Some of our most memorable summer days in the Côte d’Azur are spent looking back at it.
Several years ago, in a feat approached with unusual seriousness, Philippe bagged his French motor boating license. My husband may have been running a Fortune 500 company at the time, with all its associated meetings, conferences and speeches, but never had I seen him prepare for an engagement with such assiduity. Passing this exam was hardly a given.
With his precious captain’s license in hand, Philippe rents pleasure boats a few times each summer, and along with 10-year-old Lolo we cruise out of Antibes’ Port Vauban, heading northeast or southwest along the French Riviera’s storied coastline. The sea breeze cuts the worst of the summer heat as we float by limestone escarpments, red-tiled roofs and towering parasol pines. We spy cloistered properties that are cut off from everyone left on land.
Generally we make these excursions together with visiting family and friends. Our favourite day trips take us to Paloma Beach on Cap-Ferrat, or to l’Île St-Honorat, the smaller of the two Lérins Islands off Cannes, this one inhabited by beekeeping and wine-producing monks. Already this summer Philippe, Lolo and I have gone ashore to both.
When we feel more adventurous, we cruise as far as Monaco, on one hand, or St Tropez, on the other. Docking in these busy, star-studded ports amid the Mediterranean’s megayachts is always a game. Reserving a berth is never an option, so Philippe resorts to something more assured: his best French-Canadian accent. He pulls our minnow up to the capitainerie, and stepping onto the dock he strikes up an immediate friendship with the harbour master. The long-lost, Quebecois cousin is granted a docking space for a handful of hours – right there in prime quarters beneath the nose of this capitaine de port. The gig works like a charm. What’s more, it never costs us a Euro cent.
These are precious days. The saltwater splashes our faces and lips as we cruise. We are children once again. This week, as a break to the usual French Lessons series, we don our life vests, and together we board a vessel in Antibes’ Port Vauban.
As we leave the harbour, Fort Carré pokes through a forest of masts. The 16th-century fort served for long periods as France’s national border defense – up until 1860, when the Comté de Nice finally became part of France.
Paul Allen’s megayacht Tatoosh is a frequent visitor in the bay outside Antibes’ harbour. At 303 feet, the vessel appears more massive than Antibes’ medieval town itself, which lies in the distance here at her stern . . .
. . . while the enormous yacht can afford to stow – what is it? – a 50-some-foot racing sailboat onboard as a ‘toy’.
We cruise beside Nice’s Côte d’Azur Airport, whose seaside runway tests airline passengers’ wits, and we head toward the city itself, the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes departément. The old town skirts the sea. Its delicate spires and many-windowed buildings, painted in a palette of pastels, form a storybook backdrop for bathers who lounge on long, rocky beaches.
At the far end of Nice’s old town lies la Colline du Château, or Castle Hill. Here, situated within old quarries cut from its side, is a stunning statue to the city’s casualties during World War I.
Soon we round the peninsula that’s home to the swanky Mont Boron neighbourhood. Gazing up at the rugged, limestone cliffs, stately architectures and sumptuous gardens and private funiculars – otherwise cloistered behind looming security gates – spill out neatly before us.
We continue in our northeasterly direction, cruising across the Rade de Villefranche-sur-Mer, a naturally deep harbour that housed American naval ships for nearly two decades following World War II. Today it shelters towering luxury liners. The feted Cap-Ferrat peninsula forms the far side of this bay, and at its tip lies a lighthouse fringed in defunct World War II bunkers . . .
. . . and, in jarring juxtaposition, the five-star Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat.
Just around the bend, above a well-delineated hiking trail that skirts Cap-Ferrat’s shores, one of the waterfront’s most intriguing homes comes into view. Do the blinds actually shift, we wonder, to protect inhabitants from the strongest sunlight?
From here Philippe usually follows the peninsula’s undulating coastline until, at last, we happen upon our traditional objective: the paradise of Paloma Beach. But today we will travel further. Can you spot the perched village of Èze, literally carved into the rocky hilltop? The medieval center is now known for its art galleries and cacti – and for the best-ever balcony to take an afternoon apéritif.
The Principality of Monaco is upon us. Its Musée océanographique is at its most striking from our seaside vantage.
But before we enter the glamourous port, we must make a quick side trip. None other than the megayacht A is moored off its shores. It cuts a striking silhouette . . .
. . . with clean lines wholly representative of their designer, Philippe Starck.
At last we make our way to the famous tax haven. Entering Monaco through its harbour, it’s impossible not to feel that, for a moment at least, you are the star on a grand, operatic stage. Thousands of little windows gaze down into this maritime amphitheatre.
To some, the port is home. Kids tool around in sailing classes at the hulls of moored megayachts. But to most, Monaco is a place that feels like no other.
We’ll dock here today. Philippe slips our boat into an abandoned berth (with his best Quebecois to hand, just in case), and we’ll disembark for a short wander around the pristine tangle of streets that make up Monaco’s old town.
But keep those life vests to hand. Let’s cruise together again in a few weeks’ time. Then we’ll steer southwest out of Antibes’ harbour, meandering along the Côte d’Azur’s picturesque shoreline toward the renowned haven of St Tropez.