On the aft deck of the four-masted luxury clipper ship Star Clippers, a dozen or so passengers stood in the moonlight and howled at the night sky above the waters near southern France.
Our intimate little sailing ship had just left the historic medieval port of Calvi in Corsica, France, and the alchemy of the Mediterranean full moon made us drunk on its bright magic… Like the Corsican corsairs of old, the sea was in our blood, and we were heady with the sound of the winds pushing us toward St. Tropez.
This was my first sailing with Star Clippers, and I reveled in the charm of traveling on a vessel that harkened back to the legendary era of sailing. After scrambling up the ropes to the crow’s nest, lounging lazily on the bow nets, and learning to tie knots with the crew, I understood why more than 60 percent of Star Clippers’ guests are repeat bookings.
At 115 meters long and carrying just 166 guests in pampered comfort, Star Clippers’ Mediterranean itinerary from Rome to Cannes carried us from Civitavecchia, Italy along the ports of Sardinia and Corsica to explore port towns steeped in history and sunny beaches. On the voyage, I whispered to ghosts in historic graveyards, stalked the battlements of medieval fortresses and walked in the footsteps of conquerors and generals.
I’m one for an active adventure, but I’m certainly not opposed to intimate luxury under full sails either. On my first trip to Italy and France, and my first on a genuine tall ship, I felt that irresistible pull of freedom and adventure that millions of sailors before me must have felt – I just didn’t have to battle pirates or swab the deck to enjoy it.
A SAIL BACK IN TIME
My home state of Oklahoma was made a U.S. state just barely 100 years ago, so wandering the ancient streets of Portoferraio on Elba Island nearly knocked me down with the weight of its history. Napoleon, the exiled Emperor of France, found refuge in this walled fortress city and dreamt of the days he would return to glory.
Ancient Etruscan civilizations carved out a life on this high-cliffed island and Jason and his Argonauts are said to have landed here in Elba during the quest for The Golden Fleece at a place near Ghiaie Beach in Portoferraio.
On our first port stop of the Star Clippers cruise, we climbed those hills too and swam at a beach covered in perfectly round white smooth stones. Even before Napoleon and Jason wandered these cobbled streets, the town was already a fierce fortification, and those ancient bastions and historic walls are still well preserved. We spent a whole day huffing up battlements and wandering those cat-haunted cobblestone streets.
That ancient city wasn’t the only destination on the trip cloaked in tales of battles and heroics. During the seven-day cruise, we stopped at the historic ports of Bonifacio, Ajaccio and Calvi on the French island of Corsica and the Sardinian port of Stintino before ending at the hedonistic beauty of St. Tropez and Cannes in southern France.
For lovers of history, the cruise delivers. At Bonifacio, the dramatic harbor is flanked by the ancient citadel town perched like a sentinel on a seemingly impenetrable cliff, but the hilltop “old city” is filled with romance-novel restaurants serving up seafood and Aperol Spritz. For the truly adventurous, the L’Escalier du Roi d’Aragon challenges the brave with its 187 ancient steps carved into the cliff face. Just know that if you go down those steps, the only way back is to climb back up. Bonifacio’s ancient cemetery, known as Campu Santu locally, is considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the Mediterranean.
In the Sardinian port city of Stintino, we roamed the streets looking for authentic Italian pasta and flirted with old Sardinian men who served up bowls of mussels and seafood before beach walking the powder white sand on the crystal clear turquoise seas. In Ajaccio, we shopped area markets for plump olives and heady cheese and gazed at seafront statues and museums.
By far, one of my absolute favorite stops was Calvi, Corsica and its mountain villages Sant’Antonino and Pigna.
The highest village in the area, Sant’Antonino’s medieval alley-like streets wound up the steep hills, and the sky was inky with thunder. We sipped on freshly pressed juices tart enough to make you cry and wandered the impossibly-old stone streets that snaked between buildings that looked as if they came straight out of the Middle Ages. They probably did.
Pigna is a community saved by art. In the 1960s, this charming village was in danger of becoming abandoned with only a few stalwart souls clinging to the old way of life. One of those souls started creating musical instruments to sell, and Pigna became a village of arts and crafts. More than 50 craftsmen make everything from pottery to paintings, and we bought delicate little pottery cups awash in color and drooled over music boxes made into fantastical shapes of snails, cats, donkeys and more.
In St. Tropez, we lounged on the beach like starlets and window-shopped throughout the infamously “rich folk” town, but everywhere we went, the masts of our ship beckoned us back home.
TO SAIL THE OPEN SEAS
Breezing across the Mediterranean Sea under full sails creates its own bewitchment. Along with curated cocktails and the chef-perfected dinners, the sound of 14 canvas sails rustling in the evening wind awakens the swashbuckler inside.
Though we were drunk on the medieval history of all the stops we made, a trip on Star Clippers is just plain fun. It’s a type of cruise that makes 20-something yoga boys with man buns and barely-there beards cast puppy dog eyes at older women, causes normally-staid German women to kick off their heels and dance to disco songs and made me swoon and spin in the arms of cinnamon-colored Brazilian men.
Tall ship sailing specialist Star Clippers is famous for pioneering environmentally responsible systems and practices on its three tall ships, and using wind propulsion, Star Clippers is among the most sustainable ships to sail. During the Caribbean winter months, the company’s Caribbean ships operate 70 percent of the time under wind power.
Using 60% of average power coming from wind energy saves 1,839 gallons of fuel usage per day, amounting to a reduction of 671,000 gallons (of fuel) per ship per year, according to Star Clippers. By using the clean power of wind, Star Clippers earned the International Air Pollution Prevention Certificate, the first ship in the world to receive this certificate.
The experience on Star Clippers isn’t just sustainable, but intimate and friendly too. With less than 200 guests on board, it’s impossible not to make friends with both the other travelers and the crew quickly. Activities like daily afternoon happy hours with live music, the wildly hysterical Pirate Night and the talent show all lend to making friends from the more than 20 nationalities represented on our particular cruise.
With a full moon shining down on the last days of our sailing, the natural beauty, culture and history of the Italian and French islands of the Mediterranean sent me home with the sweet taste of history, salt air and sun-drenched adventure. I stare now at the moon back home, dreaming of the days when I can return.