Journal #1

Summertime on the French Riviera

With its sparkling azure waters, sun-soaked beaches and picturesque towns, the French Riviera is the ultimate summer yachting destination. Sportmer’s Rosemarie Pirolli shares her top tips for exploring this iconic coastline

Words by: Ginger Rose Clark

J Craft Torpedo "Natalia" glistens in the Saint Tropez sun at the Sportmer dock

Just a mention of the French Riviera conjures images of whiling away summer days meandering from bay to bay, visiting local islands and stopping for sublime lunches at emblematic restaurants. This postcard-perfect image was cemented in the 1960s, when Saint-Tropez became a prized destination for the jet-set. The story of Sportmer – the small boat specialist shipyard celebrating 60 years of its prime location in Saint-Tropez’s Old Port harbour – is woven throughout this tale of transformation.

Sportmer was founded by four French colonials in 1963. Initially based in Algeria, after the War of Independence they came to Saint-Tropez – when it was only a buzzing little fishing town and low-key holiday destination – and established the company. Rosemarie Pirolli, who has had close ties with the company for more than 30 years, explains just how visionary and influential Sportmer was. The company can, for example, be credited with creating the very first pleasure craft station in Saint-Tropez, offering a complete service to yachtsmen, as a forerunner in this field.

J Craft Torpedos at Sportmer in Saint Tropez

Some of the first boats to adorn Sportmer’s historic marina were the iconic Riva runabouts. ‘Carlo Riva had been working with one of Sportmer’s founding partners in Algeria and he told him he should take the brand to Saint-Tropez,’ explains Rosemaire. ‘That started a veritable Riva trend here, and Sportmer just flourished.’ Riva owners have included high-profile actresses Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor, for example. Sportmer can also be thanked for popularising other legendary styles, such as high-performance Cigarette and Magnum boats. ‘Sportmer has always selected brands that are strikingly different from others. These models have always been built in very small numbers, by passionate craftsmen, for a very small group of clients. That’s why it’s just natural for J Craft to find its place with us today,’ says Rosemarie.

This special relationship between J Craft and Sportmer provides a fantastic starting point for cruising the French Riviera. Rosemarie explains that the team will take care of everything from restocking your boat with fresh towels, to finding you a captain or making restaurant reservations. And when it comes to recommendations for things to see and do, and places to eat and stay, Rosemarie’s knowledge is second to none.

Sportmer has always selected brands that are strikingly different from others. These models have always been built in very small numbers, by passionate craftsmen, for a very small group of clients. That’s why it’s just natural for J Craft to find its place with us today

Pampelonne beach offers five kilometres of pristine sand and turquoise sea

Once your boat has been prepped and primed by Sportmer, Rosemarie suggests starting with the beach of Pampelonne, a five-kilometre stretch of pristine sand and turquoise sea which is home to some of the area’s best beach clubs. Rosemarie explains why it is such a favourite spot for yachters: ‘They have a little tender that comes out to pick you up from your boat and take you to the beach restaurants, which all have excellent chefs and first-class reputations.’ Some of the most renowned include Nikki Beach, La Réserve and Le Club 55. The latter might never have become the iconic establishment it is today had it not been for the movie And God Created Woman starring Brigitte Bardot. While filming on Pampelonne beach in 1955, director Roger Vadim asked the de Colmont family, who had recently opened an informal eatery on the beach for their friends, if they could prepare lunch for his 80-person crew. They accepted… and the rest is, as they say, history.

Those in search of calm and wellbeing should cruise round to La Croix-Valmer. Here you’ll find Hôtel Lily of the Valley, a five-star establishment dedicated to wellness and sport, which has its own private beach. Rosemarie says the hotel is yet another establishment that is geared up to welcome boats, allowing you to embrace a relaxed mindset from the moment you moor up.

The floating seaside town of Port Grimaud

Port Grimaud is a pastel-hued gem that can’t be missed. The floating town was created by architect François Henry Spoerry in the 1960s: its colourful houses were created with sea lovers in mind and most have their own berths. It’s therefore only natural that the best way to visit Port Grimaud is by boat, as Rosemarie explains, ‘You can sail up and down the canals like in Venice, but on a much smaller scale.’ Such is its likeness to the Italian city that it is, in fact, often referred to as the Venice of the Côte d'Azur.

If you’re in the mood for a day trip, embark on an excursion to the nearby islands of Hyères. The three islands are paradisiacal destinations with sandy beaches and delightful coves on a backdrop of unspoilt nature. Port-Cros is considered to be the wildest of the three islands, while Porquerolles has plenty of nostalgic charm. ‘It’s like when you used to go on holiday with your parents 30 years ago,’ says Rosemarie.

Discover contemporary art and a stunning sculpture garden at the Fondation Carmignac villa on Porquerolles island
Porquerolles island is a paradisiacal destination with sandy beaches, delightful coves and unspoilt nature

Porquerolles’ appeal doesn’t stop there. Art buffs should seek out Fondation Carmignac. Dedicated to contemporary art, the foundation comprises a stunning villa and sculpture garden nestled in the Mediterranean landscape. Once you’ve had your fill of art, have an alfresco lunch at the Foundation's restaurant. Here you can enjoy local and seasonal ingredients, as well as wines from the island. Porquerolles has other high-class restaurants, with Le Mas du Langoustier being one of the most famous, its high-class Mediterranean gastronomy is a perfect complement to the idyllic setting.

Getting to Porquerolles is particularly easy, as Rosemarie explains: ‘We have a sister company there called Halliday Marine. That means we can help with port space, which is very difficult to obtain.’ Because Sportmer is so well established, it has several other sister companies dotted around the region including Assistance Nautique du Golfe (ANG) at Les Marines de Cogolin, or Saint Tropez Marine. They all work closely together, so you can reserve a berth or charter a larger boat as and when you need.

Île Sainte Marguerite, situated off the coast of Cannes, is home to the fashionable La Guérite restaurant and private beach

In the mood for a longer cruise? There are plenty more boat-friendly destinations further afield. You could, for example, set your course north-east for La Guérite, a restaurant and private beach on Île Sainte-Marguerite. ‘It’s the place to go on the islands of Cannes: it’s built a reputation around music, fun and good food,’ says Rosemarie. Alternatively, if you want to head west towards Marseille, drop anchor at the beaches of Cassis for an afternoon of carefree swimming and sunbathing.

Sportsmer’s long-established presence has allowed them to develop a solid network with sub-contractors and yachting partners all along the Riviera’s coastline. This enables Sportmer to offer assistance to J Craft clients as far the French/Italian border, either directly or in cooperation with J Craft’s other partner in the South of France, Monaco based Monaco Marine, which is offering services to J Craft clients in the heart of the principality.

A J Craft Torpedo glides across the water in Saint Tropez

When you return to port in Saint Tropez, you can unwind while watching boats coming in and out of the harbour from the Lounge Club of the Harbour Master's Office, which is open to users of Saint-Tropez Harbour. Or, if you’re looking for a more secluded experience, Rosemarie says many boat-owners simply like to make the most of Sportmer’s privileged location. ‘We occupy a discreet position in a quiet corner of the historic port. It is very private: our moorings are not on full show like those on the other side. Plus, it is simply beautiful here,’ she says. The views of Saint-Tropez’s legendary Sénéquier and bell tower do indeed make for an idyllic backdrop to an intimate drink aboard your J Craft boat. It might well be the perfect way to end a perfect day.

Through a partnership with Sportmer and Assistance Nautique du Golfe, J Craft owners in the south of France can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with any type of service and maintenance throughout the year, at any of its network of locations, as well as special dockage and winter storage options. A full mechanical service is ensured by a skilled team of technicians for peace of mind and tranquillity during navigation. Additional benefits include boat preparation prior to cruise, mooring and covering, weekly exterior washing, chrome cleaning and oil level control, monthly battery inspection and all heavy weather preparation.

Ginger Rose Clark is a lifestyle journalist whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Prospect, SHOP, Quintessentially and Conrad magazine.