Travel: Why a Tall Ship is only way to explore Italy’s Amalfi Coast

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.

Jonathan Whitelaw on his love for Penrith train station

Where is it?

Penrith railway station. It’s on the West Coast Mainline which runs between Glasgow/Edinburgh and London and serves the Cumbrian market town.

Why do you go there?

I have gone perennially throughout my life: from holidays in the Lake District to passing through for work. And now Penrith features pretty prominently in my novels.

How often do you go?

Inevitably, I’ll pass through at least a few times a year. I’m always looking for an excuse to actually get off the train and go to Penrith. The town is the centre of the action of my Bingo Hall Detectives series of cosy crime books.

And the station, whether through design or sheer blind luck, normally plays a part in unravelling the mystery. It’s even the crime scene in my new novel.

When I do get to step onto the hallowed platform and head into town, I always try to get a scone from James & John Graham in Market Square. They are, quite frankly, the best scones in the world.

How did you discover it?

Like most people, I passed through the station heading to another location. Penrith is a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop, but it’s the gateway to the Lake District and some of the UK’s most stunning scenery.

The station is also a stone’s throw away from the cool ruins of Penrith Castle, which you can see from the platform.

What’s your favourite memory?

Not long after the release of The Bingo Hall Detectives, I was travelling to London. I was about three minutes out from Penrith when I suddenly realised that I should take a picture for social media (which is always the case these days).

I broke out in a cold sweat as I fumbled for my phone and excused myself into the central aisle, not sure what side I’d be able to get a photo of the station name. The seconds ticked down and I panicked, thinking it was going to be a fruitless effort.

Then, as the train slowed to a stop at the platform, I spotted the sign right outside the window. I excused myself again, leaned over and took a quick snap. I was relieved when we pulled out.

Who do you take?

I think I’ve travelled to and through Penrith with just about everybody I know in some capacity. Family for pleasure. Colleagues for business.

What do you take?

If I’m heading to London on an early train, it’s normally a good time to get some breakfast when you reach Penrith. Similarly, if I’m heading home, it’s dinner time. So, it’s usually either a bacon roll or a meal deal – hardly fine dining, I know.

Sum it up in five words.

Understated. Efficient. Overlooked. Fleeting. Timeless.

What other travel spot is on your wish list?

The Pyramids. Ever since we studied Ancient Egypt at school in primary two, I’ve longed to feel like a Victorian explorer and see them in real life.

The Bingo Hall Detectives by Jonathan Whitelaw (HarperNorth, £8.99) is out now. His next book, The Village Hall Vendetta, is published in April

Travel: 10 things to do amongst the mountains and fjords of Norway

Twisting and turning along snaking roads as the leaves turn red and yellow, then thrusting into tunnels carved out of the granite mountainside before the road drops down to run alongside the calm water’s edge. It could so easily be Scotland in the autumn, but this is Norway’s scenic Discovery Route 13, where heart-stopping views await around every bend. From awe-inspiring waterfalls to breathtaking sunsets that filter into the steep-sided fjords, Norway is like Scotland on steroids.

Autumn and winter is one of the best times to visit this natural wonder, and with a new Loganair service from Edinburgh to Stavanger, the timing couldn’t be better. Here, we have chosen 10 of the best places to visit on your Norwegian odyssey.

 

1 Preikestolen BaseCamp

Just 40 minutes from Stavanger airport puts you in the heart of the mountains and at Preikestolen BaseCamp you can take part in activities that range from kayaking and golf to a floating sauna and stargazing. But the main attraction is hiking and from Preikestolen BaseCamp, a two-hour yomp takes you to Norway’s famous Preikestolen (literal translation Pulpit Rock). A massive slab of rock jutting out above the Lysefjorden and surrounding hills and valleys, the views here are unrivalled. A guide can be hired to lead you to some of the lesser-known highlights along the trail.

 

2. Road trip on Discovery Route 13

Running from the southern city of Stavanger northwards to Bergen, where Loganair also operate flights to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, this culture-rich journey takes you along Norway’s most scenic roads, passing fjords, mountain passes, forest trails and, for engineering fans, even through incredible 14-kilometre tunnels that drive deep underground. Stops on the way include the architectural award-winning Høsebrua bridge that spans the beautiful salmon-rich Suldalslågen river in Ryfylke and, for foodies, a visit to the Swiss-style Thon Hotel Sandven is a must.

 

3. Hardanger Folk Museum

Be transported back in time at this fantastic folk museum, where you will learn about the rich history of Norway, from its farming background to the brightly-coloured traditional costume. Museum staff are on hand to explain the intricate and painstaking work that goes into making these beautiful garments. A highlight of the museum however, is having lunch in one of the wood and mud huts that have been recreated in the ancient style. Step out of the cold and into warmth as a fire blazes in the centre of the hut, billowing smoke up to the central chimney, while sampling local meats, cheeses and cider, which is something of a Norwegian delicacy – it even has protected status much like Champagne and Stornoway Black Pudding.

 

4. Cider tour

While the UK experienced a craft beer and gin boom in recent years, Norway saw a cider revolution growing throughout the country – and nowhere more so than in Hardangerfjord. The area has a unique climate – fjords amplify the sunlight and its high-side valleys keep the temperature mild – that is perfect for apple cultivation. Expect to have your cider served in wine glasses rather than in pints, making the whole experience more sophisticated. You can visit the orchards where the apples are grown, see small-scale cider producers at work and choose cider pairing with dinner in many of the area’s restaurants, where you will sample the likes of full-bodied tipples, rose ciders and even dessert ciders.

 

5. Agatunet

A cluster of farm buildings dating back to 1220, Agatunet is living, breathing history. The settlement is believed to have had people living there for at least 3,700 years and with such a deep history, it is little wonder that staff at Agatunet are full of fascinating stories, like the local resident who took the leaders of the commune to task after her route through the village was blocked off during a rebuild. At a hearing, she insisted her right of way be maintained, even though it meant walking through someone’s house – unbelievably, she won her case!

 

6. Waterfalls

At almost every turn on Norway’s southwest coast, another stunning waterfall hoves into view.

Låtefoss Waterfall in Odda is one of the most accessible, as it runs right along the roadside. The roaring water pouring down this double waterfall so close to the road has to be seen to be believed. At

Steinsdalsfossen, the waterfall is not just spectacular, it is unique, as it has a path running directly under the crashing water, offering visitors an unforgettable view.

 

7. Hardangerfjord Maritime Centre

No trip to this part of Norway is complete without a visit to this maritime museum and boatyard. With over 1,700 fjords, Norway’s history is tightly bound with boats. At Hardangerfjord Maritime Centre, master boatmaker Peter Helland-Hansen and his team of apprentices are busy keeping the tradition of boatbuilding alive. From massive icebreakers to tiny wooden row boats, the artisans here are more than happy to explain their craft as they chisel, hammer and plane wood painstakingly collected from the local forests to create little pieces of history.

 

8. Wine tasting at Midtsommar Hebnes Vineyard

While cider is enjoying a boom, there are a small number of producers forging small-scale commercial wine businesses in this most unlikely of climates. At Midtsommar, Hebnes in Suldal, Toyni Tobekk and Arild Hebnes have diversified from pig farming to create a tiny but mighty vineyard on the shores of the fjord. They offer winetasting on site, where you can sample their fantastic white, red, sparkling and even orange wines.

 

9. Fjord swim and crossing on ferry

While not for the fainthearted in autumn and winter, the icy-clear waters of the fjords call out to those who love to wild swim. At Hardangerfjord Hotel in Oystese, a quick jump in the fjord can be countered with time in the sauna and a few lengths of the pristine public swimming pool. If you want to experience the fjords without getting wet, take a trip on one of the many ferries that shuttle back and forth along the waterways. On the Utne to Kvannda ferry, the electric-powered engines make sailing across the fjord one of the most calming experiences you can have in Norway and, for just 47kr (about £4), it is a bargain.

 

10. Energihotellet, Nesflaten

Architecture fans will want to head straight to Energihotellet at Nesflaten in Suldal. The hotel was once part of the hydroelectric power plant next door and first-time visitor will be immediately stuck by its James Bond villain vibe. Brutalism and minimalism are the orders of the day here, with huge concrete slabs paired with minimalist Scandinavian interiors. Designed by famed Norwegian architect Geir Grung in the 1960s, the hotel has been maintained in its original style and stepping through its doors is to step back in time. The restaurant, complete with a massive gold fireplace mantel, commands stunning views of Suldalsvatnet lake and the fine dining menu includes highlights such as brown cheese ice cream – a local delicacy and delicious.

 

Travel info:

https://www.fjordnorway.com

Loganair, flies from Edinburgh and Newcastle to Bergen and Stavanger as well as Aberdeen to Oslo. www.loganair.co.uk or call 
0344 800 2855.

Are falling sperm counts the new global ‘pandemic’?


ON the same day that the global population officially reached a record eight billion on Tuesday, scientists were sounding the alarm over something that might just put the brakes on future growth: the mysterious, and apparently accelerating, decline in sperm count worldwide.

The ominous findings from the largest analysis of its kind to date – tracking measurements from 1973 to 2018 – were described as “desperately bad news” for fertility.

“The human race is not at immediate risk of extinction but we really need research to understand why sperm counts are falling,” said Dr Sarah Martins da Silva, a reader in reproductive medicine at Dundee University.

READ MORE: Co-op giving paid leave to staff to undergo fertility treatment

The study, published in Human Reproduction Update and led by researchers in Israel, found that sperm counts are falling by an average of 1.2 per cent annually with an overall decline of more than 50% in the 45 years to 2018.

Notably, the rate of decline appears to have more than doubled, to 2.6%, since the year 2000.

“We genuinely don’t know why,” said Dr da Silva, who said the results were “of concern”.

She added: “Exposure to pollution, plastics, smoking, drugs and prescribed medication, as well as lifestyle, such as obesity and poor diet, have all been suggested to be contributory factors although effects are poorly understood and ill-defined.”

HeraldScotland: Graph showing decline in sperm count based on 2018 estimates, compared to 1973Graph showing decline in sperm count based on 2018 estimates, compared to 1973 (Image: Human Reproduction Update)

Certain chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA) – which can leach from packaging into canned goods and milks – are thought to disrupt hormones and damage sperm quality, leading some scientists to call for tighter regulation around their use.

A lack of exercise and fatty junk foods have also been implicated in reduced sperm counts

Professor Richard Sharpe, an expert in male reproductive disorders at Edinburgh University’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, said the big question raised by the study “is whether this is a continuing trend and where might it end up”.

Although he cautions that we are unlikely to reach some sort of “rock bottom” scenario, the outlook points to a steady rise in problems conceiving.

Prof Sharpe said: “The key point that needs to be made (once again!) is that this is desperately bad news for couple fertility, because in our modern world (across the globe) couples are delaying putting their fertility to the test until the female partner is in her 30’s-40’s, when her fertility (and therefore chances of conceiving) is already reduced by 30-60% compared with in her 20’s and will continue to decline with her age.

“If her male partner has a low sperm count (and the present data shows that this is increasingly likely), then we know from prospective couple studies that the chances of him impregnating his partner are reduced – he may be able to get her pregnant but it will take longer and time is not on their side (because of the progressive decline in the female partners fertility as she ages); and the lower his sperm count the longer it will take. As I term it, a perfect recipe for increased couple infertility.”

Relying on assisted reproduction is “unlikely to be of much use”, stressed Prof Sharpe, given that “its effectiveness also reduces progressively with age (including of the male)”.

READ MORE: World’s first baby from new IVF technique to be born in Scotland 

Controversy over declining sperm counts is not new.

The study published this week follows on from a prior analysis in 2017 which reported a “very strong decline” in both sperm concentration and total sperm count across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The latest analysis simply builds on those findings by adding the results from an additional 38 studies.

Previously there had been too few studies from men in South and Central America, Asia and Africa to reliably estimate wider trends.

The updated study – which is now based on an analysis of more than 57,000 men in 53 countries – provides “strong evidence”that the decline in sperm counts is occurring worldwide, not just in the West.

Its lead author, public health physician and epidemiologist Professor Hagai Levine, situation was “like a pandemic” – even going so far as to say it could “threaten mankind’s survival” unless more was done to mitigate the problem.

“As in climate change, the impact could be different in different places, but generally the phenomenon is global and should be treated as such,” he added.

HeraldScotland: The decline in average sperm count has steadily increased since the 1970s The decline in average sperm count has steadily increased since the 1970s (Image: Human Reproduction Update)

While the study’s authors have cautioned that sperm count is an “imperfect proxy for fertility” (in the sense that past a certain upper threshold the chances of conception are not necessarily any higher), it is closely linked.

The World Health Organisation considers a “healthy” sperm count to be at least 15million per millilitre of semen; anything below that might be expected to lead to fertility issues.

At a global population level, average sperm count looks to have fallen from 101 million per millilitre in 1973 to 49 per million/ml by 2018.

Such a drop, note the authors, “implies a substantial increase in the proportion of men with delayed time to conception”.

Not everyone agrees that we are heading for a fertility catastrophe, however; some are sceptical that sperm counts genuinely are falling, in fact.

READ MORE: Holyrood watchdog predicts falling population and low economic growth for 50 years 

Allan Pacey, a professor of andrology [male reproductive health] at Sheffield University, said the question of whether or not sperm counts are falling is a “really important question that we haven’t got to grips with in a serious way”.

In particular, he said the gold standard technique used to count sperm, using a haemocytometer (originally created to count blood cells), is “really difficult”.

He added: “I believe that over time we have simply got better at it because of the development of training and quality control programmes around the world.

“I still think this is much of what we are seeing in the data.”

He is not alone in this view, but as with so many public health crises, the longer science takes to reach a consensus, the harder it may become to tackle the causes and reverse the problem in due course.

As Dr da Silva put it: “Critics of this study might cite that we count sperm differently to 40 years ago, that microscopes are better and that they don’t believe the findings.

“But the numbers and consistent findings are difficult to ignore.”





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