The white, gleaming, boastful liners that fill the harbor overwhelm my vision as I approach the port in Dover, in the UK, yet I only have eyes for one vessel, the Golden Horizon, tiny by comparison. A retro-beauty, a near-replica of the elegant, 1913-constructed France II—the second-largest commercial merchant sailing ship ever built—it sits all aglow on the English Channel, waiting to get its inauguration party started.
Though it is a reminder of the past, it may be the ship of the things to come. Seafaring is currently under scrutiny for its environmental impact, so Golden Horizon, with its commitment to sail under wind whenever possible, will shrink its carbon foot dramatically each time it is able to switch from engine to sails.
Despite being diminutive in comparison to the giants that surround it, Golden Horizon is actually the tallest sailing vessel in the world, a statuesque, five-masted 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 sun-seeker, who will follow the traditional maritime trade routes to less-visited places,” said Alan McGrory, CEO of Tradewind Voyages, which operates Golden Horizon.
The pandemic threw its original schedule overboard, which necessitated a re-think.
“We went back to old routing charts and devised a new winter itinerary that will take her to St. Baarts, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Tobago, Grenada, Grenadines, and St Vincent to make the most of the prevailing conditions,” McGrory said.
All that lies ahead, however. I got on the ship in the UK, as it welcomed passengers on board to celebrate its maiden voyage, a five-night staycation cruise that leaves from and returns to Dover.
After a quick look around my cabin—like all the others, it is ocean-facing with traditional interiors and a smart, powerful shower—I head for the deck to exchange small talk over cocktails with the other passengers at the pool-side bar while waiting for the moment when we leave shore.
All departures are thrilling, but this one is particularly so, partly because this is the first post-lockdown trip for most of us, and partly because many of us have never been on a sailing ship before. The anticipation of watching Golden Horizon’s enormous sails come down fuels our excitement.
Suddenly, the specially composed fanfare announces our imminent departure. We group around the masts, cameras at the ready to capture the dramatic unfurling of those graceful sails. Golden Horizon has the largest sail area of any ship in the world—more than 67,000 square feet—and tonight their balletic, automated release seems to be in sync with the setting sun. The sails come down, shimmering gold against its mellow light, and we glide majestically away, leaving land and Dover’s White Cliffs behind.
Life on board is gentle and genteel. The service is attentive but not overwhelmingly so, and the ship’s relaxed vibe suits those who eschew pomp and ceremony for something more relaxed and informal.
Golden Horizon is a traditional sailing ship, not a floating theme park, so there are no zip lines, climbing walls, or go-karts, but there are early-morning yoga and meditation classes, quizzes, lectures, nightly live music, and, above all, the old-fashioned romance of sailing under the wind’s power. We drift effortlessly along, so I am surprised to learn from Captain Mariusz Szalek that we are actually moving faster than we would if the engines were on. It must be the quietness that lulls my senses into imagining stillness where there is speed.
The hub of Golden Horizon’s more vigorous activities is the beautiful marina, where instructors take guests paddle-boarding, wind-surfing, kayaking, and snorkeling. With the exception of the Seabobs, the water-sports are non-motorized, to reduce the impact on the environment.
There are also three saltwater pools, including a diving tank, about 13 feet deep, where passengers can have a 40-minute session with the ship’s diving instructor, Craig. This was a first for me, and after a thorough health and safety check I plunge in, but the lack of strength in my core and arms means I can’t flip my body to swim down headfirst. Craig turns me, but the minute he lets go, I’m in the wrong position again. He adds extra weights to my wetsuit but no … I’m still flapping about, unable to reach the bottom of the tank. I inflate my diving jacket several times to surface, convulsed with laughter. I finish my lesson not having mastered the basics, but the laughs I’ve had have more than made up for it.
I spend long hours on the photogenic, split-level deck reading, lounging, napping, and sea-gazing. One sunrise, I have it to myself, and, without the thudding of an engine, I experience a moment of absolute peace. There is nowhere I would rather be than right there, standing beneath those billowing sails as they move us gently forward and listening to the lap of the waves below and the calling of the gulls above. I am reminded of something Captain Mariusz said in his introductory speech—that cruising under sail brings you closer to nature.
“You have to work with the currents, with the wind. You have to listen to them,” he said. “They will tell you when and where you can go.”
The gulls’ frantic dives for food awaken my own appetite and I head to the dining room for breakfast. All meals are served here, and it’s an elegant space, with a double staircase and curved wrought-iron balconies that lead up to the Piano Lounge, and a skylight that is actually the glass-bottomed base of the swimming pool.
Though the menu is not wildly exciting, all dishes are well-executed and flavorful, and there is always a healthy 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.
There were two planned excursions on our cruise—one to Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and the other to Plymouth, but COVID-19 complications made Cowes impossible, and only a handful of passengers chose to disembark in Plymouth. The majority stayed on board to enjoy Golden Horizon’s hospitality, and to appreciate the beauty of a ship that combines seafaring tradition with contemporary amenities and luxury.
Xenia Taliotis was a guest of Tradewind Voyages.
Golden Horizon’s Caribbean program for 2021-2022 is now available. There are 21 departures between Nov. 11, 2021, and March 31, 2022. All are seven-night round trips from Barbados. All meals and soft drinks are included. Prices from 1,799 pounds (approx. $2,492) per person when sharing a cabin.
Voyages on Golden Horizon for the 2021–22 Caribbean Collection include:
- Undiscovered Caribbean: Tobago, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Lucia.
- Caribbean’s Hidden Gems: Dominica, Martinique, Bequia, and Guadeloupe.
- Icons of the Caribbean: Barbados, Antigua, and St Lucia. This voyage also stops at St. Kitts, St. Barts, and Antigua.
- 270–passenger ship with 140 ocean-view cabins and four superb suites with butler service, dining areas, and two bathrooms, one of which has a tub.
- Five bars, one restaurant, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, plus the Horizon Bar & Grill for lunches al fresco, and a Piano Lounge for teas, coffees, and snacks.
- Three saltwater pools, one for swimming, one a diving tank, and the other a plunge pool.
- A well-equipped gym, spa with hammam, sauna, and snow room, and comprehensive treatment menu.
- Library, shop, and lecture room.
- Passengers must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19; complimentary pre-boarding antigen testing.