Sample the romance of a voyage on clipper Star Flyer as she makes her way from celebrity capital Cannes on an idyllic Mediterranean mini-break.
As if Cannes isn’t glamorous enough already, the film festival was still on when I arrived. My taxi battled its way from Nice airport to the Cannes jetty through crowds of movie people. One Star Clippers’ guest waiting at the pier to board my cruise had just spotted Kristin Scott Thomas on the Croisette. Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe were rumoured to be in town. Mega-yachts were moored everywhere.
Our own yacht, Star Flyer, was easy enough to spot; you don’t see many four-mast square riggers, even at the Cannes Film Festival. The ship’s orange lifeboats, used as tenders, bobbed back and forth across the harbour, ferrying a hundred passengers and their luggage to the exciting start of a four-night Mediterranean mini-break.
Soon we were all on board our graceful sailing clipper, a ship reminiscent of bygone days, when tea clippers would race each other across the world’s oceans. We scrambled up the narrow gangway from below deck to be greeted by mellow jazz playing in the outdoor Tropical Bar, a wood-decked area shaded by a huge canvas. A fruity cocktail was thrust into my hand. A big display of canapés caught my eye, as I’d missed lunch.
I explored the ship. Cabins are surprisingly luxurious – this is a proper sailing ship, after all, and you might expect something pokey with bunks – with big double beds and compact marble bathrooms. The ship’s interiors are plush, with oil paintings on the walls depicting the golden age of clipper ships, before steam sent the predecessors of Star Flyer into the history books.
On deck, huge coils of rope were stacked high, with polished brass winches everywhere and hundreds of lines connected to four towering masts. Two small plunge pools and a massage pavilion on the aft deck suggested that Star Flyer had been built for pleasure. But this is a genuine sailing ship and later in the week, passengers were invited to haul on the ropes with the crew. On one afternoon, we were allowed to climb the narrow rope ladder up to the crow’s nest for stunning views.
Setting sail, as it turned out, is a big event, so much so that everybody suddenly abandoned dinner at the time indicated in the ship’s daily news. We gathered on the foredeck as the anchor was raised with a long clanking sound. The lights of Cannes sparkled along the shore, where no doubt more stars were on the red carpet. But we were in a different world now. Winches started to creak and massive sails unfurled as the haunting pulse of Vangelis’ 1492, Conquest of Paradise suddenly echoed across the deck. This is Star Clippers’ sailing theme music, played every time we left port. A light wind caught the huge sails and we were off, into the inky blackness. First timers were enchanted and return passengers, of which there were many, said they felt as if they’d come home.
As it turned out, the gentle rocking of the ship on top of a fine dinner with excellent (and reasonably priced) wines sent me quickly to sleep. I woke up and we were cruising slowly off the coast of Monaco, its belle époque buildings and megabucks apartment blocks packed tightly against the craggy, coastal mountains.
In port, everybody scattered, some to museums, some to the royal palace, others to the nearby villages of Eze and Villefranche. A few of us mooched around the harbour, ogling the yachts, and strolled up to Casino Square to watch the ludicrously rich circling in scarlet, black or yellow Ferraris as we sipped 10 euro coffees.
Back on board, we consumed huge lunches from the excellent buffet, which had a fantastic array of salads, hot dishes, cheeses, cold cuts and desserts, and collapsed on sunloungers on deck. I gazed up through a cat’s cradle of ropes and lines at little puffs of cloud in a cerulean sky, feeling especially lazy.
Nightlife on Star Clippers is fun and friendly, although not what I’d call sophisticated. Dinner is open seating and as most passengers on our cruise were youngish (40-something), stylish French and Germans, as well as a handful of Brits, everybody tended to eat late, gathering for cocktails in the Tropical Bar first.
Something was laid on every night – a crew fashion show one night, selling nautically-themed logowear from the ship’s Sloop Shop; a ferociously competitive music quiz another night; and a talent show, where crew and passengers could strut their stuff. All this took place in the Tropical Bar; although there is a smart piano bar inside, most people preferred the fresh night air. After the entertainment, a solo musician played, although people tended to get up and dance when the disco music came on. It was cheesy, but a lot of fun. You have to have had a few cocktails, though, to laugh at people doing the macarena on a gently pitching and rolling ship.
Our next port of call was Calvi, a honey-coloured, fortified fishing town on the north coast of Corsica. The approach was stunning; the highest mountains still had spring snow on them and low mist hung over the sea in the early morning.
I’d planned a hike here – to a hilltop abbey and then a lighthouse. Distances on tourist maps, though, are deceptive and the trail markings often inaccurate. We clambered up and up into the scrub-covered hills, with tantalising views of Caribbean-blue sea, breathing in the intoxicating scent of the maquis, the famous Corsican scrub, wild thyme, lavender and myrtle proliferating amidst a thick carpet of purple and white flowers, dotted with scarlet poppies. The views were stunning.
The lighthouse, although visible from the abbey, looked unreachable, so we detoured to a trendy beach bar with several large yachts anchored nearby and feasted on freshly-grilled fish and bruschetta with homemade tapenade before continuing our stroll. Dusty and hot, we eventually arrived back at the little harbour and sipped cold Corsican beers by the water. Before dinner brought another romantic sailaway at sunset, as we headed for new adventures in a new country, setting a course to Portofino, Italy.
A big swell had built up overnight and yachts were milling around outside Portofino’s tiny harbour, uncertain whether they would be able to anchor. After long debate between the captain and the local pilot, we were given permission to go ashore, an exercise not for the infirm, as the tender was bouncing six feet up, six feet down on the swell. Boarding the tender was something of a leap of faith.
However, who could resist Portofino? Ochre and terracotta houses crammed crookedly around a tiny, rectangular port, stuffed to the gills with expensive yachts and designer shops. The rocky hills of the Ligurian Riviera rose steeply behind the village, thick with umbrella pines and slender cypress trees. I had hoped to do an excursion here, walking with a guide along the coast to the port of Santa Margarita and getting a boat back, but the take-up wasn’t enough and the trip was cancelled. This, to me, is one of the annoyances of small-ship cruising; excursions are often cancelled because a minimum number hasn’t been met. There’s no way round this, really, other than to plan your own tours carefully before leaving home. So I settled for a cappuccino in the square and handbag shopping.
Our last night was tinged with sadness as this mini-break had gone far too quickly. Four nights is fine as a taster but I’d really recommend seven, which is in any case the vast majority of Star Clippers’ itineraries. On a cruise like this you really do commune with the sea – and it’s thoroughly addictive.
ACCOMODATION: Cabins range from a couple of inside singles to the luxurious Owner’s Cabin. Eight Category One cabins open out onto the deck. All have twin or double beds and marblelined bathrooms.
ON BOARD: Entertainment in the al fresco Tropical Bar. Library, Thai massage, lectures on sailing by the captain, mastclimbing and watersports.
EATING: All meals are taken in the elegant dining room, with open seating. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, evenings waiter-served.
WHAT TO PACK: Smart casual – no formal clothing needed. Deck shoes and trainers if you want to do the mast climbing. A decent camera – these ships are very photogenic.
GUIDE PRICE: A three-night Mediterranean mini-break in September costs from £620 plus £65 port charges in an outside cabin.
WE SAILED WITH: Star Clippers
SHIP: Star Flyer
RATING: Four star (Berlitz)
DURATION: Four nights
INCLUDED: Meals, entertainment and excursions
EXCLUDED: Flights and transfers
TO BOOK: Tel: 0845 200 6145; www.starclippers.com
DAY 1 Cannes
Embark in Cannes (or Monte Carlo on some cruises). Sail in the evening.
DAY 2 Calvi
All day in Calvi, with excursions to the mountain villages and watersports from the beach.
DAY 3 Portoferraio
A beautiful, walled town, capital of Elba, built by Etruscans and Romans and packed with history.
DAY 4 Portofino
Tours to Santa Margarita and shopping in one of the Med’s chicest ports. Sail in the evening for the Captain’s gala dinner and talent show in the Tropical Bar.
DAY 5 Cannes
Disembark in Cannes or Monaco.