As we depart Cannes for a voyage across the Ligurian Sea to Corsica, Sardinia and the Italian Riviera, we soon discover that as beautiful as these destinations are, getting there on a clipper ship can be half the fun.
With all 16 sails aloft, our four-masted clipper ship weighed anchor in Cannes Bay and slowly moved into the deep blue waters of the Ligurian Sea on its way to the Island of Corsica. Some 12 hours later as dawn broke, the island’s rugged mountains appeared over our starboard bow with a quaint seaside village nestled at its foot.
Located on Corsica’s northwest coast, St. Florent is surrounded by beautiful beaches and its café-lined waterfront is dotted with sun-bleached, mellowed-stone buildings. One of Corsica’s principal Romanesque monuments can be found here — the Santa Maria Assunta, a 12th-century limestone church. There’s also a 15th-century fortress overlooking the city which was once home to the Genoese provincial governor.
For several centuries, the Romans and Genoese ruled the “mountain in the sea” before it finally fell to the French in 1796. As a result, while Corsicans speak French today and have a vibrant culture of their own, their Italian heritage is still evident in their cuisine, language and architecture.
St. Florent was the first stop in our seven-day cruise to Corsica, Sardinia, and the Italian and French rivieras aboard the 360-foot long Star Clipper, one of the largest tall ships ships ever built.
For much of the 19th century, these “Greyhounds of the Sea” were the sleekest and fastest ships afloat, racing from one continent to another with their precious cargoes of passengers, tea and opium. The Star Clipper, with her masts soaring 226-feet into the air and carrying 36,000 square feet of sail, is no exception. In fact, she carries enough canvas to routinely sail at 9 to 14 knots while maintaining maximum comfort by not heeling more than 15 per cent.
In addition, unlike some hybrid ships which carry computer-controlled sails and mainly cruise under engine power, the Star Clipper is mainly a sailing ship. This means her passengers, many of whom are first-time sailors, can join in the fun of hoisting a sail or taking a turn at the helm.
After clearing the Golfe de Florent Sunday evening and heading south, our captain gathered passengers around him and began explaining the 15 sails his crew had just hoisted. Finally he came to the 16th sail, which still lay on the deck, called the main fisherman, and sadly lamented that it required more hands to raise than his crew could muster. Within seconds, there were 12 enthusiastic volunteers hauling up the sail!
Sailing under a clear sky, light winds and tranquil seas, we reached the Corsican capital of Ajaccio on the island’s west coast early next morning.
A commercial centre with wide boulevards, large plazas and pastel-shaded houses, Ajaccio offers some of the best shopping in Corsica. It’s also the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose modest home can be found on Rue Saint Charles, a small street in the old section of the city. La Maison Bonaparte has been fully restored and contains furnishings from an 18th-century middle-class Corsican home.
Later that evening aboard ship, we were treated to more local history by a pair of Corsicans who entertained on the Sun Deck under the stars at our outdoor barbecue. Singing a variety of deep and moody ballads about Corsican struggles over the centuries, Jules and Jean strummed away on their guitars until we unfurled our sails and departed at midnight for the Italian island of Sardinia to the south.
We arrived the next morning at Porto Cervo, an exclusive resort for the rich and famous developed by the Aga Khan on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast. With its terracotta cottages, tropical foliage and pristine beaches, it was easy to see why it’s so popular as a romantic getaway.
Not that our ship lacked for any creature comforts.
The Star Clipper carries just 170 passengers in 85 cabins, not to mention its very own shipboard parrot which can usually be found squawking by the outdoor Tropical Bar, one of two cozy lounges on the ship. Other facilities include a couple of small saltwater pools, an Edwardian library with fireplace and brass fittings, a handsome dining room large enough to serve all passengers in a single seating, two sunning areas and a gift shop. While not overly large, the ship’s cabins are comfortable and surprisingly roomy (120 sq. ft.) for a sailboat and come with air-conditioning and plenty of storage room.
The ambiance aboard the Star Clipper is very informal. There is no dress code. Food is surprisingly good given how tiny the galley kitchen is, with a wide selection of beef, chicken, seafood and vegetarian dishes prepared in a variety of cuisines, including French and Asian. There’s at least one outdoor barbecue a week and most meals are buffet-style with the exception of dinner in the dining room.
But despite our chef’s best efforts, he couldn’t compete with the marvellous restaurants in our next port of call.
Located at the southernmost end of the Italian Riviera on a rock-bound peninsula, the charming fishing village of Portovenere was inaccessible for centuries before being rediscovered by the poet Lord Byron in the 19th Century. Today, pretty stone houses with faded primary colours and green shutters dot the steep hills leading to an imposing 12th-century castle which overlooks the town.
After touring Portovenere we took a local ferry to the nearby Cinque Terre (five small villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso). Once known as “the sanctuaries” because they could only be reached by boat, these unspoiled villages are built into the hillsides of rugged cliffs which descend into tiny harbors below.
Vernazza, arguably the prettiest of the villages, is dominated by a 14th-century church and a little piazza by the beach. Monterossa, the largest of the Cinque Terre, has some of the best restaurants in the area, including the Ristorante Moretto where we dined on an assortment of delicious antipasti followed by home-made pasta with tomato clam sauce.
We departed Portovenere that night and crossed the Ligurian Sea for our next port of call at Monte Carlo, Monaco.
The fabled domain of royalty and jet setters, Monaco is a tiny principality on the French Riviera where the ruling Grimaldi family has lived for 700 years. While there are plenty of exciting things to see in Monte Carlo, including multi-million dollar yachts and the world’s most ornate casino, the best place to start is at the Palais du Prince which is located high above the city and provides a stunning view of the harbour.
The palace dates from the 16th century, but includes medieval towers built by the Genoese in 1215 as well as centuries old furnishings and artwork. Fifteen of the palace’s rooms are open to the public, and a good time to visit is right after watching the changing of the guard which occurs each day at 11:55 am.
After a busy day touring Monaco, we returned to the Star Clipper and made ready to depart for our final destination of Cannes. As our clipper ship pulled out of the harbour with white sails billowing against a background of blue sky, a small crowd lined the pier with cameras in hand to capture the postcard-worthy scene.
This type of reaction is what Swedish businessman and yachtsman Mikael Krafft had in mind when he launched Star Clipper Cruises in 1984 with two clipper ships – the first commercial clippers built in 75 years. He added a third in 2000, the larger five-masted Royal Clipper. And soon he will add a fourth ship — the Flying Clipper — which will be the largest square-rigged sailing vessel ever built. Measuring 8,770 gross tons and powered by 32 sails, the 300-passenger Flying Clipper will be a close replica of the marvelous France II, which was built in 1911.
A passionate sailor and ship historian, Krafft had always wanted to build at least one clipper ship for the passenger trade. But it wasn’t until 1987 while vacationing with friends aboard his 125-foot schooner in the Caribbean that the idea struck him “like a green flash”. (A green flash is an optical phenomena that can occur just before sunset when a green spot is briefly visible above the upper rim of the Sun as it sinks into the sea.)
“We were talking about what it would have been like to be a passenger on one of those old clipper ships,” recalls Krafft. “I decided I wanted to give other people the chance to have this type of experience at a reasonable cost. So I decided then and there to build a clipper ship for passenger cruising.”
As a result, a world that had been without an active clipper ship for almost a century now has four “Greyhounds of the Sea” that can make getting anywhere half the fun.