Forget the Croisette: the wildest festivities and most lucrative deals take place on Cannes' floating party palaces

It was not yet noon on my first trip to Cannes when I found myself lying on a mocha-coloured daybed on the top deck of a film director’s yacht, eyes closed, hand wrapped around a full champagne flute. Only one thing marred my near-indecent state of pleasure – and that was the realisation that in the 75 degree heat, my Perrier-Jouët rosé was no longer as chilled as it should be.

As if guessing my thoughts, some magically conjured-up entity replaced my warm glass with a cold one. When I felt that same entity kissing me lightly on the lips, I opened my eyes to see a well-known British actress smiling down at me. “What happens in Cannes…” she murmured, “stays in Cannes,” I sighed, and drifted back off to sleep.

Of course that mantra is only true of the hedonistic happenings that take place away from the Croisette, on the sumptuous floating party palaces dotted about the French Riviera during the festival. Nothing worth being discreet about happens on land anymore, where festival-goers are rigidly moored to reality by hoards of rubbernecking tourists, overworked film hacks and stinkingly sweet beignet vans.

That's been the case since 1991, when Madonna sauntered down the Croisette alongside the plebs to present her conical bra – and accompanying documentary film, In Bed With Madonna – at the Palais.

Today, the real business of Cannes takes places on the glittering waters of the Mediterranean, with celebrities increasingly preferring to be glimpsed from afar and judges running their juries from the comfort of on-board screening rooms (as Steven Spielberg did in 2013 from his $200 million tub, the Seven Seas).

The owners of this opulent armada – whose vessels cost up to $400 million – are not necessarily involved intimately with the film industry. Although David Geffen’s 452ft yacht, the Rising Sun, is always the focal point of the festival, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and socialite Denise Rich have reprised their positions as the monster-yacht party hosts of the year.

A party on board Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's super-yacht Octopus Credit: Rex Features/Rex Features

Meanwhile the likes of Yuri Shefler (the Russian owner of Stolichnaya vodka), Larry Ellison (the American tech billionaire, and father of tyro super-producer Megan Ellison) and Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulazziz Al Saud (the richest man in Saudi Arabia) are also making their presences felt.

“Of course the owners aren’t always on board,” explains Valeria Alekhina, a broker with the super-yacht charter company Fraser Yachts. “But just having their yachts there is enough of a power statement – especially if we’re talking about new money. Old money will often flee the festival.”

Occasionally, tales involving Russian minigarchs, hookers and celebrity debauchery will float back to the have-nots on dry land, but mostly – unless infiltrated by some undesirable like me – on-board indiscretions are protected by iron-clad exclusivity… and anti-paparazzi shields. “There is no villa or five-star hotel in Cannes that will give you the levels of privacy and intimacy that you get on board these yachts,” says Alekhina. “Also your positioning away from the crowds puts people in a different frame of mind: they know that you’re a serious player.”

Sick of the interruptions he gets on the patio of the Carlson or Majestic hotels, Studio Soho producer and filmmaker Nick Hamson has on occasion hired a small yacht for the duration of the festival, costing between £100,000 and £300,000.

Uma Thurman and boyfriend Andre Balazs at a yacht party in Cannes, 2015 Credit:

“It’s been worth every penny,” he says,  “because the talent feel safer away from the hothouse environment of the Croisette, and you can usually offset some of the costs by allowing others to hold meetings or throw parties on your boat.”

Just be sure to clarify what your guests’ plans are before you agree to anything, he cautions. “We once agreed for sponsors to hold a fashion show on our yacht, while we were entertaining a group of German financiers. We had thought it would be a good mix, until the moment we all looked up from our meeting to see a long line of models parading down the deck – topless.” Hamson needn’t have worried: impressed by this novel form of entertainment, the deal was done then and there.

If semi-naked models don’t do it for you, the state-of-the-art spa-decks these yachts come equipped with probably will. “With the volume of these super-yachts continuing to increase each year,” says Summer Osterman, a broker with Burgess Yachts, “a lot of people hoping to do business at the festival will have dedicated spa attendants on call to provide treatments to prospective clients and encourage them to make the most of their Jacuzzis, hydrotherapy baths and serenity rooms.” Because who would say no to anything after a four-handed massage?

A super-yacht screening room Credit: Luca Dini Design

Owners of the mega-yachts leased out for the festival, however, have their reputations – and their prized belongings – to think of. “We’ve seen an increased demand not just for yachts with their own cinemas, like Spielberg’s, but for vessels that can accommodate more than 12 guests,” says Alekhina. “Nowadays, people want to throw receptions for up to 300 people and because of that we need to employ teams of people to lay down protective coverings over the decks, furniture and art – because these yachts will sometimes carry multi-million-euro pieces of art aboard, and they don’t want their belongings destroyed just as the season is beginning.

"For that reason they will often refuse point-blank to let out their boats to, say, American rappers with a certain reputation. Even if they promise to pay for all the damages up front.”

Trained not just to provide “a level of service you would never come close to on dry land”, says Alekhina, “the crews on these yachts always have security foremost in their minds. Don’t forget that there have been multi-million-euro jewellery thefts at the festival in the past, and these people can thwart even James Bond-style safety threats. Crews are trained to monitor the water around the boat and alert the guests the second a helicopter is spotted overhead. These yachts are basically little fortresses, so the stars will only need their own security detail once back on dry land.”

For all the magical allure of Cannes’ floating fetes, terra firma comes as a blessed relief to many. “Here's the dirty little secret about the parties on the yachts,” Peggy Siegal, Hollywood power publicist, told The Hollywood Reporter. “People don't want to get stuck on them. Then there's the shoe problem. They make you take your shoes off. And nobody looks good without their shoes.”

Not to mention the weather, sighs Hamson. “If a mistral [cold, northerly wind] hits mid-festival, which it often does, you’ve got a load of peeved blokes in soaked black tie arriving by tender at your yacht, accompanied by green-faced actresses and models in windbreakers. Not a good look.” And that’s if they even make it out there. Because more often than not, the 24-hour party people will stay on dry land, “while you,” Hamson continues, “the host, are stuck aboard a ruinously expensive status symbol with a dozen cases of Dom and a cartload of wasabi peas.”