Golden Horizon Charts Its Course
By Xenia Taliotis | Photography courtesy of Tradewind Voyages
Above, vast sails that would nearly cover a soccer field if laid out. Below lies the cool blue of the English Channel. Ahead we see the Isle of Wight, and receding from view are the White Cliffs of Dover. Between sail and sea, between land ahoy and land left behind is Golden Horizon, the tallest sailing vessel in the world.
A five-masted, square-rigged athlete who plans to circumnavigate the globe by harnessing the power of the wind and the currents for 70 percent of each season, she is a classic beauty from another age—from 1913, to be exact. She is a replica of France II, the second-largest commercial sailing ship ever built. Yet, in going back to the past, she may be heralding the future. Seafaring is currently under scrutiny for its environmental impact. Ships like Golden Horizon, which combine engines with wind power, could help reduce the industry’s carbon emissions. Each time she switches from the engine to sails, her fuel usage—and therefore her carbon footprint—shrinks enormously.
Despite being berthed in a port where liners that can accommodate thirteen times as many passengers routinely dock, Golden Horizon is the headline-maker, the eye-catcher. Compared to those blinding-white beasts, she is diminutive, yet it is her elegant, golden form that draws the crowds on the evening we set sail.
We’re on a five-night COVID-adapted return cruise to Plymouth—285 miles by road to the west of Dover—and this is her maiden voyage. It’s mine, too, since this is my first cruise, which accounts for my high excitement levels. What pushes them up even further is that this is also my first trip since England relaxed its travel restrictions and, most significantly of all, my first time on a sailing ship. We may only be traveling about five hundred nautical miles forth and back along England’s coastline, but the fact that as many of those as nature permits will be under sail imbues the trip with a sense of tradition and romanticism that most travel has long since lost.
We embark on a beautiful evening in July. The English summer has been a washout, yet on this day, the sun beams down on us as we enjoy cocktails on the deck while waiting to start our voyage. Suddenly, the specially commissioned fanfare announces our imminent departure. We cluster around the five masts and watch, transfixed, as 6,300 square meters (almost 68,000 square feet) of sails begin to unfurl. Their release is semiautomated, and without the distraction of all hands on deck, I feel I’m at the theater.
The sails dance down gracefully, veiling the setting sun and shimmering gold against the fading light of day.
It is a sight that neither my cell phone nor my photographic skills can capture, so I give up trying and instead enjoy the drama of the moment. The sails catch the wind, and forward we go!
The next day begins gradually and lazily. There is none of the urgency associated with the fear of missing out. Instead, life aboard is relaxed and without the pressure of having to do, well, anything. Golden Horizon is a traditional sailing ship, not a floating theme park, so there are no zip lines, climbing walls, go-karts, or guilt-inducing high-intensity workouts to swerve on the way to breakfast. Instead, there are early-morning yoga and meditation classes, afternoon quizzes and lectures, and nightly live music. Above all else, there is the old-fashioned romance of sailing under the wind’s power.
The hub of Golden Horizon’s more vigorous activities is the generously proportioned marina, which drops into the sea. It’s sophisticated and so beautifully designed that you might be tempted to forego the water sports for more supine relaxation. Still, it would be a shame not to try paddleboarding, windsurfing, kayaking, or snorkeling. Except for the Seabobs, the water sports are nonmotorized to reduce the impact on the environment.
The ship also has three saltwater pools, although only one is for swimming. The second is a plunge pool, and the other is a four-meter diving tank where passengers can have a forty-minute session with the ship’s diving instructor, Craig. This is a first for me, and after a thorough health and safety check, I flop in only to discover that it is yet another sport I am not designed for. However, the laughs it gives me (and Craig) are worth the effort of getting in and out of the wet suit.
The marina and deck are my favorite parts of the ship—by virtue of being open to the air and the views—but there is beauty inside, too, particularly in the dining room where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. It’s a showstopper with a double staircase, curved wrought iron balconies that lead to the Piano Lounge, and a skylight that is actually the glass bottom base of the swimming pool. Despite its elegance, it’s a place of ease that makes few demands on passengers. Of course, guests can dress to the nines if they so wish, but those of us who would rather stop at five (or even four) are made to feel just as welcome. The pomp-and-ceremony dressing is not my style, so it’s great that I experience no awkwardness over arriving for dinner in a pretty blouse and trousers rather than anything showier. The staff, too, are attentive but not overwhelming. They are there when needed and unobtrusive when not, which is what great service is all about in my book.
Though the menu is not wildly exciting, all dishes are well executed and flavorful, and there is always an Eat Well, Be Well option. Alternatively, you can grab a burger and potato chips in the Horizon Bar & Grill and biscuits and cakes in the Piano Lounge. You can always burn off the calories in the well-equipped gym or sweat them out in the spa.
The four days drift by effortlessly. A few hours of rest on the split-level wooden deck delivers the same restfulness I would ordinarily feel after several days away. Even when the engines are on—which they are for much of our time—their thud, thud seems unable to throw my newfound zen off balance.
Our pace under sail seems slow, so I am surprised to learn from Captain Mariusz Szalek that we are moving faster than when the engines are running. Perhaps it is the mental stillness I have found that dupes me into imagining we are scarcely moving. “Sailing ships bring you closer to nature,” says Captain Szalek. “You feel more in tune with the elements, and without the noise of the engines letting you know you are in motion, it is easy to imagine we are making little headway. That’s not the case, however.” He has been sailing since he was a child and says the wind and currents have always been his teachers.
“Nature is every sailor’s guide. It tells us when and where we can go.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic also has a say in Golden Horizon’s travel plans. Her original itinerary, which would have seen her heading to Australia, has been canceled, and a new schedule was devised. “Golden Horizon is a sun seeker,” says Alan McGrory, CEO of Tradewind Voyages, the ship’s operator. “Her cruises are planned so that they follow the traditional maritime trade routes to less-visited places. When we realized it would be impossible to visit Australia this winter, we went back to old routing charts and drew up a new itinerary that would make the most of the prevailing conditions. We are now taking her to Saint Barts, Saint Kitts, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Tobago, Grenada, the Grenadines, and Saint Vincent.”
No matter where she goes, Golden Horizon will sail with grace and dignity. Her combination of seafaring tradition and luxurious contemporary amenities provide an unforgettable experience that is as much about the journey as the destination.
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Xenia Taliotis was a guest of Tradewind Voyages during her journey on the Golden Horizon. For details on upcoming cruises, please visit TradewindVoyages.com.