Small is beautiful: Skipping around the Med on a slick new yacht that squeezes into all the best places
Our stroll after dinner took us around Portoferraio harbour – small and sheltered, it was described by Nelson as the safest in the world. Still warm at nearly 10pm in mid-October, there was a lively buzz from quayside drinkers. Soon we reached the spot where our day had started on Elba, Italy’s third-biggest island.
A gaggle of us on this Mediterranean cruise had risen early to go shopping for our supper, and within minutes of stepping down the gangway, Chef Li was negotiating with fishermen selling from their boats.
We then walked to a bakery for schiaccia briaca, a boozy fruit-and-nut cake that gets its rosy colour from lashings of sweet red Elban wine, before heading to a delicatessen for cheeses, pasta and cured meats.
Serving fresh fish and local delicacies along the way is impossible for big ships with thousands to feed, but we were only 100 passengers aboard Emerald Azzurra, the first ocean-going ship from Emerald, an Australian, family-owned line that until now has specialised in river cruises.
And what a ship! Within its pyramid of striking black-and-white decks are 50 large cabins – all but six with balconies – and on this week-long cruise from Civitavecchia, near Rome, to Nice it was hard to believe it was full. There were always tables if you wanted to dine on the terrace, loads of seating and room for performances in the large lounge, and plenty of sun beds on the pool deck.
Caroline Hendrie boards Emerald Azzurra, the first ocean-going ship from Emerald, to sail around the French and Italian rivieras
Access all areas: Caroline anchors in the harbour at Portofino, which would be too small for most cruise liners, but not Emerald Azzurra
Azzurra’s clever design – airy and spacious yet nifty enough to get into small ports most cruise ships cannot reach – meant the yacht was always at the heart of things. So on Elba it was easy to pop back to the ship for a swim and out again to stroll up to Napoleon’s elegant villa.
At anchor in the bay at Portofino we were whisked ashore by tender in a trice, having the pink-and-yellow-washed village all to ourselves. Returning to the quayside, we saw about 1,000 passengers arriving on ferries from the big ships docked in Genoa. It was time to return to Azzurra and succumb to feelings of smugness about the exclusivity of our yacht.
Walking tours were included on our cruise and were well worth joining.
Striking: Caroline says she feels a sense of ‘smugness’ about the exclusivity of the yacht (pictured above off the coast of Corsica)
The yacht has 50 large cabins – all but six with balconies
One passenger tells Caroline the yacht is like ‘having a luxury taxi to take you from place to place’
When docked in Porto Ercole in Tuscany, eight of us hiked to 15th Century Forte Filippo. From our mooring in Corsica, a little road train whisked us up to the old town for a walking tour that ended with robust local wine in a cliffside bar. And in Menton on the French Riviera, our tour took us to a beautiful covered market surrounded by palm trees and groaning with fine foods, as well as to see the Wedding Hall in the town hall, decorated by Jean Cocteau in the 1950s. Afterwards I jumped on one of the ship’s electric bikes for a spin along the promenade almost to the Italian border.
Many of the British empty-nesters on board Azzurra knew and loved the Italian and French rivieras, and were first-time cruisers trying another way to visit favourite places and explore new ones without a car.
As one guest told me: ‘Such a relaxing holiday – it’s like having a luxury taxi to take you from place to place.’
Caroline Hendrie was a guest of Emerald Cruises. Azzurra’s sister ship, Emerald Sakara, will sail on May 25, 2024, for seven nights from Nice to Rome from £4,745pp, including wine or beer with meals, flights, transfers, tips and some shore excursions (emeraldcruises.co.uk).