Summer sails; RIC PAPINEAU weighs anchor among the uber rich.
THERE is scarcely a breath of wind, but the crew confidently hoists the sails and, with little more than a whisper in the canvas, a rustle in the ropes and a soft splash of water on the hull, we are under way.
The sun drops behind the hills of the French Riviera as we slip quietly away from Cannes, past the megayachts of the super-rich on our own luxury vessel - the four-masted clipper, Star Flyer.
We had sneaked into Cannes through the back door. The film festival was in full swing on the Croisette and there was no way they would let a bunch like us near the red carpet.
But once on the quayside in Cannes harbour we certainly felt like celebs: met by attentive staff in crisp, starched white uniforms, ferried out to the Star Flyer and welcomed on board with cocktails and canapes.
There was scarcely time to get to know fellow passengers over drinks and dinner before we set sail into the sunset.
Star Flyer is all polished teak and brass, a hi-tech re-creation of a classic clipper such as the Cutty Sark, which dominated the oceans in the 19th century.
Built in 1991 by Swedish yachtsman and businessman Mikael Kraffta, Star Flyer is a four-masted barquentine, 379ft long, with 36,220 sq ft of sails, carrying a maximum of 170 passengers and 70 crew.
We were on a four-day trip from Cannes calling at Monaco, Calvi in Corsica and Portofino in Italy.
But this is no conventional cruise holiday. There's no dressing formally for dinner, no casinos, nightclub floor-shows or guest lecturers.
Anybody looking for a "holiday resort afloat" would do better on a massive cruise liner. But this isn't an adventurous sailing experience - it is a tall ship and the crew does all the hard work. But when the seas aren't too rough, travellers with a head for heights can climb the rigging to the crow's nest.
Less brave guests can clamber out on the bowsprit and relax in the net, with nothing below except white foam disappearing under the hull as the ship cuts through the waves.
It didn't take long to discover the tropical bar, piano bar and two sun decks, where there's plenty of space to stretch out.
Beauty and massage treatments are available, and the ship has a well-stocked library.
It may be modelled on an old clipper but there are several grades of air-conditioned cabins with hair dryers and TV.
Even the smallest cabins have a double bed or two singles, plenty of storage space and shower and toilet. The most luxurious have whirlpool baths, direct access on to the deck. On the first day at sea I woke early and was on deck before breakfast - definitely the best time to experience the true thrill of the ship under sail.
It was beautifully quiet and calm as I watched Nice slip by before we rounded Cap Ferrat and arrived in Monte Carlo harbour.
Mooring the Star Flyer was a delicate manoeuvre so we could admire the luxury yachts in this millionaires' playground.
There were two organised trips: around Monaco and to the medieval village of Eze, or to the beautiful Rothschild villa and gardens at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
I chose to go it alone in Monte Carlo. A visit to the casino was followed by a drink at the Cafe de Paris, while admiring the Rolls, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
After a stroll through the old town, I visited the cathedral to join crowds of Americans paying homage at Grace Kelly's tomb.
There was still time to visit the aquarium and enjoy the gardens overlooking the harbour before heading back to the ship. The bar staff were demonstrating their cocktail-making skills before dinner: a three-course choice of fish, meat and vegetarian dishes with waiter service.
The next day, the coast of Corsica was in sight but it was mid-morning before we cast anchor off Calvi. Its bay is ideal for sailing, wind-surfing and kayaking. The ship also offers snorkelling and diving trips.
On shore we could spend the day in the shops, bars and restaurants round the port or strike out on a walk.
A group of us chose to walk and were rewarded with swathes of spring flowers and stunning views of the cliffs and coast.
By the time we were back on board, the wind was getting up. The passengers helped raise the sails, an experience a little like a village green tug'o'war but with hundreds of square yards of canvas as an opponent. As sail after sail went up, the ship picked up speed.
Next day it was Portofino, a beautiful cluster of terracotta houses and restaurants crowded around a small harbour: simple, charming and fearfully expensive. The last evening is traditionally the Captain's dinner, where we were treated to champagne and lobster tails.
We finished up in the piano bar to reflect on our adventure under billowing white sails.
STAR Clippers offers fully-crewed voyages on the world's biggest tall ships in the Med, around Central America and the Caribbean. A three-night Mediterranean cruise costs from pounds 660pp and seven nights from pounds 1,295pp, including meals, taxes and entertainment, based on two sharing.
Departs May to October. Excludes flights. Visit www.starclippers.co.uk. Call 0845 200 6145.
TIME ZONE: GMT +1hr.
CURRENCY: Euro on board pounds 1 = 1.16
BEST TIME TO GO: Set sail May-Oct
LAND HO Ric on the bowsprit HELPING OUT Passengers and crew raise the sails together KEEL SERVICES The elegant Star Flyer oozes 19th century charm