Seven days under sail 

A Star Clipper cruise from Athens to Istanbul on a tall sailing ship carries only 170 passengers and lots of charm.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY STEVE MACNAULL - The 360-foot, 16-sail Star Clipper looks regal sailing the Aegean Sea just off the coast of the Greek island of Patmos.
  • Photo by Steve MacNaull
  • The 360-foot, 16-sail Star Clipper looks regal sailing the Aegean Sea just off the coast of the Greek island of Patmos.

Over 20 metres above the Star Clippers, all is glorious.

I'm standing sentinel in the crow's nest of this majestic tall sailing ship after climbing a rope ladder, just like a bonafide deckhand.

The view over the blue-as-blue Aegean Sea is breathtaking.

And closer in, I'm surrounded by masts, sails, ropes and rigging galore — fellow passengers appear in miniature on the decks below.

Climbing the rigging, snapped into a harness in a nod to modern naval safety, is just one of the perks of sailing a Star Clippers' tall ship.

PHOTO BY STEVE MACNAULL - Crew waves from the bowsprit of the Star Clipper just off the coast of the Greek island of Patmos.

(Besides the original Star Clipper, there are also the Star Flyer and Royal Clipper.)

The other perks range from joining other passengers in winching ropes to hoist the main sail and the thrill of cutting through the water under 16 sails, to cruising on a ship carrying only 170 passengers in luxury, and stopping at Mediterranean-perfect ports in Greece and Turkey on a magical traverse from Athens to Istanbul.

"This is a sailing ship, not a cruise ship," says our Ukrainian Captain Yruly Slastenin in his opening remarks to passengers.

The declaration is hardly necessary.

There's no confusing the three-deck, four-mast, classically styled wooden Star Clipper with a mega-cruise ship.

In fact, each and every passenger is here for the anti-big-cruise-ship experience.

Many have their own boats at home and have picked the Star Clipper for seven days at sea, in which the sun, the stars, the wind and the romance of travelling under sail is paramount.

And we all get immediate gratification.

After boarding in Athens, my wife and I, and all the other passengers, gather on top deck, glasses of champagne in hand, for the sail-away party.

PHOTO BY STEVE MACNAULL - The forward deck pool is one of two tucked beneath masts and sails on the Star Clipper.

Captain Yruly paces back and forth on the bridge as the boat is untied and yells: "Cue music!"

Immediately, the rousing theme from the Christopher Columbus movie, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, blares out of the loudspeakers.

The captain barks commands to the waiting crew, some dressed in blue coveralls and others in traditional white sailor's suits.

They shout back confirmation and go about their tasks as bells ring, ropes are winched and the four main sails start to rise, making satisfying snapping sounds as they unfurl and eventually catch the wind with a billow.

With an orchestrated display so dramatic and emotional, passengers don't know whether to clap or cry.

I applaud; my wife has tears in her eyes.

This scene repeats itself in the coming days as we depart, after idyllic stops in the Greek islands of Mykonos, Kos and Patmos, and the Turkish ports of Kusadasi, Dikili and Canakkale.

When docked, or at anchor, we also have the chance to waterski on the Aegean, snorkel and lounge at beaches fronting crystal-clear waters.

On board the diversions range from splashing in two top-deck pools and witnessing all the day-to-day workings of a sailing vessel, to dining and drinking with an international cross-section of passengers, and having the best nights' slumber in our cabin, rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the ocean.

PHOTO BY STEVE MACNAULL - The island of Mykonos is one of the quintessential Greek stops on the Aegean itinerary.

The favourite pastime, it seems, is mingling top-deck with fellow passengers, chatting about travel, marvelling at the sails and wind and admiring the scenery.

A week on the Star Clipper for its Aegean voyage starts at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy.

Star Clippers ships also do other Mediterranean, Baltic, Transatlantic and Caribbean itineraries.

Air Canada flies non-stop to Athens from Toronto and Montreal.

We crossed the Atlantic in Air Canada's business class for the privilege of a lie-flat seat, so we arrived well rested and ready to enjoy Athens' greatest hits, including the Acropolis and wandering pedestrian-friendly and atmospheric Pláka.

We also arrived a day early spending the night at the well-located Athenaeum InterContinental Hotel, which has a roof-top restaurant and bar with a view of the dramatically-lit Acropolis at night.

At the end of the cruise, it's worth spending a couple of days in Istanbul at the boutique Armada Hotel in Old Town, which is handy for walks to the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar.

Air Canada flies back, non-stop Istanbul-Toronto.

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