Sailing around Indonesia on Star Clipper: What it's like sailing on a real ship

Let me be upfront. There are much bigger cruise ships than Star Clipper, and more luxurious and sophisticated ones. You'll look in vain for a specialty restaurant or a dance troupe or a spa retreat, though you can get a good massage. None of this will matter at sail-away time, though, when a sudden scurry of activity on deck sees the crew haul on ropes. The wind whips and vast expanses of sail are hoisted upwards – or downwards, in the case of gallant sails.

Suddenly Star Clipper comes alive. It creaks and rattles. The ship surges and tilts beneath your feet and you feel like laughing in pure exhilaration. Passenger faces swivel upwards in awe at the web of rigging that cross-hatches the blue sky. The well-polished wooden railings on deck are sticky with salt, and a salt wind blows. There are no ladies in high heels and lacquered hairdos on this vessel. Hair is all a-tangle, and feet might be bare.

In the evenings after dinner, you can go up onto the top deck of this sailing ship and find the captain at the wheel, face glowing over navigation panels. You can hear the splash of dolphins leaping off to starboard, and lie back on a deck chair and see the constellations weave their way through the rigging.

Never mind, therefore, that Star Clipper isn't the poshest of cruise ships, because it's a thoroughbred of the wind and waves that makes any other cruise ship seem like a plodding donkey. Often a better-dressed, better-fed and better-presented donkey, but a donkey nevertheless. Big cruise ships can often feel like floating hotels, big machines, or funfairs at sea. Star Clipper is none of those. It's a working tall-masted sailing ship, and after a while – if you have any romance in your soul – you'll realise that's all that really matters.

Many of the passengers on board are yachties or have some interest in old-time sailing ships, but if (like me) you've barely set foot on a yacht before you'll still be thrilled. You can stride the deck and feel like Horatio Nelson or Captain Hornblower. You'll wish you packed your eye patch and peg leg. Whatever your romance of running away to sea, it will be fulfilled, at least for a while. The ship is simply a marvel. Coiled ropes festoon the deck. Your eyes move upwards along lines to ropes and grand masts tall as trees. You can watch the crew in their blue-and-white striped shirts hauling and winding, and you wonder how it all works.

I've sailed on cruise ships many times, but I think I can finally say I've been to sea, now that I've stood under swathes of canvas as the sea hisses and the wind impregnates the sails with promise. The world seems my oyster. Admittedly, oysters aren't something you're likely to be served on board, and certainly not in a suave backlit cocktail lounge by a tuxedoed waiter. You can, though, have champagne barefoot on deck. Or beer in your shorts, with the salt breeze providing a free exfoliation and the sun tickling your toes.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a bare bones cruise. Crew daub over scratches with white paint, polish the leaves of the potted plants and wage war against the ceaseless attrition of the elements. There's plenty of old-world charm on Star Clipper, whose public areas are adorned with brass railings and blue-buttoned banquettes and oil paintings depicting the great sailing ships of yore, reverently framed in gilt. You could imagine Lauren Bacall draping herself on the lid of the white grand piano in the lounge as Humphrey Bogart tinkles the ivories. This is a ship from a golden age, before anyone cared about flat-screen TVs and Molton Brown toiletries.

The restaurant is the most elegant space. Food isn't the latest in contemporary fusion cuisine, cleverly plated. Star Clipper never pretends to be other than it is, and its restaurant is no different. The somewhat old-fashioned European dishes are filling and satisfying, with lunch buffets providing a good opportunity to delve into salads in particular, and dinners offering good choices over five courses. Nothing is Instagram-fancy, but you'll be happy. This is a cruise to please yourself, not your social-media followers.

Star Clipper (the ship) is a replica of a four-masted barquantine, a vessel with 16 sails once used in the northern European timber trade. Star Clippers (the company) has a fleet of tall ships that offers a very different experience from the regular cruise. The ship can operate without its engines and sometimes does. The wheelhouse is on the open deck, and you can talk to the officers about navigation, watch deckhands at work, and learn how to read a nautical chart. You can climb to the crow's nest and take a turn at the wheel if you wish.

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You do, of course, make sacrifices for the considerable joy of barquantine cruising. Star Clipper's space, though all air-conditioned, is limited. There's a very squeezed lounge, an outdoor bar and deck where most socialising takes place, a restaurant, a library, two tiny pools (deep puddles, really) and various deck spaces encumbered with equipment. Wi-Fi and TV reception are slow and intermittent.

Cabins are compact, and most have portholes rather than windows or balconies. You won't want to linger in your cabin. You can snooze on the loungers on deck, or prop up the bar, or lean on the railings and watch the sparkle of sunlight on waves.

Passengers on my Indonesian cruise are a good mix of Europeans (many German, with the euro the on-board currency) plus Brits, Americans and Australians. Most are retired, but they're younger and more active than the norm. Just as well. Staircases are steep, decks cluttered with ropes and other obstacles, and cruises are expedition style, with shore excursions often made by lifeboat tender or Zodiac. Many passengers don't join the additional-cost shore excursions but are content to explore by themselves, or use the ship's snorkelling gear to investigate reefs of multi-hued fish. An on-board, certified PADI instructor takes scuba divers into more adventurous depths.

You fall into the rhythm of the sea on this ship. For the first few days passengers grumble about the cramped spaces and wet landings, but as the days pass we all become increasingly sunburned and windswept and laidback. We're mesmerised by the waves and calmed by the blue horizons. We return to a world of rope and teak and dark starry nights. We're seduced by Star Clipper's sails as they crack and swell above us, sending the ship surging forward towards another spice-scented island like a seadog unleashed.

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Star Clippers operates cruises in Singapore and along the west coast of Malaysia and Thailand as well as in Indonesia round-trip from Bali. The writer travelled on a seven-day "Eastbound" itinerary that visits Bali, Lombok, Komodo and Satonda. The next sailings are between June and September 2019, with prices from $2740pp twin share, plus port charges, beverages and most shore excursions.

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Star Clippers and Alila Seminyak Bali.

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