Some of Europe’s most memorable and scenic cruising areas are surprisingly accessible for boaters.
Okay, so maybe the 2020 boating season was one to forget—which shouldn’t be too difficult, since few of us managed to get out on the water as much as we wanted, and whenever we did, with the masks and the social distancing, it was just weird.
So here’s to next summer. To help kick it off and get you in the mood to cruise, we present a prime selection of European destinations that absolutely shimmer with positive vibes, from the unreal seascapes of the Arctic to the sun-baked Med. As different from each other as they are from anything Stateside, these are places where sybaritic pleasures can be sampled alongside the full humanities package—history, geography, literature and art, not forgetting languages, ancient and modern.
Whether you plan to charter or go the whole hog and transport your own boat there for the season, I can guarantee that the locals will be as glad to see you as you are to be there. Wherever you end up, you’re in for a summer you won’t want to forget.
1. Southwest England
The hotspots of Hamble, Cowes and Lymington might make the Solent the epicenter of English yachting, but it’s the West Country that most boaters head for when they want to get away. Once past Portland Bill, with its fearsome tides, and the broad expanse of Lyme Bay, the numerous havens, harbors, bays and beaches of Devon and Cornwall offer the same warm welcome they have given seafarers for centuries. Historical attractions and natural attributes create a unique cruising combination irresistible to visitors from across the pond. The narrow entrance to Dartmouth—so often a welcome relief after the 45-mile passage from the Bill—is guarded by an ancient castle and opens out onto a handsome riverfront overlooked by the Britannia Royal Naval College. Down in Plymouth, the departure of the Mayflower pilgrims is still remembered. Picturesque Fowey was the haunt of Drake, Raleigh and other Devon admirals (and slavers) in Queen Elizabeth’s navy, while harbors like Polperro and Mousehole look impossibly small from sea. To cruise these waters is to soak up the authentic spirit of maritime England.
Try one: a Cornish pasty. Not exactly haute cuisine, but a tasty lunch with a local ale.
2. Balearic Islands
Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza are three beautiful Mediterranean islands, each with their own unique character, which have been tourist destinations for so long they hardly feel Spanish at all. Mallorca is home to the islands’ capital, historic Palma, and its south and northeast coasts are dotted with numerous well-served harbors and picturesque bays, in contrast to the towering cliffs that gird the other side of the island—the only place I’ve ever had dolphins play in the bow wave, just like in the movies. Menorca’s quiet charm is steeped in history; its long, eastern harbor of Mahon was an important British naval base for centuries. At the other end of the island lies the sheltered port of Cuitadella, the old capital, with its 13th century cathedral built on the site of an earlier mosque. Southernmost is pretty Ibiza, a party island since the fifties with a major focus on the chemically enhanced dance scene, although the authorities have lately tried to tone things down—clubs must now close by 6 a.m.
There are plenty of charter opportunities, especially Mallorca. Larger yachts are crewed unless you can satisfy local license requirements.
Essential eating: the local paella, heavy with shellfish and turned black with squid ink. Magnificent.
3. Southern Brittany
Guarded from the prevailing westerlies by its eponymous peninsula, Quiberon Bay is sandy, shallow, rock-strewn and presents more than a few challenges to the navigator, none of which seemed to worry Admiral Hawke of the Royal Navy in 1759 when he sailed in with his 24 ships of the line, in a gale, in pursuit of the French.
Hawke’s passage seems incredible when you look at the chart—you need your wits about you on this coast. The tides sweep through, and although not as dramatic as those in the north, they still have a range at springs of more than 15 feet. Careful planning, however, brings its rewards: turquoise waters, spectacular beaches, thousands of years of history, and stupendous food and drink. The walled center of Vannes is beautifully preserved, and the yacht harbor at La Trinité sur Mer is well placed for a visit to the world-renowned megalithic site of Carnac.
Quiberon stands out as the highlight of Brittany’s southern shore, but it has stiff competition: To the west, pretty Concarneau is top of many a yachtsman’s list of summer retreats.
Don’t miss: Brittany’s particular specialties—crêpes, oysters and cider.
4. Lofoten Islands
Closer to Anchorage than Antibes, the Lofoten Islands in Norway are about as far-flung as Europe gets, well north of the Arctic Circle in the zone of perpetual daylight for half the year and spectacular displays of the aurora borealis the rest of the time. Although the experts blithely point out that it doesn’t get really cold thanks to the Gulf Stream—the sea never freezes, you see—I have still felt it chilly enough on a midsummer’s day to scurry down below for another jacket.
The drama of the light and the landscape are awe-inspiring. Impossibly tall conical mountains plunge into deep fjords, with benign tides, well-marked rocks and little to trouble the careful navigator except the weather, which can change quickly. People come from all over Europe for the fishing, with huge cod and giant halibut a particular draw. But it’s the area’s phenomenal other-worldliness, an almost tangible sense of being on the top of the world, with the Pole Star at a neck-ache-inducing altitude, that makes it most memorable.
Charter options are limited: There are plenty of boats, but the focus is mostly on day trips and fishing.
Local delicacy: cod tongue. Sounds weird, but try it.
Geology has been kind to Croatia’s coastline, its hard limestone ensuring deep, clear waters and steep, sheltering hillsides. The Romans also left an excellent legacy, not just impressive structures like the amphitheater at Pula and Diocletian’s Palace in Split, but also an excellent tradition of winemaking. Later, the Byzantines came, as well as the Venetians, who built some of the finest waterside real estate in the world. The ecclectic cultural mix creates a unique boating destination, with straightforward navigation, no tides to speak of, reliable summer weather and a sense, as you drop anchor in yet another Renaissance harbor, that what you’re looking at can’t possibly be real.
The islands of Dalmatia in the south tend to receive the most attention, and indeed are spectacularly photogenic—port towns like Hvar, Trogir and Dubrovnik are without equal. But Istria, in the north, with its slightly more Italian vibe, is equally rewarding, and can even seem slightly off the beaten track—at least by the standards of these parts.
Connoisseurs: Enjoy the wine and be sure to try the local olive oil.
6. Bay of Naples
There is a beach restaurant close to the famous limestone stacks of Faraglioni and its blue grotto on the island of Capri. I sat there in the shade and enjoyed a long, languorous lunch, watching the boat drifting around its anchor chain in the turquoise water. Such experiences can evoke a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this is what people here have always done, but perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more literally true. For thousands of years folks have sailed across from the Sorrento peninsula to eat these same grilled pezzogna and drink light and refreshing local wines from the same falanghina grapes.
The real estate is expensive these days, but then it always was—Emperor Tiberius had a holiday villa on Capri, and up on its heights you can see the entire bay spread out in front of you, from the outlying islands of Ischia and Procida in the north, to the city of Naples beneath its man-made haze, and the snoozing slopes of Vesuvius.
Naples itself is fantastic: Check out Guiseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 sculpture, Veiled Christ, in the Capella Sansevero.
Culinary highlight: You can have pizza here with a clear conscience. It’s actually very good.
7. Southwest Ireland
It’s a long passage from Lands End to the Fastnet Rock—170 nautical miles, in open water, with the ever-present Atlantic swell to concentrate the mind. I knew we were a long way from help if anything happened halfway across. But as the iconic lighthouse loomed on the horizon and the arms of southwest Ireland’s famous rias opened up, it felt like a homecoming.
Dunmanus Bay, Bantry Bay, the Kenmare River and Dingle Bay reach many miles inland, offering perfect boating: deep, sheltered water, beautiful scenery and fascinating harbors.
This is also an area rich in historical associations, some perhaps unexpected, like the Algiers Inn in Baltimore, its name recalling a raid in 1631 in which pirates from North Africa kidnapped almost the entire population of the village and sold them into slavery. The statue in Bantry of Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone might make British visitors a little thoughtful, and if that doesn’t, then the IRA memorial in Castletownbere certainly will. But that was all a long time ago. The locals welcome visiting yachtsmen from everywhere—although it probably does help to be American.
Day trip: the Skelligs, spectacular rocks six miles off Bolus Head that are home to thousands of gannets.
8. Turkish Aegean
Turkey was late to enter the Mediterranean tourism scene, and it was thus able to see the over-development elsewhere and learn how not to do it. Much of the coastline is unspoilt pine-clad limestone, dotted with bays and beaches.
But of course, there’s more to the place than scenery and seafood restaurants. Numerous ancient archaeological sites are well worth the trip inland, such as Afrodisias and Pergamon, but plenty are easily accessible by boat, including Ruin Bay, the site of a bath house allegedly used by Cleopatra, or the island of Gemiler Adasi, encrusted with Byzantine remains. The area’s heritage is perhaps nowhere more evident from on board than when turning in to Fethiye, ancient Telmessos, to be greeted by the classical porticos of the rock tombs on the hillsides above the town, while down near the water’s edge lies the old amphitheater.
Don’t fall for it: I was told that locals drink up all the grounds in the unfiltered Turkish coffee. They don’t.
9. Scotland’s west coast
They say if the weather up here was better, this would be the world’s favorite cruising ground. This is true, but imagine how crowded it would be. I’ve often held that thought when peering through the window at yet another drizzly morning in a deserted anchorage.
What a place to have to yourself, with its sheltered waters, breathtaking scenery and dazzling colors (the sun does come out occasionally). The long Mull of Kintyre divides the area in two. Inside, the Firth of Clyde has numerous stunning anchorages and engaging little harbors within easy reach, not to mention the great city of Glasgow. Head southbound around the peninsula or cut through on the Crinan Canal, however, and you’ll find fresher weather, fewer havens and longer distances between them, but a corresponding increase in your sense of adventure. Keep an eye on the weather, plan your fuel stops carefully and you’re in for the cruise of a lifetime.
Insist upon: no ice (and no ‘e’) in your whisky. Just a splash of water to liberate the flavors.
When yachting people speak of Sardinia, they really mean a very small part of the north end of this Italian island. Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, founded by the Aga Khan in the 1960s in Porto Cervo, instantly made this the most exclusive and desirable yachting destination in the world. It remains the gold standard for the high-end regattarati and makes even the Victorian charms of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes look rather, well, charmingly Victorian.
This ‘emerald coast’ is remarkably beautiful and almost totally unspoilt, with lots of secluded bays and beaches to explore, excellent facilities for visiting boats and their hungry crews at the new(ish) Porto Rotonda along the coast and in the more down-to-earth yacht harbor of Palau. Offshore lies the stunning national park of the Maddalena archipelago, which provides limitless opportunities for idyllic summer day trips. This is the sort of place where you will never be on the biggest boat in the anchorage: I had to share mine with Tatoosh, Paul Allen’s megayacht. Just across the strait lie the vertiginous charms of Bonifacio, but that’s another country—Corsica is French.
Must see: Yacht Club Costa Smeralda (obviously).