Postcards from Provence


Carol Drinkwater on life in the sunny south

I was fascinated to learn that the Côte d’Azur plays host to half of the world’s superyacht fleet every year, and that 90 per cent of these luxury vessels pay a visit at least once in their lifetime.

From our south-facing terraces, the blue-hazed view embraces the entire Baie de Cannes, and the resort’s old quarter of Le Suquet is directly in front of us. To the left are the Îles de Lérins while to the right, westwards, is a sweeping panorama that takes in the promontory of Fréjus, the Massif de l’Estérel and the mimosa-clad hills of Tanneron. Such a vista is difficult to surpass and I spend a fair amount of time gazing upon it. House guests enjoy spotting the cruise ships that drop anchor beyond the vieux port of Cannes.

“Ooh, look at that liner,” someone will say. Very occasionally, I am able to identify the ships. The QE2, for example, the erstwhile doyen of transatlantic travel, upon which I was the guest literary speaker on her penultimate crossing from Southampton to New York, cruised the Mediterranean after being put into retirement. She would sail graciously into the harbour, easily recognisable with her wide funnel.

Occasionally, on a quiet afternoon, I walk the Croisette in Cannes, strolling from the old harbour along the length of the promenade until I reach the new harbour, overlooked by multi-million-dollar apartments and inhabited by an abundance of gleaming, shark’s-teeth-white yachts, each the size of a hotel. I step out on to the quay accompanied by the sound of waves and the creaking of rolled sails against stainless steel masts. Most of the vessels lie deserted at the water’s edge.

Who owns all of them? I ask myself. The question is rhetorical. I have no answers.

Shielding my eyes from the light, I gaze towards the Îles de Lérins. On the northerly Île Sainte-Marguerite stands the Fort Royal dungeons where the unidentified ‘man in the iron mask’ was held captive for 11 years in the 1600s. Today, it is a maritime museum that displays booty from ancient Roman and Greek shipwrecks. Every successful Mediterranean conqueror made it his business to lay claim to this coastline.

The second island, Saint-Hônorat, is home to a fortified monastery inhabited by Cistercian monks. At the height of summer, dozens of yachts drop anchor in the narrow strait between the islands. There used to be a fish restaurant on Hônorat where the yachts’ occupants enjoyed haute-cuisine lunches washed down with chilled rosé, but the monks, who did not own the restaurant, revoked its licence. Nonetheless, the yachting fraternity continues to frequent this channel. It is protected from the wind and ideal for snorkelling, except on those days when there is a superyacht traffic jam; it is almost as if you could cross from one island to the other by hopping from deck to deck.

During May, the season for both the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix, superyachts compete for water space, and a website posts updates on the comings and goings of these fabulous boats and their bejewelled occupants.

I smile in the sunshine, recalling a line by Somerset Maugham, master storyteller and a resident of this coastline for many decades. The writer described this pine-scented neck of the woods as a ‘sunny place for shady people’.

Some might be ‘shady’, but everyone on board those Bond-style vessels are bronzed to lean perfection. They are never in the shade, always splayed out on teak decks in the full heat of the sun. The 21st-century conquerors of the Mediterranean? Perhaps. Certainly, it is a different Côte d’Azur from ours.

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