Spain to Italy by sailing ship
Life and luxury along ancient Mediterranean trading routes
“I don’t want to go on vacation with 2000 other people.” That was the view of one American guest on the Wind Surf, a five-masted, 310-passenger luxury yacht. Most of those on board were of a like mind. They preferred the intimacy of smaller craft and the ability to enter harbours that large ships couldn’t.
“Cruise ships are getting too big,” Don and Nancy Williams of Ottawa told us. “We’ve been to the Caribbean and Alaska on them, but this is our type of sailing, especially in the Mediterranean with its character and history.”
The itinerary — Barcelona to Rome with stops in France, Monaco and Italy — was another key reason we chose the Wind Surf, the largest in the Windstar (windstarcruises.com/yachts) six-ship fleet.
Barcelona is a delightful city to start a Mediterranean adventure so we arrived a day early last April and stayed near the University of Barcelona at the Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos I, which features free shuttle service to the centre of the city. As much as we enjoyed our overnight, it was a thrill to slip out of the harbour the next day to watch Wind Surf’s seven computer-operated sails rising on 50-metre masts to meet the breeze.
The staterooms, with two portholes, are commodious and come complete with many luxury touches like great lighting, a Bose audio dock, a DVD player and movie choices, a good selection of TV channels and a generous-sized bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries. Wind Surf is not all-inclusive, but provides complimentary bottled water, soft drinks and specialty coffees.
Our first stop, after an overnight sail, was Collioure, France, a fortified town established in 673 CE during the Visigoths ascendancy as an important port. Now with just 3000 largely Catalan residents, it’s known for its many art galleries and as the birthplace of the colourful Fauvism art movement after Matisse, Derain and other painters established an art colony there in the early 1900s.
The next morning, after some rough seas, nicely handled by the 185-metre ship, we docked in Marseille in the midst of a mistral, the cold northwest wind that blows from the Rhone Valley into the Camargue region. They say gusts are especially strong between seasons. In spite of a full day of powerful winds, we enjoyed our walk around the sheltered harbour on the hunt for a bowl of bouillabaisse. The stew made from at least four different kinds of fish cooked in a broth with onions, tomatoes, garlic, herbs and spices originated in Marseille. The Miramar, a famous waterfront restaurant, offered the dish at €63 ($90). We moved on and soon found a more modest establishment with an excellent fish stew for €28 which, even then, made it an $80 lunch between us.
Wind Surf trips often include a special “private event.” At the layover in Monaco’s Monte Carlo, we were treated to something called “Lifestyles of Glitterati.” After a hop-on, hop-off tour of the glamorous principality, we returned to the ship for an excellent canard à l’orange then it was off to the Café de Paris for dessert, champagne and a magic show. We closed the evening with a visit to the casino where travellers, but not locals, are encouraged to gamble as much as they wish at roulette and other such pastimes. (For more on Monaco, visit doctorsreview.com/features/make-most-monaco.)
More glamour was in store the next day with a stop in Cannes on the French Riviera, site of the famous film festival. We didn’t rub shoulders with any movie stars, but we did take a culinary tour that was the highlight of the cruise.
A dozen of us were bussed through the delightful French countryside to the village of Grasse, known for its perfume works. We then visited an olive grove, Domaine de la Royrie, where the owners took us for a stroll among the 500-year-old olive trees originally planted by monks; gave us a blind taste test of their early and late harvest olive oil; and, in the garden, served a delicious eight-course lunch, each plate of local food prepared with olive oil. This being France, we were also offered an excellent rosé and red wine.
Wind blows high
More heavy winds the next morning prevented our arrival at Portofino, Italy, but the captain, John Clark, an amiable Englishman, arranged instead for a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Porto Venere. With its ancient castle, church and narrow streets filled with cafés and craft shops, the town of 4000 was a delightful alternative.
Our final stop, before disembarkation in Rome, was on the island of Elba, the location of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile. In 1814, the emperor spent 300 days here and both his country residence, the Villa San Martino, and his town house, Villa dei Mulini, in Portoferraio, are open to the public. Each is blessed with expansive views of the Mediterranean and although it’s said the emperor preferred to sleep on his camp cot, it’s clear he did not lack for luxury.
As we left Elba heading towards Rome on a delightfully warm Mediterranean evening, the sails were unfurled to the stirring music of Vangelis’ “1492: Conquest of Paradise” and the guests enjoyed a last chance to visit with the ship’s officers. Windstar Cruises has an open bridge policy, a rarity these days.
For our final meal, we chose to dine outdoors on the teak deck at Candles, a specialty restaurant that’s set up each evening. Earlier at Stella, a similar “pop-up,” we enjoyed an extraordinary coquilles Saint-Jacques and an imaginative mille-feuille, the best meal of the trip.
Peggy and Roy Pollard, a British couple on their 10th Wind Surf cruise, were as enthusiastic as we were. “Back 15 years ago, we never ever wanted to go on a cruise,” Peggy said. “But a friend invited us aboard the Wind Surf in Barbados… and we were hooked”. This exclusive loyalty to a single ship is quite rare, but the Pollards love the mix of guests albeit usually middle age and above, the excellent food, the informal, laid-back atmosphere and the great ports. “We’ll be back,” Roy affirmed.
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