Romance On The Sea

Star Clipper ships replicate the grand age of sailing

By Jana Soeldner Danger

Majestic notes from the Columbus theme rolled across the deck as the sails rose, luffed momentarily, then filled grandly as the captain turned the ship to catch the wind. Not two sails, or even three, but more than 20, flying from a replica of a classic clipper ship, carrying us back to the romance of the grand age of sail.

Swedish yachtsman Mikael Krafft built the first Star Clipper in 1989 to fulfill a lifelong dream of re-creating true sailing clipper ships, those swift, majestic vessels that opened up international commerce in the 19th century, and have them once again roam the oceans of the world. Today, three Star Clippers sail in the eastern and western Mediterranean, the Far East and the Caribbean, with a fourth set to debut in late 2017.

For passengers, the experience was a marriage of a traditional cruise and a voyage on a private yacht. Cabins were small yet very comfortable, with double beds, ample storage and en suite baths. Common areas gleamed with mahogany and polished brass, and the paraphernalia of winches and lines on deck reminded us we were on a true sailing vessel.

Departing from Civitavecchia, Italy, we raised anchor after dark on a sea the deep purple of a grape Popsicle, under a sky heavy with stars. We were headed for exotic destinations on the French and Italian rivieras: Corsica, Monaco, Portofino, Livorno and Portoferraio, yet for many of those aboard, the ship itself was the real draw of the cruise. Our 360-foot vessel carried 36,000 square feet of canvas, and passengers were allowed to help sail if they wished. Open seating at meals, including dinner, encouraged passengers to strike up new relationships.

After a full day and night at sea, we arrived at Bonifacio on Corsica, homeland of Napoleon. The port was a picture postcard, with an upper and lower village painted in tropical pastels set against a backdrop of cliffs and hills. Sidewalk cafes offering seafood, pastries, wines and bitter espresso were plentiful; boutiques sold the island’s own olive oil and honey.

Boarding the ship again, several of us took turns climbing about halfway up the 226-foot mast to the crow’s nest. Securely garbed in safety vests, we clung to a ladder made of stiffened ropes that looked exactly like a prop from a pirate movie, but on this ship was a necessary piece of equipment.

After sailing through the night, we woke to a flat sea the color of a blue Crayola dusted with glitter, and a sky like the shell of a robin’s egg. On the upper deck, passengers watched the approach of the craggy French coastline while soulful music drifted on the wind: The pianist who played evenings in the lounge had brought an accordion topside, and was squeezing it gently while a gray-haired male passenger danced by himself to the tunes.

Glamorous Monte Carlo awaited us: international playground for the jet set, with its huge luxury hotels, skyscrapers and beautifully kept parks and gardens, as well as narrow, winding streets filled with expensive sports cars, chic, tiny boutiques offering the latest fashions, and dozens of sidewalk cafes where people sat relaxing in the afternoon sun, sipping wine or coffee. The next day, we stopped at the picture-perfect village of Portofino, a honeycomb of brightly colored homes and shops. In ancient times, the Romans built defense fortifications here, and over the centuries, the original structures were enlarged into the existing castle, which was used in the French and Spanish wars. Today it is surrounded by beautiful, fragrant gardens, and the long climb to the top of ancient stone steps offered a fabulous view of the bay, filled with luxurious private yachts.

After docking at Livorno, we took a bus to Florence. The city dates back to the first century, and during the Middle Ages, it became a world economic and art center. The cathedral, with its pink and green marble walls that took 150 years to build because plague intervened, and Holy Cross Church, where both Michelangelo and Galileo are buried, are tributes to humankind’s eternal quest for spirituality.

Our last stop was Portoferraio, a resort destination with a port filled with private yachts, as well as large cruise ships. The island’s beautiful beaches, some rocky, others of fine sugar sand, held scores of sunbathers stretched on lounge chairs, and chattering in a variety of languages. In town, the streets were busy with tourists, shopping in the boutiques and cooling off with gelatos.

Our Clipper adventure came to an end the next day, back at Civitavecchia where it began. Our vision of cruising, however, had changed forever: It would always include the sight of white sails filled with soft Mediterranean winds.

Romance On The Sea