After 30 or so cruises on the mega-ships, enjoying the playrooms and video arcades, my 12-year-old twin sons Kavi and Tejas were finally old enough for a family holiday on a small-ship cruise. We booked a seven-night sailing round-trip from Athens, Greece, on the 178-passenger Star Clipper, where, besides a cabin TV for movies and Wi-Fi, entertainment boiled down to hanging out with Mum and Dad in port, and learning the ropes of a clipper ship.
While many of the adults, a mix of mostly middle-aged Europeans and North Americans, chose sunbathing up on deck or taking a dip in the small pool as their entertainment, my sons preferred helping to pull up the sails and climbing the masts. Several times when the ship was at anchor, the adventurous of all ages were invited to don a safety harness and climb a rope ladder to the crow’s-nest observation platform 55 feet (nearly 17 metres) above the deck. When they weren’t climbing up, they were crawling down into the net attached to the forward-facing bowsprit mast just a few feet above the waves. This gorgeous replica of a mid-19th-century clipper ship was their playground for the week.
The five ports
The first full day en route to Kusadasi, Turkey, was the week’s only sea day, and for my husband Arun, our sons and many other passengers, it was unfortunately spent lying down clutching a sick bag. Though the sky was blue, 40-knot winds whipped up five-metre white caps and Star Clipper bucked through the waves. The sails were raised and taut against the wind, pushing us to speeds of 14 to 15 knots by sail power alone (compared to the usual 8 to 10 knots with the engines engaged).
For some passengers, choppy seas are a beloved part of the authentic sailing experience; for others, they’re something to endure – so don’t forget to pack Sea-Bands and Transderm Scop seasickness patches. By dinnertime, the chop had died down, and the rest of the week was smooth sailing.
We docked the next morning in Kusadasi and it was just a 20-minute drive to the spectacular Roman ruins of Ephesus. We had signed up for the ship’s half-day guided tour, giving us the chance to marvel at the towering façade of the 2,000-year-old Library of Celsus, the enormous 24,000-seat amphitheatre and the ancient city’s marble streets. Our boys got a kick out of the row of ancient stone toilets in a communal bathroom.
The next day it was Patmos, a hilly little island without an airport, which our excellent multilingual guide Vera told us was its saving grace. No airport means fewer crowds. We toured two beautiful old monasteries, including the Holy Grotto of the Revelation, a small hillside cave where St John the Theologian, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, was said to have been inspired to write the Book of Revelations.
After the tour, we ate lunch at a taverna, a routine we’d repeat all week if we could, feasting on grilled squid and juicy red tomatoes. My foodie son Tejas fell in love with the mashed feta cheese salad and the crusty bread, and my husband and I went gaga over the smoky taste of the pureed-eggplant salad.
Amorgos was our third port and by far my favourite. A lovely Italian couple from the ship, Carlo and Marie, invited us to join them on a self-guided motor-scooter tour. Though it had been a few decades since I’d driven a scooter, the offer was too tempting to refuse.
Thankfully there isn’t much vehicular traffic on Amorgos (no airport!), and after a shaky first few kilometres, my confidence returned. With Tejas clutching my waist, my other son Kavi riding behind my husband, and the Italians in the lead, our convoy of three scooters zipped along the winding cliff-top roads of the arid mountainous Amorgos, gasping at the views. We headed for the best beach on the island, Mourou, a wedge of pebbles at the foot of a rocky bluff. It was a scene out of Planet of the Apes, only this version had topless European women and children with sand buckets. We swam in the strong surf, climbed rocks and explored the edges of grottos, as I both revelled in the adventure and worried someone would drown. Eventually it was time to walk back up to the top of the cliff for yet another fabulous lunch at a local restaurant.
Day Five was Mykonos, a busy island (with airport) known for its rocking nightlife. I hoped my boys didn’t notice the condoms flung amidst the seaside rocks at one photo stop near a whitewashed chapel. We strolled through the old town’s classic jumble of lanes, winding up at the nearly deserted but interesting Archaeological Museum for a look at Hellenistic vases and statuary dating back more than 2,000 years.
After lunch on the island, we went back to ship, hopped in a zodiac boat driven by the ship’s young water-sport staff and headed for a nearby beach. We swam, kayaked and tried our hand at paddleboarding, which looks easier than it is. My son Kavi, ignoring mom’s pleas to be careful and watch the rocks (and to wear his aqua-shoes), steered into some boulders, toppled off, and wound up standing directly on a cluster of sea urchins. Luckily, the tiny needles got lodged in the thick skin of his heel, minimising any real pain; they gradually fell out weeks later.
Our last port was the tiny island of Monemvasia, a rocky plateau just off the southernmost part of the Greek mainland. We left our boys on board the ship to watch movies, and set off on an uphill trek along the ramparts of a medieval fortress, where we were rewarded with sweeping views of the harbour. We then roamed around Monemvasia’s picturesque old town, a golden maze of ancient Byzantine churches and sandstone houses with red-tile roofs. At one point, we found ourselves in a narrow lane that led to the sea, where a small stone jetty with a ladder beckoned us into the water for a quick swim. Refreshed, we then strolled some more, stopping at a charming café for a glass of the local sweet wine before heading back to the ship, exhilarated once again.
We chatted about our day with our sons over dinner in Star Clipper’s open-seating dining room. Tables seat six or eight, but we usually had a table to ourselves as the ship wasn’t sailing full. Food was simple and delicately spiced, and I especially enjoyed the eggplant Parmesan, broiled lobster and tasty desserts; my sons often ordered pasta, and waiters were happy to accommodate special orders and requests for second helpings. Breakfasts were buffet-style and included a made-to-order omelette station, and, at 5pm, a tea-time spread in the Tropical Bar included goodies like waffles with chocolate sauce.
After dinner, amusements were offered at the open-air Tropical Bar, ranging from a local folk dance troupe brought on board for a few hours in Kusadasi to a crew talent show and fun trivia contests. Most passengers headed to bed by 11pm, retiring to cosy wood-panelled rooms with brass details, platform beds and portholes. We could see and hear the water sloshing against the glass of our rooms on the Commodore Deck, a constant and pleasing reminder that we were on a “real ship”.