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See Costa Rica by Cruise

For many people, cruising is the preferred method of exploring the Caribbean. You can enjoy leisurely days at port, experiencing a new town or beach every day, while only having to unpack once. All your transport is taken care of, there are plentiful excursions to enjoy and someone else handles all the logistics. What many people don’t realize – or at least what I didn’t realize –¬† is that you can also explore Costa Rica this way. Star Clippers recently added two Costa Rica itineraries to their small-ship cruises and I was invited to come aboard and check out their offerings.

The Star Clippers sailing vessels are nothing like the ships you’ll see in the Caribbean. For starters, they aren’t traditional cruise ships, they’re working sailing vessels. The ship that currently plys the waters off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is the Star Flyer, which holds about 170 passengers, so it’s not exactly the floating mall you might associate with your average cruise. Six and seven night cruises visit northern Costa Rica and Nicaragua or southern Costa Rica and Panama, departing from Puerto Caldera, a tiny port town about two hours by car from San Jose.

The seven night Costa Rica and Nicaragua itinerary includes one day at sea as the ship makes its way from Puerto Caldera to the sleepy surf town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. There, passengers can choose from a range of excursions that include a day trip to Granada and a visit to the Masaya volcano. Or, they can simply explore the town, hit the beach or arrange their own activities, like horseback riding or surf lessons.

From there it’s on to another beach town, this one popular with surfers and expats, and blessed with a dark sandy beach that gives the town its name – Playa del Coco. A main drag bisects the beach, with both areas lined with souvenir shops, tour outfitters, and inexpensive¬† bars and restaurants. Sample some ceviche or kick back with a local Imperial beer, which goes for about $2. Many passengers on the ship choose to linger here, while others go white-water rafting or ziplining through the canopy.

The next stop is Santa Rosa, Costa Rica’s oldest National Park. Guests who aren’t taking the guided walk of the park can hop in a zodiac and be ferried to the shores of an empty dark sand beach. Here the Star Flyer is often the only ship on the horizon, as there’s not much to the beach aside from a few ramshackle houses and thousands of shells strewn along the shoreline. One of the benefits of a small ship cruise is the ability to go places where larger ships simply can’t.

After Santa Rosa, the ship continues south to Samara where guests can choose from a kayaking adventure or a coffee tour, and then it’s on to Isla Tortugua, a private island that serves as a day playground for locals and tourists who come to swim and snorkel in the crystal clear water, lounge on the sand with a cold beer, or go for a hike or horseback ride through the jungle. At noon, the ship’s crew sets up a massive lunch spread on shore and takes small groups out to a rock formation for snorkeling. On shore, you can also book banana-boat rides and jet ski rentals. On the final day of the cruise, the ship returns to Puerto Caldera early in the morning.

Because the itinerary is so new (Star Clippers has been cruising Costa Rica since November, 2010), there are still some kinks to work out. Our group was the first to be ferried directly to the beach at Santa Rosa; previous groups were tendered into town and then walked 45 minutes to the beach. On day five, on which we were supposed to go on a coffee tour, large swells made getting onto the tenders too dangerous and our day in port became a second day at sea. Luckily, the Star Flyer offers plenty of activities on board, like nature lectures, organized nightly entertainment and games, mast-climbing, spa treatments and full library of DVDs for when you just need to relax in your cabin.

Despite a few hiccups, I would recommend cruising as an alternative way to see more locations in Costa Rica in a shorter amount of time. Because the roads in the country tend to be of the nausea-inducing twisty variety, it can take a long time to get from place to place. On a cruise like this, you’re able to see smaller towns and national parks while transitioning from place to place each night. The downside for night owls of course is that you miss out on seeing a town’s nightlife, but if nature, relaxation and luxurious accommodations are your primary concerns, a Star Clippers cruise can help you see Costa Rica in comfort and style, without the crowds found on a larger cruise ship.

What you need to know

Length of cruise – 6-7 days, depending on which itinerary you choose
Dates of availability – November to March
Number of passengers – 170
Ports of call – (on northern cruise) San Juan del Sur, Playa del Coco, Santa Rosa, Samara, Isla Tortuga
Days at sea – One planned, though the schedule is subject to change due to weather
On board activities – Two pools, fitness classes, library/DVDs, snorkeling, waterskiing, nightly entertainment, nature lectures, sailing instruction, spa, engine room tours, Captain’s story time
Costs – starting at $1875 per person, not including alcohol, flights, and $215 in port charges

Disclaimer – Star Clippers hosted me on the cruise, but my opinions are my own.