How to Celebrate the Good Life on The French Riviera
Ultimate travel guide to the French Riviera.
French Riviera, Mediterranean Sea
The Cote d’Azur, sometimes referred to as the French Riviera, is set along the striking blue Mediterranean Sea with towns whose names are familiar to all dotting its shore. Who has not heard of St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Cap Ferrat, Cannes, Nice, or the Principality of Monaco/Monte Carlo? They are the towns of which stories and books have been written and artists have painted – but experiencing them in person, is quite different.
After arrival at the Nice airport, the breathtaking beauty of the area can best be achieved by taking a helicopter to Monaco; although only a 30 minute taxi ride, the eight minute helicopter flight affords panoramas that may only otherwise be imagined. A quick take-off from the airport and you are over the azur blue waters of the Mediterranean with views of Nice, Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu Sur Mer, Cap d’Ail and then Monaco.
With the palace of the Principality of Monaco in front of you, a picturesque harbor, and high-rise buildings filling every inch of this tiny country, it is a fascinating place. This is the site of the annual Monaco Grand Prix that has formula one cars racing through the streets; the entire principality comes to a halt for the race. In June, everything came to a halt for a different reason – the much anticipated wedding of Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco and the head of the House of Grimaldi to Charlene Lynette Wittstock. At one time there was talk that if Prince Albert did not have a male heir (a son born during wedlock) that the principality would revert to France. The law was changed in 2002 to extend the successorship rights to his sisters and children.
Places to stay
The classic Hotel de Paris still has the most prominent of hotel locations with the outstanding Hermitage and Le Meridien Hotels nearby; the famous casino is perched on the same bluff and the structure is magnificent. Unfortunately, the days of James Bond playing baccarat in a tuxedo and drinking Bollinger or a freshly shaken martini are memories as the attire of those in the gambling palace leaves much to be desired. The beaches are limited, but Monte Carlo is in a class by itself.
For nearby hotels not in Monaco, La Reserve in Beaulieu Sur Mer or Hotel Royal Riviera at the beginning of St. Jean Cap-Ferrat both continue to provide picturesque accommodations with a high quality of food and service (with a Michelin starred restaurant at La Reserve). For those interested in seeing an interesting home and magnificent gardens, go to the nearby Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild (yes, of a member of the family bearing that name). Kerylos Greek Villa also provides a glimpse of the countryside style, while set in Beaulieu Sur Mer.
Dining in Monaco
In 1990, restaurants and dining in the area hit a high note with the advent of Louis XV with Alain Ducasse preparing the food at the Hotel de Paris. It was awarded three Michelin stars in the Red Book, the first restaurant in a hotel to be so recognized; Ducasse was only 33. The gleaming silver Christofle carts brought to the table set a dining standard; Tete du Cuvee Champagnes on one, freshly baked breads and rolls on another, sorbets, on still another, and then after dinner liquors on the last of the carts. With frescos on the ceiling, ornate decor details and a magnificent display of flowers, you feel like royalty.
The restaurant Mirazur in Menton (just east of Monaco at 500 feet from the border of Italy) is situated on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. With stunning views as a backdrop, Argentine Chef Mauro Colagreco puts art on a plate (sometimes even a rock) and also on your palate with his amazing creations. Each dish served is stunning in appearance ranging from an amuse bouche served on a slab of agate, an open egg laying in a bird’s nest with the appetizer visible, or pre-dessert followed by dessert. The food is as tasty as the appearance is tantalizing. The restaurant was voted 35th best in the world in 2006 and it is worth a visit if you are in the area.
Not too far away and nestled near Nice is the town of St. Paul de Vence. It is best known as an artist enclave; it is a hillside town, where you can walk the streets, enjoy the local art, and find a bistro for a quick lunch. Reservations are necessary for lunch or dinner at Colombe d’Or where they have works of Picasso, Matisse and others on the walls. The Foundation Maeght is a small art museum just outside the walls of St. Paul de Vence; the grounds are quite memorable, the architecture interesting, the garden sculptures beautiful, and magnificent art adorns its exhibit areas.
Where to stay
The best hotel in the area (also a quiet respite – like an island on a hillside), is Le Mas de Pierre – a Relais & Chateau property. Beautifully decorated rooms, sculptures in the garden (including grazing sheep as you enter the grounds), outstanding service and two styles of dining (both excellent) make this a terrific place to linger a few days. There are grapevines wherever you drive in the south of France, with rosé wines being produced in and around Cassis and in the Bandol area. They also produce some interesting white wines and age-worthy red wines as well. Domaine de Terrebrune makes a serious red wine, but their white and rose wines are a special find; the winery is near Bandol and has a quaint restaurant on the grounds and adjacent to the winery. Their wines are imported to the U.S. by Kermit Lynch as are those of Clos Sainte Magdeleine on the eastern side of Cassis. Who would have thought that a winery would be situated in such a stunning location on the edge of the Mediterranean? The winery is now run by the third generation of the Sack family.
The line for tickets to take a boat ride to see the Calanques is not too long. An hour on the water seeing the cliffs adjoining the sea can be quite pleasant on a warm day. A visit to this area should also include a stop in fabled St. Tropez. Excellent shopping abounds with all of the names and brands that you can imagine. They have an open-air fish market and a small hole-in-the-wall wine shop called La Cave du Golfe – a short distance from the nearby yachts. Its owner Armel Aloche, indicates his title on his business cards as Caviste; he supplies the wines to outfit the visiting yachts. Do not be surprised to see cases of Cristal, Dom Perignon, any or all of the First Growths from Bordeaux – the best wines from Burgundy, and many other fine selections. This shop also sells some of the best rosé wines and wines produced in Bandol, Cassis and Provence. The Caviste has good taste and probably does not have a bad bottle in his shop.
Near to St. Tropez and still hot, hot, hot, is Club 55 in an area known as Ramatuelle close by Pampelone Beach. This restaurant first opened in 1955. The “dining” room of the restaurant holds only four tables, but the outdoor seating area (most of which is covered by canvas) can seat almost 200 people, and the place is packed – evidence it has not lost its cache. Reservations are a must and are made by fax or telephone.
While dining on the Cote d’Azur can be as simple as little bistros, haute cuisine is everywhere and the number of Michelin Stars is almost beyond counting. Think farm-to-table in freshness, and that will be your experience throughout this coastal area of the French Riviera.