Hands on deck for yoga at sea
EARLY morning in the Mediterranean takes a lot of beating, especially when you're on the deck of a five-masted clipper sailing from Spain to Italy.
Every colour was enhanced as if someone had got hold of reality and then Photoshopped my mind.
The air was still chilly and the deep blue of the sea contrasted acutely with the clear whiteness of the early morning sky - although, to be honest, for the past half hour I'd mainly been looking at the brown planking of a well-scrubbed deck.
This was because our ship, the Royal Clipper, was offering twice-daily yoga sessions as it raced from the Bahamas to Malaga, and then Malaga to Civitavecchia.
Christel Vollmer, the ship's German yoga teacher, was helping passengers to salute the sun every day at 7.30am on the mizzen deck, and then to say goodbye to it on the aft deck every evening.
I'd joined her first group when the ship docked in Malaga.
A core of three highly committed Americans had already been concentrating on their breathing all the way from Barbados for the past 14 days. They already had their yoga sea legs.
I usually think of myself as a fine sailor and have no problem keeping my balance, but when your "downward-facing dog" is accompanied by SPV Royal Clipper rolling to starboard, there's a very real danger the dog in question will end up more downward than you intended.
By the end of the first session I had a headache, but Christel was upbeat: "All the little muscles you use to keep your balance will be getting an extra workout!"
I may not fear seasickness, but I don't generally like cruises.
I am willing, however, to make an exception for anything with sails.
Royal Clipper is a beautiful vessel, a reproduction of a five-master from 1900.
Mikael Krafft, the owner, is a Swedish businessman in love with the great days of sail. One hundred and fifty years ago, the clippers were the fastest things at sea.
They were built to "clip" the waves as they took passengers around Cape Horn and out to the Far East and Australia, and as they came back laden with tea, wool and grain.
Krafft built the Royal Clipper in 2000 hoping to revive the golden age of sail at an affordable price.
Carrying 227 passengers, Royal Clipper is the largest square rigger in service in the world today. It's also pretty romantic.
When we embarked in the dark from Malaga's harbour, all five masts were lit up like great gold-painted Christmas trees and the ship's PA played Vangelis's relentless questing theme from 1492.
This sort of thing seems to be de rigueur for cruise ships these days, but there is schmaltz and there is good schmaltz.
This was grade-A, high-octane stuff because the sails - all 42 of them - were unfurling one by one as we cleared the harbour.
Apparently what used to be done by a crew of 100 men pulling on ropes can now be done by 20, thanks to some nifty modern hydraulics.
Everyone stood on deck gazing upward as the ship's giant masts seemed to grow huge white sails.
It was as if our massive clipper was blooming. Pure theatre. No wonder people are coming back to sail.
And there is something about masts that actually lifts the spirits.
On our first morning at sea, on my way to the first yoga session, I looked up and marvelled at these 50m spires with all their middle sails and top gallants.
The top of your average oil-burning cruise ship looks like the roof of Tesco, with all its practical details piled messily around two or three black, belching chimneys.
You don't go up there if you want to retain the magic. But the white rigging that envelops and sustains a square-rigged clipper is a work of art.
Walking the length of this 134m ship was like passing through a white-painted forest.