Star Flyer - Dubrovnik to Venice

16th – 20th July 2022

‘There she is!’, I squealed as I caught a glimpse of Star Flyer’s iconic sails from 10,000ft above Dubrovnik, alarming the seemingly snoozing couple occupying the window and middle seats next to me. It’s impossible to not be taken aback by the sheer beauty of the vessel, despite having witnessed the ship in the flesh on numerous occasions before, and as a result the residents of rows 8 and 10, seats A – C, were also immediately drawn in to witness the attraction as my delight resonated around the front of the plane. Recognising my glee, seat 9A promptly offered to record on my phone, capturing the ship gliding through the Adriatic as we descended in preparation to meet her after lunchtime.

After a swift trip through passport control, the local taxi driver questioned the port on our transfer documentation. ‘You want the new port’, he boldly claimed, ‘that’s where the cruise ships go’. When we explained we’re a smaller ship and that we were due to embark from the Old Town, he still insisted that all cruise ships go to the new port, regardless. Reluctantly, he drove us towards the fortress and into a street parallel to the harbour, where we confidently awaited Star Flyer’s arrival from the Old Town. I think the driver still believes he was right.

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Dubrovnik was every bit as breath-taking as I remember; there’s an astoundment beyond norm now that I know what it’s like to crave exploring and ache to be travelling, and you notice things that would have bypassed you before. I watched a local man throw a stick into the harbour over and over again for his sweltering black Labrador, then join him in a shared swimming session between the brightly-coloured fishing vessels, dodging ropes and ragged jetties. Groups laughed and clambered around the fortress walls; families, hens, couples. I visually absorbed every inch of the limestone parapets of the fortress as we settled ourselves into the first restaurant we found whilst awaiting Star Flyer’s arrival, still laden with luggage and bottles of stale travel water. Self-assured pigeons hovered around us as we ate, clearly used to troves of tourists and brazenly begging for the morsels left on our plates. Like a movie hero arriving in slow motion, saving us from our unsolicited focus on birds, Star Flyer gracefully appeared from behind Lokrum, a pine-covered island just 600m from the harbour. We watched her meander past yachts and day-trip boats, before dropping anchor halfway between the island and the town.

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Once the tender deposited guests on the quayside, we took the short journey to the ship; intricate details coming into focus with every meter we gained. Small figures lay on the bowsprit net like dolls, whilst crew folded the ivory sails like tissue paper. Masts towered above us with a regal dominance, both assertive and protective in equal measures. Stepping on board felt like launching back in time 100 years; brass-lined arched windows separate the outside deck from the inside areas, a portal from 2022 to the grand age of sail. Deep blues and reds take prominence in the soft furnishings, with rich mahogany finishings gleaming on the bar and bannisters down to the restaurant, all accented with brass details for a nod towards grandeur and fabled sailing traditions. As I was shown to my cabin by a crew member I was reminded that I am very much on a working sailing ship; we walked past a member of the maintenance team fixing a section of sails on an industrial sized sewing machine whilst holiday-goers sipped Aperol Spritzers, a mere ten feet away from each other. The winding staircase down through the elegant dining room takes centre stage as French-inspired furniture disperses evenly around, outlined by cosy booths not unlike those you’d see in a dining carriage on The Orient Express. There’s only one dining room on board, but that’s all that’s required.

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Opening the door to my cabin reminded me that despite the ship only being 115m in length, somehow there’s ample space to fit 80 well-appointed, clean and comfortable staterooms. Two portholes looked at me like eyes whilst the sun gleamed through them, bouncing off the generously sized mirror that reminded me I had been awake since 4am.

Back on deck we decided it was time for the Cocktail of the Day, because it was 5pm somewhere and for only €5, very little was going to talk me out of it. I cradled the glass as we walked up the winding stairs to the sun deck, where we sunbathed whilst also slowly maneuvering ourselves to avoid a dodgy tan from the ropes that crisscrossed above us.  The Sports Team took eager swimmers in a dinghy to a nearby cove to cool off, whilst others got on and off the ship to explore Dubrovnik at their leisure. Due to the sailaway being at 11pm that night, there wasn’t a mad dash to get back in time for dinner, and most guests enjoyed an authentic flavour of Croatia in one of the many beautiful restaurants that line the whitewashed pavements. The city is known for black risotto, made from velvety squid ink which is sometimes incorporated with mussels, clams and other shellfish. Not surprisingly, Dubrovnik offers some incredible seafood dishes, with fisherman’s daily catches dispersed around the city’s eateries every day.

The star-lit sailaway was every bit as special as I remember. With the ethereal tones of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise serenading us, gradually leading to a floating, yet melodically loaded soundtrack to one of the most spectacular experiences Star Clippers offers. Nothing can compare to the feeling of gliding through the water with no rumbling of an engine below, just gentle rustling of the sails adjusting themselves to catch the wind and deliver us to the next destination. No one speaks as we leave Dubrovnik; it’s an unwritten rule on board that witnessing this requires very little words and maximum immersion.  The star-lit sky is accented by the twinkling lights draped around the masts, at times making it difficult to differentiate between bulbs and the heavens.

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We wake in the morning anchored a stone’s throw from shoreline of Korčula, the sixth largest island in Croatia. It’s supposedly the birthplace of Marco Polo, but we’re promptly advised by the Cruise Director that numerous other cities claim to have this title.

The first thing I notice about Korčula is the perfectly even-ridged, limestone mountain that sits proudly parallel to the island, which looks almost hand carved - impossibly natural. I later learn that it’s called Sveti Ilija mountain and is a popular hiking trail, offering aerial views of Korčula island as the prize after a three-hour trek. Once we disembarked the tender after a short, calm journey to the shore, we cooled off in a local café enjoying our morning coffees as we watched local families going about their days. The great thing about ports of call such as Korčula is that there is no threat of swarming the destination with tourists; rather than diluting the local population, the small number of passengers from Star Flyer simply become front-row spectators in a new destination, immersed in local culture and everyday life. Young children from nearby ran across the (clearly familiar) road to play in the sea, as their parents gossiped with friends and family around a sizeable table for a Sunday morning.

We walked through the town just as the service from St Mark’s Cathedral began their parade through the streets, causing me to stop in my tracks as their dulcet hymns echoed through the paths and engulfed me in harmonious sounds I did not recognise. The combination of the local worshiper’s traditional outerwear and the setting of an imposing yet impossibly elegant 15th century cathedral transported me out of 2022 for a few beautiful, melodic minutes. Once they filtered back inside, I was met by another Star Flyer passenger who asked me if I’d found Marco Polo’s birthplace yet.

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As we sailed away that afternoon at least thirty kite-surfers danced above the water-level around us, their colourful kites like scattered confetti celebrating our onward journey. It was a memorable display and one even the Captain, who you’d think has seen it all, decided to record.

The Star Clippers experience is a spectacle in itself, so that wonder is not weakened by entertainment in theatres and on stages below decks. You’ll find everyone by the open Tropical Bar for some light-hearted and low-key entertainment. Quizzes, Pirate Nights, Talent Shows… usually they descend into chaos once a few keen sailors have taken advantage of the Cocktail of the Day, and laughter is always guaranteed. For those not wanting to participate, laying under the silent stars is a spectacle in itself.

Hvar is a bit more used to tourism than Korcula, however it seemed we were the only cruise vessel in port that day. Local ferries whisked holiday-makers and locals alike between islands throughout the day, and that was the only obvious vessel movement we encountered. There’s more of a buzz in Hvar; locals sell goods for aimed at tourists on stands all along the waterfront and into the town. We headed to the square where cafes and restaurants border the cobbled-stoned centre, the ‘hub’ of Hvar. Off this you find stone staircases that meander all the way up to the Spanish Fortress, which offers indescribably picturesque panoramic views of the entire city. Like a lot of Croatian towns and cities, the inner streets off the staircases offer local jewellery stores, cafes and restaurants offering local cuisine. The climb past these and to the fortress in the summer heat is no mean feat, but the views of the town and turquoise waters that surround it are well worth it.

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Being the penultimate full day of the cruise, the evening theme on board was Captain’s Night. Star Clippers has a very casual dress code, but if there’s a night to dress up a bit, it’s Captain’s Night. The waiters parade through the dining room with Baked Alaska, a rite of passage ceremony in the cruising world that (un)officially baptizes every passenger. The Master of the vessel thanked everyone as the restaurant flooded with cheers and celebration after what had inevitably been a voyage to remember.

The Tropical Bar entertainment was the Passenger Talent Show, another rite of passage for anyone in the cruising circle. It ended up being a Crew Talent Show due to minimal numbers of passengers wanting to flaunt their talents, but that’s how Star Clippers goes; not everything is set in stone and plans change without a fuss or bother. Regardless of this the dancefloor was promptly filled and guests danced under the stars into the night.

There’s always a different energy on the last day of a trip away, and that Tuesday was no exception. I was distracted from my desire to stay on board for longer by being in a Croatian port I’d never visited before – Cres. The finale couldn’t have been more suited to Star Flyer; a sleepy fishing village where local children cast a line as hopeful cats lurked nearby. On our approach the Captain tooted our horn to let the Monks in the local monastery know we were there, which we were told is usually met with bell-ringing from them. They must have been having breakfast, or the wind blowing the wrong way that day.

Cres’ harbour was lined with ice cream shops and bakeries, and in the town those signature Croatian limestone mazes made up the streets where locals dwell. As we cooled down and people-watched in a local shoreside café, Star Flyer blended into the surroundings as if she was painted into the background. The hours passed in a warm haze fuelled by Stracciatella ice cream and before we knew it we found ourselves on the last tender back to the ship. New friends had already started passing over contact details and making arrangements for their next trip, and hushed whispers of starting the packing echoed around the bar. Disembarkation on a smaller ship is calm and stress-free, but still no one quite feels ready to leave.

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We sailed away that afternoon as the sun shone brightly still, as if to display her detailed features proudly for one final time. The crew winched up the sails and they caught the wind in a gentle, fluttering motion. The Captain and officers worked in perfect synchronization to showcase their art form as we departed for Venice.

The pièce de résistance that evening was the upper-deck light show after dinner. We made our way outside and settled ourselves on deckchairs as the sails became consumed by colour, each one transforming the entire energy of the surroundings. Dramatic red became a peaceful blue, playful purple became jovial yellow. The rainbow cycle continued as the ship made headway, all the while in complete silence without even a single rumble from the engines that lay dormant. A shooting star skimmed the sky between the sails. No one spoke, a few people gasped; it quite literally took breaths away.

Six hours later Star Flyer navigated the Grand Canal at daybreak; the sun peeked above the skyline as I emerged and as the minutes went by, more and more guests trickled through. We passed Piazza San Marco and magnificent buildings that line the channel and date back as far as the 13th century before the city awoke. Star Flyer nestled next to the terminal as the light went from morning haze to daytime glow. Guests hugged each other as they departed, with promises of an imminent return and reunion resounding. It’s the Star Clippers effect, and until you experience it yourself, words can’t get close to doing it justice.