Thursday, September 2, 2010

Summer reveries

Along the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia. July 24, 2004.
September 2, 2010. Another very hot day in New York with the weatherman forecasting an hurricane dubbed Earl gathering strength in the Atlantic off Puerto Rico, on its way to greet us over the coming Labor Day Weekend.

Summer reveries. Yesterday’s Diary about a yachting trip in the Mediterranean ten years ago reminded us of another such visit, on the same boat, the Big Eagle, three years later, when the same group of friends cruised from Corsica, to Sardinia and all the way down to Capri.

One of the many highlights of that trip was a night spent in Porto Cervo on our way to Capri. The port’s village is the main center of the Costa Smeralda and a fairly new marina built especially to accommodate the growing number of private yachts and their passengers of Arab sheiks, European aristos, Russian oligarchs, English rockers and American heiresses -- all “just folks” when gathered nautically on the sparkling, sun-drenched Mediterranean.
The luxury yachts of the big boys lined up in Porto Cervo.
On Wednesday, after anchoring for the day outside Cala di Volpe for our swim and sun and lunch, we pulled up anchor and went around the bend north to Porto Cervo (chair-vo) to tie up for the night.

The arrival in port is quite an experience because these enormous boats — such as the one I am traveling on, and of which there are many — are each assigned what looks like a very narrow slip to slide into.

Veddy veddy close
Furthermore, the captain must back the ship with exacting precision into dock, with often little more than two or three feet from another enormous boat on either side. There’s no towboat to make it happen and if there’s a wind, as there was on this day, it can get kind of hairy.

So there we were, the voyagers, all standing on the upper deck watching nervously (although it’s very exciting) as the crew prepared for docking and Captain Ed maneuvered from his position on the captain’s deck. Everyone on the yachts on either side were out and watching with the same sort of exciting trepidation. On shore there were men ready to grab the ropes to hold us in place. The whole maneuver took about a half hour and from this point of view it looked impossible until we were maybe within ten yards from the dock when you realized the awesome precision required of the captain.

Porto Cervo, I was told by someone knowledgeable a couple days before at Baroness Thyssen’s late afternoon drinks party, is a fairly new community built specifically for the rich and their yachts. I had no idea exactly what that meant but on arrival it is easy to see. A small bay wall-to-wall with big yachts and sailing ships, and at its center a large and rambling two- and three-story hotel and shopping mall (it turns out) which, again like Cala di Volpe is a faded salmon pink. And in the hillsides on either side, like architectural outcroppings, are smaller versions of that Mediterranean adobe/stucco and stone villas, some white, some salmon pink, some yellow. Idyllic, not fancy although very likely not modest, the scene is almost quaint and simple in feeling.
Clockwise from above: Our next door neighbor ... Squeezing through ... All the way out.
But. Once inside the central complex, the mall and hotel, if the billion dollars in yachts tied up on the dock didn’t already tell you, this is not a place for the packaged-tours – unless it’s something like Sea Goddess. Design-wise, it has a quality that Americans have become used to thanks to Disneyland and Las Vegas – a kind of repro of long ago. The shops – and there are lots and lots of them, are occupied by Van Cleef, Bulgari, Dolce & Gabbana, Chopard, Versace, Prada, Tods, Hogan, Loris Abbate, Loro Piana, Cacella, Valentino, Bruno Magli, Gucci, Pucci, etc. Not that you have to be a gazillionaire to shop there, but you get the picture.

Mind you, the crowds are dressed very casually and if you didn’t know better you might be inclined to think the lot of them (or, a lot of them) are really in the wrong spot for their means. Yeah sure; but then swivel around and take another look at the boats they arrived on, gleaming white and navy in the bay.
Porto Cervo taxis.
The point I’m making is that it is very relaxed and homey in the Euro sense – families, young teenagers in small packs, children in strollers, some dogs (one Dalmatian running hither and thither manically, provoking my fears that he was lost or at least separated from his owners).

And, as it is all over the Mediterranean, at six in the afternoon, or even seven-thirty, the shops don’t seem very busy if busy at all. One of the guests on the boat asked a shopkeeper how long they stayed open (this was at almost eight o’clock). She laughed and shrugged: “oh, as long as we think ... maybe eleven, maybe later.”
A handful of shoppers in Porto Cervo. Porto Cervo shops.
On our only night there, we decided to go out to dinner rather than eat on board – although the chef’s fare is extraordinary; she outdoes herself every day. We booked a table for eight at eight, at a lovely fish restaurant at the foot of the bay, adjacent to the main building, with an open terrace on the water. Crisply picturesque: red tablecloths, candles, a low-slung thatch-like roof, red tile floors; kind of rustic Mediterranean with Villeroy and Boch plates made for Michel Rostang for place settings along with crystal and lantern candles.

Small menu which included a pasta and a risotto and a large buffet, a combination of vegetables and seafood. It was a beautiful night for dining on the water, and within earshot and purview were the sun-tanned visiting throng at the center nearby. The service was excellent and the food did not compare to what we were used to from Wendy, our American chef on the Big Eagle. But then, we figured, what could?

The big boys on Thursday morning.
Big boys not so big next to the sheik's.
We finished up about ten. The sun had finally gone down and the crowds seemed to materialize out of nowhere — all those villas in the hills, the guests at the hotel. We were only several hundred yards from the dock, a very short walk back to the boat.

By this time, the crowds were making the promenade also. For it is a tradition at these ports that everyone takes a leisurely stroll along the waterside and views the yachts, backed up to the dock as they are, lighted and ready for life.

In my book it’s called ogling and gawking. People stopping and standing in front of each ship, watching the passengers and the crew go about their business and their life, as if on display in a shop window.

It’s the curiosity-seeker’s dream come true, for no one – and I mean no one – has any compunction about staring into everyone’s boat. They just stop, and stare. And ogle and gawk. While those on the boats go about their business – having their meals, leisurely taking the night air, chatting, drinking, whatever, as if no one is there.

It is fun, that’s for sure, since no one feels the slightest bit self-conscious about it. Well, not no one. I felt slightly self-conscious. Although I got over it in no time. The main attraction on this night, however, was the biggest boat which was parked at end of the quay — the gigantic Montkaj, said to be owned by some Arabs — about 220 feet long, with four decks and a tender about 100 feet long.
The Big Eagle, second from the left.
Clearly the star of the yacht basin, you couldn’t just stand and look in this honey, however, because the Montkaj had a white sheet covering the midsection of its rear deck to avoid such impositions of the hoi-polloi. It also had a couple of security guards (besides the crew) standing guard. Nevertheless, you could kind of look around the white sheeted obstruction and sort of see (not much) inside. By ten thirty, there were probably forty or fifty people gathered on the macadam, just standing there, as if waiting for a celebrity to appear. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if one would. Sharon Stone, anybody? Elvis?

Then by eleven there were three Mercedes, two sedans and a convertible, as well as an Escalade with tinted windows, lined up on the quay also, as if waiting for someone to appear. Finally several individuals emerged from inside the ship, all rather innocuous looking, getting into their sleek cars (the Escalade was for the bodyguards) and driving way. Not very far, no doubt, as the hotel is only several hundred yards across the parking lot.
Early Thursday morning in Porto Cervo.
America's future, the Smart Car.
I finally went into the main saloon to go onto the Internet and check my email. By midnight the crowds on the dockside had grown, milling about, stopping and staring, moving on, eventually congregating down by the Big One, waiting for whatever and what-all. I went to bed.

Thursday morning, it was overcast and foggy. We were leaving by nine and so I got up early to be sure of getting a picture of the lineup. The parking lot was empty and the gawkers had long ago gone home. There were a few cars in the lot including a black SmartCar with a red parking ticket on its windshield. This is the car of the future, at least in New York; that’s my prediction. By nine we were all aboard and on the upper deck watching the Big Eagle being precisely maneuvered by Captain Ed out into the harbor and back out to sea to continue our voyage of stupendous leisure and luxury, heading south.
Letting go.
If you’ve been following: We cruised Corsica to Sardinia and from Sardinia along the Costa Smeralda where there’s not much more than rocks, sun and sea. One day we tied up on some rocks off an uninhabited little slip of an island not far from Porto Cervo. The crew put out the waverunners (or jetskis) for us which I and another used to explore the jagged coastline. The rest of the gang jumped off the back of the ship into the warm salty water for a swim, and otherwise we just lolled on the upperdeck (or the party deck as Cheri, the head stewardess calls it because of its days in Cannes where an American producer chartered it for the Film Festival parties). After lunch the captain pulled up anchor and we cruised several hours down the coast to Ponza.

Ponza is another huge hunk of volcanic detritus, part of the five Pontine islands, parts of crests of craters. They are fairly close to Rome and in July and August day-trippers either on the ferries or on their own boats come over. Ponza was colonized by the Romans (by the Volscians before that in 313 BC).

A natural harbor in Ponza.
Harbor hotel in Ponza
Augustus built a villa for himself there. And Caligula, Mr. Hideous himself, used it as a place of exile for certain members of his family, like his brothers, and his sister Agrippina who was the mother of Nero. Ponza is very remote (which is one of the reasons why everyone on the boat loved it) and dramatically rocky and desolate, so you can imagine way back in Roman times without the advantage of cell phones (which are everywhere of course) and power boats, Agrippina must have hated her crazy brother to the point of going mad herself over that one.

We put down anchor in a natural harbor called Cala Inferno not far from a tanker which sits there much of the time supplying some kind of energy to the few houses on the island. After our swim and our jetskiing and our massive and leisurely luncheons which habitually were finished off with coconut, chocolate or orange gelatos (or a combination thereof), some of us went into the one small harborside town, also called Ponza. I was always looking for a newspaper, hungry for any news to restore my natural anxious New York state of mind. There isn't/wasn't much.

The village of Ponza is very rustically Italian and they live a life unperturbed by the fanatics who bedevil our daily lives back in civilization (i.e., the fast, last lane). So there was a Herald-Tribune to be found, yesterday's issue. After obtaining a copy, we walked around and took in the atmosphere, finally stopping at one of the cafes overlooking the harbor and having a beer, and watched the world go by untroubled by its languor.

These are lazy days, the very best kind, sated by salt and sea which makes you either hungry or sleepy or hungry or sleepy. Back on the Big Eagle after a trip to the town, a lot of the party retired to their cabins (or the lounges on the upper deck for sun) and took naps.

In the main saloon.
My cabin after naptime with my handy Mac right nearby.
Arriving in Capri.
From Ponza, as we sat down for dinner, the Big Eagle moved on for a several-hour cruise south and east to Ischia. There was a crescent moon directly behind us at eye level, illuminating the frothy wake of the boat as we arrived in the outer waters of this fabulous island, also part of the volcanic crest that created this part of the world back before anyone existed to have a memory of it.

Ischia still has hot springs, which indicates to the geologists that there is still activity way down deep underneath it all. The island had its last big eruption in the 300 BCs when the Greeks were occupying it. After that came the Romans. It was always famous for its hot springs said to be good for those suffering from arthritis and rheumatism.

We awoke the next morning in a harbor off Ischia.
There was a pretty little red hotel with a white parapet on a point above the harbor where we were staying, and on a narrow, curved strip of beach were set out a couple dozen blue beach umbrellas in neat rows. And a few boats bobbing in the waves.

By noontime or one, however, there were dozens of boats of all sizes that had come into the harbor and dropped anchor. By the end of lunch, I counted more than 100 boats in this harbor, crowded to the point where anchor lines were getting crossed. Not a pretty picture. A little like the island of Coney on a Sunday afternoon. Or the Beach of Jones. Time to go for those of us seeking solitude. About three o’clock we pulled up anchor and left that nautical melee, and set out for the ride of two (or was it four?) hours over to Capri.

This was the second time I’ve come to Capri. It has a magic to its name and that magic is there on first sighting. Capri is where the Emperor Tiberius, another lovely, had his famous villa and his famous orgies during which it has been said (historians claim it is false) that when he finished with whomever, boys, girls, etc., he was having his way with, he threw them over the cliffs to their jagged rocky fates. Nice. Stories like that always make me think that the Roman Empire definitely had it coming, that which they finally got (and got and got).
The Piccola Marina in Capri harbor.
Capri has been a favorite island in modern times for the wealthy and social and chic. Mona von Bismarck, the former Mrs. Harrison Williams had a villa and spent the best part of the end of her life gardening there.

Water for her extensive gardens was brought in especially on her own tanker. Noel Coward went there and even wrote about it (In a bar on the Piccola Marina, life called to Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster). As did his American counterpart, Cole Porter.
Life on the Piazza in Capri.
Shoppers shopping. Shopping alternative. And more alternatives.
So did Maxim Gorky, the revolutionary who attracted Stalin and Lenin here (and who probably ended up acting out like Noel Coward's Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster in their many spare moments). Friedrich Krupp, the German arms manufacturer came too (not for revolutionary reasons, however).

The famous Grand Hotel Quisisana.
Nowadays it is said to be over run by tourists and therefore things are not what they used to be. Ever heard that one before? As in: what isn’t?

We passed by the Marina Grande and found ourselves
a spot in a remote harbor once again. The following morning we went into the harbor and took a berth for the boat for our final night and day on the island.

Once settled, most of us, at varying times, took the taxi or the funicular up to the town where all the action is. I took a taxi, one of those stretch open air Fiats - so comfortable. and Just as we reached the top of the hill, on the very narrow, sharply winding road, we stopped to make space for another taxi about to make the descent.

At the moment of stopping, I noticed a young couple in the back seat of the taxi waiting to descend. He looked familiar to me, or at least that was what I was thinking as he was looking at me, as if thinking the same thing.

Then he said: "David Patrick Columbia, we read New York Social Diary everyday and it’s a fantastic site!" Really. I’m not kidding. Way up there above the bar on the Piccola Marina. Thrills and chills.
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