The gods were with us

“Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matitunal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy …”
(The Infinities, John Banville).

That was exactly how I felt that morning aboard Star Clipper when it arrived just after dawn in Santorini.  This journey of a lifetime had started some months ago when we were invited to test the services of Star Clipper for the incentive market. Together with some of our colleagues, we embarked on this journey and decided it would be good. Hermes; god of eloquence, patron of travellers, messenger of other divinities and brand architect of handbags and silk ties had decided to travel with us.

Throughout my boyhood I had read books of seafarers and stories involving tall ships. The book, that even during this journey, brought back these great memories was ‘Klei en Zout Water’ by Marten Toonder Senior. It was a true story about a young boy in Holland who loves the sea and sailing in particular. In his life, he really makes it happen and becomes Commodore of the Seas just before the Second World War and is later offered a knighthood in the order of Oranje Nassau.  But other than a fleeting visit during some of the Tall Ship Race stops in Zeebrugge or Antwerp, I had always dreamt of sailing specifically with one of these ships one day. My dream finally came true.

First we set off to Athens where Ovation’s preferred partner Kipling Events took care of those members in the group who wanted to re-discover the city (see article on same page). The morning started with breakfast on the terrace of the Grande Bretagne hotel with a breath-taking view of the Acropolis. After visiting some of the venues the group visited the new and fantastic Acropolis Museum; a great venue for top end events. The morning was idyllically rounded off by a lovely quayside lunch in the small harbour before we ended up boarding Star Clipper.

The informal atmosphere created by the cocktail reception allowed us to feel at ease immediately. After dinner the majestic ship set out on its 6 night voyage of the Southern Cyclades to the musical accompaniment of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire; a real goose bump moment.  As soon as the ship was out of port, the sails were raised and the warm wind took us to the East past Cape Sounion. Many of us stayed on deck, enjoying the cool atmosphere and the stars above whilst comforted with thoughts of the Gods above keeping a watchful eye on us all.

At four o’clock that morning most of us were woken up; he “weather gods” were having a dispute. The low pressure one above the Balkans was apparently sending a gush of wind and current to the high pressure one above Cyprus. The sailing ship was rocking; what a feeling! My porthole window had turned into a washing machine in overdrive. Yahoo! This is what tall ship sailing must be about I thought to myself, although not all passengers must have agreed with me:  especially the ones with a weaker stomach and no sea legs. Anyway, the morning after all of us felt invigorated by this new experience. During the daily briefing meeting on deck the Dutch and multi lingual cruise director was interrupted by a family of dolphins, swimming and jumping past our ship. The poor fellow lost all the attention he had received for a brief moment.  But for all the passengers on board it was just as if the Flipper Family had arrived on cue and was the first impromptu entertainment of the week.

It is not an ordinary life on board the Star Clipper! The first day of the voyage was spent as a full day at sea, and as the evening approached, so the gods of wind gradually settled their dispute. 

In the evening most guests gathered at the cocktail bar on deck for a sun downer after which dinner was served in the main dining room. What amazed us was the diverse community on board; French, Belgians, British, Germans, Italians, Swiss and Americans. Star Clipper has a fine mix of nationalities in its clientele and not one of them was overwhelming another. There was also a nice mix of baby boomers and Generation X’ers, a generation we had not expected to be so prominent on board before we left, but look at us, the cruise virgins? Partly due to this multi-cultural, multi lingual and relaxed atmosphere there was a lot of interaction with other passengers on board. However, for those who preferred privacy, or a tête à tête moment, the ship offers many alternatives. Apart from being a great and original way to travel and enjoy, Star Clipper offers moments of reflection for all of us, albeit through mesmerising times sat on a bench watching the sea go by or through lying flat out in the safety net below the bowsprit.

Moments as well on this particular voyage, to reflect on the wisdom the Old Greeks. From the great Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates and Plato to playwrights like Euripides and statesmen like Alexander the Great.

Hospitality for stars

For all their guests  the chefs prepare a very well balanced breakfast , buffet lunch and dinner and the wine list is impressive in quality and surprising in its moderate costing (as are the bar prices!). Also here, Dionysus; god of wine, inspiration and ecstasy and son of Zeus, has kept a watchful eye! The dress code is relaxed: no need for formal gowns and black tie. Casual elegance is the order of the day and night on Star Clippers.

With an open bridge principle, everybody can walk up to the crew; captains included, and question them about the trip, the ship, life on board and everything concerned. I went to check up on the first officer after dinner to explain to us finally about the stars and how they have always been the GPS system one can count upon. His twenty minute explanation taught us more than we ever learned at school. The captain and crew are superb improvisers of this kind of light hearted fun. The daily briefing is informative and the perfect chance to hear some great story telling.

A trip on a tall ship is a guarantee to stay away from mass tourism. The ship offers a vast number of opportunities and alternatives so that everyone has some kind of privacy and we never felt we were driven like a herd of cattle (apart from the emergency drill but that of course to is a necessity).

So what does one do on a ship like this to kill the time between two ports of call? There is really something for everyone and the sports team are busy from morning to dusk keeping bodies in shape. From Maria’s yoga session and treasure hunt, to Alfred’s aqua gym and walking the extra mile, the possibilities are endless. There are classes in tying the knot (by the way, I’m not talking about getting married here although we did have honeymooners on board as well!) or simply enjoying a Thai massage in a private tent on deck. When the ship is in port, the water sports come out: snorkelling, water-skiing, sailing, scuba diving, sea canoeing etc.  And in the evening, they involved the guests in a fashion show or open stage. To our surprise we discovered that even in the Belgian team we had a great singer whom we have omitted to send to the Eurovision song contest. And two of the Belgian ladies on board have just to meet one of the Elite scouts to make it to the international catwalk.

One important feature on a ship is of course the bar. The bartenders were constantly shaking and stirring, one of them is even a great singer, so the animation does not only come from the sports team.

One does not need to be active though. I used the time to perfect myself in the art of dolce far niente and many people finally found the time to read that good book that has been waiting for some time. For me it was Banville’s Infinities and a special edition of Le Point on the legacy of Ancient Greek Knowledge.

After dinner, I enjoyed one last stroll on deck below the canopy of stars; there is nothing as easy and pleasurable as falling asleep to the gentle rhythms of the ship and the sea.

The incentive travel experience

Now back to what we came here for: the incentive travel experience on Star Clippers. Is this a logical incentive product (from the ancient Greek word logos meaning reasoning, motif, argument) and why should we see cruising taking a larger market share in the future of incentive travel in Belgium? First of all: participants to this educational trip believe that an incentive trip should consist of a unique programme that one has not yet experienced and the cruise market is still in its early stages for Belgians. So one may assume that recipients of incentive trips have not done a lot of cruising yet and it would be a whole new travel experience to them.

Secondly it is a product that is offering a lot of individual freedom within the set programme. One can convene with the group at certain times or enjoy one’s own private moments on others. In the ports of call, your incentive agent or DMC will work out a tailor made programme for your group, other than what the normal cruise land programmes include.  Most cruise trips are also easy to link into with 6 night programmes, an average for a medium and long range incentive. The ultimate incentive, which could be ideal with Star Clippers, would be the one where the company would charter the entire ship or cruise leg, privatising the vessel for a group of maximum 170 passengers on Star Clipper and Star Flyer and 227on the Royal Clipper.

Star Clippers itineraries include the western and eastern Mediterranean during our summer season and the Caribbean and Central America that includes 7 and 14 nights’ itineraries during our winter season. Star Clipper, Star Flyer and Royal Clipper are modern cruise ships in every way, created for luxury-loving passengers who also love the traditions and romance of the legendary era of sailing ships. Each ship offers spacious accommodations and expansive teak decks with ample space and two swimming pools.

Green

Star Clippers have been incorporating eco-friendly systems and practices on its ships for years. So those who wish to travel with a greener and cleaner conscience will find that using wind energy is taking them already a long way ahead. The crews try to maximise the amount of time they sail under wind power, sailing is the ‘raison d’être’ of these ships. The time spent under sail recreates the glorious days of the ocean going clippers of the nineteenth century: travelling with speed and grace.

Ports of call

On this trip (the Southern Cyclades) we had stops at Rhodes, Bodrum, the Dalyan River delta, Santorini and Poros before returning back to Athens. Each one of them being thoroughly different. The medieval city walls and Grand-Masters Palace of Rhodes are one of the most magnificent sights in the Aegean. The Turkish coast offered the city of Bodrum and the beautiful estuary of the Dalyan River, with the impressive rock tombs carved into the cliffs above the town and the fun of spending some time in the mud baths. Next came Santorini, one of the most dramatic and unusual Greek islands. Santorini is the result of a cataclysmic eruption by the volcano Thera, 3.500 years ago, which blew its entire top leaving a semicircle of sheer black 300 m high cliffs surrounding a fathomless blue crater. Here the ship sails right into the caldera on its approach to Fira, the cliff top capital.  Our last port of call should have been Hydra but with the wind that had come up that night, the captain decided to steer the ship into the wind free natural harbour of Poros, offering us the original typical Greek island way of life. A combination of all these different ports of call offers incentive groups a great experience, every day is different. All those who do not want to join the land excursions can still profit of spending some time on a secluded beach and enjoying water sports.

Whichever itinerary you may choose, one thing remains the same: the Star Clippers experience. Incentive guests enjoy the thrill of being on an authentic tall ship while enjoying modern cruise ship amenities and luxuries that are worthy of a ‘mega-yacht sailing experience. Star Clippers offer cruise trips that feel like you are on a private yacht with friends. What appealed most of all to us was the easy-going informality that made the trip so enjoyable. If you want to put some wind in the sails of your incentive campaign, Star Clippers is a great solution.

 Athens by Kipling Events (an Ovation Global DMC partner company).

Angela Kipling personally looked after the BBT Online group during our brief stay in Athens. In this short time she was able to focus on some of the great meeting and event venues and gave us a taste of Athens, including of course the local food and drinks. We started off from the gracious Grande Bretagne hotel, member of the Starwood Luxury Collection brand, on Syntagma square to discover the city centre. Great venues visited included the Panathenaic marble stadium where the first of the modern Olympic Games was held and the neo-classical Zappeion mansion. After a short coffee break at the Dionysos restaurant, in front of the Acropolis gate, we visited the new Acropolis Museum, winner of the prestigious 2010 Globe Awards of the British Travel Writers Guild. The fabulous building is available for very special events in direct view of the Acropolis. After this there was time for a short stroll through the Plaka and an ouzo break in true Greek style! The cobblestoned old town quarter of Athens brims with Greek charm and tradition. Of the 3 main convention hotels Angela chose to visit the fabulous Athenaeum Intercontinental hotel with facilities including 40 meeting rooms – max 2,000 theatre style, 750 classroom, 2,500 reception, 1,430 banquet. The ballroom is the largest in the city, column-free, with stage and high ceiling. Dimensions: 45 x 33 meters with 5 meters ceiling height, totalling 1,485 square meters area. What more can one ask for? For lunch Angela chose one of her favourite places:  Plous Podilatou in Mikrolimano, a waterfront dinner in Pireaus’ charming yachting harbour, introducing us to some authentic Greek cuisine. From here it was only a short drive to board Star Clipper.

Athens by Kipling events: part two. After our trip on Star Clipper Angela’s colleague welcomed us back to Athens and took us for a drive along the Apollo coast. Dubbed the “Athenian Riviera”, the coast offers an array of beaches, waterfront event and conference venues, clubs and restaurants and a few stunning hotel properties. We had planned stops at Ble Pavillion, situated on the waterfront in the southern suburbs of Athens. Blé provides facilities for small to large group lunches, dinners, welcome cocktails and meetings in a relaxed atmosphere. This was followed by a visit of the Astir complex; sprawling across 75 acres of sun-drenched gardens on a pine-dotted private peninsula, the resort complex includes three hotels Arion, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, The Westin Athens and W Athens (opening 2012).