At Portofino,” wrote Selina Hastings, one of Evelyn Waugh’s biographers, the novelist “enjoyed in almost unlimited supply the two components most necessary to his peace of mind, the company of [his second wife] Laura and undisturbed tranquillity in which to write”.
Waugh himself, who routinely referred to the Italians and the French as “wops” and “frogs”, was rather more frivolous, not to say downright rude, about his surroundings and his acquaintances. But there is no doubting his appreciation of the Italian resort of Portofino and its aristocratic English visitors.
He spent part of his honeymoon in the Ligurian town after marrying Laura Herbert in 1937, worked there on his journalistic novel Scoop, which was published the following year, and returned in 1950.
In that year he wrote to Nancy Mitford about a Portofino festival that was “lovely & gay & holy all at the same time”. To Laura, he described how my own grandfather, who was then British ambassador in Rome and was for some reason nicknamed “Sexy”, became “very drunk before luncheon” and rashly promised to visit each member of the numerous British colony afterwards.
Portofino, together with the waters beyond its sheltered cove, is among the prettiest and longest established venues for yachtracing on the Mediterranean circuit (the Yacht Club Italiano there was founded in 1879), and a natural choice for events such as the FT Wally Grand Prix Series.
Portofino is probably the most venerable of the locations for this year’s sailing contests between Wally’s carbon composite luxury yachts. Along with the others – Palma de Mallorca, Porto Cervo (the modern marina and resort on the Sardinian coast founded by the Aga Khan in the 1960s) and Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera – it offers the essential combination of good sailing (providing the weather obliges) and restaurants and hotels to satisfy the demands of superyacht owners and their families and friends.
With regattas lasting up to a week and the boats racing only a few hours a day, the facilities ashore are as relevant to yacht-owners today as they were to the 19th-century aristocrats and 20th-century novelists and film stars who frequented Portofino in the past.
“The onshore component is just as important,” says John Hunt, chairman and chief executive of Wally Yachts. “What makes a good location is a combination of three things: the wind and the sailing conditions; the immediate port, the marina; and life on the ground. We’ve got to think about the event off the water.”
Palma and Saint-Tropez, on the other hand, have the obvious advantages of size and tradition, a critical mass of super-yachts and shoreside entertainment. Hunt likes Saint-Tropez, especially out of the summer high season, not just for the harbour but for “all the charms of the beach, the glamour, the history”.
Portofino can be short of wind in summer and is too small to host a large number of superyachts but its intimate atmosphere has made it a favourite for generations of yacht-owners. The soothing stucco and pastel colours of the old buildings on the harbour contrast startlingly with the high-tech, minimalist lines of the superyachts moored in front of them.
Once a Ligurian fishing village, Portofino, along with Santa Margherita to the north, was transformed into a bolthole for wealthy Britons from the late 19th century.
Among the recent stars to be married there was Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United striker, who wed Coleen McLoughlin in Santa Margherita in 2008 with a reception in the medieval abbey of La Cervara overlooking the sea. The abbey, incidentally, is an equally popular party venue for superyacht owners, who tend to be more discreet about their wealth than footballers.
Luca Bassani, who founded Wally Yachts, has a villa above Portofino and says his mother used to swim out to the flying boats that brought in the well-heeled British tourists for weekends after the second world war. For him, one of the delights of the place is the backdrop of Mediterranean woodland, protected since 1935 by one of Italy’s first natural parks. “My mother met my father in Portofino,” he says. “It was much easier to reach here 60 years ago.”
From time to time yacht race organisers and the owners and skippers who compete are tempted to experiment with new sailing areas beyond the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Even within these familiar seas, new venues sometimes emerge to challenge the old order.
One new Mediterranean port that has passed the test with flying colours is Porto Cervo on the Costa Smeralda, now a regular destination for superyacht regattas and adventurous sailors. When the north-westerly wind squeezes through the gap between Corsica and Sardinia, the breezes tend to be lively (and frequently reached gale force in July this year), though the sea remains reasonably flat. The clear blue waters and rocky islets of the Maddalena archipelago also make for breathtakingly beautiful racing courses up the coast. It certainly beats looking at the chimney of Southampton’s Fawley power station from the Solent.
But it is not easy to become part of the charmed circuit when organisers need to keep a delicate balance between the suitability of the racecourse on the water, the beauty of the surroundings and the availability of the right facilities ashore.
“The racing area in Porto Cervo is better than here,” Claus-Peter Offen, a German shipping tycoon, admitted recently in Portofino when asked to rate locations for the different regattas where he and his rivals have competed for years. But Offen, who was overall leader with his yacht Y3K after the first three of this year’s five Wally events, had no doubts about his favourite regatta spot. “Of all the places, the villages where we race, I would rate Portofino and Santa Margherita in first place,” he said.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief and sailing correspondent
The Financial Times Wally Grand Prix is a series of regattas taking place throughout the Mediterranean this year and the result of a partnership between the yachtmaker Wally and this newspaper. The fourth regatta has been taking place this week in Porto Cervo, Italy, and the final one is in Saint-Tropez, France, from September 27 October 1. For details, see www.ft.wally.com