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Portofino, Italy
Thursday, July 17th


Lying in the net, buffeted by the swells below me, I still couldn't be certain we would get ashore today. The morning was overcast and the shore shrouded in mist. Finally, I heard the bells as the anchor dropped into the Gulf of Tigullio, just outside the harbor of Portofino. (The number of bells sounding as the anchor drops is determined by the depth of the sea at that point: one bell for each 26.3 meters.)

The day began gray and warm and muggy, with no breeze. The tender dropped us at the crowded harbor, which was jam-packed with yachts of many sizes, ranging from expensive to exorbitantly expensive. We walked up a tree-shaded road to the Church of San Giorgio, which provides wonderful views both into the harbor and out to the cobalt blue Mediterranean. The church and cemetery were quite pleasant.

We continued up the path to Castello Brown, the former Fortress of San Giorgio (1554), which was purchased in 1867 by the English Consul, Montague Yeats Brown. He lived there until his death in 1905, improving and transforming both the structures and the grounds into a wonderfully landscaped villa. The town of Portofino purchased it in 1965 and it is today open to the public. There is a permanent exhibit of Paparazzi photographs of many of the celebrities who have vacationed in Portofino over the years, such as Hemmingway, Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor. Rooms can be rented for social functions; later today a wine tasting for Star Clipper passengers would be taking place.

From Castello Brown, one can continue on to Point Portofino and the lighthouse, a long but beautiful trek through the Park of Portofino. This long, narrow, rocky spit of lush vegetation stretches out into the open sea, separating the Gulf of Paradiso from the Gulf of Tigullio. From this promontory, on a clear day, La Spezia is visible to the east. The entire area west to Camogli is a regional park, protected from development.

We chose instead to return and explore the town, which stretches like a crescent around the secluded bay. Ever since the arrival of Guy de Maupassant in 1889, the natural beauty of the surrounding hills and forests has been a magnet for writers and poets, movie stars, the wealthy, and the powerful. Ringing the harbor are quaint old pastel-colored buildings, many with trompe-l'oeil facades. The village itself is not large. Several of the streets narrow, merge, and finally end along a creek in a steep, green valley. As in many such towns, shops catering to tourists abound. But in Portofino, they cater to tourists with money. Even for tee shirts, prices range considerably, from the usual sidewalk fare to designer models in fine fabric.

We followed one of the trails up into the hills east of town. Once past the Church of San Martino, we didn't encounter many others walkers. Probably because of the stifling heat. We had planned to walk to the Belvedere, a luxury hotel high in the hills, but changed our minds. It was going to take quite a while to get there, and the road didn't offer much in the way of views or interesting homes.

Not all the boats in the harbor were expensive yachts. Many were small fishing boats and skiffs, indicating that some of the residents still make a living off the sea. But it is the pleasure crafts that catch the eye. The harbor is so crowded that when one craft moves, the boat boys line up at the rail to guard against bumps or scrapes. Today's spectacle is Excellence III, a 187-foot yacht with a crew of 14 serving 12 passengers. Among the amenities are Jacuzzi, movie theater, gym, and plasma TV's in all 6 cabins. To play in the water, one has two motor boats, skies, kayaks, inflatables, knee boards, and gear for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Pedestrians along the quai stared, marveled and speculated as to the owner. Many had it belonging to Ted Turner. In fact, it is a charter yacht, available for a mere $315,000 per week.

Anchored in the gulf outside the harbor are even larger yachts, complete with their own helicopters.

A few hours later, as the Star Clipper sailed in the open sea, the ship's parrot was blown overboard. With clipped wings, it wouldn't last long in the water. The emergency whistle blew and the entire crew went into their "man overboard" drill. A small motorized inflatable boat was launched and as it neared, the soggy bird hopped aboard. I don't know if it is a nautical tradition to have a parrot on board (the last Captain said yes, this one said no), but the owner of the company likes them. It is said he once brought an Australian cockatoo on board but it had a tendency to bite passengers and crew and was soon sent ashore. The passengers find the parrot charming, but the crew is less enamored. Parrots are dirty and the deck below the perch is always littered with food and droppings, a real irritant to any Captain or Chief Mate who takes pride in keeping a spotless ship.

After watching the overboard drill and thinking about how the crew had interacted with me and the other passengers during the cruise, I realized that a cruise ship is similar to a theatrical show. Every Saturday afternoon the curtain goes up again for a different audience. Week after week, passengers make predictable comments and the crew members reply as if hearing it all for the first time. There may be a set script for the next seven days, but when that script is altered (by weather, for example), the players must to ad lib. Saturday morning is for curtain calls and gestures of appreciation, then the passengers depart, and the crew readies the ship for a new "audience" so the show can begin again. I think the Star Clipper crew does a magnificent job making passengers feel that their cruise is absolutely unique.



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