If Formula One is your passion and the Monaco Grand Prix your Mecca, there can be no more amenable way to experience this iconic event in the race calendar than on the MS Wind Surf
Combining a cruise with motor racing sounds a little anachronistic, but believe me, it really works.
It is the silliest of cruises, really. We flew most of it on the descent into Nice - dropping down over St Tropez Bay and along the coast just about as far as Monaco before turning west for the final approach. That took us over Nice Port, where we spied the Wind Surf moored up: our first view of home for the next eight nights.
But, it was the only way I was ever going to get He-who-must-be-obeyed on a cruise. He is of the persuasion that, just as they don’t eat quiche, real men don’t do cruises. He is a die-hard refusenik.
However, the prospect of being able to attend his beloved Grand Prix without all the attendant hassles (hotel rooms are rarer than hen’s teeth, air fares suddenly go sub-orbital, and getting to and from the event itself is another form of entertainment entirely!) melted that icy exterior and he agreed to come along.
Thus it was that we flew to Nice – well before all the accelerated airfares came into effect – and boarded this impressive looking five-masted sailing yacht. Wind Surf is the largest of three sailing yachts operated by Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com), and carries up to 312 passengers. The other two – Wind Star and Wind Spirit – are four-masted and carry only 148 passengers. Formerly a Club Med ship, Wind Surf is the youngest member of the fleet and offers understated luxury in a casual and unpretentious atmosphere. There are no formal evenings and almost nothing in the way of organised entertainment.
The cruise itself took us overnight from Nice to St Tropez, where we spent a day drifting about the town in the sun and sipping pastis at Senequier (www.senequier.com) – the place to see and be seen. In the evening, we sailed east again, retracing our steps just as far as Cannes.
"Sailed" is perhaps being over-generous: in fact we motored everywhere, although the seven huge sails were hoisted at every possible opportunity. And the amount of time spent with the sails up is faithfully recorded against the ship’s log like a badge of honour, even though she may have been at anchor at the time. In fact, it would take a much stronger wind than we were likely to encounter in our secluded little corner of the Med to shift this beast. But the whole process is computerised and Wind Surf prides herself in being able to automatically hoist all 2,600 square meters of available canvas is just a matter of minutes.
Cannes Film Festival
We had two nights at anchor off Cannes, allowing time for celebrity spotting at the film festival. In the evening, a sort of digital camera dominoes enabled everyone to trade pictures of Brad Pitt and other famous faces. Mine had none: we had found a quaint little bar in the narrow streets of the old town and settled down to quaff some more pastis.
From there, we sailed further east, and awoke in the morning moored off San Remo: a sort of poor man’s Cannes, delightfully void of crowds. It does have its own film festival, apparently – though thankfully not while we were there.
Food on board Wind Surf is all inclusive and entirely spectacular. Constraint is the watchword, especially when faced with the comprehensive spread that is the breakfast buffet in the Verandah Restaurant. Every sort of breakfast taste is catered for and I had to curb my temptation to try everything. No sooner is breakfast cleared away than a fabulous luncheon buffet takes its place: an enormous selection of gastro seduction.
There is a choice of four restaurants for dinner, including two open air, and open seating subject to availability. The most formal is Degrees, followed by the main restaurant, an on-deck seafood restaurant (our favourite), and a pool side barbecue. The food in all was of a very high standard and pleasantly light, and the service friendly and professional.
With a high ratio of crew to passengers (Wind Surf carries a complement of 191 crew), mainly Indonesians and Filipinos, service standards throughout were high and the crew were friendly and generally armed with a good sense of humour.
The cabins are not overly large, but well-designed to optimise the potential space. Each cabin has its own safe, TV, and Bose speaker system with iPod dock. If you don’t have your iPod with you, you can rent one at reception for the duration of the cruise, pre-loaded with a range of music to meet just about all tastes.
Monaco Grand Prix
From San Remo, we sailed back to Monaco for the last three nights – to coincide with the Grand Prix, and allowing the assembled assortment of petrol heads to attend the Friday practice, Saturday qualifying, and the race itself on Sunday. Arrangements to attend can be made through Windstar or independently, and the preferred option for most was a package that included a balcony to watch the race from accompanied by lunch and an open bar. With grandstand seat prices as they are and my enthusiasm for the noise and crowds only marginal, I spent race day luxuriating on board in the sun, while my partner had his nostrils amply saturated with that heady smell of hot rubber and lightly sautéed engine oil. We could hear the undulating whine of straining engines from the boat, and an elderly couple from the US, who were on their honeymoon and had no idea this cruise was all about motor racing, were baffled by the intrusion.
One of the best things about a small ship like the Wind Surf, according to hardened cruisers accustomed to the larger variety, is that she uses a couple of lifeboats as tenders. These ply to and from the ship regularly throughout the day on demand, rather than to a fixed schedule, and there are never the long queues to get ashore that big ship cruisers talk about. As a result, you can nip ashore for a short trip or stay all day, as suits, without being bound by departure times.
Perhaps the only negative was that our deal did not include our bar bill and even the purser felt obliged to comment as we settled up that we certainly seemed to have “enjoyed our stay.” My response in mitigation, is that we fell into bad company…
This year, the cruise is departing from Rome and sailing up to the Riviera via Corsica, making slightly more of a proper cruise of it.
As a cruise, I expect it will be hugely enjoyable, but as a way to see the Monaco Grand Prix, it can’t be beaten.
This year's Monaco Grand Prix takes place on 16 May, 2010. We booked our cruise through Vacations to Go (www.vacationstogo.com) – highly recommended – and the Wind Surf departs Rome on May 9. At last check, there was still availability.