Liv­ing the dream

A taste of the high life

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - MAGGY OEHLBECK

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

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