Tall Tales of the Sea

ISLAND-HOPPING in Greece and Turkey from the comfort of a tall ship is an unforgettable experience, writes Kristie Kellahan.here’s a light summer wind teasing the tall white sails of the Star Flyer, a traditional teak clipper ship, as we slowly sail away from the sunset. We are ambling east towards the island of Amorgos, one of the Greek gems of the Aegean Sea, after spending a sunny day on Patmos.

While my friend and I had cooled off in the cornflower blue water and sampled more sweet bakery treats than a dentist would recommend, one passenger stayed on board the ship. Once an incurable explorer, the still-handsome man in his 80s now prefers to spend his days reading and remembering, though never far from the water he still loves.

He spells out his name for me with the help of places he has visited.

“S for Sweden, J for Jamaica, O for Oslo,” begins Lars Sjogren, 81, a retired Swedish sea captain.

Captain Sjogren’s tales could fill several chapters of a Boys’ Own Adventure book. Visits to the North and South poles. Days of rum and roses in the Caribbean. That time his ship sank in just 20 minutes in Antarctic waters (all crew safe and accounted for).

In his retirement, the captain can’t tear himself away from sailing, albeit these days as a relaxed passenger. Many port days he stays on board the ship, anticipating the moment the anchor will be raised.

“I’ve seen all of the world and I still love the sea the most — it’s my greatest love,” Sjogren said.

It’s easy to understand why keen sailors choose to see the world from the decks of the majestic Star Clipper fleet. Embracing the romance of true sailing ships, the vessels can splice through the water on wind power alone.

Passengers are encouraged to participate in hoisting the sails, to adjust the rigs in order to change direction of the ship, and to climb to the top of the mast, under supervision.

Star Clippers operates three of the world’s largest and tallest sailing vessels, visiting ports often untouched by large cruise ships and offering passengers the activities, amenities and atmosphere of a large private yacht.

Sailing on the seven-night Northern Cyclades (eastern Mediterranean) cruise from Athens to ports in Greece and Turkey, we will visit lesser-known islands: Patmos, Amorgos and Monemvasia.

Daily lectures from the Estonian captain and Bavarian cruise director centre on seafaring themes such as the history of sailing, the nature of modern-day piracy and the roots of the Greco/Turk conflict. A seafarers’ toast is offered each day in the ship’s newsletter (“To our wives and girlfriends, may they never meet!”).

Thankfully, comfort is not sacrificed in the name of salty maritime cred. Leisure time can be spent in the two swimming pools onboard, watching DVDs in cosy staterooms, or with a cocktail in hand at the Piano Bar. Meal times are highly anticipated, with an appetite bordering on gluttony.

Served in the European fine-dining style of seven courses — appetiser, soup, sorbet, main course, salad, cheese and dessert — dinner is offered from 7.30pm until 10pm, no reservation or assigned time required.

The food is delicious and the options are extensive, including lobster, filet mignon and Atlantic salmon. One night, I tell the waiter about my off-menu craving for a steak sanga, and it is satiated in a flash. There is always a choice to dine together with other travellers, but certainly no obligation.

The Star Flyer carries a maximum 170 passengers, so it’s cruising, but not as you know it, especially if your onboard experiences have previously been shared with thousands of holidaymakers.

There is, of course, a rich Greek heritage of seafaring. Hundreds of islands dot the Aegean Sea and the Greeks have been island-hopping by sailing ship since long before Homer was a boy. Blue and white are the eternal colours of this proud, hospitable nation, and wherever you go, the sea is never far away.

Shading ourselves from the searing hot summer sun with parasols, we wander around sleepy fishing villages, feast on crunchy baklava and discover little shops selling bespoke leather shoes and floaty beach wraps.

The Star Flyer is small and nimble enough to reach ports and docks inaccessible to larger cruise ships. Within minutes of dropping anchor we are swimming in the surprisingly cool sea or ordering heaped plates of grilled calamari in whitewashed taverns.

A port day in Turkey is an adventure in itself, as we swim at the beach in Kusadasi, bypass the Brit pubs serving fried egg and chip sandwiches, haggle for handbags and tour the ancient ruins of Ephesus.

My friend takes a scuba-diving course with the ship’s instructor and revels in the opportunity to suit up and get back in the water at each new stop. One day she swims with a giant sea turtle, the next day we laugh as we watch a group of olive-skinned boys daring each other to jump from an elevated jetty into the blue, blue sea. It’s these little pleasures that add up to a trip we won’t forget.

Star Clippers’ seven-night Northern Cyclades cruise departs in August 2018.