There’s cruising, and then there’s cruising in style. When it comes to exploring the Med by sea, Anna Selby eschews the floating cities in favour of going under sail – and what a way to do it…
The Amalfi coast is legendary for its beauty. Steep cliffs drop into deep blue water. Mountains rise behind them and, somewhere in between, villages full of cobbled streets and houses painted in every pastel hue cling like limpets to the rock. There are tiny beaches and even tinier local shops selling fine linen and china or local handicrafts and limoncello (yes, this is where it comes from). Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and just across the water Capri. Just say the names to conjure the images.
But how to get there? Well, yes, there are twisting, turning roads with plenty of hairpin bends but the easiest way is surely by sea. Mention the word “cruise”, though, and most people picture a floating gin palace – all casinos and floorshows, chocabloc with thousands of passengers. When they get into port they are disgorged into what was once an archaeological marvel or a pretty little harbour but is now swamped by a population twenty times its own, where shops and restaurants promptly treble their prices. It doesn’t have to be like this.
The Star Clipper has less than 200 passengers, no casinos or floorshows (well, not unless you count the local folk band who came on board in Amalfi) and, most importantly, four masts. This is a sailing ship based on a 19th century original and it’s for those with the romance of the sea in their souls. Most other sailing ships of this size use a computer to set, raise and lower the sails. On the Star Clipper, it’s all down to the captain and his crew, judgement and muscle power – bar the odd motorised winch – with decisions made according to the sea and the weather.
So far, so 19th century. But there are rather more creature comforts than were to be had in Captain Onedin’s day. No hammocks or scurvy here, just comfortable beds, good showers and a talented chef. This seven day journey begins and ends in Rome’s port, Civitavecchia. Along the way, you visit Amalfi and Sorrento, sail past volcanic Stromboli (frequently active) and, if you want you can visit further afield – a day on the Isle of Capri, say, or at the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum or visit the exquisite Sicilian town of Taormina for brunch.
On board, you can join in with the crew if you want to try your hand at hoisting sails or climbing the main mast. Entertainment is local (like those folk musicians and dancers), concerts and films. There is early morning yoga on deck. Captain Dominique Rollen has a story time session about the history of sailing and seamen, tales of exploding grain cargoes, mighty ships run aground on reefs, and pirates ancient and modern.
No fears about running aground here. The Star Clipper is itself so stable it could list to 110 degrees – that means the sails are below the level of the water – and it would right itself. Thankfully, this is not something anyone has ever experienced but it is reassuring to know you’re on something that works on much the same principle as a rubber duck in the bath.
Star Clipper is, though, no rubber duck. She’s definitely a swan and likes nothing better than putting on a show of her beauty. Sailing away from port in the evening is the perfect opportunity. Around the harbour, lights twinkle and the ship responds in kind, turning on the mast lights. The anchor chain is drawn clanging back in, bells signalling its shortening length. And, as the ship pulls majestically away from port, sailors swarm over the deck hoisting, first the fisherman’s sail, then the main sail. People watch from the shore and other boats bobbing in the bay. Then – cue music – the sails start to rise, slowly, by manpower. The music is heroic – Vangelis from the Columbus film, 1492 – but curiously this isn’t corny, it’s magnificent. There is even cheering.
But back to that 19th century romance. Early in the morning or late in the evening, you can have the deck to yourself with just a few crew, the ropes creaking, the wind buffeting the sails and the ship flying along at 9 knots. On a perfect day – a flat sea and a good wind – she can reach even 17 knots. And so, that beautiful coast passes by as sailors stand on watch, staring out to sea as they have for a thousand years.
Star Clippers’ Rome round trip includes 7 nights on board visiting Civitavecchia, Lipari in the Aeolian Islands, Messina, Amalfi, Sorrento and Ponza. Cruise-only price from £1632pp, based on 2 adults sharing a category 6 cabin. Price includes 10% Early Booking Discount, valid until January 31st 2022. Departures May – September 2023. From December 2022 to March 2023 Star Clipper has cruises around Costa Rica. For more information, please visit www.starclippers.co.uk.