Several superyachts are bobbing in the warm sunshine in Cannes’ Vieux Port. Europe’s largest boat show has just been to town and among the hulking shadows of the multi-millionaires’ craft sits our more modest 15-metre sailing boat, Aruba.
I’d always envisaged yachting in the south of France as the preserve of the rich and famous, but I’m on an eight-day trip sailing between Nice and Marseille to sample, “a champagne lifestyle on a sparkling wine budget” (the trip, with Intrepid Travel, is on offer for less than £750pp in June).
The route takes in Côte d’Azur hotspots from Antibes to Saint-Tropez, as well as less-known destinations such as Port-Cros and Porquerolles, in the Îles d’Hyères archipelago. For someone like myself – a solo traveller with an appreciation of sailing though none of the skills to be of much use – the trip ticks a lot of boxes.
From Nice, Aruba had carried me and six other passengers (two newlyweds, two friends from Canada and three single women, average age 35) to Antibes and Cannes, via Île Sainte-Marguerite, which lies in the bay a short distance from the Croisette. Our overnight mooring at sea, complete with takeaway pizza from a nearby catamaran pizzeria, was an unexpected diversion caused by the boat show – a fine example of skipper Vincent’s maxim that no two sailing trips are ever the same. I’m sharing a cabin with fellow Brit Caroline; it’s fair to say we get to know each other well in a short space of time.
Days begin with croissants, bread, jam, meats and cheese while Vincent pores over nautical charts. Then we’re off, sailing across the sparkling Med. If you want to learn the ropes, or just have a go at steering, Vincent’s a great teacher (he has crossed the Atlantic nine times), but lazy hours can also be spent soaking up the sun on deck.
After Cannes, we head south-west towards Saint-Raphaël, stopping at a secluded cove to swim and snorkel. Each evening brings a new location and, usually, dinner ashore. Although we’re by no means forced to do so, the group tends to stick together, happily chatting over carafes of wine.
The true highlight of the trip, though, comes on day six as we swap the winding streets of Saint-Tropez for the majestic Îles d’Hyères. We disembark at the smallest of the archipelago’s three main islands, Port-Cros, a protected maritime park (along with Porquerolles) since 1963. Just 3km long by 1km wide, it’s beautiful and serene, with few tourists. We hike through pine forests to Baie de la Palud, half an hour away. A snorkelling safari trail starts straight from the beach and we spot shoals of fish swimming among the seagrass and darting over sun-dappled rocks.
After lunch it’s on to Porquerolles, the largest of the Îles d’Hyères, still only 6km long by 3km wide, with steep cliffs, secluded white beaches, oak forests and one village. We immediately understand why it’s Vincent’s favourite place on the trip. Most of it is a conservation area, with a landscape that must resemble the French Riviera of centuries ago.
Come in the height of summer and you’ll share it with plenty of holidaying French, but September is quiet (as are May and much of June) and it’s perfect to explore by foot or bike, with a variety of trails. We jump on our hire bikes and cycle away from the village, past Pointe de Lequin towards the easterly Plage Nôtre Dame. It feels a million miles from the packed beaches of Cannes and the crowds of Saint-Tropez.
As we cycle back, the sun is low in the sky and a golden light spreads across our path. “I wanted a tour that wasn’t on a tour bus,” says Jennifer, who is cycling beside me. “This trip has worked well for me.”
Despite the fun of the group, there are opportunities for moments of solitude. On our last morning I wake early, determined to fit in another outing on the bike. As I emerge on deck, the boat is rocking and water is sloshing across the jetty. The weather has turned unexpectedly grey and Vincent eyes my waterproof jacket with a grin as he marks his recommendation, Gorges du Loup, in the south of the island, on my map.
As I ride, the weather changes as fast as the landscape and soon I’m looking out at a dramatic scene of jagged rock descending to a vivid turquoise pool, shrubs and trees painting the landscape behind me. I sit down and look out across the sea, struck by the peacefulness of the spot, less than 10 minutes’ cycle from the village.
I get back to the boat to find Olga, one of the Canadians, up. “Each morning, when I wake up and drink my coffee on deck,” she says, “I know it’s going to be a good day.” I couldn’t agree more.
• The trip was provided by Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com), which has eight-day sailing trips between Nice and Marseille for £1,179 in September, excluding flights (it’s currently on sale from £741 in June). Guests contribute €110 to a kitty for breakfast, lunch and snacks; dinner extra
MORE SAILING TRIPS FOR TYROS AND SOFTIES
Learn to sail in the Ionian, Greece
Activity Holidays Greece runs trips for those who want to learn with the help of professionals. There is also plenty of time to swim, snorkel and explore on land at each stop.
• Seven days from £550pp, flights extra, activityholidaysgreece.com
Split to Dubrovnik
Enjoy a tour of the Dalmatian coast on G Adventures’ leisurely eight-day skippered trip, including the chance to visit Roman ruins, secret bays and Hvar for the nightlife.
• From £674pp, flights extra, gadventures.co.uk
Family sailing, Turkey
This Sunsail family sailing trip to the Turkish riviera is ideal for novices, who can hire a skipper for £145 a night, with the option to be as laid-back or hands-on as you please.
• Seven nights from £772pp, flights extra, sunsail.co.uk
Introduction to sailing, Kefalonia
Trek Adventures’ learn-to-sail holidays in the Ionian consist of three days with an instructor, then three days’ flotilla sailing – so you still have plenty of support. By the end of the week you’ll have your ICC certificate, so you can sail independently.
• Six days from £399pp, flights extra, trek-adventures.co.uk
Short break, Italy
This four-day, small group, skippered mini-adventure stops off at all the Amalfi coast highlights, including Capri and Procida. It includes hiking, local dining and gelato.
• Four days from £412pp, flights extra, responsibletravel.com