They say you don't really see a country until you see it from the water. For aspiring boat owners like my husband and me, nothing could be more true.
And in Italy, making that happen is a lot easier than, and not as wildly expensive as, you might think.
Perhaps the best day of our July visit to Italy was when we rented a little motorboat at Porto Ercole, a pastel port town on the Tuscan promontory of Argentario, a popular summer getaway for rich Italians with big boats. It's a favorite with Romans, since it's less than three hours away by car. You can also get there by train and then a short bus or taxi ride.
Just one day on the clear, cool waters of the Tuscan Mediterranean was enough to convince us that the beautiful Italians sunning and swimming off their luxury yachts around us had summer completely figured out.
Okay, our boat was a heckuva lot smaller. But at least we had one. And it went fast. And we were swimming along the same glorious coastline as the well-to-do.
Boats for rent by the day (barche a noleggio) are often available in port towns like Porto Ercole up and down the Italian peninsula. With just your American driver's license, you can rent a motorboat with an engine of up to 40 horsepower. Anything more powerful requires a boating license. We didn't have one of those, but our boat -- an inflatable 15-foot speedboat called a gommone -- seemed plenty fast.
Usually this kind of boat holds five people, so we ended up renting two because there were six of us: me and my husband, our two teenage sons and two of their friends from Arlington who had come to Italy with us. Because we rented a pair, I bargained the cute young Italian guy renting boats to about $100 apiece, down from $125. Gas was an additional $60. At more than $6 a gallon, gas is expensive in Italy. But still, that didn't seem too bad for two boats -- and a magical day for six people.
Before we set off, we bought a picnic lunch in town, picking up fresh pizza bianca (white pizza) and crusty rolls at the bakery down by the port, and prosciutto and mozzarella for sandwiches on board. We brought fresh tomatoes, peaches and apricots and plenty of big bottles of cold water and fizzy drinks. Our last stop was for ice at the fishmonger on the port, to keep everything cool.
We clambered unsteadily onto the two boats, our 19-year-old taking the helm of one with me and his girlfriend as his boating companions, and my husband taking control of the other, with our younger son and his friend on board. Pottering slowly out of the quaint little port, we admired the yachts anchored along the quays and then the majestic view of the pink, yellow and orange town of Porto Ercole, which cascaded down into the harbor. The promontory of Argentario comes to a peak at its center, and the hills sit big and green behind the bougainvillea-laden town. The view of Porto Ercole as you leave in a boat must be what they mean when they talk about seeing a country from the water.
Once we got out of the port and onto the open sea, the boys wanted to see how fast the boats would go. And they didn't disappoint.
"Faster, faster," the boys yelled, laughing, as my older son and my husband pushed forward on the accelerators. My son's girlfriend squealed as the front of our boat pounded up and down on the waves.
We zipped along at top speed along the rugged coastline with everyone taking his or her turn at the wheel. It wasn't that scary to drive, because there's nothing to hit, only the big sea splayed out before you. We passed a few cozy coves along the way, where the clear water turned a shimmering green, because it was shallower. Big Italian boats were anchored in the most inviting spots, but there was plenty of room to anchor anywhere that took your fancy.
After going as fast as possible for quite a while, the boys finally agreed it was time for a swim. We picked a cove and dropped anchor. We've been on boats before, but we're not experts by any means. So far, it didn't seem that hard. Our anchor held on our first try.
We leapt off the boats into the Mediterranean (after we made sure the ladders were down so we could get back on). The water was amazing -- so clean, so clear, so cool. The backdrop of the Italian coast was hauntingly dramatic. We threw in the boats' floating life rings and bobbed along for a long time, marveling at the beauty of the water. The boys and their friends did flips and dives off the boat.
Soon it was time for lunch, and our humble fare was perfect. Since we hadn't brought a knife, we tore the moist mozzarella, putting the ragged, dripping slices inside the still-warm pizza along with the prosciutto. We sat under our awnings, eating and drinking and watching the suntanned Italians lunching on their toy-filled yacht on the other side of the cove.
After lunch, we did the Italian thing and lay around on the boats, reading and napping, before we decided it was time to do more boating. We found another cove nearby, swam to the shore and climbed onto the big rocks at the shoreline. Some sea porcupines nestled on the rocks, but we could see them clearly in the water and managed to avoid them.
By now, everyone wanted a gelato, so we zoomed back to Porto Ercole and then beyond it to the super-chic private harbor of Cala Galera, where most of the million-dollar yachts we saw are kept. We puttered slowly around the small ritzy harbor, ogling the expensive boats, laughing at the most ostentatious ones and dreaming about where we would keep our boat if ever we really got one.
We pulled up to Cala Galera's main coffee bar and a few of us disembarked to pick up gelati and granite, that quintessentially Italian crushed-iced drink that comes in lots of fruit flavors. (I picked watermelon.) We were unsteady on our feet after being on the boat all day.
I struck up a conversation with the barrista while he scooped out the rich, creamy chocolate gelato. I told him we were tourists and that we had rented a couple of motorboats from Porto Ercole. "It must be nice to own one of these big boats," I said. "This is the life, eh?"
"I'm not so sure about that," he answered in Italian. "They're always worrying, the people who own these boats. About a storm coming, about the money they're spending, about the maintenance they have to do. And they don't use the boats that much because it costs them 200 euros [about $245] in gas to go swimming in Giglio." (Giglio, a lovely island that is another favorite with Italian boat owners, is an hour's ferry ride from Argentario.) "You're fine just with the boat you have."
That wasn't what I was expecting to hear after my glorious day at sea, but the barrista said he had heard it all from the mostly Roman boat owners who kept their crafts there during the 30 years he had worked at the bar.
Back on the water, I told my husband what the barrista had said. He wasn't ready to give up on the fantasy.
All of a sudden, it seemed, we noticed an ominous dark cloud forming on the horizon, something we saw only once during our visit to Italy this year. We looked at the time. It was 5:15 p.m. and the boats were due back by 6:30. We had been out for more than six hours. We were sun-drenched, water-logged and had had a marvelous day.
The first fat raindrops fell as we pulled into the rent-a-boat place, the young Italian waving us in to two open spots. By the time the quick-developing storm really got going and the rain was coming down in big, black sheets, we were safely inside our hotel overlooking the port.
We sat inside and looked at our boats bobbing in the rain. The barrista was right: It was nice not to have to worry about how they'd weather the storm.
Daniela Deane, a writer/editor for The Post's Continuous News desk, last wrote for Travel about building a house in Italy.