Cruising Indonesia on the Star Clipper: This is what you call a proper sailing adventure

"Hold to windward – 360 degrees. Steady," calls Captain Brunon Borowka, immaculately dressed in crisp naval whites. "Aye, Aye, captain," responds the helmsman, moving the giant wooden wheel with measured slowness. 

As the tropical sun sinks into the Lombok Strait, Captain Borowka strides purposefully across the flying bridge, trying to rendezvous with a ship's tender – not an easy task when you are commanding a 360-foot barquentine under full sail; until the late 19th century this style of four-masted sailing ship was the fastest thing on the trans Atlantic route. "I'm slowing down now," he tells a crewman on the tender via walkie-talkie. "Can you pick up the painter [rope]? If not I can bring the vessel to a complete stop. Please advise."

For anyone with the smallest drop of salt water in their veins a voyage aboard the Star Clipper, a replica barque launched in 1992, is a deeply romantic experience – especially on a glorious evening like this, when an orchestra of flapping sails seems to chase the vacuous, digital world into the darkening sky.

Apart from the distant lights of Gili Sudak, a tiny island lying off the west coast of Lombok, we are as solitary and vulnerable as the first Dutch traders who arrived here in 1596 in search of cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon and other valuable commodities, laying the foundations for what became the fabulously lucrative Spice Route.

Unlike those robust early mariners who rarely washed, slept in hammocks and ate weevil-infested biscuits (if they were lucky) today's cosseted adventurers return below deck to find air-conditioned cabins, complete with en suite bathrooms, a fully-stocked bar and a gracious dining room staffed by smartly dressed waiters and a menu groaning with opulent European fare, such as escargot, lobster bisque and lamb knuckle.

As we near the end of our leisurely seven-night voyage around the Indonesian islands of East Madura, Java and Bali, I can sense that most of my fellow 140 passengers have become a little besotted with the Star Clipper, our temporary floating home, which feels more like a private gentleman's yacht than a traditional cruise ship. The interiors, all polished mahogany and solid brass, hark back to the glory days of European sea travel.

"Sailing on a Star Clipper is not the same as being on a modern cruise ship," explains Peter Kissner, our affable, ponytailed German cruise director. "We don't have casinos, shopping arcades or any of that silly nonsense. No, this is a proper sailing adventure – even though we now use a combination of sail and engine power."

Being able to observe the crew at close quarters is one of the joys of sailing on the Star Clipper and its two sister ships Star Flyer and Royal Clipper, a somewhat eccentric tourism venture bankrolled by Swedish businessman Mikael Krafft, a passionate sailor since a boy; a fourth ship, to be called Flying Clipper, is under construction in Croatia and due to be launched in 2018.

"We operate an open wheelhouse policy, so passengers can learn first hand how the ship operates," explains Kissner. "They can even take the wheel and steer the ship themselves. We encourage people to participate in the running of the ship – but of course that doesn't mean we expect you to scrub decks or peel potatoes!"

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The ship, which is normally home ported in the northern hemisphere, now offers two Indonesian circular island-hopping adventures from its seasonal base at the Port of Benoa on Bali: eastbound to Komodo and Satonda islands; and westbound to East Matura, Java and Lombok.

For anyone who despairs at the madcap pace of development now transforming Bali, our genteel odyssey is a pleasant reminder that rural life in many parts of the archipelago remains largely unchanged – and that Indonesia is a nation of vast cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, each one proudly distinct and vibrant.

After a relaxing night at sea – Star Clipper is equipped with stabilisers which dampen some of the worst lumps and bumps – our first major destination is the East Javanese city of Probolinggo, an example of Indonesia's thriving economy, packed with modern shopping malls, shiny new mosques and takeaway outlets. Many of our fellow passengers have signed-up for a day-long expedition to Mount Bromo, a popular beauty spot 45 kilometres inland – but a bumpy ride by 4WD for part of the journey. A hardy group of us opt to hire couple of bicycle rickshaws at the wharf and set off to explore Probolinggo. Despite being in the throes of Ramadan, the locals are hospitable, curious and happy to be photographed; but after a couple of torrid hours we are happy to return to the security of the ship and a cold beer, or two.

The following day finds us back on Bali, but this time on the far north coast, coming ashore at the bustling seaside resort of Lovina Beach before taking a mini-cab into the mountains for a gentle hike through the rainforest. The contrast between the chaos of Probolinggo and the serenity of Munduk with its paddy fields, thatched houses, Hindu shrines and waterfalls couldn't have been greater. Unlike many of Bali's towns which are now mired in rubbish, these villages are spotless and the locals work tirelessly growing not just rice but cloves, coffee, guava fruit and vanilla. On our return leg to Lovina Beach we spot a gaggle of ducks splashing around in a field. 

"When the rice is harvested the farmer will put the ducks into the field to eat what is left," explains our guide. "It's an efficient system – and the ducks are very happy."

The following day we make a similar trek into the hinterland of Lombok to explore the beautiful Rinjani National Park, home to world-famous Gunung Rinjani – a 3726-metre-high volcano, and the second highest mountain in Indonesia. Apart from hiking through the rainforest and cooling off in thundering waterfall, we learn something about the local Sasak people and their rather peculiar mateship rituals. "When young couple want to marry, the boy will come to the house of the girl's parent at night and kidnap her," explains our guide Sukatni. "But it's not really kidnapping because the girl's parents must approve first. It goes back many, many generations."

Sukatni is the founder of an all-female trekking company which takes small groups of walkers through the countryside – providing financial independence for village women and protecting the environment at the same time.

"When I first started this company in 1995 no-one believed it would succeed," she says. "But we now employ many women who really enjoy the work and are able to help their families at the same time. I'm very proud."

These well-organised and modestly priced shore trips are an integral part of the island-hopping experience, but for those who prefer to stay on board, the Star Clipper provides a surprising number of other things to do. Apart from its swimming pools and sundecks, the ship offers are exercise classes, snorkelling and scuba diving expeditions, lectures and a chance to climb into the rigging. Medleys from our resident keyboardist Antonio, a few well-mixed cocktails and a mutual sense of nautical adventure dissolved any lingering shyness between the mostly British, German and American passengers.

"The early sailing ships were designed for trade but as they sailed around the world they also helped bridge the gap between cultures," says Peter Kissner, our tireless host. "On Star Clipper, we keep that tradition alive."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/bali

FLY

Virgin Australia flies frequently from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Denpasar (Bali). Cruises depart from the Port of Benoa, eight kilometres from the airport. Taxis and shuttles are available. See virginaustralia.com

CRUISE

Star Clipper's seven-day westbound journey departing from the Port of Benoa (Bali) and visiting Giligenteng, Java and Lombok starts at $2710 per person, including a 20 per cent early booking discount, sharing a cabin. The price includes all meals, refreshments, most watersports, shipboard gratuities, port charges and transfers to and from shore. Alcoholic drinks and guided shore excursions are extra. Star Clipper sails from Bali between May and September each year. Phone 1300 295 161. See starclippers.com

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Star Clippers.

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