Cruising the Cote d'Azur

KATE MEAD
Last updated 05:00 15/07/2013
cruising

FLOATING HOTEL: The Azamara Quest moored at St Tropez.

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When our captain fell into the biting water, people gasped. Some laughed. Everyone cheered. Captain Carl Smith was speared by the lance of a seven-time water jousting champion, knocking him off his perch and sending him tumbling into Sete's Canal Royal.

In this fishing town, one of the humbler jewels that frost France's southern coastline, water jousting is a tradition dating back to 1666. Our cruise ship, Azamara Quest, is docked here and all 600-odd passengers have been invited to watch an off-season joust, while Captain Carl bravely participates. After the excitement we meander back to the ship for dinner, while our captain thaws out before we set sail.

Sete, located about 200km east of the Spanish border, is our first port of call on the seven-day Springtime along the Cote d'Azur cruise that calls in to Marseille, Cannes, Saint Tropez, Nice and Monte Carlo. I'm travelling with Mum, a first-time cruiser and an instant convert.

Quest has all the luxuries you would find in any top-class hotel: personalised service, a pool, gym, spa and bars, along with six restaurants, though our favourite spot on board is our cabin. We're in a veranda stateroom which means we get our own outdoor space with a table and chairs, providing a consistently halcyon retreat, where we can nibble away at a cheese platter while gazing out at the Mediterranean, or whichever blisteringly beautiful destination we're parked up at.

With jet lag making early-risers out of us, we eat from the buffet each morning and watch as a new destination reveals itself.

Today we're pulling up to Marseille, though our booked land excursion will take us beyond the city and into Aix-en-Provence. On the way we stop at Paul Cezanne's studio, tucked away amid sprawling greenery. Upstairs the artist's still life objects pepper the studio, sitting among old books and Cezanne's coats that still hang on hooks in the corner of the room, complete with paint stains.

Long stays in port mean we can comfortably fit in two excursions each day and still have leisure time to spare. In Saint Tropez we don't need to be back on board until nearly 10pm so we can take our time exploring. Our land excursion this morning is a wine tasting at Ramatuelle, a five-minute drive out of town. Our guide, Jean-Jacques, also happens to be a wine judge and as we sip on rose he gives us some sage advice for remembering tasting terms, French style: "Swirl the wine, lift up the dress and that's the best way to see the legs."

Back on board, our own legs tired from an afternoon of walking around, buying boots and peering at Millionaires Bay, where Brigitte Bardot lives, we settle in for a hearty dinner. Most nights we eat at Discoveries, a smart-casual restaurant with a far-reaching menu. You'll find classics like Caesar salad and chicken dishes, but specials change daily. There are two higher-end restaurants on Quest that have a reasonable cover charge of US$25, one of which is Prime C Steakhouse, where it feels like a crime to throw in your napkin if you have space for one more bite.

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Not that it's easy to leave the table with room to spare - here's an example dinner: Lobster salad starter; Jerusalem artichoke soup with duck confit and truffle brioche; filet mignon with a number of sides ranging from crispy onion rings to stilton bread souffle, and for dessert, mini donuts with three different dipping sauces. Unsurprisingly, it's all exceptional, and staff are tenacious at keeping wine glasses topped up.

Monaco is our final destination and we're docked here overnight, but before we check out the sights, we have a tour of the bridge. Captain Carl could well have one of the best offices in the world, with an exotic view that changes daily. He hails from the Isle of Mann and spends three months at sea, then returns home for three months. He started his seagoing career in 1989 as a deck cadet for Shell Oil Tankers, and he joined Azamara in 2007.

Because this ship is smaller than some monsters you can cruise on, Captain Carl says he can manoeuvre into many destinations with smaller ports, like Seville, which allows two metres to spare as the ship ventures down the 30-metre wide river port backwards. He's done a good job making us feel confident in his skills, but Captain Carl admits to one superstition - there are certain words he won't utter while on board. And, since we are on the ship, we never find out what they are.

Two words, it appears, that never get uttered in Monaco are "how much?" Stepping off Quest late morning our first experience of the vast riches of Monaco is a yacht worth € 400 million with its name written in solid gold along the side.

A saunter further up the road sees you outside a "Wealth Management" building, and if you carry on you'll hit the jackpot: the Monte Carlo Casino. Designed by Charles Garnier in the Beaux Arts style, the illustrious facade jostles for attention with a lineup of flash cars parked outside: a red matte Lamborghini, a Mercedes and a Ferrari.

On the other side of Monaco is the less flamboyant, but still opulent, Old Town. We join another cruise excursion for a guided tour of the Prince's Palace of Monaco which, among a rich display of historical furniture and artefacts, contains the last portrait of Grace Kelly before she died.

We continue on to the nearby Oceanographic Museum, where there is a magnificent aquarium in the basement, but arguably the most impressive attribute is the architecture. The museum is designed so that from the back it looks like it's precariously sitting on a cliff ready to crumble into the ocean.

Our cruise ends the next day in Monaco so tonight guests can stay out late. Neither Mum nor I call ourselves blackjack aficionados so we retreat to our cabin, content to watch the shimmering casino lights and breathe in the fresh sea air one last time.

Kate Mead travelled courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises, part of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

- Sunday Star Times

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