From the lavender fields of Grasse to the film star feel of Cannes, each resort that makes up the French Riviera is very French yet very different. Fiona Klonarides spotlights some of the ‘tres chic’ hotspots on the sun-soaked Cote D’Azur’s shores.
Roughly spanning France’s smart southern coastline from St. Tropez to the west to the Italian border to the east, the Côte d’Azur has long been one of the Mediterranean’s most grown-up playgrounds. Originally a magnet for the rich and the royals (attracted by its mild winter climate and “exotic” ambiance) it became known as a “health destination” before becoming arguably the most glamorous holiday spot in Europe.
When jet travel overtook trains as the new way to get away, few places in southern Europe seemed more appealing that the chic shores of the Riviera, where the sun shone in summer but didn’t disappear in winter. Fifty years on, the allure of the oh-so-French Côte d’Azur is as strong as ever.
It was Brigitte Bardot who put St. Tropez on the map after she caused a sensation during the filming of “And God Created Woman” in the fishing village in 1956. Fifteen years later, Mick and Bianca Jagger caused a media frenzy when they married at the town hall in St. Tropez in 1971.
These days it’s the Cannes Film Festival keeps Cannes in the spotlight. Twelve days each year, the town rolls out the red carpet to welcome Hollywood royalty and Oscar winners as the biggest names in the international film industry come to network on Cannes’ most exclusive hotel terraces and super-yachts.
Close to the French/Italian border, the pint-size principality of Monaco may be small – it’s tiny – but it’s super-rich. Fiercely independent, mini Monaco has its own flag and own national holiday, November 19th. Famous for its Grand Priz, palatial Casino and its good looking royal family, the Grimaldis, it doesn’t quite have the film star feel of Cannes or the cobblestone charm of Antibes or St. Raphael, but it’s worth visiting for a taste of the millionaire lifestyle in this “safe haven”.
With more Ferraris than Ford Fiestas roaming its manicured streets, Monte Carlo is a microcosm of wealth with more than its fair share of elderly millionaires. Home of the mega-moneyed (a studio apartment here can cost more to rent than an Algarve villa), Monaco is best explored on foot as you can’t bring a car into Monaco Ville unless you have a Monaco or Alpes-Maritimes licence plate.
Don’t miss: A train ride along the spectacular coast, for the Mediterranean and mountain views. The train to Monaco to Nice (or to Ventimiglia, direction Italy) takes about 20-30 minutes – it’s worth the ride.
Unlike Monte Carlo, Nice is France’s fifth largest city and feels big. Palm-lined boulevards lit up at night, a vibrant nightlife and its cosmopolitan buzz make it an interesting city to visit. There’s also plenty of culture to unearth, from archeological findings to museum exhibits.
Don’t miss: The flavour of real Nice at its markets. The Flower Market, Fruit and Vegetable Market and Arts & Crafts and Antiques stalls all line its famous Cours Saleya between Place Massena and the Old Town and most start very early and run until lunchtime or early evening.
Ahh, the glittering sweep of coastline that links Antibes and Juans-les-Pins…if Monaco lives and breathes money, Antibes is more about low key glamour.
Antibes’ cobbled streets are filled with flowers and not far away the million euro mansions “hide” from tourists’ cameras, safely entrenched behind pine trees, away from the paparrazi.
The Provencal market is a great place to spend the morning before lingering at the beach until sunset.
Yachting is part of the relaxed but chic Antibes lifestyle. One of Europe’s largest marinas, Port Vaubon is the summer and winter home to many a smart superyacht. The seaside town hosts a yearly Regatta.
Don’t miss: The Musee Picasso at Chateau Grimaldi. Picasso spent a while in 1924 painting here and then decided to donate all of his work to the museum. On show are his 24 paintings, 80 ceramics, 44 drawings, 32 lithographs, 11 oils on paper, two sculptures and five tapestries.
The sparkling star of the Riviera, Cannes really comes into its own during the International Film Festival. Busy and buzzing, the festival lasts for twelve days but the film star feel somehow lingers year-round.
Hotels more like royal palaces line its most famous Boulevard, La Croisette, where high society meets café society. After the sun goes down, it’s dinner for two at one of the legendary brasseries, before dancing the night away at the legendary Jimmy’z (Palais de Congres), dubbed “le discotheque des stars”. The sixties-sounding Whisky A Gogo (Avenue Lerins) is another hot spot.
For a more low key evening, take a late evening stroll along the Vieux Port, home to the fishing boats, before a nightcap before bed.
Don’t miss: The Isles de Lerins. These two very pretty wooded islets, St. Honorat and Ste. Marguerite (named after the saints who founded them) have been inhabited by monks for centuries. Cross from Cannes to Ile St. Honorat by ferry, soak up the idyllic peace and explore its rocky beaches. Before you head back to Cannes, pick up a bottle of the monks’ famous green liqueur, Lerina or some St. Honorat honey to take home as a sweet souvenir.
Thanks to a new rail connection (opened in 2005) Grasse is now connected by train to the coast, so reaching the fragrance capital of the world has never been easier. Grasse’s perfume industry has been thriving for centuries – it still produces over two-thirds of France’s “natural aromas” (for both perfume and food flavourings). The flower powered industry turns over some 600 million euros a year.
Its delightful hilltop town is surrounded by swathes of lavender fields, and the area is rich with jasmine, roses, mimosa, orange blossom and violets. Grasse’s labyrinth of streets are well worth exploring, with historical highlights signposted along the way.
Don’t miss: A tour of the legendary Perfumerie Fragonard at 20, Boulevard Fragonard. With 3000 years of perfume history on show at the Fragonard Villa in Grasse, it’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour which reveals how perfumes are created – and it’s free. www.fragonard.com/parfums_grasse/GB/fragonard/grasse/
Famous for its movie star residents (less so for its beaches) St. Tropez takes on a different feel according to the season. In summer its cobblestone streets get busy, but in spring, autumn or winter the fishing village that became a jet-set magnet is significantly quieter and more relaxed.
Off-season, St. Trop’s low key celebrity residents can be spotted enjoying a morning coffee behind a newspaper at one of the waterfront cafés and St. Tropez life revolves around its quayside. There are beaches a few kilometres away from the harbour, but it’s the yacht races held here that tend to form the core of the smart seaside town’s social scene. They include the Giraglia Rolex Cup Regatta, the race from St. Tropez to Genoa, and the famous Les Voiles de Saint Tropez which attracts some of the most sophisticated racing yachts in the world.
Don’t miss: Children will love the displays of exotic butterflies at the Maison des Papillons, tucked down a street among colourful local houses at 9 Rue Etienne-Berny.