Set sail for a Mediterranean cruise

'Barefoot' cruises are an increasingly popular subset of cruisng. Here, dinner jackets are not required, but flexibility and a zest for adventure are.

The itinerary slipped under the cabin door seemed innocent enough. The next day, it read, we would be simply "at sea."

Sigh. Bobbing on the open waters of the Mediterranean aboard a real four-masted clipper ship - how relaxing, how fresh, how dreamy.

How wrong. A more apt description might have been: "At sea, where the ship will be bouncing up and down like a kangaroo on a trampoline."

The cabin crew and the dining-room wait staff had a polite, slightly bemused attitude toward the discomfited passengers, and they clucked over us in much the way new grandparents do over toddlers. They made gracious attempts to assure us that we were not weak-stomached wimps - but their words were not as comforting as they intended.

"If the winds blow any harder, we'll be in a squall," said one waiter, with a grin so big I couldn't help but wonder if he looked forward to it.

By the end of the week-long voyage, my wondering had given way to certainty. This fun-loving crew indeed enjoys nothing more than a good adventure. If adventure comes via adversity - such as the time they sailed through a Caribbean hurricane (with passengers, mind you) - so be it. If our relatively paltry 40-knot winds caused no fewer than four sails to rip on our first day out, well, get out the sewing machine and sail on!

Such is a trip aboard the Star Clipper, a vessel built to recall the 1800s grand era of sail, when the fleetest ships ever to hoist canvas plied the waters of the world. This particular tall ship, one of three the cruise line owns, ferries its guests to various Mediterranean ports of call all summer and then crosses to the Caribbean for the winter.

With not more than 170 passengers, the Star Clipper offers an intimate, more casual alternative to the "floating hotels" that make up most of the industry - and these "barefoot" cruises are an increasingly popular subset of cruising. Here, dinner jackets are not required, but flexibility and a zest for adventure are.

The passengers, it turned out, were up to the test. By the time the sun sank behind the island of Corsica on that first day, most of us were off our lounge chairs, on our sea legs, and looking forward to the next day of on-shore exploration. Because of the rough seas, Capt. Marek Marzec decided not to try to navigate the narrow, cliff-lined entrance to Corsica's port of Bonifacio, our official destination. Instead, the Star Clipper put in at the quiet Porto Vecchio nearby. No one complained.

Dinner that night was notable for the elegant six-course meal and the hubbub of conversation, as voyagers began a strange and remarkable bonding process. Most of us were Americans, mixed with a contingent of Germans and a smattering of English, Belgians, and Italians.

Maybe because we were a relatively small group, or maybe because the day "at sea" had made us know we were all in this together (come what may), an esprit de corps sprang up almost from the start.

Quipped one passenger a few days later: "It's like being on a very large private yacht with 150 of your closest friends."

By Day 4, the voyagers were settled into the Star Clipper's rhythm: Sail all night, dock in the morning, spend five to 12 hours on land, then set course for the next stop.

Already, I and my husband, George, had traveled by bus to Corsica's granite city of Sartene, a 12th-century treasure set high in the mountains overlooking the sea. We'd spent a day and evening in the fairy-tale principality of Monaco, a place every bit as groomed and clipped as Prince Rainier's mustache.

Now, the Star Clipper was weighing anchor off the coast of Portofino, Italy. From the sea, the village is hidden from view, holding us all in suspense. Its harbor is too small for a ship the size of a football field, like the Star Clipper, so we all went ashore in shifts, in smaller tenders.

Stepping onto the wharf feels like entering an exquisitely designed movie set. "Scene 3: Enchanting Italian Fishing Village" about sums it up - except that not much fishing is today in evidence.

Instead, Portofino has become something of an artists' colony: Painters and easels dot their own landscape, lacemakers display their handiwork, and art galleries are prominent along the commercial streets.

It is also becoming increasingly Gucci-ized. The jet-set trappings have led some to say Portofino is overrated or no longer "authentic." I say, Who cares? On a pleasantly warm day, a walk along a shady hillside path - engulfed by the sweet aroma of pines, balsam, and olive trees - is hard to beat. Just 25 minutes and a little perspiration later comes the huge payoff: a 280-degree view of the Mediterranean from the cliffside patio of the village lighthouse.

Portofino is one of those places where time stands still and flies by all at once. Too soon we headed back to sea.

The night of the captain's dinner, after the singing waiters had sambaed through the dining room holding aloft the baked Alaska, Captain Marzec stood and thanked passengers and crew "for creating a family atmosphere" during the voyage.

The captain, who only recently joined Star Clippers after decades of navigating tankers, seemed so touched he actually got a little choked up as he spoke.

His words, though, are a fitting summation of what sets this cruise apart: a wholesomeness that Lawrence Welk might have envied.

The crew, though hailing from 23 countries, manages to come together most nights to present an after-dinner show so silly that it's endearing.

Wild hilarity ensued the night six live crabs were off to the races. (A clearly superior crab won all but one contest.) For the talent show, deckhands, cabin stewards, and even passengers doubled as entertainers.

It's clear few crew members were hired for their song and dance abilities alone, but we all had to admit that Alfredo the bartender belted out a pretty decent rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck's big hit, "A Man Without Love."

Amateurish, yes. Corny, agreed. But lying in my berth that night, rocking on the sea, I found myself smiling and softly humming this song: "Every day I wake up, then I start to break up, lonely is a man...." I knew then my heart was theirs.

For more information: Star Clippers can be reached by phone, 800-442-0551, and by e-mail, info@starclippers.com. Or visit the website, www.star clippers.com.

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