Have you wondered what it's like to sail on of those tall-masted, vintage-looking clipper ships? The kind that pirates coveted? I thought the experience would be very cool, and I got my chance to find out. I sailed on the Star Flyer.
The stunning, 379-foot Star Flyer is a ship in the fleet of the Star Clippers cruise line. She is a graceful, tall-masted "clipper ship" with a dozen tall white sails and brass-and-teak decor. Yet for all its vintage beauty, this 170-passenger ship offers 21st-century comforts and luxuries. These clipper ships are an extraordinary sight to behold, as my wife Martina and I discovered when we arrived at Star Flyer's pier in Barcelona. Knowing that we'd be spending six nights on this bewitching ship made us feel adventurous...and lucky.
The Mediterranean Was the Lifeline of Early Civilization
As sailors from Phoenician times onwards have known, the Western Mediterranean is one of the world’s great sea passages. For thousands of years, the warm, azure Mediterranean has moved history forward by connecting cultures and great ideas (just a few: the alphabet, law, monotheism, winemaking).
You could say that the Mediterranean was the ancient world's Internet...yet it's still one of the world's most important trade routes. And thanks to its sunshine, the Mediterranean is also one of the most beloved cruise routes. Its sunny ports beckon on every shore: Southern Europe, the western rim of the Middle East, and the ancient coast of North Africa.
Martina and I were about to explore a beloved patch of the "Western Med"—from Barcelona in Spain to Cannes in France—on a Star Flyer cruise. We couldn't wait to get onboard.
A Cruise Can Begin Anywhere
Our adventure is about to begin! We board Star Flyer in the dazzling city of Barcelona, a place that makes everyone feel good.
While our bags are being delivered to our cabin, we head for the outdoor bar on Star Flyer's main deck. Here, the crew welcomes is with smiles and complimentary drinks and snacks.
The passengers are all checking one another out, and the conversation starts to flow. We learn that most of us are Americans or Germans, mainly couples, generally Baby Boomers—though other nationalities and generations are represented. No kids on this voyage; they're permitted during "family week" cruises.
What to Wear
Once everyone's onboard, passengers participate in a brief safety drill on deck, clad in our orange life vests. Then we change for a welcome dinner in the dining room. Star Flyer never demands formal dress, like some ships. So "casual elegance" is the order of the day. You see polo shirts and Bermuda shorts on the gents, while most of the ladies dress up a bit for the evening.
A Gala Dinner Our First Night on Star Flyer
Our first dinner aboard is festive, with an impressive a la carte menu. We choose succulent lamb and pair it with house red wine. (On Star Clippers, food is part of your all-inclusive fare, but alcohol is generally extra.)
After dinner, we head up to Star Flyer's uppermost sun deck for our "sailaway" departure from Barcelona. It's dramatic: the crew slowly unfurl the sails to the violins of "Conquest of Paradise" by Vangelis, and we sail off into the Mediterranean night.
Romantic Clipper Ship Cabins Aboard Star Flyer
Our cabin is larger than we had expected. Decked out in beautifully polished wood panels and brass fittings, it contains a double bed, a desk, a closet, and a compact bathroom with shower.
Most classic of all, a round brass-rimmed porthole furnishes romantic views of the open ocean ahead.
Time to Explore Our Sailing Ship, Right Up to the Crow's Nest
We spend the rest of the morning exploring Star Flyer, enjoying the view of the Spanish coast, and learning about shore excursion options.
Star Flyer permits passengers to climb up the ship's rope riggings—one foot above the other, right up to the crow's nest lookout. This is the pinnacle of the point, and, everyone says, makes you feel powerful. Martina and I both have a go at the climb.
Don't Look Down
Ascending the rigging is not a very difficult climb—unless you look down. If you do, you're sure to lose your nerve. We both manage to make it to the crow's nest, then back down one foot at a time.
We've worked up an appetite, and point ourselves to the dining room for an early lunch buffet of seafood, grilled meats, and salads.
Mallorca: Off the Spanish Mainland and Off the Grid
We sail all night and into midday, and watch the beautiful, sun-swept island of Mallorca get closer and closer. After lunch, we dock in the island's capital and biggest town, Palma de Mallorca. Shuttle buses await to bring passengers to the old town, but we decide to walk.
Our decision is rewarded with unexpected sights like lovely flower-filled backstreets and crumbling stone windmills overlooking the port. We encounter a lively beer festival along the seafront and have a few tastes.
In the center of town, we visit the Banys Àrabs, an ornate Arabic sauna dating back to the 10th century. Yes, the 900s, the first of three centuries that Moors from North Africa occupied southern Spain.
A Social Evening Aboard Star Flyer
We return to the ship and make some new friends over a meal of steak frites. We watch a diverting fashion show in the tropical bar, then head up to the sun deck for a spot of late-night stargazing.
These are the same skies that guided ancient sailors across the Mediterranean as surely as today's navigation technology. Moorish astronomers gave many stars their Arabic names: Aldebaran, Andromeda, Betelgeuse, Deneb, Rigel, Vega, and hundreds more. Sailing on the Mediterranean, we feel like we're closer to history.
Menorca: A Small, Largely Untamed Island off Spain
It’s day three, and we’re in Menorca. We spend two hours lazily strolling around the clifftop capital, Mahon.
Then we join the first of our pre-arranged shore excursions, a bus tour called "Magic of Menorca." First order of business: a visit to Torralba d'en Salord, a prehistoric settlement that is home to some fascinating, mysterious stone constructions, like a smaller, sunnier Stonehenge.
Then we then progress to the highest point of Menorca, Monte Toro. The hill offers stunning views across the island and is home to a spectacular 17th-century neo-Gothic church.
We return to our ship in the evening and take part in the Star Flyer music quiz in the tropical bar. Hosted by cruise director Steffi Adels, it proves a huge hit with passengers. My team of two triumphs… in second place.
Could You Handle a Choppy Day at Sea?
Today is scheduled to be spent at sea, sailing from Spanish waters into Italian currents. But the Mediterranean is showing us who's boss. We toss and turn with the ship most of the night and wake up feeling a little queasy.
Most of the breakfast tables are empty, and we find out that most of our new friends on board are similarly affected with seasickness.
The Truth Is, a Small Ship Feels the Waves
We learned that this is one of the few downsides of a clipper vacation compared to a conventional cruise ship. The swells of the sea are felt much more keenly on a smaller and taller ship.
On the other hand, the small scale of a clipper ship has many advantages over a yacht-style cruise ship. Not least is the rare experience of sailing on a tall-masted ship, and the personal service and camaraderie you get on a small ship.
What to Do About Seasickness
To battle seasickness, many passengers pop meclizine pills, an updated form of the beloved Dramamine. Still others chew on candied ginger to soothe their stomachs. (There's scientific evidence that ginger works for nausea). And most passengers agree that the best place to be is horizontal in your cabin where you can "roll with it" and not fight it on your feet.
The bottom line: vacationers who are very prone to motion sickness, as well as those with limited mobility, may want to think twice before booking a clipper ship cruise. When the weather is good, you’ll have a wonderful time, but if it’s inclement you may run into some difficulties.
How We Weathered Our Stormy Day at Sea
Despite the choppy seas, which continued all day, we still made the most of our day. We read our books, watched a DVD from the ship library, and played cards. We even attempt a yoga session with the onboard instructor Robyn, though staying upright proved a challenge. But for the whole day, we feel a little out of sorts, making little use of the ship’s lunch buffet or a la carte dinner. We're keen for dry land tomorrow.
Corsica: Fought Over by Italy and France, Now a Tourism Trophy
Today, we wake up just after sunrise to watch Star Flyer's approach to our next Mediterranean cruise destination, Corsica. The sea is significantly calmer today, but we’re still glad to see land.
After a quick early-bird breakfast, we dock at Italian-influenced Bonifacio on the southern tip of the island. For centuries, Italy dominated Corsica, but it's now part of France. We learn that Corsica's most famous son, Emperor Napoleon, felt the winds of change and modified his family name from Buonaparte to Bonaparte.
This View Tells Us About Corsica's History, in One Look
We immediately climb the hill to explore the city’s Haute Ville (Upper City). This enclave above the old town, on the site of an ancient fortress, is enchanting, with winding cobbled streets and stirring views out across the Mediterranean.
This is the view that Napoleon knew as a boy growing up in Ajaccio. His panorama didn't include Star Flyer, which we see in all her majesty in the bay.
When Plans Change, Grab a Scooter
Today's shore excursion had been canceled due to yesterday's wet, windy weather. So we decide to rent a scooter and take in a wider area of southern Corsica.
We spend several hours riding around the region, discovering some unexpected, lovely sights including the Pertusato lighthouse. We stop at Plage de Santa Giulia beach and swim in the crystal-clear water.
But perhaps our greatest discovery is the bay called Golfe de Figari, where we stop for a delicious fresh-caught seafood lunch overlooking the water. An unforgettable experience.
An Up-Island Hop in Corsica
Back on the ship, we set sail up the east coast of Corsica to our next destination: Calvi in northern Corsica. With the sea much calmer, we take advantage of Star Flyer's enjoyable at-sea routine. We savor a wonderful meal, have a drink in the bar to live piano accompaniment, and laze on deck, watching the ship’s crew go about their work.
Arriving in Calvi the next morning, the contrast with Bonifacio is stark. Unlike the relatively flat terrain down south, the beaches perch against a dramatic backdrop of lush green mountains. What’s more, a stroll through town reveals a distinctly French aura to this side of Corsica, in contrast to the Italian influence of the south.
A Coastal Train With Mesmerizing Views
We spend half of our day looking around Calvi itself, including the citadel. Then we take a rickety half-hour train to L'Île-Rousse. The track's route along the coast is spectacular and worth doing for the journey alone.
And I can wholeheartedly recommend a walk around L'Île-Rousse. This pretty town has a gorgeous beach and many quaint shops. Its handsome watchtower and lighthouse nearby was built by sailors from Genoa on Italy's northwestern coast. (The Genoese are great seafarers; their ranks include one Christopher Columbus.)
After a busy day ashore, we return to Star Flyer exhausted but happy. A quick and delicious dinner, then it’s time to settle into the lulling rhythms of a calm night at sea.
Saint-Tropez: Where Russian Billionaires Rub Elbows With Rap Stars
Having sailed from Corsica to the French mainland overnight, today is our last full day or our Star Flyer voyage. We're determined to make the most of it. We awaken early to sunshine and a yoga session on deck and follow that with a filling breakfast.
In late morning, we anchor just off the shore of Saint-Tropez and take a tender—a shuttle boat —to the pier. As we get close to the town, it’s easy to see why Saint-Tropez basks in a reputation as a luxury resort par excellence. It is lovely to behold.
A pretty harbor of bright fishing boats lines Saint-Tropez. Just beyond are posh boutiques and cafés that become nightclubs after dark. The marina's mega-yachts add a glitzy note to Saint-Tropez's French Riviera charm. On the rocky hills above town, cypress trees permit glimpses of elegant, clay-roofed white villas.
Where Rich Birds of a Feather Flock Together
We look forward to exploring Saint-Tropez and finding out why it's a magnet for the rich and famous. We soon decide that this town is mainly a place to see and be seen: people-watch is what you do in Saint-Tropez. We window-shop a bit in town, and we sense that quite a few of the tanned folks lounging at portside cafés are probably celebrities.
But we want to discover the historic side of this old French Mediterranean port. We set off to check out a centuries-old citadel and museum above the town. In the citadel's museum, we learn that Saint-Tropez's strategic harbor was fought over by powers far and wide. We are surprised to find out that Saint-Tropez was such a wealthy port town that it was an independent republic for a short time in the 1500s.
From the citadel hilltop, we stroll through the beautiful old cemetery and down to the coastal path. We discover that Saint-Tropez is a real town as well as a kind of members-only club for movie stars, musicians, and moguls with yachts.
As we stroll past Graniers beach, lined with private beach clubs, and along the fashionable promenade of the Baie de Canebiers, we laugh about just who may be hiding beneath giant sunglasses.
Farewell to Star Flyer
As late afternoon becomes evening, we catch a tender-boat transfer back to Star Flyer. We have hours to our final evening and dinner on board. The captain joins passengers for dinner, and the chefs go all out with a dazzling menu of langoustines (Mediterranean lobster) with Champagne.
Our Final Sailaway From Port
Sated with food and drink, we make our leisurely way to the top deck for our voyage's final unfurling of Star Flyer's sails, with a dramatic Vangelis anthem in the background.
We reflect on an incredible week on board a very special ship. It's sad to say goodbye, but it's fitting that we leave Star Flyer with another adventure on the horizon.
Tomorrow morning's disembarkation port will be the amazing French Riviera city of Cannes. And we'll happen to be there during the deservedly legendary Cannes Film Festival. We feel so sophistiqué!
Star Clippers Is the Un-Cruise
I can recommend a voyage on Star Clippers to anyone who savors authentic experiences, or who vows, "I'm not a cruise person." You're likely to find out that you're a Star Clippers person.
As is common in the travel industry, the Guest Author was provided with a complimentary cruise in order to describe Star Clippers. For more info, see our site's Ethics Policy.