royal Clipper, a five-masted fully square-rigged ship, built in 2000.
The Flyer officers are mainly from Eastern Europe, where naval cadets still train on tall ships. Crew members — including deck hands and exquisitely trained waiters — were mostly from India and the Philippines.
Like other cruise ships, the Star Flyer offered optional land tours for extra cost at each port: Ronda and Seville in Spain; Tangier and Tétouan in Morocco; the island of Gran Canaria in the Canaries and, at the end, the Caribbean island of Barbados.
Unlike bigger cruise ships, there were no gambling tables, no big musical shows, no fancy-dress glitz. Musical entertainment came from a classically trained Hungarian pianist and from passengers themselves: A dozen or so gathered on the foredeck every evening to sing "Salve Regina," a traditional sailors' hymn.
The cabins and attached bathrooms were compact, as they must be on sailboats, but they were comfortable, clean and well-maintained.
Food was good, prepared from scratch and available six times a day, from early-bird breakfast through midnight snack. Dinners, though not formal, were elegant, with many courses. The servers were flawlessly attentive.
In my case, that was asking a lot, because I am dangerously allergic to peanuts. Warned in advance, the ship's hotel manager, chef, maitre d' and wait staff watched over me, explaining the menu at every meal, pointing out what I could safely eat and what to avoid. I cannot praise the Star Flyer enough for that. The only other place in the world where I've felt so protected is with my own family at home.
Cabins ranged from $5,495 to $5,995 a person, double occupancy. (Betchart found me a roommate, so I avoided the 150% single-supplement rate.) Meals and lectures were included. Round-trip group airfare was an extra $1,295 from San Francisco, Chicago or Miami.
This wasn't a cheap trip, and I wouldn't have been on it if a dear friend hadn't intervened while I was dithering about robbing my 401(k).
"This sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said. "How about I give it to you? It would be for Christmas. And Christmas. And Christmas...."
I gasped and said yes. But didn't he want to go along? "God, no," he said. "I hate water."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun