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The Mediterranean

Wind Star set sail from Nice, and spent a week calling at places such as Gaeta, Portoferraio (Elba), Portovenere, Portofino, and Monte Carlo

Wind Star set sail from Nice and spent a week calling at   watering holes of the rich and famous.
Photo caption
Wind Star set sail from Nice and spent a week calling at watering holes of the rich and famous.

What a goof, gliding into the yachting havens of the Riviera on this eye-catching vessel, her sails gulping the sweet Mediterranean breeze. Wind Star set sail from Nice, and spent a week calling at watering holes of the rich and famous—Gaeta, Portoferraio (Elba), Portovenere, Portofino, and Monte Carlo—before returning to Nice. In port, most of the passengers joined optional shore excursions—to Florence, around Elba or Monaco—or went on feverish shopping forays. Some of us jumped on local ferries, buses, and trains to nearby towns.

Often we were content to just poke around the medieval port villages. Each one had labyrinthine alleyways, tall, thin houses of many warm colors, stony little beaches, churches Baroque and Byzantine, a Roman fortress on the hill, and dynamite gelato.

Breakfast and lunch were served al fresco on deck, and in port this had the effect of an exclusive dining terrace-with-view.

It’s possible to do this cruise very quickly, as I did—I flew San Francisco to Nice, got on the ship, sailed for seven days, got off the ship, got on a plane for home—without spending even one night ashore. Passengers with more time—and probably sense—make this part of a longer vacation in southern Europe.

Before boarding ship, I spent several hours stumbling around Nice. Even creaky and fuzzy-headed from 13 hours of imprisonment in a minuscule seat on an overbooked jumbo jet, I was charmed by this seaside city in the south of France. Fountains played like children along its boulevards; swimmers bobbed in the waves. The Saturday market was in full cry, its stalls piled with gorgeous produce, cheeses, oils, the famous soaps, spices from Africa. Somewhere an accordion played. In the sidewalk cafes people were dining on bowls of mussels and...what else?...salade niçoise.

What this cruise is like

On a Windstar cruise, the ship herself is an attraction. At sea, with all her sails flying, she is a beautiful sight indeed. Her masts are twenty stories tall.

As cruise ships go, this is a small one; Wind Star can carry 148 passengers. This itinerary is like sailing on a private yacht to the resorts along the French and Italian Rivieras. In the ports, passengers usually spend their time exploring the towns and shopping; there is little time for water sports. Small pool and hot tub are on upper deck.

Windstar cruises are known for their "casual elegance," i.e., you don’t have to dress up for dinner. The evening meal is open seating, so that you can dine whenever and with whomever you wish.

There is minimal shipboard entertainment; dinner is the evening’s main event, and maybe the piano lounge or casino afterwards, or watching free videos on the private VCRs in the comfortable, roomy cabins. The library is filled with videos and CDs, but few books.

Windstar has a devoted clientele—on this cruise, 122 passengers were "repeats."

I purchased tomatoes, chèvre, baguette, and retired to one of the signature blue chairs in the Albert 1st Gardens. Afterwards, I entered the narrow streets of the old city, and climbed long stone steps to Le Château. Down below, in the old harbor, Wind Star waited prettily at dockside, sails furled inside those four towering masts.

Aboard ship, I managed to stay awake during the dramatic sailing from Nice, when the loudspeakers boomed the theme from the movie Christopher Columbus, and dinner, when the stupefied conversation revolved around how everyone loves mashed potatoes.

When I awoke late next morning, we had crossed the Ligurian Sea, and were already tied up at Gaeta, with its 8th century castello on one hill, its 13th century cathedral on the other.

Most passengers bused off to Rome, but a dozen of us chose to visit Pompeii, an hour’s drive south. It was just as I had always imagined—the ruins of a prosperous Roman seaport buried in the midst of its daily routine by the sudden eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Pompeii covers 50 square miles, and our three-hour tour was necessarily cursory. We rushed through the Forum, temples, public baths, markets, the great amphitheater, and courthouses. But in a town that died almost two millennia ago, the things that stick in the mind are evidences of the people who lived here: a public drinking fountain worn by long-ago hands, the grooves cut into the paving stones by passing chariots, and yes, the famous body castings of the citizens struck dead in their tracks by the volcanic gases and ash. And it shouldn’t have surprised us to find the biggest crowd of gawking tourists at the bordello, with its sensual paintings over the door ways.

Back in Gaeta, I had only an hour to race through the old town, quick-tour a museum of 15th-18th century regional religious paintings, and drop $8 in a grocery for two bottles of good local wine and a liter of spring water for my cabin refrigerator.

Next afternoon, as Wind Star slid along the hazy coast of Elba, we dined on deck on a hearty bouillabaisse, piled aromatically with shrimp, oysters, mussels, scallops and saffron potatoes. My chocolate sundae was just disappearing as we nosed into Portoferraio. Some passengers boarded buses for a ride around the island, but most of us found plenty of interest in the old port, occupied over the centuries by Ligurians, Etruscans, Romans, and Pisans. Its harbor was built by the Medicis in the 16th century.

We all know Elba’s big moment: In 1814, Napoleon was exiled here following various military defeats and his abdication as Emperor of France. Elba could not contain him; he stayed just ten months, and went off for his "100 days," which ended at Waterloo.

I entered Portoferraio through the Medici Gate, and climbed the long stone steps to the Villa Mulini, the winter residence where Napoleon sulked and plotted. It’s a smallish house on the spine of the island. Its gardens are weedy now, its fountain dry, its rooms spare and musty. But still, it’s not a bad place for an exile, for picking over the bones of memory. The upstairs casements look out at the Mediterranean in both directions; crying gulls soar through the cypress trees.

Next morning Wind Star sailed into the Gulf of Poets (Byron and Shelley were here!) and dropped anchor off Portovenere, a 12th century Genoese town on Italy’s Ligurian coast.

Two busloads left for Florence. Inveterate walkers had other scenarios in mind: to the northwest lies a favorite destination of international hikers: the five cliff-hanging villages of Cinqueterre, which began as fishing settlements in the Middle Ages. With just a few hours in port, we hadn’t time to walk the rocky ledge trails connecting them. A dozen of us made do with a combination of hiking and riding the summer ferry and the train that rattles through from La Spezia.

The 11 a.m. public ferry from Portovenere took us around into the open sea and along the promontory to Riomaggiore. Ashore, we climbed past the narrow fishing harbor to find the trail to Manarola. This portion, blasted out of the cliff above the sea, is level, paved, and takes only fifteen minutes or so to walk.The next leg, through the terraced vineyards to Corniglia, is more demanding and took an hour and a half. At Corniglia, too high on the mountainside for ferry service, we boarded the train for the five-minute ride through the tunnel to Vernazza—it would have taken almost two hours to walk.

Emerging in Vernazza hot and hungry, we settled into a sidewalk cafe among the painted fishing boats drawn high into the cobbled streets. After feasting on spaghetti with clams, we descended to the ferry dock and caught the boat back to Portovenere.

Back on Wind Star, the stern "marina" was open, nice for a cooling deep-water swim before we set sail for Portofino.

Too charming for its own good, Portofino has boutiques, hotels, and cafes aswarm with bored-looking tourists—although, like all these ports with castles, Roman forts, and churches, it’s a splendid walking town.

But Cinqueterre and its wave-hammered cliff villages had been so enchanting, I opted for another boat trip, this one along the forested Portofino promontory—rugged national park land—to Fruttuoso and Camogli. Tucked among the olive trees in the folds of the cliff, Fruttuoso has only ten residents and some impressive buildings—an old abbey with Byzantine and Gothic touches; a 10th century parish church, still serving mass; and an osteria where returning fishermen drink. Camogli is a much larger town, with more multi-storied houses all in a row facing the pebbly beach. Our tour boat docked in the busy fishing harbor and we scattered in town to look around. Particularly nice was the ornate Baroque church, its every millimeter covered with gold, cherubs, or Ligurian paintings.

At a local gelateria, I stopped for pinguine, a confection of rich ice cream dipped in dark chocolate. The mess it made defies description. All sticky fingers and splotched shoes, I reboarded the tour boat. We were served focaccia and white wine on the return voyage to Portofino. Far across the water, baking white in the sun: the city of Genoa.

Early next morning, Wind Star sailed into the main harbor of Monaco, and tied up "stern-to" beside the yacht of the Saudi Arabian prince. This felt good, as I hadn’t seen the glittering principality since hitch-hiking this coast at the age of 18 under poverty conditions.

With all day and night to play, the passengers streamed down the gangplank. It went fast. I spent most of the morning in the Musée Océanographique, a neoclassic aquarium/museum, its windows looking into the Mediterranean. Emphasis here is on ecosystems, education, and caring for the future of the seas—not surprising, as Jacques Cousteau was its longtime director. There is a wing devoted to the Mediterranean, and particularly good exhibits of marine invertebrates, such as anemones and soft corals. Check out the unusual Banggi Islands cardinalfish, and the graceful ghost moray.

In Monaco’s old town, I joined the flocks of Americans in the cathedral, making their obligatory call on the wedding place of Princess Grace. Then we all dashed over to the palace to watch the noon-time changing of the guard, a strutting-tin-soldier ritual.

Monaco’s royalty has a strong presence. Some of Wind Star’s passengers got a good look at Prince Rainier and Princess Caroline, who came to inspect a children’s fair at our dock; others went up to Replay, the boutique where Princess Stephanie herself presides over the cash register.

The biggest excitement, though, was for the grand casino on the hill. For the first time in the voyage, we dressed up. The casino is like nothing you’ve ever seen in Nevada. Think Cary Grant, tuxedos, intrigue, the filthy rich tossing away fortunes at roulette. The place is surrounded by the shops of Hermès, Lalique, Valentino. Best place to watch the beautiful people come and go: the outdoor Café de Paris at the main entrance.

After midnight, walking down from the casino, I could see Wind Star, her towering masts strung with fairy lights. There, beneath the Mediterranean half-moon, she was the prettiest thing in the harbor. It was almost dawn when she set her sails for Nice.

Photo by Harvey Lloyd/Windstar Cruises

This article was first published in September 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.