For two summers we have been collecting books; gathering a small library of Imray’s hard covered Pilot Guides. Our collection currently stands at seven for regions we’ve sailed or are yet to sail. And despite the fact they aren’t always updated frequently (sometimes the latest edition is six years old), they are a comprehensive yachtie bible and have helped us find many a safe anchorage, to learn of local weather patterns, find a chandlery and so forth. Though as the French generally only prefer to cater for, well the French, there was not an English copy of the French Waters Pilot Guide to be found. Of course the internet is also a brilliant research tool – from the odd worthwhile yachtie’s report on noonsite.com to the endless threads on cruisersforum.com. Yet since arriving to France we could only buy 2GB of data at a time at a hefty €25 (A$35) a pop (are you kidding, that lasts us three days!), so we were constantly running out of that too. As a result we’d been trundling along for the past week not as well informed as we preferred. Fortunately the weather had so far been kind, leaving our anchoring options relatively flexible.
Completing another gentle overnight crossing, this time from the island of Corsica to mainland France, we’d dropped anchor in the darkness at 4:00 am and wearily retired to bed. Without the usual guiding hand of a pilot guide, we’d aimed slightly west of the Italian border toward a lone anchor symbol on the Raymarine chart plotter. We’d arrived on the eastern edge of the celebrated Cote d’Azur, knowing little of our end destination. So you can imagine our delight when we woke a few hours later to the exquisite backdrop of Menton – its colourful pastel facades bathed in morning sunshine.
Along the extensive Mediterranean coast few regions compete with the glamour, wealth and excessiveness of the French Riviera. This would be mum and dad’s second visit to the famed coast and the third time for Mike and I – but as always an entirely different perspective when approached from the sea.
Monte Carlo and the exclusive principality of Monaco need little introduction. Covering an area slightly over two km2, it’s the world’s most densely populated country and the smallest, second only to Vatican City. A well-known tax haven and magnet for the stupidly rich, Monaco is the epitome of opulence along an already flamboyantly affluent coast. The waters outside the harbour were too deep for our anchor, so we settled off the beach at Eze a few kilometres further west and later boarded the efficient TER train to Monaco. An evening was easily squandered wandering the mega-yacht marina and pushing through crowds of public paparazzi as they snapped photos of the endless stream of Ferraris, Porsches, Maseratis, Bugattis, Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis and Bentleys that rolled through the famous Monte Carlo Casino and Hotel de Paris valet.
Situated between famous neighbours Nice and Cannes, Antibes may be off the tourist itinerary for many, though its pleasant old town and unpretentious public beaches make it a worthwhile stop. Given its marina has capacity for the largest super yachts and ample service facilities; Antibes is the epicentre for yacht crewing in Europe. Hearing enviable stories from their friends or fellow travellers, numerous Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and South Africans land here each summer in hope of finding work and a cabin to call home aboard a luxury mega-yacht. Mike and I got to know this area well when seeking the same one summer in our mid-20s.
Thanks to a glittering film festival that attracts Hollywood’s brightest stars, Cannes is a household name; its enviable position on the glistening Mediterranean coast undeniably seductive. Hordes of holidaymakers pose for photos on the Palais des Festival’s permanent red carpet and gaze longingly in designer store windows, their doors guarded by sombre-faced security. Boulevard de la Croisette’s palm-fringed foreshore is lined with pay-through-the-nose-for-the privilege beach clubs and nearby the super yacht harbour is crowded with inexplicable wealth.
During a brief stint working on the super yachts in 2006, Mike and I caught a glimpse into the life where money is limitless. Seeking some holiday earnings, myself and a girlfriend travelling with us, scored a short contract aboard a 55-metre motor yacht. The yacht was owned by a relative of the UAE president and skippered by two friendly Kiwis. On our first morning at work we were giddy with fame when asked to pack the bags of the previous day’s guest. Whilst we didn’t catch a glimpse of the heiress herself (she’d been ‘evicted’ after a royal hissy fit), Paris Hilton’s luggage contained half-dozen designer handbags, boxes full of sunglasses and several pairs of massive size 11 heels. Next followed two weeks of frivolity and high-class call girls to schmooze Libyan guest Saif al-Islam – oil tycoon and infamous son of the late Colonel Gaddafi. Needless to say, my introduction to the high-roller scene was an eye-opener.
Occasionally handed wads of bills from the liberal Saudi owner, plus a decent tax-free wage and no living expenses, on completion of my three-week contract Mike and I departed the French Riviera and comfortably travelled through Eastern Europe for the remainder of the summer. As a whole the industry is a fascinating and intimate insight into the lifestyles of the world’s elite, where they are free to let their hair down behind closed doors. I’ve had a handful of friends go on to work several years on the yachts and given they generally work hard often going weeks (sometimes months) without a day off, it’s an unconventional albeit exotic way to travel the world and get paid.
Whilst it’s likely on the biased side listing some extreme examples, here’s an interesting article published in the UK just this week: READ HERE
The Mediterranean’s greatest concentration of super yachts is found on the Cote d’Azur plying the Monaco to St Tropez ‘milk run’. Given the number of mega-yachts we’ve come across these past two summers, we invariably thought we’d seen it all. That is, until rounding a headland into a quiet bay near St Raphael. Stretching before us like a gallant, floating fortress was 164-metre (536-foot) Eclipse, belonging to Russian billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich. Delivered in 2010 and approximately valued at a whopping €350 million (A$500 million) the mega-yacht features 24 guest cabins, an armour-plated master suite, two swimming pools and numerous hot tubs, two helipads, cinema, mini-submarine, capacity for 70 crew and even its own advanced missile defence system.
For three years Eclipse held the honour of the largest private yacht ever built, until late last year when it was one-upped by the UAE royal family with the launching of 180-metre (590-foot) Azzam. Built under a shroud of secrecy by Lurssen in Germany and with an estimated value around €460M (A$660M), it’s said Azzam will likely rarely leave her home port in the Middle East and was ultimately built for the elitist status of owning the world’s largest yacht. The yearly maintenance for a boat that size (fuel, staff, catering, moorings, repairs etc) is upwards of €40M and with capacity for one million litres of fuel, it goes to show how much she’ll guzzle as soon as her lines are dropped. But again… I can’t stop thinking of all those poor starving nations…
Yet our awe over goliath Eclipse was quickly overshadowed by Abramovich’s SECOND but smaller 113-metre yacht, Le Grand Bleu, that was anchored nearby. Motoring down the port side of the sleek sapphire beauty, we spotted that she was carrying none other than a SAILING YACHT. Gasp! Cradled on her aft deck was a 70’ monohull complete with mast, sails and rigging for the rare occasion Roman wanted to partake in some true pleasure cruising. It was balanced on the starboard side with a 65’ motor yacht – three boats in one! Many yachts carry an impressive collection of water sports toys, but this lot takes the cake.
Lying off the coast of Cannes are the peaceful pine-scented Illes de Lerins. Frequented by the local boating fraternity – yet lesser known to the millions that shuttle through Cannes – the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated on Ile Ste-Marguerite in 1687 and Ile St-Honorat home to a monastery since the 5th century. In the height of the summer the sheltered anchorage between the two islands was brim-full with hundreds of yachts and motorboats, yet a rare and unspoilt natural gem along an otherwise heavily developed coast.
Whenever we’ve come across powder-blue anchorages this summer, hundreds of boats are usually huddled together over the sandy-bottom. Taking advantage of the captive audience at Illes de Lerins, an entrepreneurial concessionaire was sending its product to the people. Skippered by young lasses, bright orange RIBs manoeuvred through the anchorage selling snacks and frosty beverages at a reasonable price tag – handy given we’d run out of beer!
Dinghy’ing ashore to explore Ile St-Honorat, hubby and I were barefoot and wearing little more than bikinis and boardies. We’d accidentally overlooked the French signage declaring our choice of dress was inappropriate, yet felt instantly guilty when approached by a monk cloaked in a heavy brown habit and hastily gesturing his arms in disapproval. Returning to the island respectively dressed, it was a pleasure to wander the monastery’s vineyard-strewn grounds and eucalyptus-shaded pathways that were awash in amber afternoon sunlight – a blissful world away from the overindulgence and hedonism on the mainland.
Sitting at the western end of the French Riviera is St Tropez and five-kilometre long Pampelonne Beach. Once a quaint fishing village, St Tropez totes itself as a fashionable and celebrity-studded destination where the wealthy and wannabes flock to see and be seen. Narrow cobbled-stoned laneways bursting with boutiques and cafes radiate off the small uber-exclusive port. I’ll never forget my first visit here back in 2006 aboard the aforementioned super yacht. On a rare night off we were shocked to pay upwards of €100 (A$150) for three basic rum and cokes at the splashy ‘VIP Room’ nightclub. Needless to say we didn’t get drunk that night!
To be brutally honest by this time our patience and interest was waning, as a week in this area is probably too long for anyone, especially a cruising yachtie who has consciously chosen a path of simplicity, happily existing with minimal possessions and expenditure.
Should you ever be headed to St Tropez my only recommendation would be to visit outside of peak season (July – August) because as we found, any lustre was overshadowed by the unbearably crowded waterfront and side streets. We sunk into one of the many bars lining the harbour, drinking overpriced rose and people watching before escaping back to the boat. With that in mind, I can only imagine the famous folk have long been scared away from these once-exclusive haunts by the throngs of people that flock here in hope of seeing them.
I didn’t take the camera on that occasion, so will leave you with a few snaps of the Captain and his lady doing what they do best.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’re probably thinking I’m a little bitter and cynical. In all honesty the Cote d’Azur is a dazzling stretch of coast, albeit developed and pretentious, and should be visited at least once in a lifetime to make up your own mind if it lives up to the hype… it’s just no longer the kind of place that appeals to me.
Please check in again soon as we travel back to the real world, onto Spain and her wild and rugged Costa Brava.