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Our Writer Finds The Elusive ‘Joie De Vivre’ In An Unlikely Place: Under Sail

Star Clippers in the Mediterraneanby Andreas Lundgren.

Tension was rising as our tender boat approached the large sailing ship that was anchored in the roadstead just off Cannes. If we had been busy earlier in the day thinking about which stars would visit the French town during the upcoming film festival, we were now facing a more immediate – and more practical – question. How would we get from tender boat and on board the Star Flyer?

Several of us in the tender boat watched the skilled maneuvers of the crew with admiration as our small vessel was brought alongside the large sailing ship. Then one crewmember jumped over to the Star Flyer in order to help the new guests on board what would become their home for the following week. It was apparent he had done it numerous times before. He was a sailor. Many of us in the tender boat were not.

“There’s no turning back now,” said a British lady as she turned to her husband. On unsteady legs she prepared to take the step from the tender boat and up the stairs that were hanging alongside of the ship. A crewmember took a firm grip of her arm, and she was on board. One after another we followed her example. We were on board the Star Flyer.

Ah, the sweet sailing life. The masts that aim for the sky while almost coincidentally supporting the sails. The feeling of camaraderie, of being a part of something that is probably as old as humanity itself: to travel across the oceans with the help of sails. The great explorers: Columbus, Marco Polo – and now us.

Would it be possible at all not to fall in love with this way of travelling?

Taking the helm
On the fourth day of our cruise, the ship was anchored off Porto Santo Stefano, Italy. Heavy, grey clouds covered the sky almost the entire day, but the sun broke through as the ship was being prepared for an afternoon departure. When the crew hoisted the sails, they were filled by the same light breeze that had just chased the clouds away. With the Italian coast on the starboard side, we set course for new destinations.

The captain invited the passengers to steer the ship. Proud to be at the helm, a German lady maneuvered the ship for a while, her chest swelling at least as much as the sails above her.

It is probably no coincidence that many of those who cruise with Star Clippers are dedicated sailors. That does not apply for everyone, however. As for me, I had barely put my foot on a sailboat before boarding the Star Flyer.

Built in Belgium, the ship has a total of 37,673 square feet of sail. Even if the Star Flyer is equipped with an engine, the ambition is to be under sail as much as possible. The sails are in use some 40 percent of the time during a cruise, the captain told us.

With so much sail area also comes the requirement for a hefty ballast: In Star Flyer’s case, it amounts to 400 tons (including 200 tons of water). The ballast is necessary: When the wind blows and the ship is under sail, it can heel considerably. A crewmember told us that during a voyage from Tahiti on the way to the Caribbean earlier this year, the ship heeled so much that it had to stop sailing for a while. After seven days of heeling, the piping systems on board had to regain balance.

Dining on Star ClippersAdapting to conditions
It was not quite as windy during our cruise. Yet, the Tahitian anecdote might say something about the experience that we had when we sailed from one port to another in the western Mediterranean during a week in early May. We adapted to the conditions, sailing as often as it was possible. And when the weather was poor, the captain did what most sailors would probably have done: He decided to call at a different port than the one that was on the schedule. That’s how we ended up in Porto Santo Stefano instead of Giglio, which was the intended destination.

Consequently, I do not know so much about Giglio. About Porto Santo Stefano, however, I know that it is a small Italian town with a pleasant promenade and a stronghold – a remembrance from the sixteenth century when the city was an important commercial center. From the Fortezza Spagnola, the name of the fort, visitors have a nice view of the harbor.

And there, almost at the entrance of the harbour was the ship that we had now come to regard as ours. In fact, the Star Flyer did not once during our cruise tie up alongside a dock. Passengers wanting to go ashore had to go on the tender boat. That fact really made it feel as if we adapted ourselves to the destinations that we visited – and to their inhabitants.

In Lerici, Italy, the tender boat navigated straight through a marina. Passengers then disembarked a stone’s throw from a small square where children played soccer while the older generation sat on benches and talked.

In Calvi, Corsica, the tender boat set its course towards a part of the port where some fishing boats were tied up. One end of the town’s quayside promenade was only 50 yards away from our landing point. In the other direction was the town’s citadel – also about 50 yards away.

A view and a beer
Piano Bar on Star ClippersAt a distance, we saw a chapel overlooking the town of Calvi from a mountain ridge. We decided to take up the unspoken challenge and go there by foot. It soon turned out that it would be quite a tough walk. The sun was glowing and the height difference was noticeable. But as we continued up the mountain, we soon found a good reason to continue upwards: the view.

When we reached the chapel of Notre Dame de la Serra, the town and the bay with our ship was lying at our feet. The view from there seemed like an appropriate reward for the long walk. And, some hours later, a glass of the local Corsican Pietra beer back at one of the many restaurants and bars in Calvi seemed like heaven.

At all the seven destinations in France and Italy that we visited during our cruise, the scenario was similar to that in Lerici and Calvi: The tender boat brought us so close to the towns that the short walks from the landing points essentially provided an opportunity to get a first impression of the destination in question.

In Lerici, I joined the excursion to Cinque Terre. The area is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and includes five small villages. They have all been built on the hillsides that face the Ligurian Sea. We walked along a path that linked the villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore. The path is known as the Via dell’Amore, or the Path of Love. Along the trail, it is possible to see numerous padlocks, placed there by visiting hikers. According to our guide, a colorful Italian lady with a high-pitch voice, the padlocks symbolize the love between two people.

In Corniglia, another of the five villages, I went to explore a bit on my own. It was fascinating to see the narrow streets and the way in which the village had actually been built on a cliff right next to the sea. Nearby, grapes grew in terrace cultivation.

Those who went on the excursion took the local ferry from Lerici. First to Porto Venere, and then on to Riomaggiore. When we crossed the Golfo dei Poeti, or Bay of the Poets, we could see from afar the Royal Clipper. Royal Clipper, which is the largest of Star Clippers’ three ships, was in dry dock in La Spezia.

...and we have a winner!The following day offered an experience that was completely different from the quiet life of Cinque Terre. We arrived in Monaco as the kingdom was gearing up for the Monaco Grand Prix. From a distance, we could hear the roaring of the F1 cars that had taken over the city and made a visit to the famous casino impossible. The city’s racing fever was visible everywhere: Flags with race cars on them could be seen in every street corner and vendors sold everything from baseball caps to kick suits with Ferrari logos.

Racing crabs
A different race was held on board the Star Flyer that night: a crab race. It was much more quiet than the F1 race – but surely no less dramatic. It is said that, in the old days, pirates used to occupy themselves by betting on which of a number of crabs would first reach a plotted line. Although the Star Flyer might have offered a more modern version of the contest, no pirate could have been more enthusiastic than the guests on board the ship that night.

The next day we arrived in St. Tropez. From there, it was possible to go on a wine tasting tour at a nearby vineyard. Some in our party did, and were very pleased with the experience.

After a visit to the town’s citadel (again with a fantastic view of the Star Flyer), I met some fellow travellers on the streets of St. Tropez. So, what do you do when you are in St. Tropez in the company of good friends? We did what seemed to be the only real alternative: we had a glass of champagne and experienced a feeling of joie de vivre as we sat down at a bar and watched the bustling street life of the town that is known for attracting people with jet set ambitions.

Joie de vivre, yes. My travel companions and I got to talk a bit about what that sometimes elusive French expression really means: how to reach it – and how to know that it has been reached.

Star Clippers PoolAs for me, I think I know something about it after sailing with Star Clippers. Joie de vivre can be experienced when on board a ship under sails. It can present itself when you lean back in the bow net and look down as the bow breaks the waves. And it might appear when you realize that you have actually sailed on a tall ship.

I can only speak for myself, but when we returned to Cannes right in the middle of the film festival I did not think too much about film stars. Everyone on board the Star Flyer had star qualities of their own. We had taken a big step in life. We were sailors.

Good to know: food, entertainment and other necessities
• Food. Star Clippers has developed its menus in consultation with Michelin star chefs. Food was excellent on our cruise. Vegetarian options were offered for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The vegetarian main courses that were available for dinner were first-rate. All meals were had in the main dining room on board (Star Flyer has only one dining room).

• Entertainment. Those who expect spectacular shows will be disappointed: there is no such thing on board. The cruise director and the crew did a good job when it came to entertainment, though, organising a music quiz, a crab race and various other amusements. But the majority of passengers on board clearly put experiences rather than entertainment at the top of their list of priorities.

• Access. For those who have limited mobility, it is worth knowing that there are no elevators on board the Star Flyer. The stairs can be cumbersome. Getting to and from the tender boat may also pose a challenge. However, there were many older passengers on board who did very well with both the stairs and the tender boat.

• The ship. Star Flyer was delivered in 1991 as the first two sister ships (the Star Clipper was delivered one year later). The length is 111 meters and the gross tonnage is 2,298 tons. Star Flyer has a capacity of 170 passengers and 72 crewmembers.

On Star Flyer: A Captain Jack Sparrow Wannabe

A sailing on Star Flyer is unlike an ordinary cruiseby Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.

Cannes, France — Our cruise on Star Flyer comes to an end Saturday morning. Just as we embarked, we will disembark — by tender. Not once during our eight days sailing the Mediterranean did Star Flyer tie up alongside a dock, and that alone says something about this cruise. Marie Krafft, director of sales and daughter of the company's founder, says marquee ports are necessary for marketing but there are many lesser-known ports that Star Clippers visits worldwide that provide new, and arguably better, experiences for passengers.

A sailing on Star Flyer is unlike an ordinary cruise on ships large or small. Sure, any small ship can drop anchor in snug harbors and dispatch passengers ashore by tenders, as Star Flyer did in each port we visited this week. But Star Flyer does something that most ships don’t do: She recaptures the romance of sailing.

Though it would be overly ambitious to characterize Star Flyer as a pirate ship, the sailing vessel did manage to bring out the Jack Sparrow in many of us this week, especially on the next-to-the-last night, when we dressed as pirates and betted on crab races. The races, we were told, have been a tradition on sailing ships for centuries. And as the Grand Prix roared on in Monte Carlo, Star Flyer presented the slower-paced crab races for a night of fun on deck as we charted a course to St. Tropez.

Captain Jack Sparrow smelled of rum, not Bvlgari..By week’s end, Star Flyer represented to many of us what the Black Pearl represented to Captain Jack Sparrow. In “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a movie that aired on our stateroom televisions during the first day on board, it was apparent that Sparrow had great affection for his sailing ship.

My own affection for Star Flyer and getting in touch with my “inner pirate” emerged slowly as the week unfolded. Being a weather-dependent cruise for the most part, our voyage was not blessed with fair winds and clear skies on all of the days, and I found myself, along with a few others, feeling a bit like the skies, overcast and cloudy, during one day in port.

But as we sailed away on that same day, the clouds broke and the blue sky emerged. Sailors hoisted sails and a fair wind filled the cloth. No motor. We were sailing.

The captain gave turns to allow passengers to steer the vessel. A German lady widened her stance and gripped the wheel, turning gently to the captain’s instructions. For a moment, she pretended to be a captain or an officer or perhaps a pirate.

Nearly all activities take place outdoorsNearly all activities take place outdoors. There is little, aside from dinner, for indoor entertainment.

On Star Flyer, passengers commune with the sea and stars. On one night of our cruise, a sweater-clad couple descended from the upper deck. The woman said to a group of us standing nearby, “The stars are beautiful tonight.” I leaned back and looked up. Indeed they were, like tiny diamonds perched against a black felt cloth.

While few, if any, of us were swashbucklers, nearly all embraced the sailing spirit. Following an entertaining fashion show where staff presented themselves in sailing apparel, the gift shop was busier than usual the next day, as buyers purchased the blue-and-white striped sailing shirts and other nautical clothing. Sailors, no doubt.

On Star Flyer, you can certainly imagine yourself to be a sailor — or a pirate. That’s something not easily achieved on ships without the sails. If Jack Sparrow were ever inclined to jump ship from his beloved Black Pearl, he would find a happy home on Star Flyer. I know I did.

Star Flyers food was excellent during our cruiseA few people have written me to ask if Star Flyer would be comfortable for those with limited mobility. In answer to that, there are no elevators, and the stairs can be tricky. The tender can also be challenging for those with limited mobility, and the 20 or so narrow steps from the tender to the gangway, could be difficult.

Others have asked about accommodating a vegetarian lifestyle on board. On two nights, I’ve ordered the vegetarian main courses, and they’ve been excellent. Vegetarians can make requests in advance should they wish, but there’s no need. There were vegetarian options at every meal.

Consulting with Michelin-starred chefs, Star Flyers food was excellent during our cruise. Vegetarians will find selections at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Speaking of food, it has been excellent. For menus the company consulted with Michelin-starred chefs, and to give you an idea of the cuisine, on my first night, I started with ceviche, followed by lobster bisque, then watermelon sorbet and, for the main course, lighted crusted salmon and vegetables complemented by a delicious and not-overpowering horseradish sauce.

Complementing dinner, Star Flyer's house wines, priced at 14 euros, are impressive and a bargain.

On the first night of my cruise, I sat among experienced enologists and harsh critics: thirsty Belgians. Bottled in attractive blue bottles, the house Bordeaux wines (priced at 14 euros per bottle) evoked pleasant smiles around the table. Clearly there would be no need to venture down the wine menu to the higher-priced wines.

On Star Flyer, SeaDream-like stateroom, But Alas, No Bvlgari

Star Clipper Standard Cabinby Ralph Grizzle. An award-winning travel writer, and recognized cruise ship expert.
During the past year, I’ve cruised my share of ultra-luxury ships, including those operated by Silversea, Regent and Seabourn. I’ve come to expect a certain standard — palatial staterooms, superior service, exquisite dining, and yes, sadly, Bvlgari bath amenities.

I have become, much to my dismay, something that I never dreamed I would become: a ship snob.

This is somewhat surprising for someone who was once content to backpack through third-world countries and for whom a splurge for luxury meant plunking down cash for a room in a three-star hotel.

Am I to apologize for the occupational hazard and my addiction to Bvlgari? I think not.

When I walked into stateroom 326 on Star Flyer, I confess to some disappointment. I don’t know why I would have thought that the stateroom would have been larger, but I expected to peer down a long room with a balcony at the end, despite the fact that Star Flyer clearly features no balconies.

It is habit, you understand. Insert the key and express awe. Rinse and repeat with each new ship. Instead, I inserted the key and found myself looking at a small room — with a porthole.

Scanning the room, I did a quick comparison. In place of the flat-panel televisions that I’ve become accustomed to was a small and boxy Panasonic television perched high in a corner so that it could be seen from the bed.

The bathroom and the stateroom reminded me of those on SeaDream, whose two vessels are more than two decades old (Star Flyer turns 20 next year). While SeaDream’s staterooms are moderately larger and its bathrooms are a tad bigger, both vessels share the same dark wood trimmings and non-balconied staterooms. There are other similarities between the vessels, although it should be pointed out that SeaDream offers an ultra-luxury experience, meaning that yes, SeaDream satisfies the Bvlgari addiction.

A cruise on SeaDream, however, will set you back several hundred dollars per person per day whereas a sailing on Star Flyer can be had for less than a couple hundred dollars per day per person. So it’s not really fair to compare the two beyond that of the initial impressions of the staterooms.

Before boarding a friend told me that I would have to “let go” of my luxury ship expectations. She must have pictured me to be like the millionaire Thurston Howell III trapped on Gilligan’s Island, for those who remember the corny television show of the 1960s. All these years later, I am certain that Thurston was a Bvlgari man.