The children gaze up in awe. The masts gleam in the afternoon sun. The crew, resolutely sailor-like, in stripy shirts, stroll about. And suddenly something our kids have only seen in books comes to life. But no matter how many times you experience it – the sails cracking like a whip as they fill, the ship all but lifted into motion, the rousing music as it all goes on – you can’t help but be impressed.
The kids have been on a cruise before, but it was nothing like this. The Star Clipper is one of the world’s largest sailing ships but carries only 170 passengers – a far cry from the 4,000 of their previous voyage. This isn’t a family cruise as such – there’s no waterpark, playroom or Wii consoles – but the whole vessel is an adventure playground that takes us gliding, sails puffed out, through the Greek islands. From the moment we leave Piraeus, the port about an hour from Athens airport, the fun never stops. Not least because in the dining room there’s no kids' menu and Georgia, 14, and Henry, 11, find they can have steak and chips for dinner daily.
They also love the mast climbing – mid-ocean they’re allowed to clamber up the precarious, bouncy rigging (while attached to a harness) to the crow’s nest. And they love the freedom to be able to clamber along that long mast that sticks out the front, dropping into the nets on either side to sunbathe with the sea beneath them. Having made new friends – because the age range on board is lower than on many other cruises – they wander the ship at will, using the small but deepish deck-pool, gorging on the afternoon cakes, playing Scrabble and Monopoly in the library, and borrowing DVDs to play on the TVs in the roomy cabins. The cabins have chunky brass portholes, of which ours is just above the sea, giving a hypnotic splash against glass as we drift off to sleep.
If the ship is an adventure, the places we visit match perfectly. On Rhodes we dock and walk straight through the gate in the ancient walls into Rhodes old town, strolling back-alleys and the main thoroughfares before cooling off at a tiny beach at the harbour. At the bustling Turkish resort of Bodrum we walk around the bay to the castle, built by Christian invaders at the start of the 15th century.
Back on board, we attack the big lunch buffet before getting the ship’s tender across the bay for watersports, overseen by the ship’s own team. Georgia, who sails regularly, takes out a Pico sailboat with another, experienced guest and zig-zags across the bay; Henry and I borrow a two-man kayak and paddle along the rocky coastline; and we all get our snorkels on and watch the fish below.
On other days we anchor off unspoilt Hydra (where we take an inflatable boat to a little beach for swimming and more watersports) and Santorini (where a cable-car gets you to the village at the top of the mountain, actually the rim of a seemingly extinct volcano). But the highlight is Dalyan River, a Turkish beauty spot where protected Iztuzu Beach (where loggerhead turtles nest) sits against a backdrop of hazy mountains. The river itself passes one end of the soft sand-spit, creating a lake behind it where small boats head off on trips, snaking dreamily through the forest of rushes. It’s like a scene from Vietnam, although the children’s attention is in the other direction – both spend the morning leaping in the breakers while the Star Clipper bobs out on the open waters. It’s idyllic.
Also idyllic is a two-night stay in Athens before the cruise. Athens is a great place to sail from if you’re making your own arrangements (Star Clipper cruises don’t include flights or transfers). The regular X96 bus goes from airport to waterfront in an hour, leaving a 20-minute harbourside walk to the cruise terminal – easy with youngsters and wheeled cases. Piraeus, slightly cooler than central Athens, is a good place to stay, with reasonably priced hotels, cheap restaurants and a pleasing beach just around the headland from the yacht marina.
And Athens itself is an easy, budget treat for families. An Athens day-pass for buses and metro is super-cheap (free up to age six), and the old electric railway, now integrated into the metro system, gets us to the central Monastiraki station, for the Acropolis, in 20 minutes. There, entrance is free for under-19s, with the adult ticket giving not only admission to the historic hilltop site of the Parthenon but also the smart Acropolis Museum and various other sites.
We were glad to have done the city first; we were exhausted by the heat and, having wheeled our cases down a cobbled hill to the harbour, the Star Clipper was a welcome sight. The welcome cocktails were even more so. By then, though, the children had disappeared on their own deckside adventures.
Read our guide to family cruise holidays including hand-picked cruise firms and expert tips.