Few people will ever set foot in the bustling crew mess aboard the 171-foot Feadship Solemates. She is a formal yacht designed to let her 13 crew offer service without intrusion, whether their 10 guests are enjoying the flying bridge jacuzzi, the sky lounge's theater-style screen or the saloon's granite-topped mahogany bar. That any guest might need to follow a crew member below would be as unthinkable as a crew member failing to anticipate any guest's needs.
Yet, because I was the yacht's sole visitor for four nights spent cruising from Antibes, France, to Portofino, Italy, courtesy of Solemates' owner, the crew invited me to join them for several meals. Far from the gold-dipped handrails along the amidships staircase and the limestone foyer that took three years to carve, I got to see the print that hangs above the crew's shoulders each time they eat.
You may know The Singing Butler, created by Jack Vettriano, one of Britain's most popular narrative painters. It depicts a striking woman in a flowing red gown, her brown hair bundled above the nape of her neck, dancing on a glistening beach with a tall, dark gentleman in a tailored suit. At their sides are a maid and butler, each holding out an umbrella and bracing themselves against the wind at sunset. The couple are shielded from nature's spittings and appear delighted, wrapped in the moment, servants ever at the ready.
Deep within all the elegance of Solemates, that inconspicuous print defines the charter experience this yacht and her crew strive to offer.
"The boat is good, Capt. Arne Saxin said, "but the crew is better.
I don't make a habit of disagreeing with skippers who have three decades' experience, but Solemates is better than good, which would rank her crew among the best of the best. Her $245,000 per week (high season) rate is well beyond what most 10-guest yachts can fetch, a function of the 1999 build's quality and upkeep; her crew's ratio to the number of guests; and her exclusivity. The owner insists potential clients have stellar reputations-including an appropriate history of tipping.
On the cool, cloudy day I joined Solemates on "Billionaire's Row at the International Yacht Club d'Antibes, I inched slowly up the quay, absorbing every sheerline and superstructure. I passed the 245-foot Peene Leander, the 153-foot Feadship Charade and the 164-foot Perini Navi Phryne on my way to slip 18 of 19, at the end of the dock. Even amid this crowd of competition, Solemates radiated elegance.
Stepping aboard is breathtaking. Naval architect Fritz DeVoogt, designer Andrew Winch and interior designer Judith Ross created her for an experienced owner who wanted a yacht capable of supporting five-star service, no matter the guests' mood. Thus, Solemates' guest spaces are not only distinct from her highly functional crew spaces, they are distinct among themselves. The main saloon and dining room exude the brilliance of a classic Steinway. Carpeting and fabrics are ivory, most furniture and accents are ebony, and flourishes include a gold-dipped sink inside a tiger's-eye countertop in the day head. A change of atmosphere, however, requires simply ascending one flight to the media room, a sky lounge modeled after a Caribbean villa. Lime greens, cotton-candy pinks and sunburst yellows play amid a full bar, a projection screen and an intimate table for four that I found perfect for a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea each morning.
The four belowdecks staterooms (in addition to the main-deck master) are similar in design-three with kings, one with twins-but each has its own personality. The Venice cabin is handsome in beige, the Capri cabin is cheerful in yellow, and the Portofino cabin, which I called home, whispers in pinks and whites. The space most owners would reserve for a fifth guest stateroom houses a full gym.
Each area is spotless, thanks to Solemates' stewardesses. The interior crew is led by Lesley Philpott, a native of Newport, Rhode Island, who holds a degree in business administration and has a flair for, well, "fluffing. She demands adherence to the owner's meticulous standards, whether her team is assisting guests with business needs in the office off the master or making sure pillows are aligned on the flying bridge.
"It's all about providing the service, said stewardess Kari Taplin. "Speak when spoken to. Q-Tip the boat. Every little crevice.
Stewardess Megan Lucerne empties her pockets each night of lint she picks up on the job. Deckhand Tina Jackson smiles with pride when she talks about "toothbrushing the stainless steel on deck.
"It's those little things that are so impressive, second chef Rosemarie Molimard said.
Just as impressive was the time Rosemarie's husband, chef Thierry Molimard, a native of France, and Philpott spent as my guides ashore. From the bustling streets of Antibes, where dogs pull their owners through pharmacies and accordion music echoes in the air; to the former fortress of St. Paul de Vence, France, where aromas and artworks envelop the stone and brick sidewalks; to fairy-tale Portofino, with its colorful façades, Molimard and Philpott know their stuff. They know which restaurants to pass over. They know where to shop. They know the finest hotels, the best places to park and the proper time for guests to pass through the Monaco Casino entrance-before onlookers gather to gawk from the café across the way.
Unfortunately, the time I spent with Molimard ashore meant I had few chances to sample his cooking, but the crew says he is the main reason many guests return.
"The good thing about Thierry is that he's not a prima donna, the captain said. "If a guest complains, he doesn't get upset. He makes them happy.
Over lunch at Le Stanley, a café in Menton, on the eastern edge of the Côte d'Azur, Molimard sipped pastis in the shade of an olive tree and explained how he perfected rich, classical cuisine while working in central France; learned pastries, fish and seafood in Paris; and discovered a mix of Eastern and Western cuisine in Australia.
"For me, it's important to get to know what the guests want, then give it to them, he said. "I do not force my specialties. This is not my restaurant. I get a broad understanding of what you like and then try to be creative and work around that.
The few meals I tasted included a breakfast of orange sponge cake muffins topped with poached pears, a unique and visually tempting creation, as opposed to "the best blueberry muffins ever. A dinner of shrimp-filled zucchini flowers on a lemongrass-scented squid salad was a layered, textured delight, followed by an indulgence Molimard called a wild strawberry-pecan-chocolate mousse-banana tower.
Looking out at Portofino from the table on Solemates' bridge deck, I could only describe eating the dessert as being afloat on a sugar cloud. The captain and I talked and laughed well into the sunset, watching reflections of the town's decorative white lights flit across the harbor.
"The more you look, the more you see, second engineer Anthony Waugh had said of Portofino a few hours earlier, describing the way the town captures guests entirely without revealing its every little secret.
I would say the same is true of Solemates.
Contact: Luxury Yacht Group, (954) 525-9959; email@example.com; www.luxyachts.com, or any charter broker. Solemates charters for $245,000 per week, plus expenses, for 10 guests in July and August, and for $210,000 per week, plus expenses, from September through June.