We were gliding effortlessly due east. On the horizon a thin sliver of land was just visible -- it was difficult to detect where land ended and the sky started. I was standing on deck with camera in hand. The sun was teasing us, waiting to peek from behind the Italian coastline we were now approaching, ready to usher in the start of another day. The only sound was the gentle flapping of 42 sails in the breeze keeping us steady on course.
After what seemed like an age of waiting, a fiery bright red sun started to rise majestically and lift itself slowly but surely upward into the sky. Still no sound. A few steps to my right stood another man, coffee mug in hand. Over on the left, a beautiful lady was sitting cross-legged, straight-backed, and eyes closed. I wondered if anything she was imagining could be as beautiful, calm, and awesome as the birth of a new day. We didn’t speak -- we didn’t need to. We experienced the same awesome splendor of the sunrise another twelve times as we sailed around the Mediterranean with 218 fellow passengers.
All About The Royal Clipper
Star Clippers -- a privately owned Swedish company - owns and operates three (soon to be four) tall ships, the largest of these being the 440-foot steel-hulled Royal Clipper which, with five masts and 42 sails, is indeed a regal sight. A framed certificate from the Guinness Book Of World Records, which hangs in the ship’s library, informed us that we were aboard the world’s largest square-rigger.
Anchored a few hundred yards off the shore in Cannes, the majestic clipper simply dazzled as the sunlight bounced off her blue and white hull. Our initial paperwork was quickly completed at the quayside, and we were tendered smartly to the great ship. Onboard, everything was polished wood and mirror-sharp brass fittings. We received our “pass” -- a plastic credit card of sorts that would be key to everything over the next couple of weeks; it opened our cabin door and was essential to getting on and off the ship. We learned not to leave home without it!
Our ocean view stateroom was more spacious than we had anticipated: a double bed, a wardrobe, and plenty of cupboard space. A large space under the bed was ideal for storing empty suitcases. A separate bathroom with shower completed our temporary home. The clever use of mirrors made the room seem larger than it was, and with two portholes, it was light and airy. No balconies here nor nine stories of cabins, glass elevators, or thousands of strangers. With almost as many crew as passengers, we all soon got to know each other. The crew, a veritable United Nations of 14 different nationalities from Brazilian to Polish, Belgian to Philippine, was super attentive with a seemingly endless supply of smiles and hellos. Only a few days into the sailing, no-one was a stranger, which made this cruise so much more personal and enjoyable than being just one more anonymous face on a mega cruise liner. Here, quality and attentiveness trumped quantity at every turn.
That magic moment when the Captain gives the nod to weigh the anchor and set the sails is an experience in itself. Watching the crew set the sails (somewhat disappointingly hydraulically in today’s age -- with the push of a button and lots of rope maneuvering) and standing beneath an array of billowing white polyester sails is a humbling moment. You get the feeling you are a very small part of something majestic, something with life and character, and that wild adventures lie ahead. Imaginations were further sparked by the playing of Vangelis’ 1492 “Conquest of Paradise” as we eased away -- stirring stuff indeed. We sipped colorful drinks with imaginative names including Hugo, Yellow Bird, and names I can no longer recall but that relaxed my legs and apparently my brain as we left land behind.
This 1,500-nautical-mile odyssey quickly moved from the south of France to our first stop in Livorno, Italy, where the ship docked long enough for shore excursions to Florence (a 90-minute drive and time enough to get only a first glimpse of this Renaissance masterpiece), Pisa (a 30-minute drive and long enough to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site that includes that most famous of wobbly towers), and a trip to a local beach. Like any cruise, shore excursions were optional and cost extra. You could join an organized excursion or plan your own and explore independently. Planning ahead to schedule private tours is a great option and one we used in both Pisa and, later, Valencia. There’s nothing like a local to guide you to the best watering holes and eating places off the beaten path.
The next stop was a beach in Corsica. Dropping anchor about a half-mile off the coast, we were tendered to the beach and told this would be a “wet landing.” I had visions of D-Day, storming out of waist-deep water and taking the beach with our beach towels and umbrellas and declaring it “Ours!” Actually, we landed in no more than a foot of water and were pulling off our clothes before we had even hit the sand.
Our itinerary continued on to Elba (it was great to see where Napoleon was exiled -- there are worse places to be sequestered for sure), Menorca, Mallorca, Ibiza (it’s not all drunk Brits in the street), and the Spanish mainland ports of Valencia and Barcelona. In many of these ports of call, there were optional organized excursions to local towns and cities or a jaunt to a local beach.
Back On Board
Returning hot and sweaty from one of the excursions, we approached the ship on our tender and could see the marina platform at the back of the ship was open for passengers to swim, kayak, float, or paddle off the back of the ship. We boarded, had our keys scanned, and made our way straight to the back. It’s amazing how quickly you can remove your clothing and change into swimming gear almost without breaking stride. We were on the marina deck and ready to jump into the calm, warm, and inviting sea. A maximum of 25 people were allowed in a roped-off area at any time behind the ship and our eagle-eyed crew looked out for our safety. Now this is the way to cool off after a very hot and sweaty walk around town. We climbed out of the water, toweled off, and stopped off at the “we never close” bar before collapsing on our sun loungers.
Our favorite location was at the stern of the ship where you could watch land slip away or the sun dip below the horizon. At other times, we would sit by one of the two small pools or by the small sea-water pool on deck. With a rainbow-colored drink in hand, we would exchange war stories with new friends and put the world to rights. There was no fighting over sun loungers as there were always enough. We hadn’t a care in the world and didn’t want the sun to go down -- ever. The sky was cloudless and a gentle warm breeze caressed our bodies. This was our idea of heaven.
Life at sea was far from boring -- there is an endless list of activities to keep you from eating and drinking your way around the Mediterranean -- though this is an easy temptation. Feeling peckish one evening, I headed to the restaurant for a midnight snack only to bump into a fellow passenger. I ended up back at the bar and never did get my snack. We started each day with 45 minutes of yoga on the deck. By the end, I became proficient at the inverted cow position (or something) and felt good about myself. I admired a couple who ran laps along the deck each morning and thought “Why?” I reflected on life in general during a meditation session, watched fascinated as our Michelin-starred chef demonstrated another culinary delight. I was crowned ping pong champion and climbed the rigging to the crow’s nest to experience a once-in-a-lifetime bird’s eye view of the sea. I was educated in the engine room and danced the nights away to well, anything, really. I was pampered with a massage on the open deck and saw playful dolphins, a fin whale, and stars I could not name. We ate five delicious courses each evening with exquisite wines selected by our onboard sommelier and learned how to make a toga out of a bedsheet. Clearly, my life had been missing something.
Sailing on this beautiful tall ship is a truly unique experience that combines comfort, delicious food, exquisite wines, and activities you simply cannot do on a large liner. The crew-to-passenger ratio ensures personal, individual attention, which makes you feel special and truly spoiled. By the end of the sailing you know (even if you cannot remember) everyone’s name and chances are, you will have shared a breakfast or dinner table with most of them, too. Although it’s really difficult to get lost on this ship, it’s still possible to have your own space. There are tables for two and quiet spots tucked away on deck. If that fails, there’s always the Crow’s Nest.