Why a new rail-and-sail Star Clippers cruise makes exploring Italy a breeze

Combine two classic – and sustainable – modes of travel on an Italian rail-and-sail itinerary, suggests Jeannine Williamson

I push open the gleaming wooden door with its shiny brass porthole and step outside the library into Star Flyer’s alfresco Tropical Bar.

When I’d gone in to pick out a book, there were just a handful of passengers outside enjoying a post-breakfast coffee and chat. Now, one of the ship’s sails is spread out across the floor, while two crew members mark areas that need repairing. Another is carefully guiding a section through an industrial-sized sewing machine.

The scene neatly encapsulates a key thread – in every sense – running through our leisurely Italian adventure. Star Clippers embraced sustainability long before it became a travel buzzword when, in founding the company back in 1989, Swedish sailing enthusiast Mikael Krafft fulfilled his dream of reviving the 19th-century golden age of tall ships combined with modern comforts.

And now I’m in Italy on one of the line’s new sail-and-rail escapes, which will suit clients who are keen to live la dolce vita while remaining mindful of their carbon footprint.

Train from Bari to Rome

On our 714-nautical mile Amalfi and Sicily round-trip voyage, the 166-passenger Star Flyer is propelled by the wind wherever possible; the line calculates its three ships sail an average of 40% of the time in the Mediterranean and 70% in the Caribbean.

Adding to the retro travel vibe is the 310-mile rail journey from southern Italy’s Puglia region to meet the ship in the port of Civitavecchia, gateway to Rome.

The journey began with a stay in Bari, capital of Puglia, before boarding the train, which was once the most convenient way to travel around Italy before the advent of cheap air travel. Just over four hours later, green countryside scattered with olive groves and vineyards makes way for the suburbs of Rome.

After an easy change of platform, 50 minutes later we’re pulling in to Civitavecchia. There’s time for the first of many Aperol spritzes in a sunny seafront cafe, against the backdrop of Star Flyer’s four distinctive masts peeking out above the harbour wall.

Sailaway party on Star Clippers

Even for seasoned cruisers, nothing beats watching the ship’s billowing sails being raised by hand for the first time. We nudge out into the open sea accompanied by the stirring sound of 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. I suspect I’m not the only one with goosebumps and the hair standing up on the back of my neck from the thrill, rather than simply a chill in the warm night air.

Star Flyer’s small size – it looks like a toy moored alongside a 6,000-passenger mega-ship when we dock in Messina – means that it can dock at far smaller and sleepier ports of call that are out of bounds to big vessels.

This represents an integral part of the Star Clippers experience. The ports of call do take in tourist-heavy, but undeniably beautiful, Amalfi – with a vertiginous yet rewardingly scenic excursion along the snaking clifftop coastal road – but I soon realise that I prefer the lesser-known stops, not least because everything is half the price or less in the shops and cafes.

From the Aeolian Island of Lipari, I opt for a small boat trip to neighbouring isle Vulcano, where plumes of smoke drift from the fumaroles, or holes, on the volcano, which dominates the skyline.

Our small group is outnumbered by locals and Italian day-trippers arriving by ferry.

After a guided walk there’s time to relax over a refreshingly zesty €4 limoncello and soda, as well as cooling granita, Sicily’s favourite semi-frozen dessert. On the way back, the clear day gives us a fantastic view of snow-capped Mount Etna, one of the world’s highest and most active volcanoes.

Back on board Star Flyer, things are pleasingly low-key and low-tech. There’s an Italian class, yoga, opportunities to paddleboard or kayak around the moored ship, take photos from a tender when all the sails are up and an amusing talk by the affable captain.

Another standout feature with Star Clippers is that passengers can chat to the officers and visit the bridge most of the time, and when they’re off duty you’ll most likely find them at the Tropical Bar.

Night cruise

Star Flyer also provides a prime viewing spot for our night-time sailing past the volcanic island of Stromboli, continuously active for thousands of years. There is a chorus of oohs and aahs from the deck as red showers of sparks and smoke erupt from the crater.

Who needs fireworks when Mother Nature provides such dramatic spectacles?

On the final morning I set my alarm for another glorious sunrise and take a stroll along the scrubbed teak deck – where coils of ropes and polished winches sit alongside sun loungers – and reflect on a wonderfully authentic two-fold experience. This is a trip where getting from A to B is as much a part of the journey as the destinations explored.

How to sell

Star Flyer

Climb the mast
This unique and exhilarating activity means the chance to climb 65ft up the mast to the crow’s nest, with the help of a safety harness. It’s well worth overcoming any nerves for an incredible view from the top.

Lounge in the bowsprit net
The springy nets strung across the bow at the front of the ship provide an interesting perspective of the sea below, as well as a prime spot to look out for passing dolphins.

Flaunt your inner Kate Moss
Each week there’s a light-hearted fashion show where passengers and crew can model clothes and accessories. Insider tip: tell your customers if they take part, they’ll get a discount in the ship’s boutique.

Book it: Star Clippers’ eight-night Bari Stay & Amalfi & Sicily Sail itinerary aboard Star Flyer costs from £2,999, departing on September 4, 2025. Price includes flights and transfers, a two-night stay at the Bventuno Hotel in Bari, excursions to Alberobello and Matera and first-class rail travel from Bari to Rome.

Other rail-and-sail options include the 20-night Al Andalus Rail & Canary Islands Sail package, which costs from £9,299. Departing October 26, it includes flights, transfers, one night in Seville, six nights aboard the luxury Al Andalus Train from Seville to Malaga, four nights in Malaga and a nine-night sailing on Star Flyer from Malaga to Gran Canaria.

What to do in Puglia

As I draw breath halfway up another flight of steps connecting this labyrinth of streets, Matera is cast in a golden light under the midday sun. The world’s third-oldest continually inhabited city, dating back more than 7,000 years and hewn out of soft limestone rocks, is an incredible sight.

It’s equally astonishing to discover that 16,000 people still lived in these simple cave dwellings (sassi) until as late as the 1950s, when they were evicted from slum conditions in a mass rehousing project.

However, Matera is no longer the so-called “shame of Italy”. Now Unesco-listed, in 2019 it was Europe’s Capital of Culture and is the high spot of my two-night pre-cruise stay.

It’s no surprise the dramatic setting gave the city a starring role in the most recent James Bond film, No Time to Die, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where it doubled as Jerusalem.

Matera, just across the Puglian border in neighbouring Basilicata, is an hour’s drive from our base in Bari. We stayed at the trendy 54-room Bventuno Hotel (also called B21 Lifestyle Hotel), which is handy for both the airport and train station as well as trips to Matera and Alberobello, with its ­concentration of conical trulli buildings for which the area is famous. For clients who fancy some relaxation, the boutique property is also next to San Francesco Beach.

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