Unusual Cruises

By Ann Dermody
Published: February/March 2013

Last year, almost three-quarters of the 15 million cruise-ship vacations worldwide were taken by Americans. While the enormous super-ships continue in their competition to outdo each other in the "faster, bigger, newer" sweepstakes, another facet of the industry has been quietly developing.

Niche cruising to more exotic locales on smaller, more interesting ships is gaining popularity, especially with our members. Here are some of their ideas for your next holiday!

Letter From Croatia

Our first port turned out to be my favorite. Mali Lošinj Island is part of the Croatian archipelago of over 1,200 rocky islands spreading 400 miles down the coast. In the anchorage off the small town, with no room for the goliath cruise ships in the narrow bay, we were the only boat. A blazing August sun washed over the small palm-lined quay with its pastel-colored stores and seafood cafes, their upper stories adorned with tall shuttered windows and red-clay tile roofs.

April and I climbed the rock-strewn trail out of town, and inhaled the cedar-sweet, salty air. Bracketed by ancient limestone walls, the path, about the width of a donkey, climbs a small forested peak to the hilltop ruins of an ancient lookout post. The WWII concrete pillbox, at times a garrison for the Venetians, was dark and cool, the shimmering blue Adriatic framed in its long slit of a window.

Back down the trail we found ourselves on a small, rocky beach where the Star Clipper watersports crew had set up shop for the afternoon. Local kids splashed around while I took my first sail on a 13-foot Pico sailboat -- my view of the bottom 20 feet below easily seen through the unspoiled blue-turquoise waters. I hadn't been expecting much from the sleepy little town of Mali Lošinj that first day, but it set the tone for the trip -- small ports with lots of time to explore on our own, some surprises for the senses, and few crowds.

Our mountain 4x4 tour on the island of Hvar, Croatia, brought us to an abandoned village, Velo Grablje, tucked high above Hvar town, a hamlet that remained hidden from marauding pirates for centuries. Today, it's a ghost town of terraced hillsides, collapsed roofs, and overgrown paths surrounded by pine, cypress, chestnut, and agave cactus. This was never an easy place to live, but grapes, olives (a community olive press with massive stone wheels still turns in a dim basement), and lavender paid the bills until Velo Grablje's inhabitants became victims of changing economies and many emigrated to the western U.S. to make wine. You can thank Croatians for California Zinfandel!

Another magical highlight of our voyage was walking atop the historic rampart walls of old Dubrovnik, Croatia. On one side was a view to the open, sparkling azure sea, on the opposite a vista of modern urban life, all bustling within the preserved buildings of the ancient walled city, its streets covered in limestone pavers polished smooth by 14 centuries of footsteps.

Into The Wind

On our fifth day, motorsailing from Kotor, Montenegro, we got some real wind in our sails as we needled through the narrow fjord-like passage of Verige Strait. Star Clipper began to heel, and there's something to be said about the whir of wind howling through 30-plus miles of rigging. Just 16 crew tended to her sails. On our voyage, the winds were mostly calm, although a short Beaufort force-8 gale near the end of our cruise put us into Paros instead of Mykonos, Greece. This was great because the less crowded substitute suited us, with its quaint whitewashed buildings, charming cafes, stylish shops, and crescent beach filled with locals.

On Santorini, April and I left the crowds behind, took the public bus to Oia, had lunch in one of those postcard-perfect rooftop cafes just a few feet from the precipice, high above the caldera that makes up this volcanic chain of islands, and talked about how lucky we were to live out our dream of seeing Greece from the deck of a boat. Later that day, leaving Santorini under hazy late-day sunshine, all hands were on deck. With passengers just feet away from the bridge, and the boaters amongst us watching Captain Sergey's every move, he gave the commands and, once all sails were set, thanked the crew for a job well done, then turned to us with a smile, saying in his native Ukrainian accent, "The sails are not for decoration, yes?"

Planning: The Star Clipper is a true sailing ship; there are no elevators aboard. English was spoken everywhere the ship stopped. The early-bird 2013 rate (without airfare) for a 10-day cruise in a well-appointed Category 2 outside cabin is $3,047 per person. Star Clippers also heads to many other destinations including the Caribbean islands, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua.

For reservations and special BoatUS member discounts: Call 800-477-4427 or find out more at www.BoatUS.com/starclippers

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