Not Big on Cruising? This Intimate Sailing Ship Feels More Like a Private Yacht

Here’s what it’s really like to cruise on the classic sailing vessel Sea Cloud Spirit.

The deck of the 136-passenger 'Sea Cloud Spirit' with blue loungers and sails billowing overhead

On the recently launched 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit, passengers sail far off the beaten cruise path in intimate luxury.

Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

Sailing along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica under full-wind power, fishing lines cast off the back to catch something to supplement the dinner menu, it was hard to believe I was on a cruise ship.

On the 136-passenger Sea Cloud Spirit, there is no swimming pool, no casino, and no pickleball court on board. You won’t find a 24-hour snack bar serving hamburgers and hot dogs at all hours. And yes, you may have to eat some of your meals outside among the natural elements.

In return, however, you get an authentic tall-ship sailing experience with all the amenities of an intimate, sustainably focused, five-star cruise that takes you far off the well-worn tourism path. Travelers can jump off the ship’s swim deck directly into the ocean instead of into a man-made pool; ride horseback on a small family-owned ranch; wander private gardens filled with sloths; snorkel and paddleboard along the reefs of remote and uninhabited islands; or simply spend a day relaxing under the billowing sails.

It’s what Sea Cloud Cruises calls “gentle tourism.” I call it unmatched relaxation on what may be one of the first lines to successfully fill that ever-elusive category of “best cruise for non-cruisers.”

An exterior image of the 'Sea Cloud Spirit' vessel sailing on clear blue water

On the Sea Cloud Spirit, there’s no swimming pool, casino, or pickleball court. Instead it has 69 well-appointed cabins, a spa, a fitness center, outdoor decks, an indoor lounge, a bar and restaurant, and 44,000 square feet of canvas sails.

Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

The ship

The Sea Cloud Spirit is the newest and third ship in the world’s only fleet of cruise ships that still sail the old-fashioned way, under more than two dozen sails that are completely raised and managed by hand. It is a small vessel, one whose appearance is more pirate ship than traditional cruise liner. And the overall vibe and experience is one of pure private yacht–style luxury.

The original ship, Sea Cloud, is a legend. Built more than 90 years ago for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post by her husband, E.F. Hutton, the ship at the time was the largest privately owned yacht in the world.

Sea Cloud II (built in 2001) and Sea Cloud Spirit were built to uphold the ambience of a private yacht and tall-ship sailing inside and out. They feature elegant cabins with ample wood details as well as modern amenities such as comfortable beds and air-conditioning.

Launched in 2021, Sea Cloud Spirit is the newest of the three—and the biggest, at 453 feet in length with 69 cabins. And while that is still quite small by most cruise-ship standards, it features a surprising number of extras without feeling overly cramped or crowded.

There’s a spa and hair salon with two treatment rooms, a relaxation area, a steam room, and a sauna. On the sundeck is a glass-walled library where you can escape the elements to read or play games without giving up the views or sailing experience. There’s also a fitness center from which you can see the water while working up a sweat.

Scattered across the lido and sun decks are a variety of lounge chairs and day beds for sunning and napping under the sails. There’s also a large indoor lounge and restaurant. At the back of the lido deck are the main bar and the outdoor dining area, where most lunches and dinners are provided.

Like the ship itself, the cabins are surprisingly spacious. All are outside cabins, ranging in size from two 140-square-foot solo cabins to 300-square-foot veranda suites. On a recent sailing earlier this month, I stayed in a 272-square-foot junior veranda suite, which had an outdoor deck as well as an indoor seating area, plus an oversize whirlpool tub and a double vanity in the spacious bathroom.

Crew members releasing sails on the 'Sea Cloud Spirit'

A big draw is experiencing the crew unfurling the sails manually.

Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

Setting sail

The main event on any Sea Cloud ship, of course, is setting sail. Our first morning we went up to the sun deck to watch 22 deckhands climb into the shrouds to set and unfurl the ship’s sails while the chief officer explained the process.

Based on their hats, logo shirts, and their keen interest in the raising of the sails, several passengers clearly were sailors themselves. But you don’t have to know anything about sailing to appreciate and enjoy the magic of being powered by the wind and 44,000 square feet of canvas.

The ship doesn’t use the sails after dark for safety reasons, and the captain estimated that the Sea Cloud Spirit operates under wind power about 30 to 50 percent of any given cruise. When not sailing, the ship is powered by two diesel-electric engines that operate entirely on low-sulfur marine diesel fuel.

Bird's-eye view of the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, with brown waterways weaving through lush green rainforests

Sea Cloud vessels bring passengers to more remote corners of the world, such as the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.

Photo by Luis Diego/Unsplash

The itinerary

One of the biggest bonuses of sailing with Sea Cloud Cruises is the small ships’ ability to venture where larger ships cannot go. While the itineraries vary dramatically—the ships sail everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and beyond—the one constant is the focus on sustainable activities that keep guests away from heavily trafficked areas.

Our 11-day sailing (which starts at $9,530 for the 2025 version) took us 1,200 miles along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, through the Panama Canal, down through Panama’s San Blas archipelago, then back to Colon and Panama City.

Our first stop was Playa Panama, a small beach in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region where some of us hopped on a coach to visit a local ranch that is hoping to preserve and showcase a more traditional way of life by opening up to small groups of tourists. We started with a few lessons in Costa Rican traditions, including tortilla making and coffee roasting, before splitting into groups for zip-lining or horseback riding. Only six of us went horseback riding with the ranch owner and his grandson, who took us on a short cattle drive followed by a leisurely gallop across the sprawling ranch.

In Golfito, Costa Rica, we visited another family working to support tourism while conserving their corner of the ecosystem: La Perica Sloth Garden. The family opened the garden just before the pandemic after discovering the sloth habitat while building trails to help their aging grandmother walk the property. There are so many sloths that you are essentially guaranteed a sighting. Indeed, we saw 10, as well as monkeys and macaws.

After Golfito, the stops became even more remote, ending in the San Blas archipelago, where we visited a small island inhabited by the Cuna people, who have traditionally shunned tourism.

A cabin on the Sea Cloud Spirit sailing ship, with windows, a double bed and sitting area

The Sea Cloud Spirit may be an intimate sailing ship, but the cabins aren’t too cramped.

Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

Life onboard

While much of the cruise is about experiencing and embracing life under the sails, whether that’s relaxing on deck, dancing after dinner, or eating under the stars, during sailings there is also a focus on learning more about the local communities, wildlife, people, and food being experienced along the way.

Onboard for our itinerary was Costa Rica and Panama expert Stephen Westin, who gave insightful lectures on the history of the Panama Canal and the Cuna people of the San Blas archipelago. We also had a guest chef, Cindi Huston from Miami, who supplemented the already generous and diverse menus with her mouthwatering concoctions that included Costa Rican coffee and cocoa-crusted skirt steak, a special coconut fish dish, and ceviche with plantain chips.

There was, of course, a lot of fresh fish on offer, including some tuna, wahoo, snapper, and mahi-mahi that crew members caught while we were sailing.

Passengers on the deck of sailing ship 'Sea Cloud Spirit'

For some, meals out on deck is a plus; for others, they may prefer to eat inside on more balmy nights.

Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

One of my favorite things about the trip was the international mix of passengers. The ships are owned by a German holding company and have traditionally catered mostly to Germans, which makes for some interesting cultural encounters. For instance, after sweltering one windless night during dinner on the lido deck, the crew the next night offered a choice of eating indoors or outdoors. It was just as hot the following evening, but only the Americans opted for the air-conditioned dining room. The Germans laughed, telling us how much they loved the heat.

The crew bent over backward to accommodate the North American minority, hosting an American-style Super Bowl party on the night of the big game, with hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, and more—all in the air-conditioned lounge.

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR