Every August, the mega-yachts descend on the south of France in a swarm of pristine white and fiberglass that glistens above the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
By day the yachts, some more than 400 feet long, coast from port to port and marina to marina. The owners, an exclusive club of the world's billionaires, take in local sights, dine at the region's most luxurious restaurants and soak up the sun on what have become their own "floating islands."
"There's an undeniable luxury to these yachts and to know that one person bought it and owns it is pretty remarkable," said Diane Byrne, executive editor of Power & Motoryacht magazine. "It's also a way to enjoy getting away from the craziness of life on land, work and traffic. It doesn't matter whether you're a billionaire or a hard-working Joe, it's a means of escape for them, a way to have a self-sufficient luxury resort all to yourself."
At night, the world's elite come out to play. Dressed to perfection in designer clothing, they shimmy off their boats into the Mediterranean's hottest nightclubs -- Les Caves Du Roy in Saint-Tropez or Cinquante Cinq (Club 55) in Monaco -- for an evening of thumping music and high-class hob-knobbing.
"It's the who's who of… the south of France," said yacht consultant Mark Elliot. "There's the 'boom-boom' rhythm of the music and parties on the docks. Everybody's dressed to the nines -- the beautiful people all coming off of their boats."
For some, the super-sized, ultra-luxurious boats are the main attraction. For yachting insiders, it's all about the far-off, picture-perfect locales where the gigantic yachts drop anchor.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's 414-foot Octopus was launched in 2003. With a permanent 60-man crew, two helicopters, seven boats and a submersible, Octopus is a seaborne estate. For all of its amenities, Octopus requires an estimated $20 million annual budget.
The spirit of good-natured one-upsmanship lives on among the world's yacht-owning billionaires;
Oracle founder Larry Ellison and music bigwig David Geffen co-own the Rising Sun mega yacht, which clocks in at 452 feet. Russian investment tycoon Roman Ambramovich's Eclipse literally overshadows others when it floats into port at a reported 508 feet. The Sheikh of Dubai owns an even larger yacht -- 524 feet long -- that dwarfs those of fellow billionaires.
"It all about prestige," said Vanessa Stuart, administrator for the International Superyacht Society. "If you're the best it's about having the best -- it's all about looks, how it looks to other people. The larger the vessel, the better the man you are or the better the woman you are."
With a mega yacht, Stuart said, "you can have all the toys on board -- your jet ski and all your fancy tenders, your amphibious car, your submarine."
Trinity Yachts Vice President William Smith III said his company has had some unusual requests from customers, from underwater speakers for scuba divers to an inflatable air slide -- (usually found on an airplane) for use as a water slide.
"That's what's great about this business -- it's always changing," Smith said. "You don't have zoning laws; you don't have condo associations you've got to deal with. As long as it's not illegal or un-seaworthy, as long as they're willing to pay, yes, we can do that."
His clientele includes a cast of characters who are "very interesting" and "not the average millionaires," he said.