Full sail in the Med

A cruise aboard Sea Cloud pro­vides an el­e­gant and ef­fort­less hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - LOUISE EVANS

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

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