Dining to this view at La Réserve is among the Riviera’s many pleasures. (All photos: Marcia DeSanctis)
Before the Côte d’Azur became the summer hangout for both backpackers and billionaires, it was a place for northerners like Queen Victoria, King Leopold of Belgium, and all manner of Russian Grand Dukes and Duchesses to thaw their chilly bones in the winter.
When that changed is subject to debate, but many credit the American couple Gerald and Sara Murphy. In the 1920’s, they were among the first to spend the hottest months bathing in the Mediterranean, and invited their friends Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald to cavort with them on the beach in Cap d’Antibes. In 1927, Coco Chanel built a house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and drew her own cadre of boldface-named houseguests (Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali).
Another transformation happened in 1956, courtesy of Brigitte Bardot and her unprecedented allure. That year saw the release of And God Created Woman, a movie that catapulted both the actress and St. Tropez into myth. From then on, despite overwhelming high-season crowds, the Riviera has endured as a place for sensuality, escape, and world-class glamour. Time is always precious on the Côte d’Azur, so here are a few tips to help maximize yours:
Best affordable hotel
The Splendid is just a block from the ocean and La Croisette, and its tiny lobby is often graced with the presence of owner Annick Cagnat, whose warmth sets the tone for this intimate hotel. In a town famous for Dolce wishes and Gabbana dreams, the Splendid is an elegant throwback to old-world flair, with balconies that overlook the port and its gleaming white boats.
Cruise the Riviera in a vintage Porsche.
Best way to explore
Sure, the trains run on time and the buses are easy to navigate on the Riviera. But with that sprawling, cinematic backdrop, there is no greater thrill than to rent a vintage ride—James Dean’s Porsche or a Mustang convertible, the same one driven by Bond Girl Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger—and cruise the corniches with the sun on your back and mistral in your hair. http://www.rentaclassiccar.com
Poolside nirvana at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat.
Best way to spend a glamorous afternoon
Even those of us who aren’t oligarchs can play make-believe sometimes. For 80 Euros a day, you can sit under a crisp white umbrella by the pool overlooking the lapis-hued Mediterranean at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat, one of the most sumptuous hotels in the world. Lunch at Club Dauphin is not included, but since you’re already splurging, why hold back?
It’s tough to beat the view from the Hotel Welcome.
Best hotel view
It’s hard to choose a winner in this category, but Hotel Welcome, facing the rade (harbor) in the pastel-colored wonderland of Villefranche-sur-Mer, is subtle—and singular. From the corner room 22, you can practically touch the St. Pierre Chapel that was painted by Jean Cocteau, who bunked down for a spell in these very quarters.
Rose salt for sale.
Best morning market
The marché at the Cours Massena in Antibes unfolds under a soaring iron structure in the heart of the old city. From rose salt to olives in brine to fresh-picked apricots to jams made from summer flowers, the combination of colors and aromas here make this the quintessential provençal market, as authentic as any you will find in the south of France.
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Lining up for socca in Nice.
Best local food
Some love the bouillabaisse on the Côte d’Azur, but others seek gastronomic rapture in Nice’s incomparable street food: pissaladière—open faced caramelized onion tarts— and socca—roasted chickpea pancakes. You can find vendors all around the Cours Saleya and Old Town dishing up both of these wonders, steaming hot.
If you wear shoes at all in St. Tropez, flat strappy leather sandals are de rigueur and the ideal memento from your suntanned jaunt in the Riviera. The best ones are manufactured right in town and there are two places to buy them, with evangelists in both camps: K Jacques and Rondini. Either way, they are infinitely more glamorous that your ratty old flip-flops.
View from the Café du Jardin.
Best restaurant view
It’s a tie. Situated on a craggy stretch of coastline in Nice, the view from La Réserve (top of page) is pure seaside drama: smashing waves on a windy day, fleeting clouds on a fair one. The sensation is of dining on the most stylish of ships—one with an exceptional menu to boot. In the perched village of Èze, the Café du Jardin at the fabled Chateau de la Chêvre d’Or seems to float high above the sea. At breakfast, you are met with the spectacular sight of day breaking along vast stretches of the Riviera coastline.
Best place to sip rosé
On the Côte d’Azur, chilled Provençal rosé is as ubiquitous as Badoit, and a perfect match to the Riviera’s breezy sexiness. The terrace at Hotel Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins (above) is incomparable for the sheer joy of reveling in an apéritif, Jazz Age-style. During the summer of 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald rented the then-villa while beginning work on Tender is the Night, and drank his Gin Rickeys from this very perch, right on the rocks.
A hillside view of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Best beachside lunch
Besides renting a chaise and umbrella, a day at the beach ideally involves a languorous midday meal. The powdery-white sand enclaves near St. Tropez are spread out along the 3-mile Plage de Pampellone. Cabane Bambou, done up in summery white, is an impeccable spot for a toes-in-the-sand lunch of grilled fish and cold local wine, savored between dips in the beautifully clear water. Also wonderful: La Paloma at the near-perfect beach of the same name in St. Jean-Cap Ferrat, with lunch followed by a walk around the coastal sentier des douaniers, one of the loveliest trails on the Côte d’Azur. Last: the concept at the Hi Beach (and the hotel it is attached to) on Nice’s pebble beach is sky-high, but it works, with each area color-coded by function. Plum chairs, turquoise umbrellas, and lime-green towels all add up to something contemporary and fresh, and the restaurant, shaded under a white scrim, is superb.