Huffing and puffing, we stagger along the steep, narrow lane that leads to the top of a hill on Lipari, the largest Aeolian island off the northern coast of Sicily.
But the hard work is worth it, and we’re rewarded with a view that has us clicking away furiously at camera shutters. The object of our affections, however, isn’t a natural vista or an ancient Greek ruin, it’s the Royal Clipper - a majestic ship with her sails unfurled.
Since departing the Italian mainland a few days earlier, and sailing along the Amalfi Coast, our floating home has caused quite a stir. Although just 439ft, the small vessel has everything you could want from a cruise ship and more. On the top deck are three small pools with plenty of space for sun loungers to lie back and relax in; underneath are a few decks with facilities, including a gym and salon. The ship is just big enough so that you feel like you have enough space, but small enough to easily navigate your way around.
All formal meals are served in the beautiful three-tiered dining room, with its sweeping balconies and ornate balustrades. Breakfast and lunch consist of an extensive buffet which is served in the room each day, while every evening there is a five-course feast.
But the real bonus of travelling in a ship this small is the opportunity to call in at smaller ports, often close to the main attractions. Unlike larger cruise ships which dock in big industrial ports that require taxis and buses to reach anywhere of interest, the Clipper ships set down their anchor in less easily accessible places. Once moored outside a harbour, their own tender boats can be lowered down into the water to quickly transport passengers across to the jetties lining the ports, allowing them the luxury of being able to wander around in their own time.
That’s exactly what I do in Lipari, where I spend a leisurely morning roaming the bustling town, stopping regularly to take pictures of the pretty cobbled streets and flower-lined terraces.
Of course, there are still group excursions which you can sign up for. When we dock in Sicily, I opt for one offering wine tasting, followed by a visit to the beautiful town of Taormina.
Our coach winds its way up Mount Etna, where we visit a vineyard. After a talk from one of the proprietors about its history, we’re given a tour of the cellars packed with huge wine barrels. Then we get to the most important part - the wine tasting itself! We are led to a terraced area with beautifully-laid tables. Terraces of vines stretch below us, with the distant sea twinkling in the bright sunlight.
To complement the different wines we sample, we are treated to a buffet of Italian delicacies - piping hot pasta, sausages and grilled aubergine, local cheeses and bruschetta.
Feeling slightly tipsy and with full bellies, we pile onto the coach and enjoy a snooze as we are transported to Taormina.
Nestled high in the cliffs above the port of Giardini Naxos, where the ship is moored, Taormina regularly features on lists of must-see places to go. I spend a memorable few hours meandering along its narrow cobbled streets, popping into high-end boutiques to eye up chic Italian handbags and shoes that are way out of my price range!
To end the day on a high, I take a cable car ride above the water and admire the views below. There again is the Royal Clipper, eliciting envy and attention from other tourists. Even without her sails unfurled, the vessel is still eye-catching. Of course, this is helped by her surroundings, as everywhere we moor is as picturesque as it comes.
Although the ship doesn’t depend solely on her 42 sails for power, the crew unfurl them on a number of occasions during our trip - if only for everyone to admire the sight of them. The ships aim to operate under wind power 70 per cent of the time, saving 6,960 litres of fuel per day. This makes them possibly one of the most eco-friendly ways to cruise the seas.
Another advantage of being on a smaller ship is the marine deck that can be lowered down when at anchor, serving as a platform for activities such as windsurfing, kayaking and snorkelling. If you don’t feel like being active, you can plunge into the water, prop yourself up on foam floats and lounge seal-like in the sun.
Evenings are spent in the ship’s open-sided Tropical Bar, where entertainment is provided. My favourite performance is the talent show, where members of the crew perform amusing routines, including a magic show and a drag act.
But one of the biggest highlights of my trip is the opportunity to climb the ship’s rigging up into the crow’s nest. Those with a head for heights should definitely not miss out on the chance to do this.
Clipped onto the rigging with a harness, I’m reassured that even if I do slip, I won’t be able to fall far. Once I have clambered to the top and onto a wooden platform I’m rewarded with an incredible bird’s-eye view of the boat. Surrounded by billowing sails, all I can hear is the wind, and it’s easy to imagine that I’ve travelled back to a time when ships such as the Royal Clipper ruled the waves.