Iridescent water and beautiful beaches are par for the course in south-east Asia. Join us as we set sail aboard a square-rigged sailing ship to discover the astonishing beauty of this little corner of paradise.

The crystal clear waters of the Similan  Islands
The crystal clear waters of the Similian Islands

THERE’S A trance-inducingly beautiful beach in Thailand’s Similan Islands, so dazzling that to read a book or even speak while sitting on it feels wrong. With iridescent turquoise water, sand like icing sugar, a jumble of granite boulders and a handful of dive boats anchored offshore – I truly hadn’t believed beaches like this existed. On a Star Clippers sailing cruise through the Andaman Sea, however, they quite honestly came two-a-penny – fringing islands that are mere specks of bottle green and completely inaccessible except by boat.

I boarded Star Clipper, a graceful four-masted, square-rigged sailing ship, in steamy Singapore, with 100 other enthusiasts, the kind of people who love sailing but would secretly rather sip a good rum punch than actually make the effort.

The ship, though, is the real thing, its teak decks piled high with ropes, manned by a crew recruited from Russian sail training vessels, all bulging biceps from raising 36,000 sq ft of sail every day.

After a swift tropical sunset, Star Clipper edged its way into the Malacca Straits, a minnow between the mammoth oil tankers and container ships, and set a course north alongside the Malay Peninsula. Malacca, our first port of call, was a wonderfully crumbling colonial town and the best way to see it proved to be by rickshaw. In a vehicle festooned with plastic flower garlands and an old car stereo dangling from the handlebars, we trundled past Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu temples, the scent of incense wafting through the warm air.

The streets of Chinatown are lined with ancient shophouses, their peeling façades in faded hues of oranges, pinks and greens, and their numerous goods – ranging from Chinese medicines and herbs, to bolts of splendid fabric, antiques and the inevitable, general touristy items – piled high.

To allow passengers time to fully appreciate the ship, Star Clippers includes a day at sea in all its itineraries. I chose to sprawl in the huge, hammock-like nets strung either side of the bowsprit (the pointy bit at the front), watching dolphins and flying fish until the sun simply got too hot, prompting me to indulge in a Thai massage on deck. Other passengers, however, were more energetic and joined one of the few organized activities – to climb the mast to the crow’s nest.

The Star Clipper at anchor
The Star Clipper at anchor

That night, we crossed into Thai waters and woke up anchored off the green hillocks and white beaches of Koh Lipe, an island of astonishing beauty, inhabited only by Chao Leh (sea gypsies). These nomadic fishing people originated from Indonesia and settled on Lipe island at the beginning of the 20th century. Their life may be simple, making traditional carved fishing boats, yet a mobile phone mast occupies pride of place at the scruffy village centre, where the only signs of life were pigs, goats, chickens and dogs scratching in the dirt. The Similan Islands, a day later, were the trip’s highlight for me, a tiny archipelago 50 nautical miles from Phuket. People come here to dive but just a mask and snorkel borrowed from the ship’s sports locker were enough. The colours of the reefs are psychedelic and the water so clear I could see right across the bay to Star Clipper’s anchor chain.

As electric blue surgeonfish flitted through scarlet corals, whole communities of orange-and-white clownfish came to check me out, but when a menacing grouper – with not insubstantial teeth – chased me away as I got too close to its watery lair, I packed up my mask and snorkel, flopped onto the warm sand and just lay there, gazing at the water.

Further north, Star Clipper glided into Phang Nga Bay, over which a forest of giant, sheer-sided limestone towers, or hongs, is scattered. In the ship’s inflatable Zodiac launches, we squeezed through narrow caves into one of the hollow towers, its interior a world of dappled green shade with monkeys rustling in the trees that overhang a muddy lagoon.

James Bond Island
James Bond Island

One island in the bay was surrounded by boats. Its attraction, I discovered, was that it had been blown to smithereens (or not) in the 1970s Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. As large parties of Japanese tourists lined up to strike amusing Bond poses in front of villain Scaramanga’s island hideout, it was back on board for us and time for one more cocktail in the Tropical Bar, one more fiery sunset, and, it has to be said, a few discreet tears as us passengers saw the sails raised for the last time. The next morning saw us arrive in Phuket and so marked the end of a week of absolute escapism. All the snorkelling meant my back was browner than my front and a fair few sandfly bites had emerged, but it’s a price I’d gladly pay again to sample this small corner of pure paradise.

Fact File

Who travels?
This cruise attracts a mixture of Europeans, Americans and Australians, mainly couples in their 40s and 50s. Singles shouldn’t be deterred as the atmosphere on board is very friendly.

There are seven cabin categories, ranging from inside to the owners’ suite. My category 3 cabin was 118 sq ft with a double bed, small wardrobe, TV, vanity and bathroom with power shower and a porthole on the waterline. Category 1 cabins open out onto the deck and have a bath; otherwise, 2-5 vary only in size and location.

Singapore dollars, Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht. There’s no currency exchange on board and credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere, so do go prepared with small denominations.

We travelled with

We sailed with: Star Clippers
Duration: 7 nights
Included: Cruise only, with all food and entertainment
To book: Visit

Itinerary includes

Day 1 – Depart Singapore

Day 2 – Malacca
Excursions or time to explore by rickshaw.

Day 3 – At sea
A chance to relax and enjoy the on-board facilities, including two swimming pools.

Day 4 – Langkawi
Enjoy the beaches or take an island tour.

Day 5 – Butang Islands
For beaches, diving and snorkelling and a chance to visit the villages inhabited by sea gypsies.

Day 6 – Phang Nga Bay
For James Bond Island and organised excursions into caves using the ship’s tenders.

Day 7 – Similan Islands
For beach barbecue and some of the best snorkelling in Asia – some of the most spectacular coral growths in the world can be found here.

Day 8 – Disembark Phuket