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Star Clippers’ Cruise Along Panama and Costa Rica: What to Expect | Frommer's Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise

Star Clippers’ Cruise Along Panama and Costa Rica: What to Expect

Our review of a Star Clippers cruise that sets sail aboard a traditional tall ship along the Pacific Coast of Central America

Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of, a guide to small-ship cruising.

For more than 30 years, Star Clippers has offered small-ship cruising in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and other regions aboard a trio of sailing tall ships inspired by the speedy clippers of the 19th century.

I recently spent a week aboard the four-masted, 166-passenger Star Clipper vessel as it cruised westward along the Pacific coast of Central America from Balboa, near Panama City, to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica.

(Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge in Panama | Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise)

The ports along this route are showcases for nature walks and beaches. 

The setting for my favorite beach day: Panama’s Isla Iguana, where we snorkeled, swam in the teal-blue sea, and walked along a trail to the other side of the island. We caught sight of iguanas, scads of tiny white beach crabs, and, off to the side of the path, a crater left by one of the bombs the U.S. government tested in the area during the mid-20th century. 

On beach days, the crew brings a few kayaks and paddleboards ashore for passengers to use at no extra charge.

In Costa Rica, we signed up for guided walking tours of two nature preserves near the coast: Piedras Blancas National Park and the larger, better-known Manuel Antonio National Park

We saw two- and three-toed sloths doing their slow-motion moves up in the trees as well as howler and white-faced Capuchin monkeys and tropical birds including the yellow-throated toucan. Guides carried high-powered telescopes on tripods to assist us in spotting the wildlife. 

(Sloth at Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica | Credit: viewworld / Shutterstock)

Sailing Vibes

For many passengers, being aboard a traditional clipper ship is as important as the ports—and it’s the sailing experience that keeps a lot of customers coming back. One cruiser told me she was on her 15th Star Clippers cruise; I myself was on my sixth.

The ship’s 16 sails were raised (via electric winches) whenever conditions were right to run with the wind. Generally, that happens anywhere from 25% to 50% of the time. Otherwise, the vessel relies on engine power in order to stay on schedule. 

Whenever sails were raised on my voyage, the schmaltzy theme song from Ridley Scott’s adventure movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise was broadcast to set the mood. A core group of passengers always remained on deck to watch the world go by through the web of rigging. 

Once or twice per cruise, interested passengers are invited to don harnesses and climb the masts to reach the crow’s-nest nearly 60 feet up. 

Alternatively, you can ask to descend into the bowsprit netting at the front of the ship for the novelty of lying above the sea and getting some good photos from a unique perspective. If you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse dolphins and sea turtles swimming near the hull.

Another tempting visual opportunity: Once per cruise, tenders take out anyone interested to photograph the ship under full sails.

(On board the Star Clipper tall ship | Credit: Heidi Sarna @QuirkyCruise)

Onboard Meals, Service, and Amenities

Our Category 2 cabin was 129 square feet with wood and brass trim. The majority of the ship’s cabins are similar (though a bit smaller) and each also has portholes, a compact bathroom, a desk and stool, and a surprisingly adequate closet.

Open seating is the rule at mealtimes, with breakfast and lunch offered buffet style. At dinner, you’ll get a menu with several options for each course. Highlights: sea bass with asparagus, filet of pork with applesauce, crab cake with aioli, lobster tail, and delicious desserts such as apple crumble. 

Before dinner each day, we enjoyed prosecco (at just €3.50 a glass) at the Tropical Bar on the deck. A decent bottle of wine at dinner will set you back about €25. (On Star Clippers cruises, meals are included but alcohol, excursions, and spa services cost extra. Note that prices on board are in euros, but, as on most other ships, you can pay with a credit card at the end of the voyage, so it's not necessary to have cash on hand.)

There were only about 80 passengers on the cruise I took. If the ship was closer to its maximum capacity of 166, the restaurant would definitely feel tight. 

Up on deck you’ll find two small pools and a massage hut where you can get an excellent €60 massage (I booked twice). 

As this was dubbed a “yoga cruise,” a daily guided yoga class took place on deck each morning. Some of the line's yoga cruises (though not this one) offer a second daily class later in the day. 

In the way of entertainment, the ship has a library with a small selection of books and, after dinner most nights, the Tropical Bar hosts simple events such as a crew-and-passenger talent show and a pirate-themed dress-up party.

Onboard irritants were few, save for the Wi-Fi (I never encountered a clear explanation for how to log on) and the frequently disorganized tender service used to get passengers from the anchored ship to shore. It seemed like the tender crew were all new and often that no one was in charge.

Still, Star Clippers’ traditional-style tall ships provide a special experience combining adventure and comfort that’s hard to match. I look forward to planning my seventh cruise on a clipper sometime soon. 

Central American cruises operated by Star Clippers start at $4,570 per person. For more information, go to