The lights of Malaga twinkle on either side of the ship as we pass La Farola lighthouse, the large white sentinel on the harbour promenade, while a full moon shimmers in the inky blackness above us. I’m standing, with the other passengers, on the deck of the Royal Clipper, the only five-masted full-rigged sailing ship in the world. Primitive drumbeats and chants from the Vangelis theme to Ridley Scott’s film about Christopher Columbus, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, are blasting out of the speakers. Then one by one, the 42 white sails of the tall ship are unfurled and bathed in a violet light. It is a magnificent and stirring sight. Although this dramatic ritual is enacted every time we leave port on this week-long cruise, for me, it never loses its magic. As the wind catches the sails, I can relate to the excitement that explorers, like Columbus, must have experienced as they set out over the horizon.
We’ll be visiting the Balearic Islands of Ibiza, Majorca and Menorca, with two stops in Corsica before arriving in Cannes. As the name suggests, the Royal Clipper is modelled on the 19th century vessels that ‘clipped’ the waves at great speed as they transported goods from one continent to another. I’m surprised at how smoothly she moves through the water under sail at speeds of around 11 knots. Mikael Krafft built it for his Star Clipper line, taking design inspiration from the Preussen, a German steel-hulled five-masted full-rigged windjammer. It was built in 1902 but lost after a collision in 1910. So there was no other ship of its type sailing the oceans until Krafft launched his Royal Clipper in 2000. As one of the 227 passengers and 106 crew on board, my spacious cabin with en-suite shower is more luxurious than conditions on the original clipper, and the large dining room with its international cuisine is a far cry from the sailors’ mess and rations.
‘Is this your first time?’ is usually the opening salvo over dinner. There are two other tall ships in Krafft’s fleet, Star Clipper and Star Flyer, and there’s an unspoken competition among guests as to who has notched up the most trips. At a drinks reception for repeaters, I’m surprised to find that well over half of the passengers are there. Star Clippers bucks the cruising trend in that their repeat rate is 60% compared to the 20 – 30% for other companies. Then the conversation moves on to destinations; Star Clippers cruise the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and the Panama Canal. But I noticed that the ocean crossing guests garnered the most respect. Several people already on board had arrived in Malaga after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic, only to be told that apparently the best direction to Travel is from east to west.
After just a few hours on the Royal Clipper, I’m captivated by this incredible ship; the rhythmic surge of the ocean, the wide horizons and starlit skies. Spending the first two nights at sea gave us the chance to settle into a routine on board. Exercises first thing followed by breakfast and then ‘walk a mile with a smile’. Zigzagging up and down stairs between the different decks for twenty minutes every day helped me get my bearings as well as walk off the chef’s irresistible puddings. The captain also arranged for us to go out in the tenders so we could take pictures of the Royal Clipper in full sail from the sea.
And for those with a head for heights, there was a chance to climb one of the 197ft foot masts. Initially daunted by the prospect of clambering up a rope ladder to a platform nearly 50ft above the deck, I watched a 70-year-old woman shin up and decided if she could do it, so could I. It was worth it. The views were stunning. After that, basking in the nets either side of the bowsprit in the late afternoon sun, the waves foaming and crashing beneath me, was a doddle.
And there’s nothing to beat arriving in a place by sea. In Ibiza, the ship docked below the medieval walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site, Dalt Vila, perched on a rocky promontory. In a matter of minutes we were exploring the narrow streets with their white washed buildings. These former fisherman’s houses have been transformed into bustling boutiques, restaurants and bars, with most still caught in a 1960s hippy time warp.
There was a more cosmopolitan feel to Palma de Majorca, the island’s capital. With rain forecast, the planned bicycle tour around Palma was cancelled but not the excursion. While some of the passengers visited the museum in the former monastery where Chopin and his lover George Sands stayed in the 1830s up in the hills of Valldemossa, I head into Palma.
Dominating the bay is the city’s Gothic cathedral, built on the site of a mosque which in turn was once a Roman temple. This gives a clue to heady mix of cultures in the city. But what catches my eye are the Locals clutching hexagonal shaped boxes with ‘ensaïmada’ written on them. A cross between a croissant and a brioche, the coiled pastry dusted with powdered sugar is a Palma specialty. You can have them plain, or filled with chocolate, cream, apricot or the one I can’t resist trying, cabell d’àngel (angel’s hair). It’s stuffed with stringy bits of pumpkin made into jam and it’s delicious.
I make it back to the ship just as the heavens open. But by the time we set off for Mahón in Menorca, just 21 miles away, the skies are blue again. Everyone is up on deck as we sail the 5km length of Mahón’s harbor, more like a narrow river. It’s one of the largest and deepest natural harbors in the world, no wonder the British Mediterranean fleet decided to base themselves here in the 1700s. The port is busy when we arrive with a gigantic Thomson cruise ship docked in our berth, right outside the Xoriguer gin distillery. So we have to anchor on the naval base side and wait for the tenders to ferry us over before tasting the Mahón Gin. From the port, it’s a steep climb up many flights of steps to the old town, but once up there we enjoy the views and sample the Local seafood at a Tapas Bar in the old fish market.
So far the weather has been sunny, but not quite warm enough to sunbathe or go swimming in one of the ship’s three pools. As we approach Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica, clouds are gathering over the 300ft high cliffs. This is where the Laestrygonian giants sat as they pelted Odysseus and his ships with large rocks 3,000 years ago. The tight 90-degree bend into the harbor is still there too, so we anchor beyond the cliffs and take the tenders in. With its narrow cobbled streets and vertiginous steps into some of the houses, Bonifacio, once home to the French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment, reminds me of Edinburgh’s old town. There are colourful scented wildflowers everywhere especially around the Cimetière Marin on a high plateau overlooking the Strait of Bonifacio. The white-washed mausoleums are beautifully kept and laid out in neat rows facing the setting sun.
It’s a rough trip back and one of the ropes tying the tender to the Royal Clipper snaps just as I’m about to step off the tender onto the ship. The plan was to sail to Calvi, but because of the weather ¬– we’d have to take tenders ashore – we make for the port of Ajaccio instead. It’s the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and the influence of France’s former emperor is everywhere. The Musée Fesch, a former palace owned by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, houses a large collection of religious artwork, as you might expect. But there’s also paintings by Bellini, Titian, Vasari and Poussin along with Napoleon-related memorabilia, including his death mask, on display.
As we head toward Cannes on the last leg of our cruise, the late afternoon sunshine turns the ferrous rock of the Corsican mountains red and a couple decide to take advantage of this and have an impromptu wedding ceremony on the back deck of the boat. A perfect end to the cruise and proof of the enduring romance of the sea.
A week’s fully crewed sailing on the Royal Clipper, including all meals on board and port charges, costs from £1,535pp during 2018. www.starclippers.co.uk
Source : HeraldScotland