“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”— Ernest Hemingway.
Our luxury yacht, Windstar’s Star Pride, was outward bound from Barcelona with a passenger list of 189 and a crew of 150 when we arrived at dawn at the port of Monaco. The sea was like glass and the only sound was the wind and a chorus of birds that had come out to greet the sun as it crested the mountains of the Cote d’Azur. And as it rose, it cast a golden glow on the royal palace perched on its rocky promontory.
The cruise had already included port calls in Palamos, Spain, Le Lavandou and St. Tropez in France, with a stop in Sanary-su-Mer set for the return voyage. But the goal and the focus of the cruise was Monte Carlo.
The moment we arrived, Star Pride was far from alone. Boats of all kinds, from cruise ships the size of floating cities to single-masted sailboats, were converging to take part in the greatest event in motor racing— the 76th Formula 1 Grand Prix de Monaco. During our two days in port, Europe’s citadel of elegance (and conspicuous consumption) would echo to the roar of 1000-horsepower racing cars, the cheers of spectators, and the over-amped beat of techno rock. It’s a race where fans can perch for free on the steep hillsides above the harbor and gaze down on a fleet of multi-million-dollar yachts.
“Do you see that boat?” a fellow passenger pointed out as we moved toward our anchorage. “That’s the Dubai. It’s the largest yacht in the world.”
Packaging theme cruises has long been a popular practice, but when the focus of the voyage is a sporting event with the cachet of the Monaco Grand Prix, the onboard component takes on a special atmosphere attracting aficionados of the sport, car collectors and those fascinated by the possibility of experiencing this race like no other. It’s a circuit that winds its way through the streets, tunnels and hairpin curves of Monte Carlo past its landmark hotel, casino and waterfront.
For myself, it was going to be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy when I would watch the race on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
From the race-oriented decorations to a specially designed Grand Prix cocktail, Windstar had done its best to arrange a complete experience. And when I checked into my spacious balcony suite, I discovered a welcome package that included everything from top ticket seats (for
qualifying and the finals), to a signature backpack and sports cap, to high-quality binoculars and earplugs.
Care had also been taken in choosing long-time auto racing commentator Bob Varsha to get us up to speed. For three nights leading up to our arrival in Monaco, Bob prepared us for the race with
the precision of a pit crew chief. He took us through every curve of the course from Sainte Devote and Mirabeau to Beau Rivage and the Nouvelle Chicane. He handicapped the teams including the best — Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes — and “the best of the rest:” Sauber, McLaren and Force India. He introduced us to the drivers who were likely to dominate the field: Red Bull’s flying Dutchman, “Mad Max” Verstappen, and his teammate, Daniel Ricciardo; Mercedes’ Grand Prix
points leader, Lewis Hamilton; and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
To enter Monte Carlo on race day is like thrusting yourself into a human beehive and a gauntlet of souvenir stands. From start to finish, it’s a sensory overload of engine roar and blazing speed as these remarkable (and remarkably expensive) high-tech cars navigate their way through the city streets. As a special package benefit (though from behind barricades), we had a chance to visit the pits. It was fascinating but not quite the up-close-and-personal experience many had hoped for.
With qualifying over, Monte Carlo parties like no party you have ever seen! Every yacht in the harbor takes part. Laser lights pierce the sky, dancers gyrate in clouds of artificial fog, champagne flows like water and the racetrack turns into a techno-beat block party. Ultra-fancy cars of the rich and famous roll up in front of the Hotel de Paris and Casino de Monte Carlo, but the only place James Bond was to be found was on the drinks menu.
The start of the race is a 20-car, 20,000 horsepower adrenaline rush that even Varsha, who has covered the race several times, still finds thrilling. Then, as the pack spreads out the sound becomes all-enveloping. Necks crane as the cars speed by. Massive screens provide live images (including views from the cars themselves) along with race statistics and a live commentary in French, English and Italian.
Then it was time to turn out the lights as the party was over. And as sunset lit the palace, the harbor and the hills beyond, Star Pride made her way gracefully to the open sea, homeward bound for Barcelona.
With accommodations for a maximum of 212 guests, the experience onboard Star Pride is intimate, with shared experiences (before and after the race) providing many a dining room and top deck bar conversation.
Star Pride also offers a stern deck (by reservation only) dining area called Candles, which proved the perfect evening dining experience. I felt that Candles featured a level of personal service that exceeded the main dining room. I also discovered Star Pride’s Yacht Club, a small dining area on the bow that proved the perfect place for a quiet cappuccino and croissant in the morning.
Because of the Star Pride’s size, the spa facilities are quite limited, but treatment rooms are available. There is also a luxurious hot tub on the bow, which for some inexplicable reason closed at 6 p.m. The suites (all with ocean views, many with balconies) are elegantly appointed and spacious, with a personal staff member assigned to me who seemed to anticipate my every need. Twenty-four hour room service is available at no added charge.
There are sporting events that truly qualify as bucket-list-worthy. The Grand Prix de Monaco is one of them. Traveling with the passengers and gracious crew of Windstar made it even more memorable. FYI: Tickets for next year’s cruise (which will begin and end in Rome) are already available.