Make me the biggest yacht in the world—bigger than anyone has ever seen,” he commanded. It was a mold-breaking commission for the Benetti shipyard more than 40 years ago, from a client keen to tout his wealth. The Italian firm had already earned accolades for making fine yachts, but this was to be a new kind of vessel, a “superyacht,” if you will.
Benetti’s designers embraced the brief with gusto, and the resulting craft, though perhaps not the biggest yacht ever, was the epitome of oceangoing glamour: At 282 feet, it had five decks equipped with 11 cabins, a cinema and exhaust funnels sloped outward to allow helicopters to land on the helipad more easily. There was even a disco—it was 1979, after all.
The estimates for the cost went as high as $100 million, a vast sum for the shipyard. More importantly, as the go-go ’80s dawned, it launched a wholly new category of aspirational goods: A simple yacht no longer sated the yen for cruising—only a superyacht would do. And the leading place to commission one was the home base of Benetti and its fellow generations-old Tuscan boatbuilders, a small seaside town called Viareggio.
In the decades since that ship’s momentous launch, Viareggio has become the world’s hub for building superyachts. There’s no formal standard for the class, but one rule of thumb defines it as any vessel larger than 98 feet. Of the 750 such ships built since 2016, 44 percent were made in Italy, according to the trade publication SuperYacht Times, and the vast majority of those in this town of just 62,000 people. The phenomenon’s progenitor—now named Azimut Benetti—is the world’s most active superyacht producer. At the start of 2021, it had 2.2 miles under construction. Not far behind, at 1.9 miles, was its Viareggio neighbor Sanlorenzo. Indeed, dozens of famed firms sit jigsawed together here around a street that’s barely half a mile long: Mangusta, Rossinavi, Codecasa and more. Via Michele Coppino, next to the Darsena, or harbor, is often called the yachtsman’s answer to Rodeo Drive. The comparison seems a stretch, at first sight: The nondescript strip, rimmed by higgledy-piggledy façades, doesn’t exactly ooze panache.
Perhaps that’s the point, as Monaco-based charter broker Paola Scalabrino suggests. “They’re all next to each other, and you don’t know where one finishes and the other one begins,” she says. “It’s one of the most important hubs for yachting, but it’s in a very subtle way. You have to read between the lines.” Indeed, step into a café nearby and grab an espresso—walk, don’t drive, as parking is horrendous—and what powers life in this town becomes clearer. Rowdy or hushed conversations might involve brokers haggling over a deal, or rival boatyards settling scores. “So many workshops, so many sheds, so many boats,” says another insider. “The whole town breathes yachting.”
Viareggio wasn’t always such a moneyed, jet-set nexus. When I visited throughout my childhood, I had no idea that the wealthiest yachting enthusiasts in the world were pouring cash into the rickety boatyards I’d see en route to the town’s park, more a pine forest, really. My focus was on the beachfront promenade, filled with shops, restaurants and gelaterie. Most of the major buildings are Belle Époque, a nod to the era when the town transformed from fishing village to tourist destination. Viareggio is part of a 12-mile strip known as Versilia, where the beaches are wide and golden, a blank canvas for sandcastles constructed by the Milanese kids who spend the summer months here; a typical family books a suite at a hotel for several weeks, like a serviced summer home. The buildings hint at Cannes, but Viareggio is shot through with a brassy elegance that’s so distinctly Italian.
This corner of Tuscany also has an arty past: The quarries in nearby Carrara, for example, supplied the enormous block of marble that Michelangelo turned into David. That’s why the area became a fixture of my childhood, too: My artist father was drawn here in the 1960s by its history, and my family would make the journey from our home in Britain regularly over the next 30 years, staying somewhere along the coast, in Viareggio or elsewhere in Versilia, embracing the rhythm of life. Yet, despite countless visits, we never once considered going out on a boat. If we had, I might have met Giovanna Vitelli.
Vitelli is now executive vice president of Azimut Benetti, her family’s shipyard and by far the largest and most important builder. Back when it was just Benetti, construction of the original superyacht bankrupted the firm, and the Vitelli-owned Azimut swept in and snapped up the floundering rival. Vitelli’s earliest memory is from aboard a boat in the Darsena. “I was sitting on the flybridge, watching the captain,” she recalls. “He was sailing from our internal shipyard, down the canal, to the open sea, and it’s pretty tight—just a couple of centimeters [clearance] each side. He made it look easy, joking with me and barely looking down. It was so thrilling.”
Like many of the yards here, hers has roots back to the late 19th century, as the town’s shipbuilding prowess long pre-dates the superyacht boom. The need to export marble from Carrara affordably led to the first commercial dock here, in 1819. For more than a century, the focus was on large, strong wooden ships for commercial use—cargo and fishing, mostly. But that industry helped establish an impressive pool of talented, local shipwrights, who were primed to take advantage when yachting became a staple of jet-set living in the dolce vita era. As demand grew, those yards cannily pivoted to start building fiberglass and metal craft aimed more at idling on the ocean than speedily dispatching local stones to London or New York. Viareggio’s boats quickly earned a reputation for panache, full of a certain swagger that the more formal yards of Northern Europe could never quite match, though perhaps not as reliably engineered as their German and Dutch rivals.
“It was a revolution for Viareggio,” say Vitelli. “Just after the war, in the 1950s, there was a need to come back to life and enjoy life.” No wonder, then, that she says she’s especially proud of the forthcoming 121-foot Motopanfilo superyacht. Zippy and compact, it’s on the smaller side for a superyacht, deliberately intended to nod to those first glory days of yacht-building here in several ways—think rounded sterns and curved teakwood fixtures. Vitelli says the new model was inspired by the Mini Cooper, another classic design that’s been tweaked and reinvented while remaining aesthetically consistent for decades. “It’s the quintessence, a way of showing the world our continuity with the past, but gloriously reinterpreted in a modern way. That’s something we could only do in Viareggio, because we need the skilled artisans here, who know how to brush that teak and curve the wood. They have been doing that here for a long, long time.”
Vitelli emphasizes she’s keen for more owners to visit her in situ and see their vessels under construction rather than simply deeding responsibility for project management to their brokers. The appeal of making the trip is obvious: not only the hospitality of shipyard owners like Vitelli but also the innate charm of the area. Plus, Florence is just a short helicopter ride away.
Scalabrino encourages her clients to come and has found more are now keen to see the work in progress. “It’s like children building with Lego, seeing behind the scenes before the puzzle comes together—the engine rooms, the roughness of the process,” she says. “Clients might come back every so many weeks to follow the progression of construction at every stage.” Make sure to earmark at least one visit during Viareggio’s annual Carnival, which usually takes place in February. It’s a snarky mashup of Saturday Night Live and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, notorious throughout Italy for its merciless satire. In bygone years, shipwrights built the floats in their spare time, redeploying their maritime expertise, and even now that papier-mâché has supplanted wood and metal as the material of choice, some shipyard workers get involved.
Visiting a yard in person, of course, also allows buyers to offer direct input. Italian shipyards are generally known for their flexibility, especially mid-build, willing and able to adjust plans to satisfy a client’s change of mind. Shipyards in Northern Europe, while also amenable to tweaks, have a reputation for being likely to push back against such course corrections.
It’s easier not to be rigid when firms are largely private and family-run, as is Codecasa. Ennio Buonomo is a senior executive; his father-in-law is its longtime head. “If you call here, someone from the family replies on the phone, and we know that people from the United States, in particular, like that,” Buonomo says. “They feel more comfortable talking with the owner, so they can explain what they’re looking for and have a response within a day.” Like Vitelli, he welcomes visits from people in the market for a new yacht: “We sell more boats at a restaurant or the golf club than we do at a boat show.” Giorgio Armani’s Main, a 213-foot superyacht, was built here—it stands out at any marina with its dark-green hull, a personal specification from the designer—as was media mogul Jim Gabbert’s 164-foot Invader. U2’s the Edge shares ownership of another Codecasa vessel, the 160-foot Cyan.
It’s the town’s reputation for design flair that draws sophisticated buyers of their ilk. Each yard has a distinctive aesthetic reputation, too: Erstwhile retail tycoon Sir Philip Green’s 295-foot Lionheart is a sleek, modern design from Benetti, but he also owns the 108-foot Lionchase, used as a tender for the mother ship. The smaller boat reaches a speedy 37 knots, typical of the yard that built it: Mangusta, shorthand among insiders for sporty, futuristic craft. Mangusta is a relative upstart, founded during the early days of the superyacht boom in the 1980s.
Rossinavi builds no more than four vessels each year, but its devotees are willing to be patient, usually waiting two to four years for a finished craft. The firm is known for creative problem solving, as with the brief for the 206-foot Utopia IV, built for Miami-based Market America founder JR Ridinger. The waters between downtown Miami and the beach are too shallow for most yachts to tackle without running aground. Utopia IV is an exception, as Rossinavi’s Federico Rossi explains proudly. “Only five shipyards in the world have the technology to make a fast-displacement aluminum hull. It doesn’t have a regular propeller but a water jet, more like a Jet Ski,” he says. “It means the owner gets to use the vessel in downtown Miami, which is an amazing experience.” Don’t be surprised if it’s piloted by a Viareggino, either. Thanks in part to the Crew Network, a recruitment agency with offices in both Fort Lauderdale and Viareggio, there’s a community of expat sailors in South Florida, often crewing yachts that their friends or relatives helped build.
As for that very first superyacht, it has come home—or close to it—these many years later. The vessel changed hands (and names) several times after leaving the Benetti shipyards. The era-defining 282-footer was docked at the International Yacht Club of Antibes for years but now spends most of its days at the marina in San Remo, Italy, a place that it doubtless finds redolent of home. Any passerby would have no idea that the entire genre of superyachts was birthed by this one vessel.
Viareggio remains unruffled by celebrity or money. Every time I’ve walked along the promenade as an adult, it has looked unchanged since my childhood, though, thankfully, the gelaterie no longer offer the garishly blue ice cream that was once commonplace. The waters off the beach here are dotted with fishing boats and pleasure craft. It’s unlikely that most casual visitors would even realize that this is the spiritual home of the superyacht, unless they luck into the majestic sight of a beautiful new vessel making its way through the Darsena en route to its maiden voyage.
IF YOU GO…
The Principe di Piemonte is the toniest hotel in Viareggio. The five-star spot across the street from the beach has a Michelin two-star restaurant on its fifth floor, with superb views out over the water and a menu by Giuseppe Mancino. Otherwise, try the 44-room Plaza e de Russie, also with its own Michelin-star restaurant, or the Villa Ariston, much homier but with direct connections to the yacht world, as it’s owned by the Codecasa clan. The plushest hotel in the whole of Versilia is the Augustus, sitting among pine trees in its own park in Forte dei Marmi, a 25-minute drive north along the coast. The 1,300-square-foot Lidino suite is closest to the private underpass to the beach.
For food, the shipyards’ de facto canteens include Il Porto, a high-end spot with a terrace overlooking the water on via Michele Coppino, or the casual trattoria Cicero; order the spaghetti with arselle (baby clams) or the branzino all’isolana (with potato, tomato and olives), both local specialties. For more than seven decades, da Giorgio, a short walk north, has also drawn the shipwrights with its fish-heavy menu, which pivots depending on the fishermen’s catch each morning. It’s worth the short drive into the hills to the town of Camaiore for dinner outdoors by the stream at Osteria Candalla, a converted water mill; the menu is heavy on Tuscan classics, like wild boar and tordelli, Versilia’s riff on ravioli.
If you’re a sailor, the waters immediately off the coast are clear and blue but unremarkable. Better to head out to the Tuscan Archipelago, a necklace of islands in the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas and similar in appearance to Sardinia, rimmed with sparklingly clear water and fine beaches. Elba is the largest and most populous, but the others are more appealing. Anchor in the bay off Giannutri, home to barely 20 people, or head to the other side of the island to visit the superb ruins of a Roman villa.
Other than Carnival, which precedes Lent, Viareggio is also known for its Puccini Festival, which takes place every July and August immediately south of the town center in the frazione, or hamlet, of Torre del Lago. It’s where the composer of La Bohème, Tosca and more lived for much of his life. The first series of concerts was staged here in 1930, just six years after he died.