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Cruising to the toe of Italy

2020 February 1

A mid-September cruise along Italy’s southwest coast is an ideal time to find the beauty without the hassle

The first time I watched a promotional video for a cruising sailboat was after I had been cruising for at least 10 years. The film was filled with good weather, sunshine, happy faces, perhaps a brief squall that bestows a sense of courageousness, and best of all a nice, safe anchorage at the end of the day. Michael and I laughed, referring to this idealized vision thereafter as “The Romance of Sail.”

The crew was all smiles on a rollicking sail though the Strait of Messina.
Ida Little photo

But perfect cruises do happen. Our week’s cruise along the coast of Italy and across to Sicily was just that ideal. Hattie Lee slid through crystal-clear blue water, with the sun sparkling off the crests of white topped waves, the sky brilliant and benign, the helm balanced, all sails pulling for the next exotic port. There were cafe lattes in the cockpit, lunch under sail and in cafes, and dinners in fantastical villages teetering on the edge of a cliff. 

Sailing away from Vibo Valentia, south of the well-known Amalfi coast, I looked back at the sea walls of the marina and marveled that Michael and I were actually there. It felt a little story-bookish for a mid-September cruise along the Italian coast. Not so much because the high cliff coast with overhanging towns was so dramatic, but because our cruise actually happened. 

We are no longer young, and with the passage of time, the potential for any plans to go awry looms large. Our longtime friends Karl and MaryBeth also faced numerous setbacks before their dream of cruising in the Med could happen. By the time they were finally able to make the trip, their dream of sailing their boat across the Atlantic by themselves no longer seemed wise, so they put their 36-foot Cape George cutter Hattie Lee aboard a ship from Fort Lauderdale to Mallorca, Spain. We made plans to meet up with them after they had sailed the boat from Spain to Italy.

Mid-September is a sweet time on the Italian coast. Most tourists have packed up their towels and gone home to northern climes, the sun is lower in the sky and not heating up the beaches, so it’s dry and a little cooler in the evenings. Yet shopkeepers and restaurants stay open for lingering tourists. We flew into Naples to meet the boat, and on our first night outside Sorrento, we walked from our small hotel through a moonlit back alley to find a cafe. Fifteen minutes later we took a seat at an outdoor table overlooking the Bay of Naples. Most of the tables outside were empty so we felt like guests of the house as we ordered wine, salads and pasta. Having come straight to this small village from the airport in Naples was a good choice for our spirits to catch up with our time travel bodies. 

The Benedictine monastery at Tropea was worth the climb.
Ida Little photo

The next morning, the hotel’s host Paolo told us that Karl and MaryBeth called to tell us they had arrived at Vibo Valentia marina on Calabria’s Tyrrhenian coast. We had been communicating by email so it was reassuring to know they were tied up somewhere where we could find them. All we needed were train tickets to get the 260 miles from Naples to Vibo. We were told the ticket office was a short walk away, but we wandered for an hour through the narrow streets and alleys before we happened upon the tourist agency. I did my best to ask for the tickets in broken Italian, but was told to come back after siesta. This was from the same agent who reassured me two weeks later during the Air France strike not to worry. And she was right both times. We must have seemed like such worriers.

Hattie Lee seemed a speck in the sea of more than 400 boats floating amid the puzzle of docks at Marina Stella del Sud. We were sweating from the exertion of hauling luggage from the train to the taxi and then into the air-conditioned marina lounge. It was a relief to get to the boat, and by sunset, the air had cooled for our al fresco dinner in the cockpit. As color played across the sky and gently rocking hulls, I heard in my head the lines from a Walcott poem:

“While dusk hangs in suspension

With crosstrees and ropes and a lilac-livid sky

With its beer stein of cloud froth touched by the sun,

 As stars come out to watch the evening die.”

The boats all around had retired for the winter, the sailing season over for their owners. It was as if we were actors occupying a theater at the end of a play. We had the marina stage to ourselves. With such serene conditions, we agreed to sail for Tropea in the morning, but in the morning the weather gods laughed.

A humbling series of thunderstorms and squalls kept us in port. We accused Karl of making Poseidon angry. Karl refused to take the blame, placing responsibility on the singular European weather patterns sweeping across the mountains and funneling across the sea. Michael and I had not been here long enough to feel the ferocity of some of these storms. Now I understood better why MaryBeth was constantly checking the forecast. 

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