Nautical in Nice

By Amanda Linnell

It's a good job that all things nautical are the look du jour. After all, what's a girl to wear when she's invited by Louis Vuitton to fly to Nice to watch the world's best sailors battle it out on the Mediterranean for the new Louis Vuitton Trophy?

As the plane flies along the southern coast of France, I am filled with a sense of anticipation. Below, the terracotta rooftops of some of the world's most exclusive villas dot the landscape. The blue of the sea, which inspired the great French Impressionists such as Matisse, sparkles and huge - and I mean huge - yachts rub expensive shoulders in the marinas lining the Cote d'Azur.

The last time I drove along the Promenade des Anglais was in a clapped-out hire car with a girlfriend, singing at the top of our voices, high on life having spent the afternoon running through the lavender fields in nearby Grasse.

Ten years later, I am in the backseat of a chauffeur-driven Citroen. We glide past the apartments and hotels to which Europe's rich and famous flock for the summer months, to the Meridien Hotel. This is where the Louis Vuitton Paris team - my hosts - have been based for the three-week regatta. All around the city, sailing crews from eight different countries including New Zealand, Russia, Italy and America can be found in similar, luxurious hotels. They are here to fight it out for the Louis Vuitton Trophy.

The event, which has grown from the Pacific Series held in Auckland last February, was conceived as a way to get the world's best sailors out racing - as opposed to waiting, waiting, waiting for the America's Cup to resolve itself in the courtroom (where it is currently deadlocked). Drawing on a heritage of originally creating luggage for those travelling by sea, Louis Vuitton has been associated with this sport of gentlemen for 25 years, with the Louis Vuitton

Cup being the official prologue to the America's Cup. But along with the encouragement of New Zealand's own Grant Dalton, the luxury luggage and fashion brand decided to create its own regatta.

My first appointment of the trip is lunch at the hotel's rooftop Terrasse du Colonial restaurant with Rhoda Wang from Louis Vuitton Hong Kong. Over a Perrier and salade Nicoise (of course), we sit at a poolside table in the sunshine and watch the giant sails of the yachts out on the water directly in front of us.

A flotilla of support boats and spectator boats bounce around. I smile to myself, as memories of the America's Cup on the Waitemata Harbour flood back to me - when anything and everything that could float was out watching the most exciting of sporting events.

Around us, suave men and chic women in oversized dark glasses puff on cigarettes.

Back in my room, I find a number of weighty envelopes on my bureau - each containing a personal invitation from Christine Belanger-Morel, the LV Trophy director, to the various weekend events.

They include tickets to the Concert Symphonique at the Opera de Nice, an invitation to the finale dinner at the Palais des Rois Sardes on Sunday, and another to spend Saturday aboard the VIP boat "Snapper". This is the 37m Sunseeker yacht I can see from my hotel balcony, trailing the racing boats out on the course.

Phew. Lucky I packed plenty of options. Sailing is definitely not about frocks and high heels. In fact, the worst thing you can do here, I soon figure out, is overdress. It's all about jeans, sneakers, designer sunglasses and, for the women, a Louis Vuitton bag. For the men it's a watch, preferably a Tambour.

The place to pick up the true vibe of the sailing set is at the Louis Vuitton Village, situated in the old port. Surrounded by neo-classical buildings, sleek modern boats of all sizes rock gently in the breeze. The largest of all is a boat that makes Snapper look like a dinghy. It is, rumour has it, owned by the King of Jordan.

I meet the LV Paris PR team, a group of effortlessly chic young women; get a warm hug from Bruno Trouble, one of the chief architects of this new Louis Vuitton Trophy concept, who has spent many years in Auckland running the LV Cup, and chat over a glass of Champagne in the VIP lounge with stylish Kimberly Jones, the wife of course judge Dyer Jones, about last weekend's big party.

Now if anyone, has ever had the experience of being at an event organised by Louis Vuitton - you will know that nothing is done by halves. For this night they commandeered a hill overlooking Nice and the 700 guests were entertained by a live band and performers dancing through the night in giant clear bubbles with white feathers. "The idea, to represent Nice being in the Baie des Anges [Bay of Angels]."

For my first night it's a slightly more low-key affair. A small group of us head to Les Pecheurs [The Fishermen], an intimate restaurant near the port. We are keen to try the local seafood and hit the jackpot here. Across the room from us is Sir Keith Mills, the man behind the British Team Origin - a man who, among other things, founded the Air Miles International Group in 1988 to develop the air miles programme, led Britain's bid for the 2012 Olympic games and is a non-executive director of premier league football club Tottenham Hotspur.

The next day everyone is on board Snapper at 8.15am. Yves Carcelle, the chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, greets us warmly. It is hard to believe this man - barefooted, dressed in jeans and with contagious enthusiasm - runs this international brand. A man who one day can be found hosting parties with LV fashion designer Marc Jacobs and guests as diverse as Debbie Harry, Uma Thurman and Frank Gehry, and the next day be in Delhi for an economic summit meeting

between key companies from India and France. Today, he is like a child - full of joy and fun. Also on board the multi-levelled boat, which oozes luxury, is a hand-selected group of journalists and various Louis Vuitton friends - polished couples from Paris and Milan. The mood is laid back, with everyone making a bet on who will win the day's races and by what time difference.

Emirates Team New Zealand are up against the Russians, who are proving to be the surprise contenders of the regatta (mind you, their team is a healthy mix of nationalities including a few Kiwis sharing their know-how). It's a beautiful sunny day and the Mediterranean is calm and soothing. Too calm, as it turns out - the afternoon's racing is cancelled.

We head around the point to the beautiful Villefranche-sur-Mer - a deepwater harbour between Nice and Cap Ferret - the peninsula home of the exclusive, and fiercely guarded,mansions belonging to the likes of Microsoft founder Paul Allen (where Brad and Angelina holed up before finding their own French home), British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and a whole host of Russian oligarchs - one of whom is rumoured to have paid 500 million euros [$1010 million] for his 11ha property.

Is that Bono's pink villa on the water's edge? "Ah non, his is a little further along the coast," I am informed. I chat to Christine Belanger, who is in charge of all the onshore logistics and entertainment. Her phone never stops: she quietly and efficiently organises everything from GQ magazine doing a shoot down at the port, to the arrival on board of a new guest for lunch: Prince Albert of Monaco.

As the Champagne flows and lunch is served, the Prince, accompanied by a small entourage including the head of the Monaco Yacht Club, arrives by tender to join us. Casually dressed in Oakley sunglasses, chinos and a fleece jacket, he joins everyone around the table on the back deck and gets up to speed with where things are at with the regatta. He is keen to see some racing, but it's not to be today. Will he come to New Zealand, perhaps? "It's very possible." And with a friendly shake of the hand, he's whisked back to shore.

In the warmth of the afternoon sun, with a backdrop of elegant architecture back on shore and Mediterranean looking as beguiling as ever, Carcelle lights up a cigar, takes a swig of his Champagne and kicks back on the squabs. "Life doesn't get much better than this, does it?" Who am I to disagree? After all, Emirates New Zealand have beaten the Russians on the water today and are through to the finals tomorrow against the Italians. A good result all round.

We arrive back at port and the Louis Vuitton village is buzzing to the beats of a Jamaican steel band. Locals grab a drink at the bar, watch the action on the big screen and join in the fun at the end of the day. As the lightly gently fades, there's a spectacular fireworks display which lights up the old port, before we are whisked off to the Opera de Nice and a concert by the Orchestre Philharmonique.

Louis Vuitton embraces art and culture as vigorously as its love for sailing. The audience is passionate: "Bra-vo. Bra-vo. Bra-vo" they clap and chant in unison at the end of the performance, in a manner more akin to football supporters. I've certainly seen nothing like this at the APO performances in the Aotea Centre.

Late in the night, on a little square with a garden and trees twinkling with fairy lights, we find Les Epicuriens restaurant, famed for its traditional French fare. The chef is from Monaco and pictures of Prince Albert hang on the wall. We toast our lunchmate and a day that has felt like a dream.

Now, I'm not here to cover the racing - you can read about that on the sports pages or by going to louisvuittontrophy.com where you can learn all about tacking, luffing and jibing. But the next day, an early start to catch the wind sees New Zealand lose to the Italian team, Azzura.

On the wharf's edge to welcome the Kiwi team back, I can see they are a disappointed-looking bunch. Most of the team exit quickly and can be seen in the distance, having a few beers, leaving captain Dean Barker to face the press.

"It's a pretty hollow feeling," he tells me.

"We've had such a successful year. But it provides the motivation to not lower our standards. We have to learn and improve for the next regatta."

I nod, knowingly. While in my left ear a Korean journalist is cooing, "ohh, he's sooo good looking".

"It's been a long regatta for the boys," confirms Grant Dalton.

"But it's given the organisers plenty to work on for the event in Auckland. We're going to add some events and make it a festival of sailing with greater public involvement. Right now, we'll just have a group huddle," he laughs. Is that the sailors' version of a group hug?

Being the good sports that they are, the Kiwis all turn up to greet the Italians as they come in to port. (They had made a detour to their Italian support ship, Esmerelda, where they were greeted with the heart-swelling sound of their national anthem and a celebration with his Highness the Aga Khan and his daughter, the Princess Aga Khan). The Champagne flies and there's much hoopla as the village erupts in cheers.

Bruno Trouble, an ultra-presence in the village with his beanie and dark-rimmed glasses, comes up and grasps me firmly on the shoulders. "We are very sad New Zealand did not win, but it's good to have new winners. I am coming to New Zealand to meet with John Banks to make sure the regatta in Auckland will be even better. I would like to move the village from Halsey St across the Viaduct so it is right by the restaurants."

How can the Auckland Council not be up for this? This event brings millions of dollars to the local economy and all in such a thoroughly enjoyable and positive way.

In Nice it feels like the whole city is gripped by LV fever. From the front pages of the local papers to the taxi drivers and waiters in the cafes and restaurants, all appear to be up with the play.

Sunday night and a line of cars carrying 200 guests snakes through the narrow streets of Nice's old town to the Palais des Rois Sardes (the Palace of the Kings of Sardinia). We sweep up a broad staircase to a series of large opulent rooms.

Surrounded by a suavely dressed crowd, the Emirates Team New Zealand boys stand out in their white shirts. "Did you iron them yourselves?" I tease, noting the distinct lack of ironing. "No. We just pulled them out of their plastic bags," replies grinder Winstone Macfarlane. Sartorial elegance is not, let's put it mildly, our boys' strong point.

"The biggest dilemma was whether to tuck our shirts in or not," jokes fellow grinder and apparently the self-appointed commissioner of the team's social affairs, Chris McAsey.

"Unfortunately, our budget doesn't stretch to more than the shirts - we supply our own jeans. Not like the Italians," he nods in the direction of the dark-suited Azzura team members.

"They're in about their third change of clothes today."

As skipper Bruni Francesco receives the impressive LV Trophy at the front of the room from the Mayor of Nice, I take another sip of Champagne and a taste of the gold-covered foie gras that is handed around, before we are led into the ballroom where giant chandeliers twinkle, lighting the fresco-painted ceilings.

The room is abuzz as the teams and their supporters celebrate. Course after course is effortlessly delivered to our exquisitely decorated tables.

The conversation naturally turns to Auckland - promises are made to catch up. The teams and the international press will start arriving in February but the key organisers are already on their way. The underlying theme is how much they love the City of Sails and its inhabitants.

Suddenly local band The Flyboys - complete with saxophone, double bass, and guitar come swinging through the tables. It's the perfect end to the evening. Carcelle - a man who obviously loves to party - leads the carefree madness with an impromptu can-can.

"You should bring The Flyboys to Auckland," I laugh to Christine Berenger on the dance floor. "Non, non," she replies. "We will find fantastic talent in New Zealand."

How right she is.

The LV Trophy Series is in Auckland 9-21 March 2010. Go to louisvuittontrophy.com. To find more about Nice check the LV city guidebooks (full of all the best addresses in town).

- NZ Herald

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