Cruising the Côte d'Azur

Welcome to the most glamorous coastline in the world, where all you need for entrée is a fabulous yacht and a knowledgeable crew.

Harmony

The best view of the coast is from aboard. Here, /Harmony/, anchored off
Villerfranche.

The best view of the coast is from aboard. Here, Harmony, anchored off Villerfranche.Guy Gurney

I love the French Riviera for its endless contrasts and possibilities. In just a day, you can go from striking a pose as your yacht reverses into its berth opposite the bustling cafés of St. Tropez to feeling blissfully far away from it all as you anchor in a quiet cove off the Porquerolles islands-a nature reserve off Hyres. Harbors vary from purpose-built marinas with massive breakwaters like Antibes' International Yacht Club (IYCA), where such superyachts as the 282-foot Kingdom and 420-foot Octopus dominate the quay, to stern-to moorings in the old port of Cannes.

I've lived in Nice for over five years and cruised this 50-mile stretch of coast dozens of times. It's still a place that surprises me every time I see it from the water, whether powering past the Massif de l'Esterel in a Cigarette on a June evening or watching from aboard a classic as autumn light reflects off St. Tropez's old stone buildings.

The light on the water here inspired the Impressionists and is striking in the way it can change- a milky white turquoise off the pebble beaches of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice or clear deep blue off Cannes' Ile de Lerins or green off Cap Ferrat, contrasting with the white palatial villas set back among dark pines. When the mistral blows, the shallows in front of the long white sandy stretch of Pampelonne beach in St. Tropez take on the colors of the Caribbean.

The winds carry the scents of wild plants and spices in the market stalls, often mingling with the perfumes of glamorous women on the prowl for a wealthy yacht owner or young lovelies just enjoying being part of a scene.

Once, when I made a comment that it's all a bit superficial and unreal, one Russian girl replied firmly, "It is real, Nick, if you can feel the leather of the Ferrari seats and hear the noise of the yacht engines when powering through the sea and see everyone looking at you!" Russians, of course, are not new to the Côte d'Azur: Princes and princesses visited in the early years of the 20th century-now they're back and want to experience it all, right now!

The yacht service community has been quick to provide support to the old and the nouveau riche whether supplying tax advice, caviar and fine wines to the dock or laundering services to clean up before the next visitors arrive. When a large black Mercedes pulls up at the quay, it's more often than not a successful yacht broker emerging, sporting dark glasses and suit. The yacht owner may be the guy in the T-shirt and shorts strolling along the dock anonymously with an ice cream.

And maybe that's the best thing about chartering a yacht on the Côte d'Azur: For a week you can pretend to be anyone you want-movie star, wealthy industrialist or a no one. And no matter who you really are, if you play your cards right, you will be treated like royalty.

I felt that way last September, as I arrived aboard Harmony, a 115-foot Crescent motoryacht, in Nice one morning. Capt. Jack McKay, an American with 20 years' charter experience, welcomed me with a glass of Champagne while the stewardess stowed the bags. The plan for our party of eight guests was for a gentle cruise 10 miles east toward Monaco. As we entered the bays of Villefranche and Beaulieu for a closer look, Capt. McKay pointed out the Musée Ephrussi de Rothschild, where the exclusive and intimate Opéra Les Azuriales is staged inside the villa, followed by a starlit dinner in the ornate gardens with the cast.

At the entrance to the port of Monaco we dropped anchor for lunch, a tasty and light duck salad prepared by chef Cameron Feldman, who recently picked up first prize at the 2005 St. Maarten Charter Yacht Exhibition culinary competition. After lunch, a limousine magically appeared to take us up to Eze to enjoy spectacular views from the exotic gardens and 14th-century castle. That evening, we rejoined the boat down the coast in the bay of Villefranche for a quiet dinner on board.

The following day, after a leisurely breakfast of croissants, coffee, eggs and bacon on the aft deck, we set course for St. Tropez some 30 miles away, passing Nice, Antibes, Cannes and the red cliffs of the Massif de l'Esterel. There was no traffic, no tolls.

Capt. McKay had already secured a berth in St. Tropez and his performance entering the harbor and reversing into a prime spot opposite the Café de Paris was a highlight of the trip. I watched from the bridge as onlookers stopped to snap photographs, probably wondering whether anybody famous was aboard. Playing along, I pulled the peak down on my cap and turned away from the dock (as I'd once seen Princess Anne do aboard a yacht in the same place). After lunch on the aft deck, we met up with another limousine for an excursion to Pampelonne Beach where matelas and parasols were lined up at Club 55 for an afternoon of sunning and taking in the scene. Clubs like these don't require membership-just some ready cash and a good tip to secure a prime position. Club 55 is really better reached by tender if you want to make an entrance-preferably with T/T ReallyBigBoat emblazoned on the side-and is only a short ride from the harbor. I did this on a previous trip, zooming in on an open sports boat at 40 knots with three girls on the aft sunbed-an experience I'll not forget anytime soon. As we left, a paparazzi photographer buzzed us in a helicopter. I bought all rights to those photos.

That evening, most of our party spent a night on the town at Papagayo and Les Caves du Roy nightclubs and then rallied for morning shopping at the market in the Places des Lices. I chose to relax aboard instead, preparing for a rendezvous with a local girl I had fallen in love with days before.

On the return, Harmony stopped in Cannes and Antibes, ducking into coves and anchorages that are inaccessible to those staying ashore, where magnificent homes have terraces and pools hewn into the rocks.

As I left the yacht I realized that the difference between seeing this coast by land or by sea is the access a charter yacht provides. Here, you can find a jazz bar or a tranquil escape, spa retreats or coastal walks, high-society parties, expensive boutiques, simple market stalls, helicopter pads, racy cars, backpackers and beautiful women. But it takes an expert to help you appreciate them. Charter brokers and captains maintain their own little black books with the best of everything-restaurants, clubs, spas and beaches-continuously updated as feedback is received and fresh ideas are proposed to repeat guests. Naturally, they guard this information ferociously. If you want a VIP table booked at Les Caves du Roy, and the name of the doorman to bypass the queue snaking down the steps, you'll have to do as I do when in St. Tropez-book a charter first, darling!

Harmony on the Riviera

Having a captain who knows the waters well and a great chef are de rigeur when it comes to chartering. Harmony has both. Plus, being fully air conditioned with an on-deck Jacuzzi, she's a perfect platform to see the Mediterranean. She has a huge master stateroom, VIP stateroom and twin cabins with two berths each to sleep eight. Her award-winning chef serves casual meals on the aft deck or five-course dinners in the formal main saloon. Harmony charters in the Mediterranean for $55,000 to $60,000 a week (plus expenses and tips) and is managed by The Sacks Group (www.sacksyachts.com) but can be booked by any charter broker.

Local Knowledge

Where To Tie Up

In St. Tropez, tie up opposite Café de Paris in the heart of town. In Monaco, the T-jetty is away from the noise. Anchor in the bay of Villefranche, which is beautiful but sometimes spoiled by cruise ships. Iles de Porquerolles has sandy beaches, cliffs and vineyards. Off Cannes, anchor between the Iles de Lerins (watch out for the girls selling ice cream and more from their boats) and take a trip ashore to the monastery, built in 1073 to protect the monks from Saracen pirates. Or anchor off La Croisette, especially during the fireworks displays, and take the tender into the Carlton Hotel jetty for cocktails. To secure a berth in advance go to www.yachtberths.com

Best Tables on the Riviera

Zebra Square in Monaco has a great view from the terrace over the port. Anjuna Beach in Eze-Sur-Mer is my favorite local haunt to enjoy a cool bottle of rosé before reclining on a sunbed with a good book. Chateau de la ChËvre d'Or in Eze has spectacular food and views. At Le Mas Candille in Mougins, relax in the Shiseido spa before dinner. La Zucca Magica in Nice is a simple vegetarian restaurant opposite the port. At Club 55 in Pampelonne Beach, Patrice de Colmont knows all his clients' favorite tables and treats all as equal. Le Mas du Langoustier in Les Porquerolles has excellent haute cuisine.

Events Not to Miss

The Cannes Film Festival kicks off May 17-28 (www.festival-cannes.fr), followed by the F1 Grand Prix in Monaco, May 25-28 (www.formula1.com). Don't miss the Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival (www.antibes-juanlespins.com) and Nice Jazz Festival (www.nicejazzfest.com). Reserve for the 10th anniversary of Les Azuriales Opera, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Cap Ferrat, August 9-27 (www.azurialopera.com). A nice time to go is fall, during the classic yacht races. Les Voiles de St, Tropez, Oct 1-8 (www.snst.org). -N.J.