Echoes of a seafaring past

Tricia Welsh explores tiny villages and historical sites along the dramatic Dalmatian Coast.

The baroque village of Perast packs a powerful maritime punch for its size. Though its population is now fewer than 350, this little Montenegran town has a rich seafaring history. Under Venetian rule several centuries ago, it was renowned for its sailors and master shipbuilders.

Today, it is a popular port of call for the cruise boats that ply the beautiful and dramatic Dalmatian coast. As our majestic Royal Clipper navigates the fjord-like entrance to Boka Bay, women shake white bed-sheets from open windows as villagers wave from the shoreline. The display of sheets, we're told, is a tradition once used to assure returning husbands their wives had been faithful while the men were at sea.

Our captain circumnavigates two tiny islands just off Perast. St George is a natural island dotted with pines but Our Lady of the Rock is man-made. It was supposedly formed from old boats and rocks placed there by sailors over several centuries. Both have churches with bell towers and both are immensely photogenic.

As the ship faces into the bare-rock mountains, a crew member warns us to block our ears. The ship's horn sounds long and loud, then echoes back via the jagged mountain chasms. Seconds later, the church bell of Our Lady of the Rock rings in plaintive reply.

Adjacent to the Croatian border some 50 kilometres south of Dubrovnik, the region is a scenic surprise with its steep mountain terrain dotted with remote churches while villages hug the narrow shoreline into Kotor. The ancient walled city of Kotor was heritage-listed by UNESCO in 1979 and is perhaps the least-known port we visit.

Our 11-night cruise, with 182 passengers on board (the ship can accommodate 227), begins in the Roman port of Civitavecchia, then takes in the islands of Ponza, Capri, Sicily and Corfu before sailing up the Dalmatian Coast, staying a day each in Kotor, Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Rovinj to end in that most romantic of cities, Venice. Passengers can choose between organised excursions or setting out on their own.

The Royal Clipper is a replica of the legendary Preussen, the largest and fastest sailing ship in the world when it was launched in 1902. Though our imposing vessel has five masts and 42 sails, its boasts are more contemporary – there is a state-of-the-art navigation system and all the creature comforts its discerning guests might expect.

The atmosphere is intimate. Meals are served in one sitting and the food is exceptional with beautifully presented buffet tables at breakfast and lunch, while dinner is sit-down and a more swept-up affair of five-courses with choices. There is no casino, plenty of relaxing lounge space, comfortable larger-than-average cabins and a friendly and efficient crew.

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There's a touch of movie star glamour, too. Each day, as we depart for the next destination, we hear Vangelis's score for 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Ridley Scott's epic film celebrating Columbus's voyage to the Americas.

Star Clippers have adopted it as their unofficial theme song, playing it as the ship sails off into the sunset. These moments are often quite emotionally charged, especially as we leave our last port, Rovinj, and know this is our final night on board.

Tricia Welsh travelled courtesy of Star Clippers and Thai Airways International.

FAST FACTS

Every three weeks between June 26 and September 8 next year, the Royal Clipper will depart Civitavecchia on an 11-night cruise for Venice, returning for a 10-night cruise on the southern route on a Wednesday. Ports of call include Ponza, Capri, Taormina, Corfu, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar, Rovinj and Venice.

There are seven categories of accommodation, with rates for the 10-night cruise starting from about $3850 twin share and port taxes of $422; 11-night cruise from $4340 and $462 port taxes. A 10 per cent discounted fare applies to bookings placed before January 31.

Phone Creative Cruising on 1300 362 599 or see starclippers.com.

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