You can't look at Star Clipper and not be awed by the tall ship's classic beauty. With 16 sails and main masts rising 226 feet into an endless blue sky, Star Clipper is a modern-day throwback to the golden age of sailing.
But it wasn't those impressive stats that I fixated on in advance of our 12-day cruise of the Mediterranean. It was this one: 170 passengers. On our last cruise, we were happily lost in a crowd of 2,000 passengers. To make matters worse, I had learned that Star Clipper's dining room had no tables for two. I was looking for a getaway, not a meet and greet.
But every time I studied the itinerary, I was, to put it simply, wowed. This would be the ship's inaugural visit to Albania and Montenegro, places that are only now being discovered by tourists. The other ports of call were equally alluring: Cannes, France; the island of Corsica, a French territory; Capri, Lipari and Taormina in Italy; Corfu, Greece; and the Croatian towns of Korcula and Dubrovnik.
That first day in Cannes, our port of embarkation, I began to realize Star Clipper has an almost cult-like following. I was near undone by the enthusiastic English woman on our tender who announced she was about to take her 18th trip on Star Clipper. Of course, that was before I met the German widow who was enjoying her 92nd week onboard over a 10-year period. She sails on Star Clipper, Star Flyer or Royal Clipper, the three tall ships in the fleet, nine weeks out of the year. She's booked through 2008.
As it turns out, Star Clipper has an amazing repeat passenger record. Of the 120 passengers onboard during our sail -- just 35 of us Americans -- 70 were repeaters. The high percentage of repeaters is the reason Star Clipper is exploring new terrain like Albania and Montenegro; the line wants to keep the experience fresh.
There are a lot of things I came to appreciate about Star Clipper that make it stand apart from more traditional cruise ships. While it offers a luxury mega-yacht experience, it's a completely unpretentious ship. For example, there's no professional entertainment; it's more of an "in-house party," as hotel director Klaus Franz puts it, with singing bartenders and dancing waiters. Deck festivities at night included a toga night, newlywed game, fashion show and dance competition. At times, I felt like I was at camp. Knot-tying class?
One of my favorite moments came at 8 a.m. on a sea day while I was getting an open air massage. There were so many competing sounds: the ship's generator, seamen talking shop and just around the corner from me, to the strain of Barry White's emphatic 1970's soul classic, "You Are My Everything," I heard Linn, of the ship's sports staff, commanding "Up, down. Up, down," to the half-dozen or so people who showed up every morning for her exercise class. There's poetry in a moment like that.
Unlike other ships, Star Clipper's signature isn't the constant throb of activity, but rather, its absence. I remember several times climbing topside to the forward pool deck, convinced by the resounding silence that there would be no one there. Each time, I found the deck crowded with people quietly reading or watching the crew sail. As Maggie Raymond, a four-time passenger from Bethlehem, Pa., told me our first morning at sea, "I come here to get my stress level down. I want to be liquid, melted butter." By the end of our voyage, I fully understood what she meant.
Captain Sergey Utitsyn, who is from Estonia, oversees a crew of 74 people from 24 countries. "Sailing, always, it comes first," he says. And that, in a nutshell, is why most of the passengers are there. It's all about the sail. The unfurling of the sails. The jibing. The tacking. Some days, we clipped along at 20 knots, the Mediterranean wind combing our hair. My husband, Gil, grew up sailing, and I don't know if I have ever seen him as utterly content as he was on deck, just breathing it all in.
Throughout the voyage, there was also an unspoken understanding between passengers and crew that Star Clipper is as much a job site as it is a vacation vessel. The crew is constantly at work: mending sails, polishing the brass railing, cutting replacement windows for the tenders, doing touch-up painting. Along with the sound of the bartenders' blenders and the pop of champagne corks, it's not unusual at all to hear sanders, hammers and electric drills.
When there was opportunity, Captain Sergey invited passengers to climb the mast and assist with tacking and jibing maneuvers. And he rightly told us early on never to miss a sailaway, that magical moment when Star Clipper departs for its next destination to the accompaniment of what has become its theme song: "Conquest of Paradise," a memorable Vangelis film score from the forgettable 1992 Christopher Columbus movie, "1492." The sailaway is nothing short of high drama.
Our first night, Gil and I sat alone at a table for six, enjoying a wonderful dinner. With 120 passengers, 50 short of the maximum, we found it easy to dine alone when we wanted as long as we arrived promptly at 7:30 when the doors opened. We shared a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse, chatted with our waiter, Fritz, and admired the dining room that was just beginning to fill up as we ventured topside for a nightcap; like the T-shirt says, "Life is Good."
Getting Started in Cannes
Due to a later-than-scheduled flight arrival and our own fatigue, our time on the ground in Cannes was regrettably abbreviated. Star Clipper, too, it should be noted, treats Cannes purely as a port of embarkation, and not as a shore excursion. And that's too bad because everything that is a must-see in this eminently walkable international film capital is within a few blocks of the port.
It's as simple as this: Walk to the promenade from the port, turn right and you'll bump into everything you want to see, including Cannes' best-known avenue, Boulevard de la Croisette. The palm tree-lined two-mile strip is dotted with grand hotels, sandy beaches and chic boutiques with marquee names like Cartier, Fendi, Escada, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. The headquarters of the International Film Festival and Cannes' version of Hollywood's Walk of Fame are also there. Just uphill and parallel to the port is a shopping area that's more down to earth, Rue Meynadier -- a colorful, pedestrian-only zone with cafes and shops selling local goods.
Tip: With a short time in Cannes and a desire to get a quick handle on the place, check out the trolley service, Le Tour de Cannes en Petit Train. Tours depart year-round, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., from Boulevard de la Croisette, across from the Majestic hotel. There are three touring options: half-hour tours of La Croisette and Le Suquet, the town's historic center, and an hour-long combination tour.
Gil and I signed up for shore excursions in every port, and this one, "Old Corsican Villages," provided a nice snapshot of the highest island in the region. Given the terrain, it's not surprising that Corsica, annexed by the French in 1768, is known as "Mountain of the Sea." The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, Corsica is dotted with pines and eucalyptus, cypress, olive and fig trees, and it is famous for its olive oil, wine and water, which it exports.
The highlight of the tour was a small ochre-colored walled-in village called Sant' Antonino, which we strolled lazily about until we happened on a family-owned vineyard and wine-tasting room. Olivier Antonini, a fourth-generation winemaker, produces 12,000 bottles a year under the Clos Antonini label. We bought -- and enjoyed onboard -- a couple of bottles of the white. Olivier also makes lemon juice.
After the bus tour, we explored Calvi, a sweet seaside resort that has a lovely promenade, and above it, a pedestrian-only street selling all manner of local wares. There's also a market there, a good place to replenish sodas, bottled water and wine.
At Sea -- and an Interesting Al Fresco Experience
On our first of two sea days, I had my first massage. Tim, 47, a masseuse since she turned 21, is from Thailand and her specialty is Asian massage. On sea days, she was booked on the hour, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It's an unusual set-up because the massage bed is actually on the top deck, covered by a canopy. It is very much an al fresco experience.
I've got to confess, I got a little restless on Star Clipper early on. Our cabin was small, only 129 square feet (though it was designed efficiently enough). There's no gym and there's no walking deck, of course. So I was happy when Anna, one of the sports staff, led a brisk 35-minute walk around the ship, basically 15 loops. At least we could feel a little virtuous after three days of doing what we all do on cruises: eat.
Put it this way -- there's no going hungry on Star Clipper. The breakfast and lunch buffets are plentiful and varied. Notably, the lunch buffets have a great offering of salads. And, at 5, there's always a "snack" topside in the Tropical Bar: ice cream, fresh waffles, tacos or canapes. Multi-course dinners are a pleasure. Among my favorites: smoked breast of duck with prunes, shrimp in pernod sauce and lamb cutlets with herbs.
Capri, a Mediterranean Classic
Ever since my mother brought a music box back home from Capri when I was a kid, I'd always been curious about the place. The island did not disappoint.
Granted, Capri was crowded with tourists and I heard more American accents that day than on any other of the cruise. But who can complain about an introduction that starts with a motorboat, continues with a minibus, proceeds to a chair lift and ends with a funicular? From the boat, we were able to appreciate how the natural light illuminates Capri's storied grottoes. The minibus took us up the hillside to Anacapri, where some passengers took the chair lift up to Monte Solaro while others visited Villa San Michele. We opted for the latter, and I'm glad we did. Axel Munthe, a Swedish doctor, began building the villa in 1896 as an homage to the island's sunlight. "I want my house open to the sun and wind and the voice of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light everywhere," Munthe wrote in "The Story of San Michele," which, oddly enough, became an international bestseller published in nearly 60 languages. This was the essence of Capri, as described by Munthe, and I was grateful to get a peek at it.
Next, the minibus ferried us to the main square of Capri itself, the chi-chi village known for its haute couture boutiques. At a cafe overlooking the marina, we enjoyed the "Caprese" air and feasted on -- what else? -- Caprese insalata and grilled squid. From our perch, we could see Star Clipper and Mount Vesuvius. It doesn't get much better than that.
After taking the three-minute funicular down the hill, we boarded the ship, sailing late that afternoon for Lipari in the Aeolian Islands. When we got back to our cabin, there was a notice saying the island tour around Lipari that we had signed up for had been canceled due to lack of interest. Oh, well. We would go snorkeling instead.
Nine of us took a tender to a grotto for the morning "Snorkeling Safari." It was great to be in the sea, but the water was rough. Two people were stung by jelly fish and no one saw any fish. I have to say it was a failed effort.
Between the Asian lunch buffet and the late afternoon taco bar, we ventured into port, which had a ragged, down-at-the-heels feel about it. At the top of a steep hill, we did find some excavated ruins and stone burial vaults. Had we toured the island, as planned, I'm sure we would have had a deeper, if not better, impression.
When we got back to Star Clipper, we learned that the Sicilian brunch and wine tasting at a baroness' vineyard scheduled for the next day had been canceled, again due to lack of participants. Typically, tours are canceled if they don't attract 20 - 25 people. The upside: We signed up for a tour of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe. It ended up being our favorite day on the trip.
Double the Pleasure: Mount Etna and Taormina, a New Favorite
The last major eruption at Mount Etna occurred in 2002 - 2003. It closed the airport for three months and sent a column of black ash as far away as Africa.
It was these sorts of news nuggets that our tour guide, Doris, casually shared as we drove up the limestone mountain to Etna. It's impossible not to notice the damage still in evidence from the last big eruption: scarred hillsides that were once liquid lakes of lava, burned out houses, a church and school in tatters. At the base of the summit, we jumped into four-wheel drive buses and climbed up what looks like black desert to the southeast crater, situated at nearly 11,000 feet. In a cold, sharp wind, I followed our alpine guide on the narrow path around the curve of the crater. I never took my eyes off the ground. By the end of the 25-minute walk, most of us were coughing from the sulfur in the air.
That afternoon, we visited the famous Sicilian resort, Taormina, which dates back to 398. A fortified city located on Mount Tauro, overlooking the Ionian Sea, there were, blessedly, no crowds (though on peak summer cruise season days the place can be jammed), spectacular views and impressive Greek-Roman architecture in the pedestrian-only historic town center. Rich in the cultural arts, Taormina has been a tourist destination since the 19th century. But for the few hours that we were there, we had the place to ourselves.
At Sea, Unplugged
The day's highlights: A massage. A poolside split of champagne. And dolphins, at least 25 of them, swimming around the bow of the ship. The sailing, the service, the food and Star Clipper itself are outstanding.
Lowlights: The shore excursions are not up to the same standard. Information about our destinations in the daily newsletter was pulled out of an encyclopedia. There were haphazard tour cancellations. And our cruise director was often cranky and ill-informed. The ship's library, which might have been stocked with ports-of-call reading, was of no help. The two Internet connections, also in the library, rarely worked. Star Clipper can do better.
Corfu, a Tourist Magnet
It doesn't take long to understand why Corfu is such a tourist magnet. The island has everything one would expect of a terrific Greek holiday: a rich architectural tradition, a strong cultural presence (19 philharmonic bands, no less) and ample opportunity to sample moussaka and dolmades; not to mention some of the best beaches in the region.
Our shore excursion took us to the kitschy Achilleion Palace -- a neo-classical mansion built in the late 1890's by a talented but troubled Austrian empress. The palace was named for Achilles, and a huge four-ton bronze sculpture of the mythical hero dominates the back gardens.
The tour bus deposited us mid-day in the island's capital city, Corfu Town. A reflection of the island's varied rulers, it's a mish-mash of Italianate architecture, Venetian monuments, a French arcade, an English cricket field and an exceptional Byzantine church. And all of it framed by two hillside fortresses, one dating back to the sixth century.
From Corfu, we spied Albania for the first time -- our next stop.
In two large tour buses, 90 of the 120 passengers ventured to Butrint, an ancient town resurrected by archaeologists, that is a premier example of Mediterranean civilization. Certainly, there is nothing short of astonishing about a place that dates back to the 6th century B.C. and functioned into the Middle Ages. Still under active excavation, there is a pre-Roman theater with the names of freed slaves inscribed in its stone steps; a 4th-century baptistery with a preserved mosaic floor; and a gymnasium, built in the 1st - 2nd centuries, that served the city's youth. Cicero himself called Butrint "the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world."
But, sadly, by the end of the excursion, most of the passengers had had it with Albania. We had a competent guide on our bus, but the guide on the other one spoke poor English and spent most of the time on his cell phone. Logistically, the tour was poorly conceived. The 45-minute drive through rural villages from Saranda, our port of call, to Butrint was fine. But no one could grasp why, instead of returning to Saranda to meet Star Clipper, we drove through serpentine mountain passes for two hours to meet the tenders at a dock at Palermos Bay. One man got sick during the drive. On top of that, even the fittest of us experienced difficulty climbing off the dock onto a poorly constructed metal ladder, and then having to jump a few feet into the tender. It wasn't pretty.
Still, Gil and I left Albania, liberated from Communist rule in 1991, with some compelling visual memories: in Saranda, Hotel Boston, Hotel Chicago and Hotel New Heaven, trying hard to establish a tourism trade; hundreds of buildings across the countryside in a state of arrested construction, awaiting capital investors; scarecrows, dolls and stuffed animals perched on rooftops to ward off the evil eye, a belief that goes back to five centuries of occupation by the Ottoman empire; and bunkers, built by the Communists, strewn across the beaches of what one day might be known as the Albanian Riviera.
As it turns out, Star Clipper is among the first passenger ships to make Albania a port of call. Later, Captain Sergey told us he had gotten lots of passenger complaints -- how poor Albania is, how long the drive was. I liked his response: "It may take 50 years to catch up with Croatia and Montenegro. But it's a special time to be there -- at the beginning."
Montenegro: The Next Big Thing?
Never heard of Kotor, Montenegro? You will. Not long after we got home, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on property fever there, fueled mostly by English, Irish and Russians who are seeking affordable vacation homes and rental investments in the newly independent former Yugoslav republic. With its nice price point and cultural, historical and natural riches, I wouldn't be surprised to see it become the next big thing in the region.
Approaching Kotor, up the southernmost fjord in Europe, there was a buzz topside from passengers struck by the beauty of the place. Steep, green mountains. An enchanting blue bay. And then the walled-in town of Kotor, an enduring cultural center that is two and a half millenniums old. No wonder Kotor is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Even though it's a tiny town, there's lots to see -- Square of Arms, just inside the town gate, and St. Lucas Square, with its two churches, are our favorite spots. Next time, we want to climb the town's ramparts, 4.5 kilometers long and dating back to the ninth century. As one woman happily proclaimed at dinner that night, "It's no Albania."
Kicking Back in Korcula
It's been dubbed "a little Dubrovnik," and with its red-tiled rooftops, medieval stone walls and sea views, the label isn't surprising. Only 300 people live within the city walls (as compared to 3,000 in the Middle Ages) but there's a real vibrancy about the place.
The oldest part of Korcula, believed to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, dates back to the 14th century. People from the island, also called Korcula, were, and still are, seamen, shipbuilders, fishermen, artists and grape and olive growers.
Tip: The streets zig and zag; we were told this was done on purpose to block the sharp winter winds that blow in off the sea. Along the outer perimeter of the wall, there is a row of restaurants with outdoor seating that's a nice place to sample the white wines produced on the island -- Grk and Posip.
This was our second visit to Dubrovnik, the storied city that has helped elevate Croatia over the past few years to a top tourist destination. The old town -- with its polished stone walkways, canopy of red tile roofs and intriguing alleys -- is regarded as one of the world's most exquisite walled-in cities.
After disembarking Star Clipper, we took a cab to the old town Stari Grad, where we spent a full day before catching our flight to Zagreb, then home. Since we had toured the Franciscan Monastery and Rector's Palace previously, we revisited a couple of favorite places: the walkway around the city walls and Lokanda Peskarija, a restaurant that has bargain-priced seafood (grilled or fried squid, seafood risotto, mussels, octopus salad, each for about $7) with front-row seats of the old city dock.
While climbing the wall, we happened on a maritime museum in the 14th century Fortress St. John, overlooking the harbor. The museum does a great job of explaining Croatia's maritime history, but the story that got to us was this one: a photo exhibition capturing the shelling of the old port by Serbia on Dec. 6, 1991. There were shots of boats burning, people taking cover. The film student who took the photos was killed that same day beside the city bell tower. Looking at his photographs, I came to appreciate Dubrovnik even more.
--by Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer based on Maryland's Eastern Shore.