It’s 11pm on a clear, starlit night just off the coast of Amalfi, and the 115-metre Star Clipper is creaking with what you imagine could be anticipation.
Captain Dominique Rollin is pacing the deck with an expression of extreme concentration. The crew are hoisting the sales high above us, metres upon metres of canvas straining and flapping in the stiff breeze and then, we hear it. Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis starts blasting from the ship’s speakers. “Sailaway” time has arrived.
We have joined the ship to experience a fresh view of one of Europe’s most beautiful coastlines, excited by the Star Clipper line’s dedication to sail over engine whenever the winds allow. Tonight has offered up the perfect conditions, the twinkling lights of Amalfi slowly fading into the distance as the graceful tall ship takes on a gentle lean as the sails take over, the silence broken only by the sounds of creaking wood and the occasional flapping of canvas.
Our course will take us from a sun-soaked day in Amalfi, eating lobster linguine at the edge of the hill top Hotel Caruso’s famous infinity pool, along the coast to Sorrento, stopping off at the islands of Capri and Ponza, before arriving in the port of Rome Civitavecchia.
Styled on the tea clippers of the 19th century, our four-masted barquentine has a full 16 sails at her disposal should conditions allow. She and her two tall ship sisters, the Royal Clipper and Star Flyer, offer a genuine sailing experience that bears little – if any – resemblance to the cruise behemoths that disgorge thousands of passengers at the world’s busiest tourist destinations.
There were barely 150 other passengers on our sailing – Star Clipper carries up to 166 guests – united by the belief that the “the best way to travel is to sail” and lured by the promise of a “unique adventure, combining the romance and nautical heritage of a traditional clipper ship, with the relaxation and sophistication of sailing aboard a modern-day private mega-yacht”.
The ships have an open bridge policy while sailing, allowing guests to discuss navigation techniques and learn about the instruments with the genial crew, take the wheel and help haul ropes.
The whole atmosphere would be entirely relaxed if it weren’t so thrilling, the Tropical Bar supplying rum to passengers who chat under the tall sails with the crew for a couple of hours, before heading down for the night, lulled off to sleep by the gentle sway of the ship, as it makes its way silently to Sorrento.
We awake next morning to find ourselves anchored off Sorrento with plans to hop over to Capri after breakfast. The wind has picked up and conditions are choppy, meaning climbing into the ship’s tenders is not for the faint-hearted. Some passengers opt to stay on board but those prepared to take the leap – literally, with the help of the crew – are rewarded with a day of sightseeing and shopping.
However, those who remain on board can listen to the captain giving talks on sailing ships and techniques, or join knot-tying sessions, deck-top yoga and fitness sessions. The sports crew offers the chance to try complimentary kayaking, sailing and paddle boarding.
Expansive teak decks offer two small swimming pools filled with sea water, while the decor is reminiscent of the grand age of sail – all gleaming mahogany rails and brass and paintings of racing ships.
An open-seating dining room allows guests to socialise together as the cruise goes on, while the indoor-outdoor bar and Edwardian-style library offers plenty of options for inclement weather or simple quiet time.
But as the night falls and the ship lights up, everyone safely back on board, it’s time to eat, drink and partake in the much-anticipated passengers and crew talent show. A world away from the slick productions seen on the biggest cruise lines, this one has the crew showing off their best magic tricks and musical numbers, culminating with an all-singing and dancing rendition of PSY’s Gangnam Style to much hilarity. Then the guests find their sea legs for a disco on the deck, now at a distinctly jaunty angle thanks to us having set sail.
It is possible to find a quiet spot on the top deck, where all is calm, and I listen to the ship as she slices through the waves. It’s so peaceful that one guest asks the captain if we’re actually moving, to which he replies: “Of course we’re moving. Six knots! She is not a rocket!”
Overnight, we travel 68.4 nautical miles to Ponza, the tiny but largest island of the Italian Pontine Islands archipelago, just in time for the sun to return.
The fishing village is a popular summer holiday destination for Italians, as Rome and Naples are only a short drive and ferry ride away. Known as ‘Capri without the tourists’, it is characterized by steep white cliffs and crystalline water. With a population of around 3,500, Ponza remains fairly quiet for most of the year and maintains a small-town atmosphere.
We take a few hours to relax off the ship before heading back in time for sailaway at 3pm. The wind has picked up and, as it’s the last full day of the cruise, the word goes out that the captain will allow guests to take to the tenders to photograph Star Clipper under full sail.
Armed with our cameras, we watch the extraordinary sight of the crew hoisting all 16 sails up the ship’s four masts. The wind by now is presenting ideal sailing conditions, the anchor comes up and she’s off, picking up speed and keeling gently into the wind.
She is slowed to allow us back safely on board, where the gusty wind and warm sun make way for a glorious sunset.
Guests are encouraged to lie in the bowsprit net suspended above the sea and try to spot dolphins and to climb the 32 rungs to the crow’s nest, secured by a safety harness, although the wind by now is so brisk that we miss the opportunity.
Not that it matters, as the experience of sitting on the deck as the sun goes down, nothing but the sound of the wind and the sails and the gulls overhead to interrupt the endless expanse of blue sea ahead, is exciting enough.
Rum punch in hand, I stay on deck until dark with the wind blowing in my face, absorbing the beauty of tall ship travel, a newly-converted sailing enthusiast.
How to plan your trip
A seven-night Rome round-trip on Star Clipper costs from £1,632pp (two sharing). Multiple departure dates from May-October 2023. Price includes 10% Early Booking Discount, valid on bookings made until January 31, 2023. Visit starclippers.co.uk or call 0845 200 6145.