Vroom Service, Channel Style

When travel restrictions briefly eased, Adam Hay-Nicholls got creative to experience La Dolce Vita in lockdown with a convertible Ferrari

By Adam Hay-Nicholls

February 15 2023

Ferrari Portofino. The name alone suggests a timelessly fashionable getaway; a merry jumble of romantic villas, fishermen’s cottages, and cheery cafés in ice-cream shades, set around a half-moon harbour crammed with Benettis, Riva Aquaramas, and lithe, tanned guests sipping aperitivos.

The scene is scored by Matt Monro, as a V8, crafted in the Ferrari heartlands of Maranello, echoes off the cliffs that skirt the Med. Unfortunately, I was handed the keys to this exotic convertible between lockdowns, and not the sunny part. It was October; a really bad week in October. And I wasn’t in Italy.

Ferrari UK is based in an industrial unit in Slough, a world away from the split-screen scenes in The Persuaders. Where could I get my Tony Curtis on? Taking the Channel Tunnel and driving to the Riviera was against UK and French travel advice. Sticking things up your nose in a Ferrari – be it a PCR test or worse – may be de rigueur in Miami, but not in the Port of Dover car park. I would need to stay in Britain, but where could I see palm trees and yachts? Of course! The Isle of Wight.

It may not compare with the cost of the heli-transfer from Nice to Monaco, but the Wightlink Ferry (from £120 return) is the world’s most expensive crossing by distance (14 miles), so roll that in your cigar and smoke it, Santorini. As you may have surmised, the weather was biblical from Slough to Portsmouth but, on arriving at the island’s Fishbourne terminus, the sky faded from tungsten to an acceptable shade of eggshell and I deployed the £165,000 Portofino’s retractable hard top, which goes down in 14 seconds.

The 3.9 litre Ferrari Portofino V8 does 0-62 in 3.5 seconds, even on the Isle of Wight’s wet and windy roads
The 3.9 litre Ferrari Portofino V8 does 0-62 in 3.5 seconds, even on the Isle of Wight’s wet and windy roads

I decided to take the long route to my Yarmouth hotel, turning left out of the ferry rather than starboard and driving the coastal roads clockwise. This route, known as the Military Road, is a section of the A3055 on the island’s south-west coast, stretching from Chale in the east to Freshwater Bay in the west. If you turn 90 degrees to your left and have super-powerful binoculars, you could have an uninterrupted view to the Azores. The Military Road is straight-ish, with some wiggles that thrill thanks to the Portofino’s flawless handling, and rolling humps and dips where the clever suspension clings on. With little traffic, good visibility and, for the moment, dry asphalt, one could put the 592bhp down with confidence, accelerating from 0-62mph in 3.5 seconds. The twin-turbocharged 3.9-litre V8 is an engineering masterpiece and, if you want to enjoy Her Majesty’s Pleasure, will hit 199mph.

Different dynamic settings can be chosen from the ‘manettino dial’ – a rotary switch applied for different conditions – wet and icy roads, ‘Comfort’ for cruising, and ‘Sport’, which is obviously where you want to be most of the time, getting the revs so the wheel-mounted LEDs flash beyond red to blue and the car makes the most fabulous, ferocious noises – something that will be extinguished from dealer forecourts by the time the decade’s out. What does this mean for Ferrari? I don’t want to think about it.

My accommodation in Yarmouth was The George (from £170-a-night), a 17th-century townhouse nestled on the water’s edge between the pier and a castle. It was once home to the island’s governor, Admiral Sir Robert Holmes, and hosted Charles II on several occasions. It’s now owned by Howard Spooner, 51, the supercar-racing London nightclub impresario who runs in the circles of the younger royals. He has overseen an extensive refurbishment, which includes a new Italian-inspired beachfront garden with olive trees and a driftwood-clad beach bar that’s become a Solent hotspot.

When it’s not bucketing down, that is. Sadly, my visit prompted the heavens to open. Then, another guest arrived in a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith to steal my thunder.

Yarmouth Harbour
Yarmouth Harbour

The George was recommended by an America’s Cup yachtsman who identified it as a splendid place to tie up one’s dinghy and enjoy an afternoon, as is The Hut, in Colwell Bay, which I’d seen on many friends’ Instagrams. It’s Britain’s answer to St Tropez, they promised. I gather The Hut sold more magnums of Whispering Angel in summer 2019 than any other venue in the UK. But on my visit, there was such a violent gale that its floating pontoon broke apart and crashed violently onto the concrete esplanade. I’d been expecting young people in resort wear to be hopping off speedboats, sunglasses and rosé in hand. This was more like what they discuss in Cobra to prompt the PM to appear in waders with a mop. I did at least eat well at The Hut – pork belly with diver-caught scallops – and top marks to The George’s oysters, steak tartare and roast monkfish.

It was too wet to really enjoy the Ferrari so, because I’m a masochist, I decided to learn how to skipper an RIB (rigid inflatable boat). The Royal Yachting Association’s Powerboat Level 2 qualification enables you to take charge of a motor vessel up to 10 metres long, and the course takes just two days and £200 (rya.org.uk). After studying the tides and mastering latitudes and longitudes, you learn some knots.

Soon I was lassoing cleats and bollards like a nautical cowboy. On the second day, I was allowed to let rip in my 100bhp Honda VTEC-powered Highfield HX6 patrol boat, which looked very commando.

The sun did appear, but the dramatic waves remained and I must have showed up on the Flight Tracker app as I smashed across the Solent at 25 knots.

Supercars of yore: A 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith awaits its owner at the popular Bugle Coaching Inn in Yarmouth harbour
Supercars of yore: A 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith awaits its owner at the popular Bugle Coaching Inn in Yarmouth harbour

I also did the RYA’s radio course, which requires some reading. My main takeaway was that if lives are in danger, you broadcast “Mayday”. If the ice in your beer cooler has melted, it’s “Pan, pan”, like the French “panne, panne”, as in “it’s buggered”. Surprisingly, while it’s illegal to drink when in charge of a commercial vessel, recreational boating in the UK is exempt from alcohol laws, making RIB runs to the Isle of Wight a popular booze cruise. Just be sensible before you try to play chicken with an oil tanker on your way back from the Fisherman’s Arms. Or you can do as I did: get a certificate, have a celebratory pint in a Cowes pub, then sign up online to the Royal Naval Reserve. My thinking was, I like boats, and how better to spend more time on them when all my press trips to the Côte d’Azur have been cancelled?

This summer an upgraded Ferrari hit the road: the Portofino M, or modificata. It’s slightly more powerful (+20bhp) than the car I drove, and comes with ‘Race’ mode on the manettino. In the UK the Ferrari launch was in a suitably glamorous location: Swindon. It falls to me to read the last rites to extravagant international press junkets. Oh Lord, how I pray for their resurrection.