(10:35 a.m. EDT) -- Some 18 months after I last set sail I find myself standing on a scorching July day taking a lateral flow test at the port of Dover -- the first hurdle to overcome before being allowed onboard the world's tallest square-rigged ship: Golden Horizon.
Twenty-five minutes later I get the news I've been waiting for. "Your Covid test is negative -- you are free to board." A sticker displaying my health status is placed on my top and I'm on the way to the gangway.
It's not been without its travails, this particular journey. Right up until the last minute I wasn't even sure if I would be getting on as the ship was put under "arrest" at Dover following a financial dispute between the original owner Star Clippers and the Croatian shipyard where it was built.
That has since been resolved, and the ship set sail last Monday (July 19) on a five-night cruise with a limited capacity of 136 passengers on board due to government restrictions, calling at Cowes and Plymouth before returning to Dover.
And what a head-turning ship this is. Bleached wooden decking as far as the eye can see, traditional nautical touches everywhere, huge masts and THOSE SAILS. Simply a sight to behold when unfurled and billowing in the wind.
But most of all, things felt as normal as can be under the circumstances. And boy, did it feel good to be surrounded by the sea and buffeted by the wind after such a long time on land.
This is tall ship sailing at its best -- with five masts and traditional sails, Golden Horizon was constructed as a near carbon copy of the 1913 ocean vessel France II, which held the accolade of being the second largest commercial sailing ship ever built.
With a 2:1 guest to staff ratio, service is "friendly but not overfamiliar". Life onboard has a relaxed vibe, people drift from a morning yoga class to breakfast followed by coffee on deck. They may also head off on one of the organised shore excursions (in a bubble for now and charged for), play rope quoits or catch some rays before lunch at the Horizon Bar & Grill.
Sundown aperitifs at the pool bar are followed by dinner in the impressive two-deck main dining room -- a real centrepiece of the ship. Evenings are equally relaxed, typically with a pianist, a quiz, a musical duo and drinking and socialising at the piano or Debeljak whisky bars.
With a reduced number of guests on board due to COVID protocols, there is a "Good Habit Policy" on the in-room TVs; you'll find sanitising stations throughout the ship, and people are asked to wear masks in public areas and wash their hands regularly; as a gentle reminder, there was a face covering provided in my cabin on arrival.
There is no buffet on board and all staff wear face coverings; there is also a rule of six in dining areas.
If you love the ocean and getting closer to it, this could be your perfect cruise option. It's certainly a unique (and rather romantic) way to travel and see the world; you really feel at one with the sea, while discovering -- and seeing first-hand for yourself -- the fascinating maritime traditions that go with a ship of this kind.
Golden Horizon has the largest amount of sail above water -- 6,347 metres to be exact which, laid out, would be the size of a football pitch.
Sustainability is a focus and mother nature the ship's compass: the aim is to use the sails as much as possible under the right wind and currents -- around 70 per cent each season. Incredibly, the ship can go faster under sail than when it’s powered by the engines.
Every sail away is different, but the sail away on Golden Horizon is moving and completely captivating, you’ll even be listening to specially composed classical music as you watch the sails unfurl while drifting out to sea.
The demographic of the guests is mixed and ages range from adventurous 30’s to active 60’s. Everyone is friendly and convivial, and are big fans of the romance and authentic experience of cruising under sail.
Some of the passengers have undertaken multiple cruises on similar ships (as well as the bigger, mainstream lines) and are extremely interested in and pretty knowledgeable about this type of vessel.
According to Tradewind Voyages' CEO Alan McGrory, bookings-wise, there has reportedly been across the board interest, from younger passengers to energetic 50- and 60-year-olds who are looking to relax. "Many people, especially younger customers, are particularly attracted by our watersports and marina offering in the Mediterranean," McGrory tells us.
"People are also appreciating the fact that it’s a large ship with a boutique feel and lots of amenities -- the masts may be classic, but it’s extremely 20th century underneath the masts."
Located at the stern of the ship, the watersports marina is passengers gateway to the ocean. There's a range of activities on offer off the hydraulic platform, including stand up paddleboarding, snorkelling, kayaking, sailing, sea bobs (additional charge) and windsurfing -- or, if you prefer, you can go for a swim (subject to availability and conditions).
There's also a four metre-deep saltwater dive pool where guests can learn to dive up to PADI accreditation; as well as a fully equipped fitness centre for those wishing to work up a sweat.
For something a little more zen, there are daily morning yoga or meditation classes on the Bridge deck under the billowing sails, or the spa for an indulgent Thalgo facial, massage or pedicure.
There are also the free wellness facilities including sauna, Hammam, hot tub bath and snow room. And there’s always the surprisingly spacious main saltwater pool which is inviting at any time of day.
All things considered, this is a brilliant re-entry back into cruising, and thanks to the perfect weather (hoorah!) and lots of things to do on the upper deck, it feels very safe and relaxed, too. The only thing on my mind at time of writing is disembarkation in just under two days' time -- I could certainly stay on longer!