Star Struck: Sailing On Star Clippers

When asked if he was excited about sailing to Tobruk on the royal yacht, six-year-old Charles, Prince of Wales, said, “I’d rather go by bus.” How lucky we are that, six-year-old Mikael Krafft worked mixing wood stain in the Plyms Shipyard, and was nowhere near a bus stop. Although, Charles never dreamed of building a bus, Mikael dreamed of building a clipper ship. He now has three, Star Flyer, Star Clipper and the largest square rigger in service today, Royal Clipper.

I was invited to sail (and sail she does) on Star Clipper for a voyage starting in Cannes and ending eleven days later in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I admit I deliberated before saying, “Yes, count me in.” I mean 11 days without a balcony, no room service, and a band composed entirely of Alex the piano player, but I could help with the sails, all 21 of them.

Luckily, curiosity triumphed and I was off to Cannes, which to tell the truth looks a lot more glamorous in the paparazzi photos during the film festival. Once the stars blink out, it’s just a bunch of rich tourists, eager retail employees and wide-eyed yacht crew.

Welcome Aboard
Boarding was 4 p.m., and there was a line waiting for entrance into a tent set up for the process. Water, slices of watermelon and punch were offered to the perspiring passengers, but all envied the cold, damp towel passed from brow to brow of the officers handling documents. Each passenger got an old fashioned metal room key plus an ID card. We tendered to the Star, and were greeted personally by the outgoing Captain, as we stepped on the deck from the gangway ladder.

At 10 p.m., massive canvas slowly rose skyward, billowing out in the stiff breeze, and we slipped silently out of Cannes. The deck, except for scattered conversation, quiet. It was, at the risk of being trite, a magical moment.

My cabin, a few steps off the dining room, while just 129 square feet, suggested the quarters of a luxury yacht. I had two portholes at eye level, a TV and DVD player. Once inside, I never heard a sound. The air conditioning is automatic, and there is no temperature control. The first night I was not sure whether I was sleeping or hibernating. It turns out the flow of air is controlled by a small vent above the bed, and after much opening and closing, I found that perfect temperature between freezing and can’t breathe. It may not sound like much, but to me it was a huge accomplishment.

Food on the Star was outstanding. As two thirds of our 120 passengers are European, the breakfast and lunch buffets are eclectic with some of the best offerings I’ve encountered in a long time. I loved a dessert dish named Baked Cheese. Kind of like bread pudding, but not really. While I filled my plate with Baked Cheese, a sturdy woman from Belgium stood staring at the variety of sweets. “You have to pick,” I joked.

“No,” she said, “it’s like window shopping for me. I look, but I don’t buy.” She had never heard of Baked Cheese either.

A five-course dinner plus sorbet was standard nightly fare. Choices included the Chef’s selection, or either of two main offerings. Steak with baked potato and a vegetarian dish were always available. You didn’t have to fly blind either. Each night, the appetizers and main courses were displayed in the cocktail area with the night’s menu. Service, although friendly, was leisurely and dinner could easily take close to two hours. The soup was the best. I had it for lunch, dinner, and wished they served it for breakfast.

The crew of 70 was a jumble of 24 nationalities. Our wine steward was from Latvia, where, according to him, smiling was not a way of life. What he lacks in bonhomie, he makes up in height. I suspect his premature balding is due to scraping his head under some of the dining room overhangs. His name, (drum roll); Igor.

A clipper ship needs a bit of navigational skill, not from the Captain, but from the untrained passenger. For instance, to go through some of the exit doors from below to the deck area, you step over a 12-inch bulkhead. My shins healed in a couple of days.

All Ashore
One of the perks of being on Star Clipper was the itinerary. On our way to Dubrovnik, we’d be stopping at Calvi, Corsica; Capri, Italy; Lipari, Italy; Taormina, Sicily; Corfu, Greece; Sarande, Albania; Kotor, Montenegro and Kurcola, Croatia. Although each port was interesting, a few were special. Complementing tours, Star Clipper featured water skiing, sail boating and scuba diving.

Twenty-five of us took the tour to one of the craters of Mt. Etna. We started at sea level (duh), and went to 10,500 feet to gaze down at the 2002 eruption crater. We trekked a dicey, crumbled lava path along a narrow ridge, with a nasty drop to either side. A buffeting wind didn’t help. A woman in front of me slipped and slid into home. She held tightly to her husband the rest of the hike. I wanted to do the same.

Returning to the ship I banged my leg on the side of the tender. This opened up an old wound. I asked the purser where the nurse’s office was located. She said the nurse would come to my cabin. Moments later the nurse knocked, entered, and took a look at my gash. Her first question was, “Why is it bleeding?” I had no answer. She then applied iodine and an adhesive patch. We made an appointment for 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.

At dinner I saw my nurse again. She was in charge of salad.

The next day, Cristina, the nurse, was late and apologized, saying she was busy arranging flowers. Some more iodine, another adhesive patch. She asked me if the wound was itching, because when it did, it meant it was healing. It was not itching. Cristina was on appetizer duty when I next saw her. She immediately transitioned into nurse mode, and came to the cabin to put another dressing on my wound. She was disappointed to hear “no itch.”

Saranda & Palermos, Albania
There are more Mercedes per square foot in Albania than in Beverly Hills. After the communist regime failed, the tax on imported used cars was very low, and Mercedes were the deal of the day.

Today’s tour took us to Butrint, an archeological site of a town that developed in the 6th century BC, and by the 4th century BC became a city of some 10,000. I am not much for old walls, but this tour sliced through a chunk of the countryside, and I wanted to see the Albanian villages and landscape.

Roughly 80 percent of the buildings we passed were under construction Some of the finished structures had what looked like scarecrows on the roof. In times of the Ottoman Empire, these manikins were believed to ward off evil. Times, and beliefs have evolved, but hey, no sense taking any chances. I saw one building with a scarecrow next to a satellite dish. I wonder which programs didn’t get through the juju.

After Butrint we boarded the bus to meet Star in Palermos. The 42-mile winding road was bumpy and very narrow. Our bus and any oncoming truck or bus had to negotiate passage again and again. First both vehicles stopped in a kind of Albusnian standoff. Next, one or the other, sometimes both, backed up to find space wide enough to permit a scrapeless encounter. It took two and a half hours to make the one-hour trip.

Dubrovnik, Croatia
My brother was in Dubrovnik years ago when it was still part of Yugoslavia. I am sure it has changed, but it is difficult to imagine much alteration in the old city, except there are only 300 of the previous 3,000 still living within its walls. The laundry hanging out of the apartment windows along the narrow passageways wrenched me out of any medieval muse.

I wondered about and did some magic. I bought a hip pair of pants at a boutique where we could not communicate. I also had no idea what the sizes were. There was just one pair of pants that I liked, and they fit. Amazing, that a small thing like this can feel like such an accomplishment.

One of my fondest memories of this trip was the night, under sail, we crept past Stromboli, a continuously active volcano. Every five minutes or so, a jet of red fire belched hundreds of feet into the darkness, then subsided to a dull glow of expelled lava; then another inferno exploded skyward, drawing “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” from passengers and crew alike. Think “Old Faithful” from hell. A minor annoyance was so many people taking so many photos from so far away using their camera’s flash. Besides lacking logic, it somehow seemed irreverent.

Other highlights included time on deck, sails full, reading in the sun, or swimming in one of the pools. I liked the personal aspect; the crew knowing your name; the easy opportunity to meet other passengers for a drink or dinner. I sat with a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, who had been through the Mao days, and her daughter who worked for an Australian airline and had an Australian accent. I talked health and science with a well known chiropractor, economics with the chief counsel for a large department store chain, and occasionally dined with a ship’s officer.

This was an incredible trip, not just a cruise, but an experience. I would go with Star Clippers again? In a moment. Would I pick a clipper ship over the latest cruise ship?

Tough question.
And Cristina, if you’re reading this: The wound has yet to itch.

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