Two separate racing fleets were streaming into the docks and a party was in full swing at the head of Marseille’s inner harbor. A group of bearded musicians cranked out lively jazz tunes while throngs of sailors jostled around the drinks and snack tables. Sipping a rather good Cabernet, I counted a score of colorful sponsors’ booths set up along the concrete and stone piers, a few yards from the transoms of a dozen beautiful classic yachts that had just finished a hard day’s racing. Opposite them was a cluster of battle-scarred one-design racer-cruisers with foulweather gear draped over their booms, gangs of twenty-somethings washing the salt off after a long, breezy overnight leg. The mid-September evening was warm, the atmosphere convivial, and the whole affair set the scene for a week’s sailing along France’s Côte d’Azur. Or, more accurately, the coast of Provence—the French Riviera officially begins at Toulon, just an hour’s drive to the east.
Although I’ve been to this part of France many times and traversed the spectacular coastline from Toulon to Genoa by car, motorcycle and bus, I had never seen it from the water except for some daysailing out of Marseille many years earlier. “You are up for a treat,” said the smiling receptionist at Dream Yacht Charter’s Marseille office, just across the road from the huge municipal marina where we were to board Cayo Coco, our Bali 4.1 catamaran. “The coast is very beautiful.”
Our chart briefing was brief and conducted in an interesting mixture of English and French—“Franglais,” as the Brits call it. Still, base manager Pol managed to convey the best places to visit, which in true Gallic style he seemed to categorize as much by the quality of the restaurants as anything else. The highlights were the calanques, deep inlets in the rugged limestone cliffs stretching eastward from Marseille, though not if the wind was blowing hard from the east. Poor holding, lee shore, comprenez vous? We should stop at Ile des Embiez, where there was a particularly superbe restaurant. Nor should we miss Porquerolles, the biggest of the Iles Hyères off Toulon—tres jolie. As for the big mainland towns like Toulon, Pol just shrugged. “Good for shopping.”
Together with my stalwart crew, John, Brian, Elaine and Peg, fellow inmates of Boston’s North Shore, I trekked uphill to the supermarket to gather enough provisions to last us a couple of days. The plan was to eat out as much as possible—we were in France, after all. That done, with the afternoon shadows lengthening, we gingerly extricated Cayo Coco from the narrow alleyway between the docks and motored out toward our first stop, Ile Pomegues, a small island just a couple of miles from the harbor and in plain sight of the city. Here, once the anchor was down and holding in a tight anchorage well protected from the south, north and west, there was finally time to decompress and appreciate our surroundings. Cocktails in hand, we enjoyed the most glorious of sunsets over the rocky island while the lights of Marseille winked on behind us.
On our way in we had passed a fortification on a small island, but it wasn’t till much later that I realized it was Chateau d’If, a 16th-century fort-turned-prison that was the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It would be too easy to write thousands of words about the history of this coastline. It is saturated with it. Greek traders founded Marseille some 2,500 years ago, and since then successive cultures have all left their imprint here.
Next morning, as we motored past towering limestone cliffs, it was not hard to visualize Greek and Roman galleys making the same passage, oarsmen sweating under the hot sun, or Napoleonic warships patrolling on the horizon, keeping a lookout for les Anglais. With only a week to play with, and weak westerlies forecast for almost all of it, we had decided to power our way east to the Hyeres islands on the first day and then sail back toward Marseille at a leisurely pace.
Porquerolles, the largest of the three Hyeres islands, is a top tourist destination, which is why we were not surprised to find the marina nearly full and the anchorages crowded—and this in September, after the season is officially over. Most of the boats were anchored in a long line, and we soon found out why; the bottom was thick with weed and they had found a lengthy stretch of clear sand. We were on the edge of it, and it took six attempts before I was somewhat happy with the holding. Fortunately, the crew was not in a mutinous mood, even after an eight-hour motorsail, and we were soon ashore and exploring the small port village which, it being Sunday, was busy with day-trippers. The ambiance was pleasant enough that we decided to spend a second night there. After re-anchoring next morning—only another three attempts, sorry guys—we spent a lazy day swimming, eating, lounging, napping and walking around the island with its many beaches, flowers in bloom everywhere, and forts—no Mediterranean island seems to be complete without at least one fort.
It was here, on this lazy afternoon, that we could not help but notice that many of our neighbors seemed not to have packed bathing suits, preferring instead to relax, swim and work on their boats in their birthday suits. It was a bit of a change from a Sunday afternoon in Marblehead harbor, to say the least, and while we applauded the laissez faire of our French fellow sailors none of us were tempted to follow suit, as it were. As the sun set we stretched out in Cayo Coco’s roomy forward cockpit, rum drinks in hand, and watched the stars appear above the hill as the light faded.
After a baguettes-and-beer run the following morning we upped anchor and had a pleasant sail to Ile des Embiez, 17 miles to the west, noticing for the first time the sheer number of other boats on the water—and also that they were nearly all sailboats. The marina at Embiez was by no means packed, though, and instead of having to Med-moor stern to the quay we were directed to a handy side-tie dock next to a gleaming 80ft motoryacht. Obviously, we were on the French Riviera, at least for that day.
Embiez was settling into its post-season hiatus, with most of the island shut down, including Pol’s superbe restaurant. We dined well, however, at the only open establishment, carrying on a hilarious Monty Pythonesque conversation in Franglais with the waiter. The local wine flowed freely, and some of us even got what we’d hoped we’d ordered; all in all, a very fine evening. We paid for it the next morning when John dropped an essential component of the coffeepot overboard, a disaster of considerable magnitude. We’ll bring an emergency jar of instant next time.
Embiez was owned and developed by the liquor magnate Paul Ricard, whose name pastis fans will immediately recognize. We took a touristy tour of the island next morning, past old salt flats and newer vineyards, up to a Napoleonic watchtower that had been turned into a German gun emplacement in the last war, and past some tiny but beautiful beaches. Later, Brian and I walked around a good part of the rugged coastline. The views from the hilltops were stunning, and once again we were blessed by the weather gods.
But sacre bleu! It seemed we had scarcely got going and already the week was winding down. It was Wednesday, and with early flights and trains on Saturday we had to be back in Marseille on Friday evening. We decided not to stay a second night in Embiez and headed for La Ciotat, a port that figured in no one’s must-see recommendations but offered supermarkets to refresh our dwindling stores. Once a busy commercial port, its huge cranes and docks now service the superyacht industry, while the inner harbor, far more attractive than the approach to the town suggested, is packed with small fishing boats and pleasure craft. We anchored outside the big marina after sniffing out a sandy patch in the mass of weed and went ashore for dinner—moules frites, pizza, bouillabaisse and several beers, all very reasonably priced. We found the town pleasant and not at all geared to tourism. There was a naval engagement there in the summer of 1944 and several of the narrow streets were named after heroes of the Resistance who perished fighting the Germans. At the head of the harbor, we found a lovingly tended memorial to an American fighter pilot who was shot down in the bay.
Up early next morning, we made the obligatory baguette (and coffee) run before setting off westward once again. Pol had stressed that we must not miss an overnight stay in one of the calanques, and of the three that appeared roomy enough, Sormiou looked the most appealing. “Calanque” is a Corsican word for the deep inlets formed in the limestone cliffs that rise several hundred feet between Cassis and Marseille, kind of like fjords. The whole spectacular stretch of them is a national park, much visited by day-tripping boats from Marseille and Toulon that disgorge hordes of tourists to spend the day lazing on the sandy beaches at the head of each one. Sormiou was also fairly crowded with other boats, who had nabbed the most desirable spots near the beach. The water was clear enough that we could see the bottom some 30ft down, and of course, it was covered with a thick carpet of weed. Down went the anchor anyway, along with most of the chain. There was no wind to speak of, and my only worry was that we and neighboring boats would end up swinging too close to one another.
We dinghied into the small manmade harbor at the top of the calanque and had a look ashore, though there wasn’t much to see—a collection of holiday cottages, most of them empty, a shoreside restaurant, closed, and a car park, half full. Passing another indolent afternoon swimming, reading and napping seemed like a fine idea, so that’s what we did as the narrow harbor gradually filled up with late-arriving cruising boats, before enjoying dinner in Cayo Coco’s airy saloon. It was a somehow reassuring feeling to know that fellow seafarers had been anchoring in this very spot for thousands of years.
Our final day on the water was something of an anticlimax, as we were only a few hours from Marseille, and though we were in no hurry to get there, there was not even enough wind to drift along at three or four knots. We plugged along at a lazy 5 knots, hugging the coast within a few boatlengths of the cliffs. Pulling into Marseille’s ancient harbor, we faced the most harrowing part of the week; piloting the beamy cat down the narrow alley, only a few feet from the bow rollers of the boats moored either side, and then backing her into the dock Med-style. The lack of current and wind made this much easier than it sounds. There was no party to welcome us, but we made do with the last bottle of Cabernet.
One great thing about chartering anywhere in the Mediterranean is that if you avoid the crazy months when the Europeans take their vacations—July and August—you can generally find cheap airfares from most American cities. Once in Europe, a multitude of reasonably priced transportation options open up to you. Marseille is a three-hour train ride from Paris, for example, or a cheap flight from London.
Weather in the south of France can be scorching hot in the summer months and benign in May, June and September to early October. The biggest risk for sailors is falling afoul of a mistral, a vicious northwesterly that accelerates down the river valleys from the hilly interior and can blow upwards of 40 knots for days on end. That would put a real damper on your holiday.
Although we chartered in the offseason, we found some restaurants and shops open everywhere we went. If you were to pull into the major ports like Toulon you’d find it to be business as usual. The best thing about off-season chartering, aside from the fact you can often get a discounted boat, is the lack of crowds—tourists, that is, for such is the French love of sailing that we saw sails everywhere along the coast.
We also found ATMs everywhere we went, and the only hassles we had paying with credit cards came from our own banks Stateside, which caused some embarrassment. At the only marina we stayed at, the dockmaster (dockmistress?) spoke perfect English.
We chartered our Bali 41.1 Catamaran from Dream Yacht Charter (dreamyachtcharter.com).