Living the dream
A taste of the high life
SeaDream I eases effortlessly out of Nice’s harbour into a rising swell of pleasure craft of all shapes, sizes and dimensions. Festooning the Cote d’Azur as far as the eye can see, they are jockeying for suitable anchorages within striking distance of Cannes in the lead-up to the annual film festival. Predictably there is a phalanx of ostentatious super-yachts, some with helicopters aboard and most featuring marina decks equipped with the essential aquatic toys of the mega-rich.
We are not the least bit envious as we have our own mega yacht. SeaDream I, with its chic navy-blue hull, crisp cream superstructure and marina deck aft, signals Private Yacht in any language. With a youthful and enthusiastic crew, bottomless bottles of high-end bubbles and arguably the most stylish food afloat, our ship is more than a match for those French Riviera arrivistes. Besides, our staff will bring us spare reading glasses or sunnies if we’ve left ours in the stateroom, and they offer cooling spray mist and face towels to refresh overheated sunbathers. And they’ll make up a day bed on deck if we choose to slumber under the stars in our personally monogrammed pyjamas.
By now, we have swapped the hedonism of the south of France for the Italian Riviera, or more precisely Liguria. The region’s star turn is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cinque Terre and its five colourful fishing villages as well as Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino. The first part of our itinerary will focus on the Ligurian coast, then follow in Napoleon’s wake, with visits to the luminous islands of Corsica, his birthplace, and Elba, his first exile.
Our Ligurian interlude begins in Rapallo. Over the centuries European and Russian aristocrats and wealthy Americans came in droves, drawn to the beauty of its bay, balmy climate and culture. For us, it is the historic quarter’s narrow, winding pedestrian streets, known as caruggi, and the ornately frescoed buildings that intrigue, as do smart shops and authentic restaurants. But celebrity status unquestionably goes to Portofino. You simply can’t take a bad picture here. With its gelati-coloured buildings it looks like an opera set, with the illustrious Belmond Hotel Splendido hovering above the tiny heart-shaped bay from its box-seat position. Some SeaDreamers opt for an exclusive lunch at the hotel while others choose a coastal hike through luxuriant vegetation, olive groves and clusters of maritime pines, passing lavish villas until they reach Portofino, peruse its swanky merchandise, then head back on board
The commune of Porto Venere might lack Portofino’s cachet, but it is a charming gateway to Cinque Terre’s well-trodden paths and the five towns of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, which cling courageously to vine-clad terraces that cascade over a rocky shore plunging to the sea. Conquering the five settlements on foot is not possible for day-trippers like us but SeaDream has chartered a local ferry to enable guests to witness the spectacular vistas and sample the intoxicating beauty of the coast at close range.
On return to Porto Venere’s pretty waterfront, I riffle through the market stalls and seize upon a snappy designer jacket I have spied earlier. Clutching my purchase along with a large scoop of cherries, I climb up to the 12thcentury black-and-white striped church of St Peter, poised on a promontory overlooking the so-called Bay of Poets. From a grotto below, poet-adventurer and swimmer extraordinaire Lord Byron swam across to Lerici to visit his fellow poet Shelley. Through the back lanes down the steps to SeaDream I’s tender boat, my senses are galvanised by the aroma of freshly made pesto, the region’s signature dish.
Having recently read Thomas Keneally’s book Napoleon’s Last Island about the emperor’s final days on St Helena, I am eager to see how he lived on Elba, his first island exile. SeaDream I docks at Elba’s capital, Portofer- raio, its Renaissance fortifications created by the powerful Medicis to deter marauding hordes dominate the town’s profile. We clamber up the cobbled staircase to the small museum in the church of Misercordia, where Napoleon’s bicorn hat and red-sashed uniform are displayed along with a rickety mule-drawn ambulance.
On we puff to Palazzina dei Mulini where he lived for nine months before escaping to France, defeat at Waterloo, then exile again. The primrose-yellow residence is more Tuscan villa than palazzo. Its most recent renovation was in 2014. Interiors are furnished in Empire period with exquisite silk-upholstered couches, four-poster bed and other opulent flourishes. Despite the brooding presence of the Medici fortress overlooking his garden, the view over the parapet reveals the vivid aqua-blue sea below. Why would he leave?
We lurch down the steps again to the fashionable waterfront with its smart cafes and restaurants. I succumb to another retail attack and dart into a bijou boutique to buy a bottle of Acqua dell Elba cologne. It is a fragrant reminder of my all-too-short exile in Elba.
To date, everything on our cruise has been pitch perfect — the sunshine, sea conditions, ports, the camaraderie of fellow guests — until this evening when Captain Bjarne Smorawski announces with regret that, due to deteriorating weather conditions, he can’t take us into the scheduled Corsican ports of Calvi and Porto Vecchio. There are glum faces all around until he adds, “I can take
Vernazza’s pretty harbour, above; alfresco dining on SeaDream I, far left; Napoleonic memorabilia on Elba, left; SeaDream I docked in the Mediterranean, below