Our Writer Finds The Elusive ‘Joie De Vivre’ In An Unlikely Place: Under Sail

Star Flyer heading for new destinations

Avid Cruiser Correspondent Andreas Lundgren writes of gradually developing into an (almost) full-fledged sailor, and finding not only stars but also joie de vivre on a Star Clippers cruise in the Mediterranean.

Tension was rising as our tender boat approached the large sailing ship that was anchored in the roadstead just off Cannes. If we had been busy earlier in the day thinking about which stars would visit the French town during the upcoming film festival, we were now facing a more immediate – and more practical – question. How would we get from tender boat and on board the Star Flyer?

Several of us in the tender boat watched the skilled maneuvers of the crew with admiration as our small vessel was brought alongside the large sailing ship. Then one crewmember jumped over to the Star Flyer in order to help the new guests on board what would become their home for the following week. It was apparent he had done it numerous times before. He was a sailor. Many of us in the tender boat were not.

“There’s no turning back now,” said a British lady as she turned to her husband. On unsteady legs she prepared to take the step from the tender boat and up the stairs that were hanging alongside of the ship. A crewmember took a firm grip of her arm, and she was on board. One after another we followed her example. We were on board the Star Flyer.

Star Flyer under sails

Ah, the sweet sailing life. The masts that aim for the sky while almost coincidentally supporting the sails. The feeling of camaraderie, of being a part of something that is probably as old as humanity itself: to travel across the oceans with the help of sails. The great explorers: Columbus, Marco Polo – and now us.

Would it be possible at all not to fall in love with this way of travelling?

Taking the helm

On the fourth day of our cruise, the ship was anchored off Porto Santo Stefano, Italy. Heavy, grey clouds covered the sky almost the entire day, but the sun broke through as the ship was being prepared for an afternoon departure. When the crew hoisted the sails, they were filled by the same light breeze that had just chased the clouds away. With the Italian coast on the starboard side, we set course for new destinations.

The captain invited the passengers to steer the ship. Proud to be at the helm, a German lady maneuvered the ship for a while, her chest swelling at least as much as the sails above her.

It is probably no coincidence that many of those who cruise with Star Clippers are dedicated sailors. That does not apply for everyone, however. As for me, I had barely put my foot on a sailboat before boarding the Star Flyer.

Built in Belgium, the ship has a total of 37,673 square feet of sail. Even if the Star Flyer is equipped with an engine, the ambition is to be under sail as much as possible. The sails are in use some 40 percent of the time during a cruise, the captain told us.

The total area of the sails on board Star Flyer: 37,673 square feet

With so much sail area also comes the requirement for a hefty ballast: In Star Flyer’s case, it amounts to 400 tons (including 200 tons of water). The ballast is necessary: When the wind blows and the ship is under sail, it can heel considerably. A crewmember told us that during a voyage from Tahiti on the way to the Caribbean earlier this year, the ship heeled so much that it had to stop sailing for a while. After seven days of heeling, the piping systems on board had to regain balance.

Adapting to conditions

It was not quite as windy during our cruise. Yet, the Tahitian anecdote might say something about the experience that we had when we sailed from one port to another in the western Mediterranean during a week in early May. We adapted to the conditions, sailing as often as it was possible. And when the weather was poor, the captain did what most sailors would probably have done: He decided to call at a different port than the one that was on the schedule. That’s how we ended up in Porto Santo Stefano instead of Giglio, which was the intended destination.

Consequently, I do not know so much about Giglio. About Porto Santo Stefano, however, I know that it is a small Italian town with a pleasant promenade and a stronghold – a remembrance from the sixteenth century when the city was an important commercial center. From the Fortezza Spagnola, the name of the fort, visitors have a nice view of the harbor.

And there, almost at the entrance of the harbour was the ship that we had now come to regard as ours. In fact, the Star Flyer did not once during our cruise tie up alongside a dock. Passengers wanting to go ashore had to go on the tender boat. That fact really made it feel as if we adapted ourselves to the destinations that we visited – and to their inhabitants.

In Lerici, Italy, the tender boat navigated straight through a marina. Passengers then disembarked a stone’s throw from a small square where children played soccer while the older generation sat on benches and talked.

Waiting for the tender to Calvi, Corsica

In Calvi, Corsica, the tender boat set its course towards a part of the port where some fishing boats were tied up. One end of the town’s quayside promenade was only 50 yards away from our landing point. In the other direction was the town’s citadel – also about 50 yards away.

A view and a beer

At a distance, we saw a chapel overlooking the town of Calvi from a mountain ridge. We decided to take up the unspoken challenge and go there by foot. It soon turned out that it would be quite a tough walk. The sun was glowing and the height difference was noticeable. But as we continued up the mountain, we soon found a good reason to continue upwards: the view.

On top of the world – almost. View from Notre Dame de la Serra

When we reached the chapel of Notre Dame de la Serra, the town and the bay with our ship was lying at our feet. The view from there seemed like an appropriate reward for the long walk. And, some hours later, a glass of the local Corsican Pietra beer back at one of the many restaurants and bars in Calvi seemed like heaven.

At all the seven destinations in France and Italy that we visited during our cruise, the scenario was similar to that in Lerici and Calvi: The tender boat brought us so close to the towns that the short walks from the landing points essentially provided an opportunity to get a first impression of the destination in question.

In Lerici, I joined the excursion to Cinque Terre. The area is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and includes five small villages. They have all been built on the hillsides that face the Ligurian Sea. We walked along a path that linked the villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore. The path is known as the Via dell’Amore, or the Path of Love. Along the trail, it is possible to see numerous padlocks, placed there by visiting hikers. According to our guide, a colorful Italian lady with a high-pitch voice, the padlocks symbolize the love between two people.

Manarola, one of five villages in the Cinque Terre area

In Corniglia, another of the five villages, I went to explore a bit on my own. It was fascinating to see the narrow streets and the way in which the village had actually been built on a cliff right next to the sea. Nearby, grapes grew in terrace cultivation.

Those who went on the excursion took the local ferry from Lerici. First to Porto Venere, and then on to Riomaggiore. When we crossed the Golfo dei Poeti, or Bay of the Poets, we could see from afar the Royal Clipper. Royal Clipper, which is the largest of Star Clippers’ three ships, was in dry dock in La Spezia.

The following day offered an experience that was completely different from the quiet life of Cinque Terre. We arrived in Monaco as the kingdom was gearing up for the Monaco Grand Prix. From a distance, we could hear the roaring of the F1 cars that had taken over the city and made a visit to the famous casino impossible. The city’s racing fever was visible everywhere: Flags with race cars on them could be seen in every street corner and vendors sold everything from baseball caps to kick suits with Ferrari logos.

Racing crabs

A different race was held on board the Star Flyer that night: a crab race. It was much more quiet than the F1 race – but surely no less dramatic. It is said that, in the old days, pirates used to occupy themselves by betting on which of a number of crabs would first reach a plotted line. Although the Star Flyer might have offered a more modern version of the contest, no pirate could have been more enthusiastic than the guests on board the ship that night.

...and we have a winner!

The next day we arrived in St. Tropez. From there, it was possible to go on a wine tasting tour at a nearby vineyard. Some in our party did, and were very pleased with the experience.

After a visit to the town’s citadel (again with a fantastic view of the Star Flyer), I met some fellow travellers on the streets of St. Tropez. So, what do you do when you are in St. Tropez in the company of good friends? We did what seemed to be the only real alternative: we had a glass of champagne and experienced a feeling of joie de vivre as we sat down at a bar and watched the bustling street life of the town that is known for attracting people with jet set ambitions.

Joie de vivre – champagne in St. Tropez

Joie de vivre, yes. My travel companions and I got to talk a bit about what that sometimes elusive French expression really means: how to reach it – and how to know that it has been reached.

As for me, I think I know something about it after sailing with Star Clippers. Joie de vivre can be experienced when on board a ship under sails. It can present itself when you lean back in the bow net and look down as the bow breaks the waves. And it might appear when you realize that you have actually sailed on a tall ship.

Star Flyer's bow breaking waves

I can only speak for myself, but when we returned to Cannes right in the middle of the film festival I did not think too much about film stars. Everyone on board the Star Flyer had star qualities of their own. We had taken a big step in life. We were sailors.

Good to know: food, entertainment and other necessities
• Food. Star Clippers has developed its menus in consultation with Michelin star chefs. Food was excellent on our cruise. Vegetarian options were offered for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The vegetarian main courses that were available for dinner were first-rate. All meals were had in the main dining room on board (Star Flyer has only one dining room).

• Entertainment. Those who expect spectacular shows will be disappointed: there is no such thing on board. The cruise director and the crew did a good job when it came to entertainment, though, organising a music quiz, a crab race and various other amusements. But the majority of passengers on board clearly put experiences rather than entertainment at the top of their list of priorities.

• Availability. For those who have limited mobility, it is worth knowing that there are no elevators on board the Star Flyer. The stairs can be cumbersome. Getting to and from the tender boat may also pose a challenge. However, there were many older passengers on board who did very well with both the stairs and the tender boat.

• The ship. Star Flyer was delivered in 1991 as the first two sister ships (the Star Clipper was delivered one year later). The length is 111 meters and the gross tonnage is 2,298 tons. Star Flyer has a capacity of 170 passengers and 72 crewmembers.

Star Flyer seen from the citadel of St. Tropez

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