“We sail,” Captain Sergey Utitsyn asserts firmly. “This is a sailing ship!” He was responding to my temerity in calling the ten-night Star Clipper Eastern Mediterranean voyage from Venice to Athens, a “cruise.”
And his choice of words really is the best way to describe the Star Clipper tall-ship experience: a wonderful sailing holiday on a four-masted, square-rigged barquentine, 360 feet long, with 36,000 square feet of space. Days filled with water-and wind-powered activities, new friends and just enough shore visits to avoid the unnerving experience of apparently swaying on land.
Solo Travel – at First
I was travelling solo on this trip, and it was with some trepidation that I embarked on the tall ship Star Clipper, sailing from San Basilio in Venice along the Eastern Mediterranean coast to Athens. I wondered: would everyone else be in couples? Would I make any new friends? Would I get lonely on my own? Would I stand out like a sore thumb? As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; the last night on board, our table heaved with 11 of us squeezing around it. Yes, new friends, shared experiences, and no, I wasn’t lonely at all. Oh, and I fell in love – with a city.
I’d explored Venice for a couple of days before joining the ship. It’s a good idea to spend a day or so in the port, just to make sure you get to the embarkation point on time. There are frightening tales of passengers missing the embarkations (airline strikes, traffic delays) and then frantically pursuing the ship down the coast. Not the most relaxing way to start a holiday.
Also, a couple of days in Venice starts the holiday off in a lovely, relaxed way. My Venice stay included a private tour with Rossana Colombo, an official guide who was full of stories about the superstition, romance and history of the island city. My hotel, San Sebastiano Garden, had an outside rear garden (rare in Venice), with a tinkling fountain, abundant grape ivy and breakfast tables in the shade. And it was just a five-minute walk from the Star Clipper embarkation point, at San Basilio.
It was in my wanderings around the area that I saw the Star Clipper for the first time — bigger than I thought she would be, and more majestic. That feeling was reinforced later that evening, as we sailed out of Venice, after embarking at 16:30. The ship’s unfurled sails threw shadows onto the Venetian quays, while the air echoed with the musical strains from Vangelis’s main theme to the movie Conquest Of Paradise, played every time we sailed away from port.
Ahead of me was a journey of new friends, surprise and love.
Sunshine, Languages – and Apple Ice-Cream
I was up on deck just after 07:00 the next morning – and found people already swimming in the ship’s two pools on the Sun Deck. I started what would become a pleasant early morning routine of freshly baked Parisian croissants, assorted jams, aromatic coffee and fresh tropical fruit, all provided in the Piano Bar. The full breakfast served in the dining room offered crisp bacon, grilled sausage, smoked salmon and omelettes cooked to order.
Everyone was friendly – all it took was a casual “hello: to be invited to share a table at mealtimes, or to join a group for excursions. The evening before, I’d taken a deep breath to boost my confidence and approached two girls, who looked both friendly and the least “couple-like.” “Hi – how’s it going?”
That first simple approach, like so many others to come, was my first solo lesson of this tall ships voyage: even cruising solo, it’s all about the people you’re with.
I soon learned that the early morning temperatures were the coolest during the blistering hot August days. The cloudless blue skies were such a pleasure to wake up to each morning, especially in the air-conditioned coolness of my cabin. That excellent coolness was to be a constant source of relaxation and escape from the heat — and guaranteed a pleasant night’s sleep.
The Star Clipper’s size (360 feet long, with a draft of 18.5 feet), means she can visit more intimate ports than larger cruise vessels; that was certainly the case at our first port of call, Mali Losinji in Croatia, when our only companions were exclusive-looking yachts.
I went ashore (ship’s tender every 30 minutes), with new friends Leigh and Louise. The latter, who turned out to own a cruise travel company, gave me a handy hint: “Pay for drinks or your ice-cream in Euros – and you’ll get change in Kuna (the local Croatian currency), although you’ll have to spend that money before we leave Croatia.”
So, I used a 5-Euro note for my green apple ice-cream, although the Croatian waitress was a bit confused. I ended up with enough change for the rest of the day, and a new word: “Hvala,” (pronounced more or less ‘fala’) – “Thanks!” (The exchange rate was 7.33 Kuna to the Euro. My generously-sized ice-cream was 13.5k and a stein of beer was 18k.)
The local restaurants posted long menus in various languages, including Croatian, German and Italian, but no English. Pictures helped the interpretations. However, I had a champagne dinner waiting on board, along with more new friends, and champagne to celebrate the three of us being Welsh. A great finale to my first full day on the Star Clipper.
New Friends, Joining in – and the Climb
The next nine days followed a similar pattern, so much so that I lost all track of the days of the week. I just knew that we were due in Dubrovnik in the morning, or in Santorini one afternoon. The Port Booklet provided by Star Clipper gives an overview of each port, and there were maps and books in the ship’s quiet library on the Main Deck. Each morning, Cruise Director Anna Alice provided a thorough overview of the excursions and port sights.
Dining on board is free of any seating arrangements, so a great way to make new friends. (The fare includes all meals onboard, although alcohol and soft drinks are extra, but reasonable.) Food is taken seriously (although the dress code is “casual yet elegant”), from the Early Bird breakfast through to midnight snacks — and buffets, snacks and dinner in between. Coffee and tea are available 24/7 on the Main Deck bar area, along with fresh fruit, although towards the end of the voyage the selection was less varied. The Maitre d’ explained that the Star Clipper takes on provisions at the start of the voyage, and they are not replenished until she docks again at the end.
However, Chef and his team created interesting, varied and generally healthy four-star choices, including meat, seafood, salad and vegetarian options, along with local specialties; the catering steward can recommend a wine to complement the meal. And with 72 crew members to a maximum 170 passengers, service in the dining room and everywhere else on the ship, is excellent yet unobtrusive. Celebrity chefs are planned for selected sailings in 2013, with specialised lectures and themed cooking demonstrations on board.
Star Clipper entertainment (fashion show/contests, quizzes) is casual and fun, and as many people watched as joined in. Tamas provided the musical entertainment, while the ship’s sports team enthusiastically offered guidance for sailing, scuba, and swimming. The onboard therapeutic massages ensured a generally relaxed outlook.
One thing I had determined to do was climb the mast. My strategy was to let other people know I was going to do it; that way, I couldn’t back out. I lined up (yes, there was a queue), duly put on my safety harness and felt the first quiver of apprehension. Was I really going to do this? The rope ladder has metal rungs that you climb up; the gaps in between are deep, and it really takes a toll on your legs. Well, it did on mine, anyway. I finally squeezed onto the platform (now I know why the ship’s crew members are all slim), aware I still had to clamber back down. Yes, it was worth it!
A film, Around the Horn, was shown later in the cruise, of sailors working on sailing ships in the early 1930s, amid gale-force winds, huge waves and a constantly pitching ship. I have so much admiration for them.
The new Cannes, walls and passages – and cats
With larger cruise ships, upscale clubs and almost 3,000 hours of sunshine ever year, Hvar is earning its reputation as “The New Cannes,” with jazz every night. The beach was pebbly (awkward for anyone with mobility problems) and two of the four shore excursions were cancelled due to insufficient numbers; this was to be a common occurrence throughout the cruise.
In Hvar’s sunny St. Stephen’s Square, I met another couple from the ship and shared a drink with them; so nice to see familiar faces. Afterwards, I wandered away from the expensive harbour area, through little alleys into the older part of town, with its steep tracks, stone walls, lavender smells and constant sound of crickets. It was still hot, even in late afternoon, and I didn’t make it to the 15th century Franciscan monastery, being satisfied with looking up at it from a shady resting place.
We set sail at 18:00 for Dubrovnik, arriving there at noon the next day. This Croatian town and its people and history entranced me; we sailed away as the soft night fell, and I stood alone on deck, saying adieu, not farewell to a magical place. [See separate ‘Dubrovnik’ story]
Leaving Croatia, we sailed for Kotor, Montenegro. Arriving early the following morning, we sailed through the 17-mile waterway for a couple of hours. The indented, fjord-like Bay of Kotor has steep mountains on both sides of its long, thin bay, and we anchored in the bay at Kotor at 07:00.
It was hot again, and we climbed only halfway up the steep path, stopping at the Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation, then returned through the labyrinth of cobbled lanes and small squares to the Old Town. Kotor is renowned for its cats, and they were everywhere — sunning on white stone walls, peering down stony steps and winding around the old cobbled streets.
Time change, all at sea – and some Krafft-y talk
Onward to Corfu in Greece – and the time change, which left some people sleeping in the next morning. Sailing into port that afternoon, we saw two of the massive cruise liners which most people associate with cruises. To me, they looked like apartment blocks set on end.
Star Clipper had tied up to the quay, rather than anchoring out at sea as is usual, and it was unnerving to see people walking past the porthole in my cabin.
As it was another hot day in the mid-30s, we took a taxi into the Old Town mid-afternoon, rather than endure a hot, unshaded 30-minute walk. It’s best to agree on the taxi fare in advance; we paid ten Euro.
Corfu town was the busiest and most typical “tourist” spot so far: loud music, food, traffic, graffiti and so many people in the main square, the Liston Esplanade. A bizarre sight in the busy marketplaces was the fur coats; at odds with the heat and sunny blue skies. I was seduced by a luscious chocolate pancake, although I shared it with Louise as even I (a dedicated chocolate lover) couldn’t finish it. Later, in the cool of early evening, we relaxed in yet another town square, to live music, swooping swallows and the lilting Greek language all around us.
Sandy beaches and beautiful scenery are just outside the town – best reached by taxi.
After all the bustle of Corfu, we had an entire day at sea, and I was reminded again that everyone has stories, sad, happy and challenging.
The quiet young woman (a widow, she was travelling with her mother and partner); the warm, outgoing couple (the husband was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, and this could be his last voyage); the cheerful friends (one of whom was recovering from heart surgery); and the independent American woman with heavy, dark glasses (“I want to see Santorini again, while I can still see”).
My fears of being surrounded by rich, privileged cruisers had been demolished. Everyone I met was friendly and always willing to share a table, a drink and a chat. It was even easy to chat about the ship and the sea with Captain Sergey Utitsyn (although he did stop me taking my precariously balanced hot coffee into his chart room), and the Chief Mate Yuriy Slastenin.
To make sure no one would be bored with an entire day at sea, the crew lined up dance workouts, sailing manoeuvres, knot-tying classes, water aerobics and line dancing. I was entertained simply by the ever-changing sea.
I was also thinking about my conversation with Mikael Krafft, the Star Clipper fleet owner, who’d come onboard with his wife on the previous day. A calm, friendly man, he says he tends to check all the engineering and ship challenges, while his wife checks cabin fittings and all the small personal touches onboard. Their personal and deep interest in the fleet (Star Flyer, Star Clipper and Royal Clipper), their employees and passengers is reflected in the Star Clipper’s general relaxed ambiance and unobtrusive attention to every detail.
Before arriving at Yithion at midday, we went out in the ship’s tenders to photograph the Star Clipper from the sea, a magnificent sight. It was hotter than ever, in the high 30s; even the crew considered it unseasonably hot weather. People were sleeping on the decks at night.
That heat was even more obvious ashore at Yithion, where there was no shade from the pier to the small town. We walked slowly, alongside working fishing boats festooned with lines of drying octopuses.
Along the way, Leigh was offered a large fresh, aromatic lime from a local woman who saw us admiring her trees. At the cool café, with its welcome fans, we checked emails, contemplated imbibing a ‘”arrel of wine” – and I had the best Greek salad. On the dusty roads, old motorbikes, with their sun-warped leather seats contrasted with luxurious fast cars and their equally fast driving speeds.
That evening, we sailed for Santorini, arriving there at noon.
Snow, Missed Port – and Missing in Action
I thought it was snow on the mountain tops, my first distant sight of the white-washed buildings of Santorini.
We opted for the cable car, rather than the donkeys plodding up that slope. It runs four times an hour and costs four Euro. Some passengers chose to visit Fira, Santorini’s capital, visit the beaches, or take a ride around the island.
One man, who opted to walk around, was missing in action when the last tender was leaving. While many cruise ships would sail without him, the captain sent men to find him, as the Star Clipper had to catch the tide. The straggler made it back just in time, no doubt to catch his breath and rue a possible fine.
I can understand his tardiness. We set sail at 19:30, with the Captain’s Dinner scheduled for that evening, although I would have happily stayed longer in that place of contrasting colours, the biggest donuts I’ve ever seen (and I lived in North America), stunning views and intimate restaurants.
Swells developed through the evening; yes, actual sailing! I had been feeling that I was languishing on a smooth sea-borne bus, riding this life of leisure and privilege. Some passengers reacted badly to the additional movement, and we were told that it might be impossible to go to Mykoynos. Apparently, this happens quite often, as choppy seas means the ship’s tenders can’t safely get into the port.
Missing Magic, a Diversion – and ‘Solo’ No Longer
The Captain’s dinner brought the crew out dancing and singing; it was fun. However, we were also given information about debarking (including comment sheets, baggage information and end-of-voyage charges), which brought nearer the end of the holiday, although it was still two days away. That practical (yet essential) information had somehow taken away the magic and reality had returned.
The winds continued to rise, with 1.5m waves, and we diverted to Paros. A bit of a party island, loud music reached us across the water, and people “strutted their stuff on the beaches,” as one observant passenger phrased it. The beaches are sandy, the water refreshing, along with the lemon and pistachio sorbets for 2 Euro a scoops and delicious coffee frappes for just a little more, at 2.5 Euro.
Beautiful evening colours for our last evening as we set sail for Piraeus, Athens.
For me, Piraeus was an unwelcome return to reality.
The excursion around Athens was cancelled, which left me to find my way to the city, and perhaps miss my flight to Manchester (via London) if I got lost (quite likely!). I took the shuttle bus for 27 Euro) to the airport and waited there five hours for my flight. It would have cost about £250 to change my air flight ticket to an earlier departure. Not a good way to end such a great holiday.
Of course, we all exchanged emails and promises to stay in touch. (And yes, we have, with a Facebook Group page, social meetings in Wales – and plans for a trip to Plymouth with Louise and Leigh.)
The hugs and goodbyes took a while – so much for ‘solo’ travel!
Later that day, my scheduled plane flies back up the coast in a few short hours. The same coast we’d just spent ten days sailing along. Our flight path is tracked on those little television screens on the seat in front. I compare it to the view out of my window, longingly seeking Dubrovnik off in the distant haze. I see ships creaming the blue ocean with their wake; that was us, with sails.
The romance of the coastline, the sailing ship and the timeless sea – what a privilege to experience such freedom and find new friends, onboard the beautiful sailing ship that is the incomparable Star Clipper.
Previously published online in cruiselifemagazine.com