A Terrifying Hike, A Weather Forecast Gone Wrong, And Amazing Sights Of The French Riviera

It was with great reluctance that we left the city of Ajaccio, Corsica.  This place had truly been a magical stop, and we could have easily spent weeks here.  It is definitely high on my list of places to return to in the future.  We got underway fairly early in the morning to make the 6 hour passage to a place called Girolata. Girolata is unique because it is shut off from the rest of the island by high mountains and deep ravines, making it only accessible by sea.  Perched high on the outermost point is a stunning looking castle.  It appears to have been restored as it looks like something out of a Disney movie.  Tucked deep into the corner of the bay, well protected from most winds (and invading pirates/mauraders back in the day) lies a mooring field in very shallow waters.  In here, we would take a mooring both bow and stern to keep us from swinging, since they have packed in many mooring slots.  The tender greeted us outside of the mooring field, asked our draft, and told us to follow him.  As Dan watched the depth shallow up severely, he called out to the guy, “are you sure it is deep enough for us?!”  Our depth meter was reading 1.2 meters, and we draw 1.3 meters!  The guy assured us it was fine and tied us up very close to the rocky cliffs on shore.  It was definitely super shallow here.  As a matter of fact, we watched a monohull come in and quickly run aground.  The tender driver then needed to help drag him out deeper and get him tied up before he swung into the shallows again.

We quickly headed to shore and began wandering around.  Our first order of business, go see the castle (of course)!  We tried and tried, but could not find a pathway that wasn’t blocked by signs that said private property/no access.  We stopped by the port captain’s office to inquire about how to get there.  We were told that there was no access to the castle at this time because it is surrounded by privately owned properties.  He said it would probably be another two years before they were able to identify and create a route that avoided the private properties.  Needless to say, we were very disappointed.  As you can imagine, it didn’t take long to explore the tiny town which consisted of homes, restaurants and bars.  All day long, day trip excursion boats off loaded hoards of people to explore the little, isolated village before returning them to the bigger cities. Oh, and the free roaming cows on the beach added some fun to the mix.  We had originally planned to spend a few nights here but quickly decided that one night was enough.  We jumped in for a swim which did not disappoint.  Below us was an aquarium busy cleaning our hulls.  I set off to explore the jagged, rocky coastline.  Before long, I had a menagerie of fish following me around and swimming up to check me out.  These guys, some quite big, were not skittish in the slightest.  The bay was surrounded by towering rock cliffs with many tree lined hiking paths, so we decided we would go for a hike the next morning before leaving Girolata behind.

Cow getting a suntan on the beach
Girolata’s off limits and well preserved citadel
Zoe in the mooring field
One of the more aggressive hikes we’ve done!
This part of Corsica is especially beautiful

In the morning we headed to the start of the trail where 3 different hikes were posted.  One was an hour and 15 minutes, one was an hour and a half, and the final one was 3 and half hours.  We opted for the hour and a half hike, and off we went.  The hike started off following the shoreline through a tree-lined path offering lots of shade.  Up, up, up we went.  There were no more signs along the path, just yellow paint bands on trees and rocks to mark the way.  Before long, climbing and scrambling over rock began.  Did I mention that we were now several hundred feet above the rocky sea below?  Or that we were on a very narrow path, with unsure footing, and nothing to stop our death plunge into the shallow sea below?  Yeah, my fun meter just took a huge dip toward zero.  As we continued along our route, and the climbing got steeper and more precarious, we began to express our concern that this trail was winding deeper along the bay and not making it’s way inland to complete the loop.  We were nearing the 45 minute mark at which point it should have begun to turn inland.  We continued on further before deciding that we had definitely taken the wrong trail.  From what we could see ahead, we were on the 3 1/2 hour hike with no drinking water.  We decided to turn around and go back the way we came.  Awesome!  I was beyond excited to now have to down climb all those hairball sections we had just come through.  Needless to say, I spent some of the descent on my ass, crab walking down the steep rocks.

Once back on board, we discussed our track back out of the bay to ensure that we did not run aground.  We quickly dropped lines from the 3 mooring balls we were tied to and made our way out of the bay.  Our next and final stop on the island of Corsica was the town of Calvi.  It was a sunny, hot day with no wind, so we motored our way north.  As we arrived into Calvi, we were once again greeted by the towering walls of a magnificent fortification.  You just can’t get tired of the amazing sights on this island.  The anchorage was pretty far from the town, so we opted for the mooring balls right outside the marina and heart of town.  We spent the next 3 days exploring the fortification, hiking along two of the bays, and climbing to a very scenic overlook.  We were really struggling with leaving Corsica.  This was truly a magical island, but all good things must come to an end.  We had our weather window to cross over to the French Riviera on the mainland.  It was going to be a 15 hour crossing, so we decided to leave around 1:30 p.m. in order to arrive in the anchorage at sunrise.

Approaching Calvi
Wandering the old fortress at Calvi
Waiting for sunset over the Old City
Zoe in the mooring field at Calvi

We quickly got underway and made our way out to sea.  As the hours slipped away, we soon noticed that the wind was not dropping with the sunset like the forecast had shown.  Not only was the wind building, but the seas we were suppose to have behind us did not play out either.  Not only were the seas much bigger than forecasted, but they were coming from all directions making for an extremely rough ride.  About 1/2 way into our journey, both Dan and I wondered if maybe we should have turned back.  Things got even better as these giant, thunderstorm clouds started building on the horizon.  Before long, the lightning began…..yeah….this was a whole lot of NOT fun!  We managed to sail the entire passage (a rarity out here) with a reefed main and genoa.  Because we sailed at a much faster speed than under motor, we arrived way before sunrise.  As we made our way into an anchorage outside of Monaco, it quickly became clear that this was going to be problematic.  Our charts showed that it was okay for boats under 20 meters to anchor behind the yellow buoys, but the buoys themselves showed no anchoring and no motoring.  Outside the markers was too deep for us, never mind it was still dark out which added to the challenge of finding a safe spot.  We both decided that trying to force this was not a good plan, so we motored along the coast for another hour before arriving in a mooring field outside of Villafranche.  By now, the sun was coming up, and we quickly grabbed a mooring ball.  After getting ourselves secured, the very friendly mooring ball operator came out and gave us all the scoop on the area before leaving us to get some much needed rest.  Of all the years that we have done overnight passages, Dan and I both agreed that this was the absolute worst one we have ever done.  We also agreed that next time, we would put the seas behind us and head for Genoa, Italy instead of Monaco, France.  After all, it’s not like we had some place to be….we blow with the wind!

A huge cruise ship lights up the nighttime seas
A sight for sore eyes after a hard passage – Monaco!

Villafranche turned out to be an awesome stop.  While the large anchorage tended to fill up with cruise ships and billionaire luxury yachts (and a few sprinklings of boaters like us), we were blissfully tucked away on our ball out of the chaos.  Here we were surrounded by towering cliffs with beautiful villas perched high on the hills.  The waterfront housed a multitude of restaurants and shops, and looking out over the bay sat another fortification.  Thanks to a train that ran above the waterfront, we were able to go and explore Monaco and old town Nice, leaving Zoe safely behind.  Monaco was as you would expect.  The harbor was full of extremely expensive, high end yachts, high end apartment complexes loomed all around, and the streets were lined with the most exotic cars you can imagine.  We were able to catch the changing of the guard at the palace which was pretty cool.  All in all, Monaco wasn’t really my cup of tea.  I much prefer the old cities and quaint towns of the past.  I did enjoy Nice which had a mixture of modern flair, as well as cobblestone alleyways with cafes and shops.

Exploring Monaco
Monaco Cathedral
Changing of the Palace Guard
Wandering Monaco
Old Town Monaco
Monaco harbor from the Citadel
Zoe in the mooring field at Villefrance sur Mer
Lovely cobblestoned streets of Villefranche
Cockpit view of Villefranche
Baguette in hand!
Trompe o’oeil style church
Villefranche castle grounds
Old Nice
Nuff said!
Cote d’Azur beaches
Crowded even in September
Wandering Nice
Nice Old City

Once again, we were monitoring a weather situation and trying to make arrangements for a marina berth to ride it out.  Another mistral was on its way bringing heavy rain, thunderstorms, and 30-40 knot winds.  We got lucky and finally landed a spot outside of Saint Tropez in Port Grimaud which is in a lagoon at the end of the bay.  It has been called the Venice of France.  We were super excited to spend a few days here exploring the canals by dinghy and walking the surrounding area, including the famous Saint Tropez.  As predicted, our first couple of days were spent hunkered down in the pouring rain.  We did manage to get off the boat each day to explore the area on foot.  When the rain finely broke on the third day, we jumped on the ferry that runs from the marina over to Saint Tropez.  We wandered the harbor lined with billionaire mega yachts, climbed the narrow alleyways with cute little cafes and high end boutiques, and headed up the hill to the citadel.  This was our favorite part of Saint Tropez.  Besides the amazing views, the citadel housed an incredible maritime museum that we fully enjoyed exploring.  I will let the pictures do the talking.  After the citadel, we headed back down to the waterfront to try out Saint Tropez’s famous dessert/pastry, Tarte Tropezienne.  I’m not sure having it in Saint Tropez was our most brilliant idea since 2 pastries with 2 cappuccinos came with a hefty price tag of $54 euros!  Ouch!  

Home for a few days while waiting out some bad weather
Zoe ready for the storm.
So called “Venice of France” We can see why!
Grimaud canals
St Tropez Citadel
St Tropez views
St Tropez Citadel
Art exhibit of St Tropez Citadel
Now that’s a moat
Exploring the excellent St Tropez maritime museum
Serious business
Replicas of French man-o-war’s
Wandering the old streets of St Tropez
Iconic St Tropez patisserie of Senequier
Tropezienne pastry
Wow. That’s a lot of money for two tarts and two Capuccinos!

We had 4 nights booked in the marina (I use the term loosely since they side tied us to a wall by the fuel dock).  The first 2 days were wind and rain, and the 4th day was the worst of the forecasted mistral.  This meant that all of our real fun and exploration needed to take place on that third day.  So, when we returned from Saint Tropez, we ticked off our final “must do.”The last thing we wanted to experience during our stay was a happy hour cruise through the canals of the lagoon.  We loaded up the dinghy with a charcuterie plate, a couple glasses of wine, and a speaker for music.  Off we went for a sunset cruise through the canals.  As expected, it was magical.  The canals are lined with beautiful homes and quaint little walking bridges.  This has definitely been one of my more favorite stops.

Sunset happy hour on the canals of Port Grimaud
Charcuterie, wine, music and great scenery. Bliss.

The following morning, the mistral arrived as expected.  Before long, the winds were howling at 35-45 knots.  Spindrift was swirling out in the anchorage, and I found myself grateful that we were securely tied to the wall (which was concrete and therefore not pitching around trapping us on the boat).  Although these strong mistrals can get a bit scary, I was also grateful that it came during daylight hours.  As you know, things are always scarier in the dark of night (haha)!  The last positive thing about a nasty wind storm is that a week or two of beautiful weather follows in its wake.  We still have 101 miles left to cover before taking Zoe out of the water and closing out our sailing season.  It’s hard to believe our season is almost over.  It’s been our shortest season yet while covering the largest amount of miles.  Tomorrow we will take advantage of the nice weather window to slowly make our way to Marseille.  Stay tuned for our final installment of Zoe’s sailing season before we set off for a little inland exploration of the French countryside.

There’s A Storm A-Brewin’

It was well forecasted.  The wicked mistral had finally reared its ugly head.  We had been watching the forecast for nearly a week and each day praying that it would moderate or just plain go away.  It was not going to be pretty.  Each day we watched, and each day the forecasted winds grew along with the number of days.  Before long, it went from 1-2 days to 4-5 days.  Wind gusts were going to be over 50 knots.  Ugh!  My fun meter was rapidly approaching zero.  We were fortunate that Dan found a marina spot for us….sort of.  Unfortunately, this marina was not protected by a breakwater, and was on a floating pontoon which was only installed for the summer months.  While perfectly safe, it did guarantee that both the pontoon and the boats would be pitching around violently….and they were!  This was going to be a long and painful few days.  To make matters worse, we were expecting our next set of guests, one being new to the sailing life.  Emil and Carrie would be joining us, and we were really hoping this would not spook them off.  Emil had sailed with us once before and had unfortunately been indoctrinated by a nasty storm at the beginning of his trip.  He may start thinking this is how all sailing journeys begin!

Dan I spent the day getting Zoe prepared for what was to come.  We secured spring lines to minimize our side to side movement.  We went to the nautical shop and bought some steel spring line dampeners and chain.  These attached to the dock with chain and then to our lines to help ease the snapping pressure on the lines.  We had everything rigged and felt pretty good.  That evening we headed into town for some pizza and ended up sitting at a table next to another cruising couple.  We learned that they were out in the anchorage, and they gave a shudder when we told them where we were tied up.  They explained to us how rough it was on these piers with the boats pitching one way and the pier pitching another.  Needless to say, we were a little concerned.  They tried to make us feel better by reassuring us that our catamaran probably would not pitch around as much as a monohull. 

Ouch…this wind forecast is not pretty

The storm arrived the following day and quickly escalated.  We watched a couple of boats come in early, and it was a nightmare.  One very large catamaran required 3 marineros, one who was on a high speed tender, to assist them with docking.  They had 3 very failed attempts to get the boat docked, and in the end, one of the marineros jumped on board and docked it for them while the others jumped on board to quickly tie them up.  The first night of the storm, we were up all night long, taking only brief catnaps.  The wind howled, the boat cracked and creaked like it was ready to explode, and the dock pitched violently.  Winds became sustained at 25-35 knots and gusts went from 40-50 knots.  At one point, the chain on our leeward (the side away from the wind) stern line snapped, and we were no longer tethered to the dock on one corner.  Luckily, we still had 8 other lines holding us in place.  When we hit a brief lull in the wind, we reattached the stern line and added another.  By the end, we had 10 lines to various points on our boat.  Most of the wives and kids vacated their boats for the comfort of a hotel, and left their husbands to oversee the safety of the boat.  Not me….I got to stay for the fun!  For 2 1/2 days, we were unable to safely get off Zoe.  The boat was pitching up and down, and the dock was pitching side to side.  The waves inside the bay were 3-4 feet and spraying up and over our decks. So, we rode it out with Zoe.  By the third day, the gusts had come down a bit, so we could get off the boat when there was a lull in the wind.  Of course when we returned, so had the winds and getting on board was quite harrowing.  We managed to stall our guests for another two days in order for the wind and swell to continue it’s decline.  In the end, we were stuck in this “marina” for 6 days!  We were definitely itching to get going. 

This so called “marina” had a lot of chop that pitched us around
Video is the best way to show what the four days of rocking and rolling looked like

Our guests arrived for our last night in the marina, and by early morning we were back under way.  As we exited the Golfo di Aranci, we were treated to a couple of dolphins bidding us farewell.  Our next two days were spent in the beautiful Maddalena Islands off the island of Sardegna.  Here, we explored the crystal turquoise waters, rock reefs, and made an attempt to see one of the famous pink sand beaches.  Unfortunately, you are forbidden from walking or even swimming at the beach.  We were hoping to land the dinghy and hike to an overlook above the beach, but the water was very choppy and there was no nice place to put the dinghy.  So we had to try and take pictures from a distance while getting beat up by the swell and wake from the many other boats coming in to see the beach.  By the time we got back to Zoe, Carrie and I were soaking wet.

A little kayak fun with out new guests
The beauty of the Maddalena islands
Robyn at the wheel
Preparing to grab a national park mooring ball
Unfortunately the mooring balls were very close to our neighbors!
New guests enjoying life on Zoe

After two days, we had a decent weather window to cross from Sardegna to Corsica (the area between the two islands is notorious for funneling wind between the two and making things nasty).  Our destination was the beautiful city of Bonafacio, far up in an amazing fjord.  As we cruised toward the fjord entrance, we saw houses that were perched precariously on the cliffs overlooking the sea.  Entering the fjord, you are surrounded by these amazing limestone cliffs.  Before long, a stunning citadel greeted us, and the bay was lined with incredible looking restaurants and shops.  This was going to be a fun stop!  Our first adventure took us up the steep hill to a nature trail along the cliffs.  Here, we had panoramic views of the sea and the island.  There were also some scattered ruins.  From there we headed to the other side of the cliffs where the fortification stood.  We entered the walled city through massive doors that still housed the original equipment to raise and lower the gates.  Inside the walls were quaint little streets filled with shops, restaurants and cafes.  It was definitely one of the prettiest places we have visited.

The fjord city of Bonifacio!
Bonifacio – One of our favorite stops
Amazing hikes and views
The old fortress city of Bonifacio
Wandering the ancient streets
A stop for crepes and beer – only in france!
Bonifacio by night

The next day, we rented a car and headed inland for some further exploration of the island of Corsica.  Our first stop was a quaint little winery where we tasted some very nice wines from the region (which of course we bought).  We continued on our winding, hilly ascent to the town of Sartene.  We took in the sights, had a nice lunch in the square, and then headed off for some hiking along the coastline.  While we were wandering the town, Dan got a call from the marina telling us we needed to leave.  Uh, that’s not going to work….we are an hour away from the boat.  We had originally booked for one night, but after seeing how beautiful Bonafacio was we asked to stay one or two more nights.  The girl had told us it was perfectly fine, and we could pay the following day.  We were not happy.  In the end, they gave in and let us stay the 2nd night, but said there was absolutely no way for the 3rd night as they were booked full!  Why were they suddenly booked full?  You guessed it….heavy winds were forecasted which is also why we had wanted the third night as well.  We sadly got underway early the next morning. On a positive note, we had a cracking down wind sail on only a reefed genoa.  This area of the Med is definitely a lot more windy than the parts of Greece we had grown use to.

Road trip!
Winery Domaine Saparale
Vineyards during harvest season
Ancient inland city of Sartene
Hiking the Bruzzi Trail
Bruzzi trail charms
Leaving Bonifacio
25 -30 knots of wind on a dead run under reefed genoa sail. Stress free!

We spent the next night anchored along a big sand beach before heading to our next anchorage outside the town of Propriano.  The wind had kicked up higher than expected, along with the swell in the bay.  We took the dinghy and headed into town.  I found myself really happy that I had showered before this excursion since Carrie and I spent most of the ride getting doused in salt water.  Unfortunately, our timing was not ideal so when we arrived in town, everything was closed up for siesta.  We wandered the streets for a bit and then headed to the church at the high point of the town.  Once again, we had awesome views.  Since nothing was open, we headed back to the boat and made the quick decision to move to a more sheltered part of the bay.  This turned out to be a much better decision.  Not only was the water super calm, but we were able to grab a nice mooring ball just outside a quaint little town.  As I got busy making dinner, we noticed a large military looking ship coming in.  It was not just coming in….it was coming straight for us!  Uh oh, looks like we are getting boarded.  Sure enough, the big ship launched it’s dinghy containing 4 heavily armed and uniformed men.  They tied up to us and climbed on board.  They were the customs enforcers of France.  They spent the next 1/2 hour scouring all our paperwork, asking questions, and eventually searching our boat.  Can’t say we’ve ever had THAT experience before.  In the end, they said we were good and went on their way.

Some more kayak fun at a remote beach anchorage
Zoe at anchor
Drone shot of the amazingly clear waters of Corsica
Customs boarding party at the ready
Zoe was boarded and searched and all was OK!

The next morning we made our way to the capitol of Corsica, Ajaccio.  Our plan was to grab a mooring ball outside of one of the marinas.  It didn’t take long before we discovered that was not going to happen.  The mooring field was filled with derelict boats both on balls and anchored around them.  We then cruised to the closest anchorage and that was a no go as well.  We headed to the marina (which didn’t look overly appealing either) and asked for a berth.  They told us the tender would be with us once they finished with someone else.  No one ever came, and they stopped answering our calls.  We sat circling in a narrow channel for 30 minutes before a different marina responded to our radio calls and said they would take us.  Talk about a blessing in disguise.  It was a beautiful marina, behind an actual breakwater, in the heart of town.  We were all super excited about our new home for the next few days.

Wonderful Ajaccio, Corsica
Ajaccio sunset with Emil and Carrie
One last dinner aboard before our guests make a sad departure

After 2 days of exploring the city of Ajaccio, we sadly bid farewell to Emil and Carrie, our last guests of the season.  Dan and I decided to go for a walk around the outskirts of the city and happened upon a bunch of American jeeps, tanks, trucks, and weapons from the World War II era.  We soon discovered that 80 years ago today (Sept. 9, 1943), Corsica was liberated by the Americans.  There would be huge celebrations throughout the city to commemorate this historical event, and we were smack in the middle of it!  Flowered wreaths were laid at the base of the monument, the Governor addressed the crowd, and all the branches of service were present.  The color guard did their flag ceremony and the band rang in a most amazing parade of foot soldiers, vehicles, and weaponry from WWII.  The soldiers wore uniforms of that era, and the ladies were decked out in attire for that period as well.  It was quite a sight to see, and gave Dan and I the chills being here to witness it.  Two fighter jets came roaring in over the crowd and it just about brought tears to your eyes as the afterburners shook you to your core.  This has definitely been another destination highlight for me.  Tomorrow, we will bid a sad farewell to Ajaccio as we make our way north on the island of Corsica.  We will only have 2 or 3 more stopovers before we make our crossing to the mainland of southern France.  Stay tuned for more adventures in France!

Great day to be an American in Corsica!
Authentic Sherman tank from WW2
Amazing display of American military vehicles from the WW2 liberation of Corsica
Re-enactment of WW2 American Soldiers
Sherman tank on the move!!
What a great flyover!!!