I don’t like big boats. The hulking steel leviathan types that stalk perfect stretches of water, cleverly divorcing you from the setting you’re supposedly trying to connect with.
But to all subjects of disdain there are, of course, exceptions and the tall ship Star Clipper is mine. Just look at her: floating romance; teaky nostalgia. She is a siren’s song to anyone with the slightest affection for the sea. All the ports she anchored in during my voyage from Cannes to Corsica were dramatically improved by her timeless silhouette.
Part of the appeal of this trip was Star Clippers’ new no-fly offering – swapping the plane for a train to and from London – which the company claims reduces guests’ carbon emissions by up to 77 per cent.
My journey started with the Eurostar to Paris, then a fast, low-cost Ouigo train south to Cannes. A gourmet lunch at the Gare de Lyon’s gilded Train Bleu (which you’ll have to organise yourself) was a civilised way to break up the journey and a fitting preamble to the voyage ahead.
After being shown to my cabin aboard the ship I was at the Tropical Bar, with a dirty martini in one hand. By chance, the company’s owner, Mikael Krafft, was one stool over. “We’re sailing on a boat first designed 200 years ago,” he said, before explaining that he and his team used archived drawings of 19th-century ships to create his clippers. “The challenge was bringing something back from the past and marrying it to modern needs.”
Born in Stockholm, Krafft grew up near the city’s Plyms Shipyard and sailed a small boat round Swedish Archipelago. He went on to cross the Atlantic, while making his fortune in the shipping industry. Mindful of sailing’s prohibitive costs, Krafft set about bringing his passion to a wider audience. In 1991, the first of his three-strong fleet was launched. In 2000, he launched his flagship Royal Clipper, still the largest working square rigger in the world.
Miles of polished brass and glossy mahogany immerse you in the theatre of yesteryear sailing, while two pools and a range of low-impact watersports are as contemporary as it gets. The luxury, as you might expect, is low-key; the DVD player in my room (I loved borrowing Castaway from the Purser’s Office) somewhat affirms the point.
Star Clippers’ bygone-within-bygone offering is its own brand of charming, though. It prompts you to embrace the sweetness of doing not much: eat well and be hynoptised by sail and sea. The best of the latter I did on the trellised ropes of the bowsprit. As often as possible I would lie, prone, staring at the moving blue below. On one occasion a dolphin popped up above the water and stared back.
It is a novel thing, being at sea without the incessant moan of an engine – a similar pleasure to which I’ve experienced cycling downhill or generally moving without sweat or fossil fuels. Krafft assured me that they turn the engines on only when necessary – in port, for example, when precise maneuvering is required. The rest of the time it’s wind, wits and Poseidon’s favour.
When the sails were hoisted for the first time – Van Gellis’s “Conquest of Paradise” belting out of the loudspeakers – I’d have easily believed we weren’t moving at all, were it not for the ship’s ebullient third mate, Prashan, telling me our exact speed: a leisurely four knots. We spoke all things navigation on the bridge, a guest privilege the fleet is renowned for.
I asked Texan David Cook, also lingering near the men and women in white, why he’d booked. “I love being at sea, but I don’t want to be on a massive, buzzing human lasagne.” The 116m Star Clipper will accommodate 166 guests and has half as many staff. This attentive two-to-one ratio is most noticeable during the dinner service, which has a choreographed, white-glove quality to it. The baby grand piano, playing Beethoven to the Beatles, completes a kitschy mise-en-scene.
In Monaco, I had the wrong footwear to be allowed to lose money in the Casino de Monte-Carlo and so slow-strolled the GP circuit instead. But it was Corsica, our next stop, where the trip hit its high note. We dropped anchor at north-westerly port of L’Île-Rousse for a tour of the area’s hilltop villages. Our guide was notably good, pointing out her favourite flora – and their fruit’s uses – in the maquis: “Myrtle berries make the island’s favourite liquor.” She went on to tell the story of the 15th-century Genoese forts punctuating the shoreline, built to defend against a dominant Ottoman navy.
Of our two village stops, my favourite was medieval Pigna, north-east of Calvi. Its fairy-tale good looks and staggering sea views are immediately beguiling, but it’s the renaissance story that really gets you. In the 90s, there were just seven residents left in the village, before an enterprising artist took residence and invited others to do the same. Now it is a gently thriving enclave for creative artisans, from potters to painters.
On the final stretch down to Corsica’s capital Ajaccio, I was permitted to climb 75ft up the ropes of the main mast to the Crow’s Nest. At the top, I gave my best Jack Sparrow pout as Andrea, the Sports Team member, patiently took photos. Looking down, a frisson came over me. Because of the elevation, perhaps, but more the sheer privilege of the view – and the giddy sense of adventure tethered to it. This was Star Clipper’s appeal distilled to a single moment. Boat lover or not, you can really get on board with it.
How to do it
Star Clippers offers a one-week Cannes roundtrip on board Star Flyer, from £2,799pp. The price includes a one-night pre-cruise stay at Villa D’Estelle (Cannes) and return rail from London, then the cruise from Cannes (France) to Lerici (Italy), Portoferraio, Elba (Italy), Sant’Amanza, Corsica (France), Bonifacio, Corsica (France), Alghero, Sardinia (Italy), Porticcio Beach, Corsica (France), Ajaccio and Monaco.
France Tourist Board
Italy Tourist Board