Full sail in the Med
A cruise aboard Sea Cloud provides an elegant and effortless holiday
A FILTHY storm blows into the Maltese capital of Valletta on what has been a warm summer’s afternoon, destroying our plans for dinner in the old town.
We don’t care. We are numb with jet lag and all we want is a bowl of pasta, a glass of red and bed. So we shower, change, resist the urge to torch our travel clothes and wander downstairs for dinner at the Hotel Phoenicia, a grand five-star palace.
It is Saturday night and the brasserie is full, no tables until 9.30pm. So we limp into the main restaurant; no tables there either, and a set three-course menu if we’d like to wait an hour. We follow the waiter’s directions to the bar with the enthusiasm of deathrow inmates, only to find it too is heaving with humanity.
The only free seats are those propping up the bar, so we commandeer them, hoping we can get some dinner brought in from the brasserie. When an older couple follows us in, we do the right thing and snuggle up to make room, surrendering what was going to be our tiny dinner table. The older couple is up for a chat.
‘‘We’re Paddy and Maureen from Dublin. Where are you from, what brings you to Malta?’’
They are charming. Paddy says he is in the hotel game and they are in Malta on business.
‘‘You must join us for dinner,’’ Paddy invites, after two drinks.
‘‘If you don’t have a reservation you’ll be having room service like us, Paddy, because this place is full,’’ I advise.
‘‘Don’t you be worrying about that,’’ he says, patting my hand. ‘ ‘ I own this hotel; they’ll find a table for us.’’ And so they do, on the edge of the dance floor.
Come 2am we are back in the bar with Paddy and Maureen and the band, having enjoyed a hilarious night of great food, endless wine, dodgy dancing and much storytelling.
The long trip from Sydney and the jet lag are a dull memory. The next morning, we launch into the day with the enthusiasm of toddlers. We’ve come to Malta to sail around the Mediterranean on Sea Cloud, a grand old tall ship that has a rich, romantic past and a sweet life under 30 sails.
To be aboard Sea Cloud is like being in a movie on the high seas, such as the 1951 classic Captain Horatio Hornblower or the 2003 Peter Weir film Master and Commander. The sight of a handsome Gregory Peck promenading on deck with a blushing Virginia Mayo, or Russell Crowe in thighhigh boots hollering orders from the bridge, would seem to be de rigueur on Sea Cloud.
No expense was spared when Marjorie Post, the daughter of US breakfast cereal baron Charles William Post, decided to build what every billionaire covets: the world’s biggest and most expensive private sailing yacht.
Sea Cloud began life in 1931 as a four- masted barque with four diesel engines, watertight doors, seven huge cabins, auto-dial telephones, marble fireplaces and baths, antique furnishings, engraved silver cutlery, gold taps, monogrammed linen and uniforms for the crew.
It was the best and most luxurious windjammer money and indulgence could buy. This grand floating palace sailed from New York to St Petersburg while hosting parties, receptions and political and diplomatic conferences. During World War II the yacht was used by the Americans as a floating weather station. When peace was declared, Sea Cloud was restored to its former glory and sold to the Dominican Republic’s dictator Rafael Trujillo, whose son Rafael Jr turned it into a floating playboy pad.
In 1994, it was bought by a Hamburg business that owns and operates two tall ships as well as a five-star riverboat. Sea Cloud settled into a respectable life as a high-class yacht.
Compared to the floating hotel hulks that ply the oceans these days with thousands of passengers jammed aboard, Sea Cloud is an intimate and unique experience, with just 32 cabins accommodating 64 passengers.
The ratio of crew to passengers is about one to one and the service is discreetly perfect. If you prefer a gin and tonic for sunset drinks, you only need to ask once and it is served thereafter until you change your mind and have, perchance, a mojito.
The cruising calendar is based on the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. We choose an eightday clockwise cruise around Sicily, starting from Valletta, mainly because both Malta and Sicily are new territory for us.
The benefits of ocean versus land travel are well known. No crazy drivers, no getting lost or bogged on goat tracks, no traffic jams and no having to schlep around from town to town and hotel to hotel with your life in the boot of a hire car.
Our charming captain, Vladimir Pushkarev, steers us on a magical course from Valletta to Sicily, stopping at Erice, Trapani, Palermo, Lipari, Catania, Castelmola and Syracuse.
Because both the yacht and the passenger numbers are small and easily manoeuvrable, filthy storms like the one that hits Valletta on our first night can be avoided by sailing off to an alternative destination or port.
And because Sea Cloud is nim- ble, it drops you off right at the front door of a new town.
Life aboard quickly slips into a relaxing pattern of waking at a new destination each day. After breakfast you can either wander into the town or village on your own or book a prearranged tour guide who’ll be waiting for you as you disembark.
It’s intoxicating to know you don’t have to stress or plan anything. All those decisions you have to make on holiday evaporate. How do we get to the next town? Sit on the deck and read while the captain takes us there.
What and where are the best sights? Let the tour guide explain the options. Where will we have dinner? On Sea Cloud, of course. Feel like a cup of tea? One of the crew will bring it to your cabin, with some cake.
No cruise can claim to be fivestar without great food and wine, and the fare on Sea Cloud matches its regal construction and glamorous fitout. Just reading the menu, which is posted daily in the dining room, is a treat.
Consider, say, roasted foie gras, grilled scallops, confit of guinea fowl, bavette with thyme sauce served out of a whole parmesan cheese, crispy suckling pig, baked ocean perch, rack of lamb, grilled swordfish and bouillon of duck. Then there’s dessert, cheese and fruit to follow.
Wine at lunch and dinner is included in the tariff and offerings include a wide selection of labels, mainly from Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Portugal.
After dinner you can take a stroll on deck and watch the stars or retire to your turned-down cabin with a nightcap. The two owners’ suites and eight other original cabins on the main deck date back to the days of Marjorie Post and are redolent of elegance and extravagance. The newer cabins on the Lido and Promenade decks, although not as opulent, are just as luxurious and are a great sanctuary, especially for a siesta after a hard day’s sightseeing under the Sicilian sun.
While Sicily is crazy and wonderful and Malta is overwhelming with its history of the world on one island, the best part of this holiday is being under sail.
Sea Cloud is a sailing ship, not a hotel with sails. The sights, sounds and sensations make for a unique experience.
Of the 680 nautical miles we travel, about 15 per cent is spent under sail. While the sight of strong men doing physical work can be endlessly fascinating, watching men at work setting the sails on a tall ship on the Med as the sun sets is to die for. Louise Evans is The Australian’s commercial editor; she was a guest of Sea Cloud.
Sea Cloud, with just 32 luxurious cabins for 64 passengers, is a proper sailing ship rather than a floating hotel and offers itineraries in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean