Sea Cloud Cruise Ship. Courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

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You can control your sails, but you can’t control the wind. I learned that old seafaring maxim the hard way on a recent cruise through the Canary Islands on the luxury mega-yacht Sea Cloud Spirit.  

Technically a “motor yacht,” the M/Y Sea Cloud Spirit relies on its engines primarily for entering and leaving harbors. With its full complement of sails unfurled, though, the handsome windjammer is a sight to behold. No engines necessary. But when we encountered heavy seas on our fourth day on board, our captain had to reconsider our itinerary.

From the start, we were in for some bad luck. A minor technical issue prevented the Spirit from meeting us in Gran Canaria, as planned. Instead, the ship was tied up in Lanzarote, a volcanic hell-on-earth some 200 miles east. Those of us who had already arrived in Gran Canaria were flown by the cruise line to our new departure point in what I can only call a heroic feat of last-minute travel-planning finesse.

The technical problem wouldn’t be resolved right away, so our first two days on the ship were spent moored in the harbor in Lanzarote, a desolate devil’s den, a lava-rock wasteland of white houses and black horizons.

I’d like to say that was the only unexpected change of plans. But I would be lying.

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There Are No Canaries in the Canary Islands

No canaries were harmed in the naming of these islands, for the simple fact that the Canary Islands have no canaries. The moniker may refer to dogs (as in the Latin word Canis), but there’s no evidence of pre-settlement cockapoos. Some say the tag is a misnomer, referring to seals. Others point to an ancient tribe of Berbers (the original settlers) called the Canarii, but again, there’s no hard proof.

There are, though, plenty of hard facts when it comes to the islands’ intriguing geography. Spain’s Canary Islands are as far west as you can go and still be in Europe. Or at least, technically in Europe. Closer to Casablanca than to Córdoba, the Canary archipelago comprises eight inhabited islands formed by undersea volcanoes millions of years ago.

Volcanic activity has continued ever since. The devastating effects of Lanzarote’s Timanfaya eruptions from 1730 to 1736 are on obvious display to this day, having created a moonscape of unrelenting pitch-dark and dried-blood-red lava rock nearly everywhere you look.

In 2021, the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma erupted for 85 days, razing 3,000 homes, causing the evacuation of 7,000 people, and destroying an entire town. Active submerged volcanoes are expected to create more Canary Islands in the millennia to come.

“A few days ago, I read that Santorini [in Greece] might erupt again,” said Katharina Bahlcke, our guest lecturer and destination expert. “The Earth is still moving. Let’s hope no eruptions happen while we’re here. But we can always sail away.”

She laughed. I don’t recall that anyone else did.

Read More: 15 Most Beautiful Islands in the World

Fire and Wine

Fishing boats on Las Canteras Beach, Gran Canaria. Photo by Mark Orwoll
Fishing boats on Las Canteras Beach, Gran Canaria. Photo by Mark Orwoll

Unsure whether I’d have another chance to visit Arrecife, Lanzarote’s capital, I headed out on my own that first afternoon, getting lost only twice during the hourlong trek from our distant berth in the outer harbor. By now it was already 4 p.m.

I decided to forgo the first night’s dinner on the ship and instead spend my time in town, despite discouraging reviews from several members of the crew. I recalled the words of my taxi driver on Gran Canaria, who had turned thumbs down on Lanzarote. “Boring,” he’d said. “Nothing to do. Not much to look at.”

Arrecife itself, though, was attractive. The old fishermen’s houses, painted white and tilting at picturesque angles, were charming. The 16th-century church of San Ginés featured a neoclassical tower that could be seen from almost everywhere in town.

Fishing boats filled the inner harbor, whose banks were edged with restaurants and bars. I spent several hours at a waterfront café called La Miñoca, drinking large glasses of Dorada Especial cerveza and eating drippy stewed pork mechada tacos.

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The next day, before we finally sailed away, I traveled to the bleakest part of the bleak island: Lavapark Timanfaya. There, visitors gaze out onto miles of black igneous rock. Just below the surface, the soil temperature is 212 degrees F.

Several times daily, a park guide digs a hole, throws in a handful of dried grass, and takes a bow as the grass almost immediately catches fire. He pours water into another hole, which shoots out a full force of steam several seconds later, like something from the underbelly of a 19th-century Baldwin locomotive.

And yet, unbelievably, agriculture exists here, primarily in the form of vineyards in the dessicated, rocky La Geria region. I stopped at Bodegas Rubicón, established in the 1700s and one of dozens of improbable wineries on the island.

The primary grape is Malvasia, which produces a dry white wine that can best be called, in wine parlance, “not very good.” The rosés and reds were much better, achieving a level that I would describe, in oenophile jargon, as “kind of OK.”

Unlike the vineyards of France, Italy, and California, the vines were not planted in unceasing rows upon rows, but rather in individual beds of black rock, protected from wind by half-circles of hardened lava. To say that the wines had a concentrated minerality would be an understatement.

The Sea Cloud Spirit

Lido Deck. Photo courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises
The Spirit under sail. Photo courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

The reason to sail on a sailing ship is to watch the sails unfurl and enjoy a cruise under full sail, which we did soon after leaving the harbor at Arrecife.

The Sea Cloud Spirit is a fully rigged, three-masted, 453-foot windjammer. Launched in 2021, she is a sister to the original Sea Cloud, the mega-yacht of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the world’s wealthiest woman in the 1930s.

From the bowsprit to the mizzenmast, the German-owned ship is propelled by a complicated series of jibs, topgallants, staysails, and topsails, with an even more convoluted series of sheets (ropes) that control the sails.

When it came time to ready the sheets and sails, the bosun called out and riggers scampered up the shrouds and ratlines, more than 100 feet high, then bounced across the horizontal yards on single wire foot ropes to loose the gaskets and unleash the sails, acting as cool as if they were on a Sunday stroll in Central Park instead of balancing 10 stories above certain doom. Almost the entire passenger complement came out on deck to watch.

How To Spend a Day at Sea

Lido Deck. Photo courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises
Lido Deck. Photo courtesy of Sea Cloud Cruises

We wouldn’t reach our first port of call, 270 miles west on the island of La Gomera, until eight the next morning. That begged the question: How does one occupy one’s time on a mega-yacht like the Spirit for 24 hours on the open ocean? I decided to use the time wisely by inspecting the ship in detail while enjoying what it had to offer.

9 a.m. Head to the restaurant for a buffet breakfast. At the “live station,” eggs are made to order. In the buffet line: fried eggs, crunchy bacon, fresh fruit, cheeses, sliced cold cuts, a selection of breads for toasting, yogurt, potatoes, juices, Champagne, and more.

10:30 a.m. I book a full-body massage in the small spa from a talented masseuse. The spa has two treatment rooms, a steam bath, a Finnish sauna, and a relaxation area.

12:30 p.m. Enjoy a buffet lunch on the Lido Deck under the dining tent. (On later days, in inclement weather, lunch would be served in the somewhat more formal indoor restaurant.) On the menu today are cold avocado soup, crispy vegetarian tortillas, and, for the mains, grilled grouper and sauteéd veal. Luis, my favorite server, freely pours the local wines whenever he sees a half-empty glass.

2:30 p.m. In the Lounge, lecturer Katharina Bahlcke describes what we will find on our next two islands, La Gomera and El Hierro.

5 p.m. Stop by the bar on the Lido Deck to be sociable and cement a meaningful relationship with Anton Campos, our head barman.

5:45 p.m. In the Lounge, Milan Krstic performs classical works on a gorgeous Steinway grand. (Sea Cloud Cruises has a partnership with Steinway to bring talented pianists on board.) Just as Milan begins Rachmaninoff’s Etude in G Minor—a somber, contemplative, complicated work—a false alarm blasts throughout the ship with an uninterrupted, solid, unceasing electronic beep. Trouper to the end, Milan picks up where he’s been interrupted and provides a delightful hour of pre-dinner music.

7 p.m. Inside seating in the main restaurant is optional, but most passengers prefer dinner in the outdoor setting of the Lido Deck. Sporty casual is the dress code after dark. Women look easy-elegant in slacks, sweater sets, and dangly earrings. Men reluctantly trade shorts and sandals for pants, shoes, and collared shirts.

9 p.m.  Drinks at the bar are on offer as Milan spins tunes from the deejay booth. Somehow, after a postprandial cocktail or two, the English speakers seem to understand the thick German accents, and the German speakers recall all the English they ever learned. International bonhomie has been achieved.

La Gomera and the Fairy-Tale Forest

The Fairy-Tale Forest in the mountains of La Gomera
The Fairy-Tale Forest in the mountains of La Gomera is one of the island’s most atmospheric sights. Photo by Mark Orwoll

The Spirit offered several shore excursions at each port of call. At La Gomera, I’d decided on, as the brochure called it, A Hike through the Fairy-Tale Forest. In this case, the four-mile nature walk took a small group of us through a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Garajonay National Park, 3,200 feet high in the topmost, cloudiest, mistiest part of the woodlands.

Cloud droplets plinked and plopped from the tree canopy. The falling water, the ghostly gloom, and the gnarled laurel forest could have been the setting for a tale from the Brothers Grimm. Around us were agave, Canary pines, Canary palms, poinsettia, amaryllis, tulip trees, birds of paradise, and cacti. Later, as we descended to lower elevations, we passed banana plantations, avocado farms, and potato fields.

Despite the flowers and fruits, La Gomera is extremely dry. In fact, said Ulrike, our guide, the island as a whole is so parched that during inclement weather “the people here dance in the rain.”

As on the other Canary islands, the laurel forests on the highest peaks capture moisture from the passing clouds. The rain and condensation are directed to underground channels that lead to the settlements. It’s a dicey way of getting your water, but they’ve been doing it here for centuries.

The Stone People of El Hierro

The stone village of Guinea, El Hierro, is now the core of an open-air museum. Photo by Mark Orwoll
The stone village of Guinea, El Hierro, is now the core of an open-air museum. Photo by Mark Orwoll

We arrived at El Hierro the next afternoon. On a tour of the island, we passed a largely abandoned stone village. Long stone walls separated what were once farm fields and now had returned to nature. In between, a few active fields of maize and potatoes managed to thrive.

“Here, life is very simple,” said Joanna, our local guide. “People live in small houses with just enough land to grow some potatoes and raise some goats.”

Simple life indeed: When the Spanish conquered El Hierro in 1405, many of the inhabitants still lived in caves and lava tubes.

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The preserved stone village of Guinea, now an outdoor ethnographic museum, looks as if it were abandoned only days ago, but the last family fled in 1952. The rude stone huts are built of rubble walls with low ceilings and dirt or rock floors. After World War II, during the Franco regime, the economy here was extremely poor. In 1948, there was no rainfall at all on the island. A large percentage of El Hierro’s mid-century citizens went to South America for work, and to the booming nation of Venezuela in particular.

“The Canary Islands are part of Africa geographically,” said Joanna, “and part of Europe in a political sense. But we consider ourselves Latinos. We belong to South America. But now that the economy of Venezuela is so bad, many people are coming back to El Hierro.”

Read More: Cies Islands: The Secret Paradise of Galicia, Spain

Bad News from the Captain

On Monday morning, our fifth day on the Sea Cloud Spirit, Captain Heiner Eilers called for a meeting with the passengers. We would not be going to La Palma, our next scheduled stop. Instead, we would head for Tenerife that evening.

The weather wasn’t normal for this time of year, early April, he explained. The winds were high, similar to what one might expect in January and February. April is usually placid, but not this time.

“Winds create swells,” he said. “The wind speed is now 35 knots. For tonight, it’s going to be a little bit rocky. We have to cancel our arrival in La Palma because the weather would be so bad it would be a waste of time. We will go instead to Tenerife because of the weather. We will be staying overnight in Tenerife. But we are not the only ship heading for Santa Cruz [the capital of Tenerife]; two others are also heading there to avoid the weather.”

When the briefing was over, one of the American passengers looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “I wonder where the hell we’re going to end up next?”

Mayhem and Menus

The kitchen team readies tuna tartare on the Lido Deck. Photo by Mark Orwoll
The kitchen team readies tuna tartare on the Lido Deck. Photo by Mark Orwoll

Our change in course was a main topic of dinner conversation that night, but as usual, the talk soon shifted to the evening’s meal. Starters were a choice of beef skewers, balsamic steak-and-gorgonzola salad, Spanish chickpea salad, and French onion soup. For the mains, we had Tomahawk steak or tuna tartare, with sides of corn casserole, jacket potatoes, vegetarian quiche, and asparagus. For dessert: caramel flan, ice cream, fresh fruits, and a cheese board.

There was never a lack of choices. On other nights, the menu boasted King prawns, caviar, lobster, beef tenderloin, turbot, kingfish, mushroom ragout, bell-pepper chicken, grilled seabream, gnocchi, and three “classics” available most nights: grilled chicken breast, Caesar salad, and pasta arrabiata.

And the wine flowed. During our eight days on the Spirit, we were presented with Spanish Verdejos and Syrahs, German white Burgundies and Chardonnays, and a delicious 2022 Côte aux d’Aix en Provence rosé from Domaine Beaupré, among others.

Because of the weather, supper that night was served in the restaurant instead of on the windy Lido Deck. After the meal, I went up to the Lido bar for my regular post-dinner martini poured by Anton. The wind rustled the tent flaps and canvas roof. The hardier among us who made it to the bar had to speak a little louder than usual because of the wind.

As we rocked back and forth, yawed, and rolled, we had to hold tighter to the bar with a left hand and to our drinks with a right. One hand for the ship, and one hand for yourself, or your martini, goes the old seamen’s motto. I thought it was adventurous. But when I looked behind me at the mostly empty tables, I realized not all my fellow passengers agreed.

What’s It Like to Sail on a German Cruise Ship?

I wasn’t sure what it would be like to sail on a German-run ship. Since I don’t speak German, would I be the odd man out? Would I be condemned to dine alone or depend on the Germans to exhaust their language skills to converse with me? Would there be parallel shore excursions—ones for the Germans and others for me?

As it turned out, there were very few language barriers. The warm-hearted Filipinos in the bar, restaurant, and housekeeping relied on English. The German passengers, being German, almost all spoke decent to excellent English as necessary. The young women at the reception desk switched effortlessly between German and English, as required. Port lectures and enrichment presentations were given in both languages.

There were only about 80 travelers on the 136-passenger Spirit. About two-thirds of them were German speakers. The rest of us were from the U.S., Canada, Scotland, and England, with just enough German among us to order a schnitzel and count to five.

One of my fellow English speakers wasn’t so sanguine about the lingual dichotomy.

“We didn’t even know this was a German ship before we booked the cruise,” she said. “That wasn’t explained. I feel like the lecturers and shore-excursion guides gave the German passengers a lot more explanation because their descriptions were twice as long as the ones in English.”

I had to agree with that assessment. Several of us even noticed laughter from the audience when a presenter spoke in German, but there was little or nothing to laugh at when given in English.

Sea Cloud has recently opened a North American sales office and plans to increase its U.S. and Canadian passengers to 40 percent on the average cruise.

Language aside, I loved the ship itself and the thrill of being under full sail. The interiors are beautiful, and the staterooms are spacious. I’d give the quality of the meals a rating between good and excellent—say 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars.

I wish Captain Eilers had been more visible to the passengers. Admittedly, he had his hands full. And the ship would benefit from having a small pool, or even a large hot tub, on the Sun Deck.

‘Stuck’ in Tenerife

Canary Island palms line the road into the seaside hamlet of Taganana, Tenerife. Photo by Mark Orwoll
Canary Island palms line the road into the seaside hamlet of Taganana, Tenerife. Photo by Mark Orwoll

The original itinerary had us arriving at Tenerife in the morning and sailing away at 7 p.m. Instead, we would spend a full day, an overnight, and the next morning there. It didn’t make any difference to me. There are worse places to be stranded.

The lively town is full of traditional Spanish architecture, plazas, parks, and narrow cobblestone lanes. Even the tourist office itself is a sight worth visiting, the Palacio de Carta, an 18th-century manor house on the central square.

The Mercado de Nuestra Señora de Africa is the main marketplace, full of shoppers and lovers, fruit sellers and wine merchants, children running through the arcades, and restaurants full of happy diners.

I also managed to squeeze in an excursion to the remote fishing village of Taganana, where a highlight was a snack stop at the 120-year-old Xiomara restaurant. The staff at the informal, family-style eatery couldn’t have been more welcoming.

We ate mountains of cheese croquettes and drank glass after glass of homemade wine. Xiomara was one of those places where the wine comes in two choices, white or red. The bottles were without labels, the corks plunged in only halfway and served by a dude with a neck tattoo. What could go wrong?

In this case, nothing. It was wonderful.

Sea Cloud Spirit: Taking the Measure of a Tempestuous Trip

Crewmen prepare to set the sails on the mainmast of the Sea Cloud Spirit. Photo by Mark Orwoll
Crewmen prepare to set the sails on the mainmast of the Sea Cloud Spirit. Photo by Mark Orwoll

As for the troubles with the turbulent whitecaps and stormy spindrifts, the fresh-gale winds, and the unexpected changes to our itinerary, I wasn’t disappointed. The question is not whether a travel provider encounters problems, but how they react to them.

In this case, Sea Cloud Cruises responded admirably. You don’t easily fly a shipload of passengers from one island to another at the last minute, as Sea Cloud did for us at the start. You don’t just change course and pull into a random port, as we did in Tenerife. Food supplies need to be ordered, harbor pilots scheduled, and berths reserved. And Sea Cloud Spirit did all that at the eleventh hour. Bravo.

From the passenger’s point of view, my travel motto has always been: Stuff happens. Deal with it.

The ship was a sleek beauty, one that provided a rare and luxurious form of cruising. Captain Eilers kept the Spirit and its passengers safe in poor weather. We visited fascinating ports of call—granted, at some of them, for longer than planned. But so be it.

And so we set sail on a bright Wednesday afternoon for our final port, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. As I sat on the Lido Deck in slightly smoother seas, with a Hendrick’s gin dry martini in hand, I didn’t think about the uncertainty of our course.

We were on the open ocean, under full sail, hoping for fair winds and following seas that, no doubt, awaited us just beyond the horizon.

The three luxury windjammers of Sea Cloud Cruises schedule trips around the world to destinations that may not be accessible to larger ships. The onboard languages are English and German. Passengers are, generally, from their mid-forties to early eighties, well-traveled, educated, and successful in their careers. Prices start at about U.S. $850 per person per night.

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Author Bio: Mark Orwoll, the former International Editor of Travel + Leisure, is a veteran travel writer who has sailed on more than 30 cruises and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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  1. My husband and I were fortunate to have spent our holiday onboard this amazing vessel with Mark. This is a spot on recap of our adventure. We look forward to another sail on a SeaCloud barque. Thank you, Mark, for a well stated recap of our voyage. We hope our paths course again.

    1. Deb and her husband helped make the experience a memorable one for me. And that’s part of the allure of the journey on the SeaCloud Spirit: The people on board are smart, well-traveled, and eager for all things new and different. Thanks for the kind comment!