Feel the wind in your hair and watch more than 5,000 square metres of canvas unfurl as you embark on a cruise to some of the Med’s most scenic ports on the world’s largest tall ship. Words & photos: Maggy Oehlbeck
We cluster on the upper deck of Royal Clipper, darting from portside to starboard to savour the last glimpses of Venice’s magnificent profile as we glide along Canale della Giudecca past the city’s fabled icons: the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile, the churches of della Salute, San Giorgio… We thread our way past the islands of the lagoon and out into the Adriatic.
Captain Sergey stands at the helm. Gazing skyward, he assesses the wind direction and issues a command. We watch with fascination as the sails unfurl and balloon into full bloom as Vangelis’ theme music from the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise rises to a crescendo. We are sailing – praying for fair winds to carry us on an odyssey that will take us around the coastlines of Croatia, Montenegro, Corfu, Sicily, Capri and Ponza to Civitavecchia, the port of Rome.
Royal Clipper has 42 sails: 26 squaresails, 11 staysails, four jibs and one gaff-rigged spanker – in all, more than 5,200 square metres of sail inventory, made of the finest quality Dacron. She is the largest clipper ship in the world today and the first five-masted, full-rigged sailing ship to be built in more than 100 years. Modelled on Preussen, the historic flagship of Germany’s famed Flying P line, Royal Clipper is the flagship of Star Clippers, brainchild of passionate Swedish sailor and environmentalist Mikael Krafft, the tall-ship cruise line’s founder.
Aglow with exhilaration, we gather on the Main Deck for pre-dinner cocktails and canapés. Introductions reveal that my fellow travellers are English, German, Swedish, North American, New Zealand and Australian. The majority are fit couples in the 30-to-60-year-old demographic, with plenty of leeway either side.
Everybody bonds quickly. Within minutes, our new best friends are a German group headed by an elegant, fun-loving grandmother who has brought her brood of sons, daughters and grandchildren for a family holiday; and a couple from Sweden with their two gorgeous 17-year-old girls. Language is seldom a barrier. Most guests on board speak excellent English.
Royal Clipper’s classy interior of polished wood panelling, brass fittings and paintings of legendary ships echoes the Edwardian era. The atrium is the focal point of the ship. With three levels, overlooking a two-tiered dining room, the atrium is decorated with trompe l’oeil murals similar to those found in the villas of Venetian nobility.
The dress code for dinner is pleasantly informal: no ties or jackets for men, something pretty for women. There is no fixed seating. You can choose a table for two or join a table of 10. Dinner is à la carte and very good, while breakfast and lunch are buffet-style. Like all buffets, these do become repetitive, despite the good-quality fresh ingredients. Often, we lunch ashore, then race back to the ship for the buffet’s dessert selection, which is outstanding.
Pre-dinner, most guests gather on the Main Deck, others in the plush navy-blue-and-gold main bar and lounge for piano music or marine biology talks. After-dinner entertainment tends to be the sort that includes audience participation (often hilarious), a live singer/pianist, or performances by regional dance troupes – we are enthralled by a marvellously energetic group in Corfu.
My favourite night, though, is a pirate-themed one with crab racing. My crab wins.
I resolve to attend the daily tai chi classes led by the captain from 7am. On my first day, I see no-one in immaculately pressed whites: instead, the group is helmed by a slender, very fit man of 40ish in saffron pyjamas. It is Captain Sergey.
Our first port of call is the pretty town of Rovinj in Croatia. While there are plenty of shore excursions available, we meander happily at our own pace, doing the same in gorgeous Hvar, a mecca for the super-rich judging by the luxury yachts and cruisers moored there.
Approaching the walled city of Dubrovnik by sea is a stirring experience. Within its walls, the town seems very crowded, so we head for the countryside, do some wine-tasting and return later in the afternoon.
The next day, we awake in Kotor, Montenegro and marvel at its magnificent fjord, the southernmost in Europe. Corfu, the greenest and northernmost of the seven main Ionian islands, follows. Highlights for me are the old town of Kerkyra and Achilleion, once the palace of Sisi, Elisabeth of Bavaria.
During days at sea, some take sailing lessons, climb the mast, tie knots, hoist the sails and learn how to gybe and tack, while others bask on deck, swim in the ship’s three pools or head to the spa for massages, beauty treatments and gym workouts.
If I have a favourite port, it is Taormina (Sicily), with the spectacular Mount Etna puffing and blowing in the distance. The town has a magnificent Greco-Roman amphitheatre and entrancing streetscapes; shops brim with colourful ceramics, delicious marzipan, puppets and designer clothing; and there are lots of bars and restaurants.
As we enter the Bay of Naples, Vesuvius – thankfully – is not puffing and blowing. We drop anchor, pile into the local tenders and head for Capri, once the hedonistic playground of Roman emperors and still a playground for well-heeled Romans.
We take the funicular railway up to the Piazzetta, popular rendezvous point for the literati and the glitterati, stroll Capri’s elegant streets, ogle the merchandise and walk on by. We then take a hair-raising hour-long bus ride up to Anacapri to visit the must-see Villa San Michele, once the home and gardens of Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe.
Our last port is tiny Ponza, its waterfront lined with gaily-painted houses. This is also our last opportunity to enjoy watersports from Royal Clipper’s marina platform: you can take part in complimentary waterskiing, windsurfing, snorkelling and, for a small extra fee, scuba diving.
Instead, we decide to go ashore, find a trattoria and sit down for a plate of pasta with the local fishermen. Could there be any better memory to sail home with than this?