As the Côte d’Azur rounds out the highest part of its summer season, French Lessons escapes the urban madness and sticky beaches for the high seas. A few weeks ago we cruised together from Antibes to Monaco, and I’m happily reminded by several readers that we’re due to don our life vests once again.
So off we go. Slather on some sunscreen and pop on your favourite sunglasses. The Côte d’Azur is famous for its strong rays. After all, Coco Chanel “invented” the suntan here in the 1920s.
Skimming along the Mediterranean, Philippe (with his coveted French captain’s license), our spirited 10-year-old Lolo and I will show you what most visitors to this region miss. We’ll cling to the craggy, limestone coastline as we drift southwest this time, leaving Antibes’ Port Vauban in the direction of the jet-set party town of St-Tropez. If I can convince Philippe to throttle back on his speed – a tough job, but we’ll give it a go – a few storied islands might grab our attention along the way, too.
Leaving Port Vauban we pass this 281-foot superyacht that spends most of her days moored along the furthest quay. During the height of her celebrity, she was known as the Flying Saucer: That was when James Bond swung over her decks in the 1983 film Never Say Never Again.
In more recent years the megayacht has filtered through the hands of the Sultan of Brunei and Donald Trump, finally settling on her current owner, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Now called Kingdom 5KR, the vessel returned to the press a few years ago when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich asked to park his 536-foot Eclipse megayacht in Port Vauban, and the only space that could accommodate what was then the world’s biggest private yacht was Kingdom 5KR’s very slot. The prince refused to budge – he’d leased the quay for 20 years – and the more gossipy newspapers loved it.
But enough about sultans and princes. We make a hairpin bend out of the harbour and float past the medieval part of Antibes. Once a frontier town, Antibes encircled itself for centuries with belt of rampart walls. If the cathedral, Grimaldi château (now the Musée Picasso) and Saracen towers once looked attractive to invaders, they’ve certainly retained their allure for day-cruisers like us.
The shoreline of the Cap d’Antibes wiggles past the Plage de la Garoupe, a turning point in the history of the Côte d’Azur’s summer season. It was here, in the 1920s, that the Irish-American couple Gerald and Sarah Murphy created lavish beach parties for the likes of Picasso, the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds.
A coastal path scrambles from the Plage de la Garoupe for a good hour’s walk to the edge of the Château de la Croë. Once the honeymoon retreat for a newly demoted Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson, today the lavish residence belongs to Mr Abramovich, owner of the Eclipse megayacht. We manage the best views of his walled estate from the sea:
Next door to the Château de la Croë lies the aptly named Billionaire’s Bay, a suitably spectacular backyard for the grand estates nestling among parasol pines that soar above the bay’s cliffs. Interestingly, Billionaire’s Bay has an altogether different name in official charts: l’anse de ‘argent faux (Bay of Fake Money).
Bending around the furthest reaches of the Cap d’Antibes, we cruise alongside the opulent beach house of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, legendary home to the stars during the Cannes Film Festival. The view suddenly reminds me of our prior cruise together, at the moment we rounded the Cap Ferrat peninsula. Prized views come with histories. For the Cap d’Antibes and Cap Ferrat alike, five-star hotels occupy the very terrain that once offered the best defensive lookouts – and onlookers are reminded of this fact today:
Philippe steers our vessel away from the Cap d’Antibes’ undulating coastline and heads into the wide Bay of Golfe-Juan. The seas are rougher now and scattered with small white caps. Lolo squeals, “Faster! Faster!” Philippe is always happy to oblige. The saltwater speckles our faces and legs, while a strong wind twirls Lolo’s long, fine hair into a tornado of tangles.
We often find company in this bay. One time there was Eclipse herself:
Another time we found Abramovich’s other boat. At 377 feet, Luna might be considerably shorter than her sister, but the expedition yacht comes complete with a mini-submarine and beach platform:
We’re making a beeline now for one of our favourite haunts: les Îles de Lérins. The closer of the two islands is the larger Île Ste-Marguerite. With its sandy beaches and bathing nooks and a web of eucalyptus- and pine-scented hiking trails, locals come here to escape the madness of the Côte d’Azur’s summer season. The commotion seems to evaporate on the short ferry ride across the bay.
Long ago, this island imprisoned the Man in the Iron Mask. Today the cliffside Fort Royal is a museum where we can contemplate the famous prisoner’s true identity. A list posted inside the fort’s walls offers 40-some candidates. The last name on the list? “A woman.”
A narrow channel between the two Lérins islands offers clear, calm waters. During one of our first visits here – nearly a decade ago – researchers were busy at work:
Today we find we’re hardly alone:
The smaller Île St-Honorat is my favourite of the Lérins. Home to a community of monks for 16 centuries (yes, 16 centuries), the island’s dual histories intertwine. A story of devotion and defense often are visible in the same lens:
Oh, the things I could show you if we disembarked here – as Philippe, Lolo and I do at least once every summer. We’d find the monks’ vineyards and restaurant, the calm of their sung vespers, rows of luscious lavender, a hulking fort-monastery (built in 1073 to protect the monks from Saracen pirates), ruins of ancient chapels, Napoleonic cannonball furnaces and a vast World War II bunker – all of this on a small island just off the bustling shoreline of Cannes! Perhaps we’ll stop by another time.
Today we continue on our southwesterly tack, first cruising back inland toward fashionable Cannes. Our vantage point on the sea offers the best views of parasailing (without ascending ourselves):
I sense the hubbub of the Riviera diminishing, if only slightly, as we pass the center of Cannes. We approach Mandelieu and, at the center of the town’s coastline, the mouth of the Siagne River – the undulating boundary between the Alpes-Maritimes and Var départements.
What happens if we turn inland? I wonder. I prod Philippe off course so we can investigate. The river, we find, is home to curious devices – hallmarks of lives unfurling amid tight spaces. An 18-hole golf course extends over both sides of the river, necessitating a special taxi service . . .
. . . and with boat storage at a premium, delivery is on demand. Philippe delights in stacks of pristine hulls:
A local tells us there’s nothing much to see further inland, so we flip around on the river and head back to sea. The Massif de l’Estérel looms before us. Michelin’s Green Guide rates a journey through these craggy red rocks as three stars out of three, whether by car or foot. We get to admire the scene in a third way.
The town of Théoule-sur-Mer nestles into the base of the massif. Tucked around the corner from its main bay, we spot a beach that’s hidden from those left on land:
The bathers tempt us. What better way to escape the sun’s relentless rays than a quick plunge into the Mediterranean’s turquoise waters? Philippe lowers our boat’s small, built-in ladder, and Lolo’s the first in, splashing me as I take my time. Soon we’re back onboard, instantly refreshed and cruising along the coastline when we stumble on la Galère, a seaside section of Théoule-sur-Mer that looks intriguingly off-kilter:
Philippe rushes us along. I stick la Galère on my mental to-do list. The rugged Massif de l’Estérel rises sharply from the sea as we speed by. We only slow at a piece of mountain that has broken off and tumbled into the sea. A Parisian doctor, Auguste Lutaud, made the two-acre stretch interesting. He bought the small island at the turn of the 20th-century and built a medieval style, four-storey tower there in the same, Estérel-red stone . . .
. . . and then proclaimed himself King Auguste I of the Île d’Or (the Golden Island). The receptions were apparently lavish, and when the monarch died a quarter-century later, he was interred in his kingdom. After another decade passed, the island so intrigued cartoonist Hergé, creator of Tintin, that it appears as a backdrop in his seventh album, L’Île Noire.
Whoops. We’ve lingered too long to make it all the way to St-Tropez today. It’s my fault, I know it is – but what smart person pointed out that life is a journey?
For those of us who can dawdle – no, who are intrigued by most everything – there are other ways to reach the famed party town. Day-tripping to St-Tropez by road in the summertime is a non-starter given the abominable traffic. And if cruising there by sea doesn’t work – for reasons of the sea’s swells or too much curiosity onboard your boat – there is yet another way. Sometimes the destination trumps the journey:
Only 15 minutes from Cannes. Once – I admit it – Philippe, Lolo and I opted for the chopper. But I prefer the odyssey. On this trip alone we’ve glimpsed hidden nooks, history’s wheel, mankind’s innovation, and islanders’ devotions – whether to God or mammon.
We circle back toward our base of Antibes. Sea salt and sunscreen mingle in the warm, humid air as it wafts over my toasting face. The same breeze chills me, nicely so, through a damp swimsuit. Just like that, we’ve found a way to cut the Riviera’s incessant heat – and it was a small slice of magic.