Evoking the atmosphere of the grandest of English country houses, complete with sumptuous staterooms, jacuzzi and an on-board gymnasium and sauna, few would dispute that the 246ft super-yacht Leander affords one of the most luxurious ways to cruise the azure seas of the Caribbean. Whether it is coursing through the water on one of the yacht's jet-skis, or simply enjoying a gin and tonic at sunset in the air-conditioned cabins, life on board is unforgettable.
Today, the Prince of Wales and his consort, the Duchess of Cornwall, will board the £50m vessel to begin a tour in which, Clarence House says, they will "reinforce Britain's ties with the important Commonwealth countries" in the region. On their way, the royal couple will be taken to a rainforest conservation project and marvel at some of the region's stunning bio-diversity before enjoying a trip to Kingston's famous Bob Marley Museum and the home of reggae.
Their 14-strong entourage, plus unspecified security detail, will spend 11 days travelling between sun-kissed islands, attended to by a crew of 24, cementing links as they go with the people of Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia and Jamaica as well as those on the volcano-hit territory of Montserrat.
But while neither Charles nor Camilla are strangers to this dizzying level of luxury – the Duchess enjoyed a week-long break on the same yacht only last year in an attempt to escape the fallout from her sudden withdrawal from the 10th anniversary memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales – it is not the quality of the accommodation that is raising eyebrows, it is the justification for it. Clarence House has pointed out that hiring the yacht would not only ease the strains on the public purse, having apparently negotiated a hefty discount from Leander's owner, the NCP tycoon Donald Goslin, on his usual £40,000-a-day charter cost, but it would be good for the environment too. The Prince's staff had calculated that by using the yacht, plus taking schedule flights and even sending Camilla to the airport by Gatwick Express, would also rack up a 40 per cent reduction in the amount of carbon emissions compared with the last royal trip to the region in 2000.
But there is a slight flaw in Charles's dreams of a guilt-free Caribbean odyssey: experts are warning that, far from minimising the tour's carbon footprint, his chosen method of transport could do more damage to the environment than several hundred transatlantic flights. Despite his high-profile stance on green issues and championing of organic food, the Aston Martin-driving Prince has earned his fair share of environmental brickbats over the years, not least for his well-known taste for luxury and penchant for helicopter travel.
At a recent appearance in Abu Dhabi, the Prince emphasised his commitment to reducing his own carbon footprint when he addressed an audience of world leaders on the thorny issue of future energy use via a Star Trek-style hologram. He told his audience that "climate change is now so urgent that we have less than 10 years to slow, stop and reverse greenhouse gas emissions". He added: "Common actions are needed in every country to protect the common inheritance that has been given to us by our Creator."
It may be a shock to Charles to learn the full extent of his cruise's potential impact. Leander is expected to cover 1,500 miles , at a modest 15 knots. Assuming the fuel consumption rate is no more than 50 litres a mile, the ship will use 75,000 litres of diesel on the trip. The National Energy Foundation website says the cruise will pump a total of some 200 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, enough to fly the average passenger from London to New York 260 times.
A spokeswoman for the Prince, speaking from the Caribbean yesterday, insisted the Leander was the most environmentally sound option, pointing out that Charles would also be carbon offsetting any emissions accrued during his time in the Caribbean.
Clarence House is said to be furious at claims of a "green wash" and incredulous at suggestions that the real reason the yacht has been chartered is because 60-year-old Camilla is scared of flying. One report says although the Duchess was prepared to travel on a scheduled plane to Antigua last Friday to spend a few days with her former husband, Peter Parker Bowles, before her official duties begin, she drew the line at boarding the notoriously turbulence-prone small aircraft that link the various islands. But it cannot have escaped either royal's notice that the Leander also offers the chance of four undisturbed days at sea when they can avail themselves of the facilities as the couple recuperate before continuing their duties on Jamaica.
"The carbon emissions generated by this are considerably less than the other option, which is to charter a plane around the islands," the spokeswoman said. "We took all the factors into consideration when we planned the trip. It is also much cheaper and less cost to the taxpayer."
She said the option of flying between islands was further complicated by the fact that a second twin-propeller plane would have been needed to land on tiny Montserrat. In addition, the Prince will not be using Leander's helicopter, preferring the yacht's two tenders to convey his party to shore.
James Grazebrook, spokesman for Superyacht UK, said using Leander as a hotel the touring party would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. "Leander is an older, slower, vessel which means she is pushing through the water rather skimming across it," he said. "Displacement vessels such as these travel at low speeds and use only 20 per cent of the energy used by high speed vessels. What he has actually done is charter a Volvo estate and not a Ferrari. So because it is a Volvo estate it will use a lot less carbon."
But Tony Cottee, of the radical direct action environmental pressure group Rising Tide, said it was "typical" of the Prince of Wales to flaunt his environmental credentials while continuing to damage the planet with his profligate lifestyle. "He seems to be redefining the dictionary definition of sustainability. It is typical of people in his position. They have no basis of understanding compared to someone who lives in a council flat and is trying to cut their emissions, for example, by buying more efficient white goods, which are still more expensive than inefficient ones. When you compare this to people who are struggling to make a difference, something like this will blow anything they can do right out of the water for the rest of their lives."
Figures from the United Nations last month show that annual emissions from shipping dwarfs that of aviation and is likely to soar by a further 30 per cent by 2020, making it the largest single source of man-made CO2 after cars, housing, agriculture and industry.
David Lee, professor of atmospheric science at Manchester Metropolitan University, says ships have been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere since 1870, 70 years before aviation began to have an impact. As a result, shipping's overall effect on the climate is twice that of aeroplanes. Paradoxically, efforts to clean up the dirtiest vessels by reducing sulphur emissions could causing the disappearance of the low clouds that form over busy shipping lanes and radiate the sun's heat back out into space, so helping keep the planet cool.
Jean Leston, transport policy officer for WWF UK, said it was now vital emissions from shipping were included, along with aviation, in the Climate Change Bill making its way through Parliament. And it is not just the vast supertankers that are causing the problem. Big cruise liners produce 0.43kg of CO2 per passenger mile, compared to 0.257kg for flying.