Onsite Review: On the Tracks in France

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Hotel Majestic Barriere in Cannes
Hotel Majestic Barriere, a Leading Hotels of the World property located in Cannes.

For this Francophile, you can’t beat a day that starts with opening your e-mail inbox to find a press trip invitation that is totally French: Air France from New York to Paris—window seat 17A, incredibly attentive service and a glass or two of a good Cote du Rhone; Rail Europe from Paris to Cannes on the deluxe double-decker TGV—full-stretch-out seat by the window for panoramas of mountains and Mediterranean; and then hopscotching by coastal rail between Cannes and Nice, all wrapped up in a French Rail Pass. We took it all in as we learned from our guides, Atout France-New York and the Cote d’Azur Tourism, the many reasons that travelers return year after year to the French Riviera (or if you are on a more sophisticated plane, “Cote d’Azur”): A bevy of client-pleasing hotels; new culinary horizons; five-star celebrity spotting; a lively arts scene; brilliant gardens; belle epoque villas; and a coastline of yacht-packed harbors and sexy beaches.

Our first nights on the French Riviera are spent in Cannes, never high on this visitor’s list. However, when you’re on location at countdown-time to the annual curtain rising on the glitz, glamour and talent that pours in each May during the Cannes Film Festival, the fever is infectious—especially when one is tucked into a suite at the Hotel Majestic Barriere, overlooking the Med and just a stone’s throw away from the red-carpet entrance to the Palais des Festivals. And when you slow down to smell the flowers, you learn that atop Suquet Hill, where Cannes started as a small fishing village, is theMusee de la Castre, occupying what was once the land-based headquarters of the monks of Lerins. It’s a diverting museum of wondrously eclectic items—from archaeological artifacts to musical instruments—and well worth the uphill walk to get there. And speaking of those Cistercian-sect monks, 25 now live 15 miles offshore from Cannes on the must-visit Ile Saint-Honorat in a fortified monastery, which, in the Middle Ages, was among the most important in Christendom. The monks do God’s work cultivating the vineyards and distilling accomplished wines.

Geographically, the other end of our itinerary is Nice. While everyone is drawn to the beautifully landscaped, 4-mile-long Promenade des Anglais that borders the Med, to this visitor, pride of place goes to Vieux Nice, or Old Nice, with its pastel-colored buildings and narrow alleys lined with countless artsy shops, galleries and bistros.

Thanks to an infusion of new restaurants with innovative outlooks on traditional food, your clients can now spend a whole week dining out in Nice, and they never once have to order a salade nicoise. That was certainly true at very upscale l’Aphrodite, where Chef David Faure creates exquisite, experimental, “molecular”
cuisine—dishes often prepared at the table with liquid nitrogen, some accented with spicy sauteed insects. This inter-active experience, while hard to explain, is mostly delicious. Yet, our luncheon at the friendly, bustling Lu Fran Calin was easier to get one’s head and heart around; it’s one of the “Cuisine Nissarde” restaurants, working to preserve and promote Nice’s traditional cuisine, which marries the culinary traditions of Nice and Genoa—Genoa says pesto and Nice says pistou—into a happy union of wonderful food. And in addition to endlessly interesting dining, Nice now boasts more museums than any French city except Paris. Buy a Rail Europe “Nice L’Open Tour” ticket, and hop on and off to visit the delightful Beaux Arts, which occupies a sepia villa built by a Ukrainian princess, as well as two dedicated museums showcasing Matisse and Marc Chagall.

villa splendors
At nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer, clients can step away from modern art and take a tour of Villa Kerylos, built in 1902 by Theodore Reinach, with everything designed to reconstitute the luxury and beauty of a noble home in ancient Greece, while incorporating modern amenities and comfort: frescoes, mosaic, reproductions of artworks and antique furniture. Get the real thing in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on a visit to the opulent, Italianate Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, set in magnificent gardens above the sea. It holds the priceless treasures—porcelains, tapestries, paintings, sculptures—the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild seems to have purchased in bulk from all over the world.

dreamy nights
Your clients will feel like aristocracy with stays at…

  • In Cannes, recommend the five-star Hotel Majestic Barriere, part of the Leading Hotels of the World collection and one of the original palace-hotels that lives up to its stately moniker with an A-list location right on La Croisette. While the hotel sure knows how to put on the ritz, it also manages to pull off a warm, non-snooty welcome. Guestrooms are elegant and refined, and the newest
  • restaurant, La Petite Maison de Nicole, focuses on delectable dishes from the French Riviera. The hotel’s private beach club is right out front, and is fitted out with a jetty lined with luxe lounge chairs and a restaurant right on the sand. A further sense of wellness takes over in the spa, a 4,843-sq.-ft. beauty embracing color-therapy showers, hammams and massage beds. Rates start at $235.
  • Just outside the famous hill town of St-Paul de Vence there’s the delightful Hotel La Vague de Saint Paul, a four-star member of the Phoenix Hotel Collection that’s located in the heart of the Vence hills. La Vague is a well-designed property whose 48 rooms and four suites have a uniquely appealing minimal decor, each with one colorfully frescoed wall. We recommend those guestrooms
  • facing south for the most stunning views. Guests can sit outdoors on comfy couches beneath olive trees, dip into the heated pool, play tennis or petanque, curl up with a drink in the lounge-bar, choose from a range of spa treatments, hike in the hills, or head out to nearby St-Paul or the Maeght Foundation. Rooms are priced from $163.
  • In Nice, we love the boutique Hotel Windsor, located a 5-minute walk to the sea. It’s a real three-star gem of a place to hang your chapeau. Occupying a mansion built by disciples of Gustav Eiffel in 1895, the mansion’s public rooms and guestrooms are individually decorated by contemporary artists, with the finest accommodations being those with balconies facing an amazing tropical garden, lush with bamboo and bougainvillea and the recorded sounds of birds singing in Amazon jungles. Clients can dine out in the garden or dive into the pool; or alternatively, they can head for the health club on the fifth floor, and enjoy breakfast or dinner in the first floor bar-lounge. Prices start at $150.
  • Clients will be thrilled with a stay at the 94-room Royal-Riviera in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It is perched picturesquely and elegantly above the sea and offers its own private, white-sand beach. A five-star member of Leading Hotels of the World, this once a grand belle epoque hotel has been expertly renovated to fit the times and offers a just-right Mediterranean style: a la mode luxury villa, informal elegance and casual-chic ambiance. Rooms and marble baths are spacious, with mountain (less desirable), sea or garden views, or in corner suites, with panoramic views of it all. Royal-Riviera’s gourmet restaurant comes with fine Mediterranean cuisine, a terrace and views of the sea, while the hotel’s big heated pool is set into beautifully landscaped gardens. Other guest amenities include a fitness and wellness center, as well as lovely walking paths leading to the Cap Ferrat village or Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Call for rates.

art lover’s dream
For art lovers, the Cote d’Azur presents one great stretched-out Museum of Modern Art. And indeed for decades, France’s Mediterranean coast served as the creative studio to a distinguished roll-call of artists: Picasso, Chagall, Renoir, Cocteau, Bonnard, Dufy, Miro. All of whom left luminously colorful works of art right in the places they lived and painted.

While our trip was not officially themed “An Art Lovers Tour,” while we were in Saint-Paul de Vence we were invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Maeght Foundation, one of the most remarkable private art institutions in the world. The museum occupies an arresting building designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert; it uses its spacious indoor galleries to show off works by Arp, Bonnard, Chagall, Kandinsky, Leger, Matisse and many others, while outdoors, Giacometti sculptures stand tall and thin, a Miro fountain gurgles, and Calder mobiles move with the wind.

Another artistic high was a day spent in Antibes, where even before the high season, immense pleasure yachts, lined up side-by-side like battleships, fill the historic harbor. No one should miss seaside Antibes, whose most important structure, the 16th century Grimaldi Chateau, is home to the riveting Picasso Museum. On view are sculptures perched on fortified walls and terraces, while in the galleries are 23 paintings and 44 drawings contributed by the master himself from the period when he worked and lived in and around Antibes. The town celebrates its artists with a “Painters Trail,” a great walkabout, giving your clients a chance to compare the real views with the reproductions positioned just where each artist—Claude Monet, for one—originally set up an easel and captured the scene forever. Antibes is also an outstanding market town, with its covered food market along Cours Massena in the Old Town—a riot of color and scents—open mornings, and turning into a high-quality crafts market in the afternoon. Right at the market, recommend clients take a break for lunch at Balade en Provence, accompanied by an absinthe tasting.

a couple of things not to miss in nice

  • The Marche du Fleurs (Flower Market) on the Cours Saleya—an explosion of color weekday mornings (Tuesday to Sunday), joined by stalls piled high with artisan honey, soaps, candles, tea, herbs, and handmade chocolate confections (if they are here Mondays, your clients will be on site for one of the country’s best markets for antiques, trinkets and second-hand clothing).
  • Head for the old city’s main square, Place Rossetti, home to two places of pilgrimage: the Ste-Reparate Cathedral, a loving tribute to Nice’s patron saint, and the
  • celebrated Fenocchio ice cream parlor whose 97 flavors include the very Nicois choices of olive oil, tomato, fig and basil.

Oh, and let’s get on the tracks to Barcelona. 


contact information
Hotel La Vague de Saint Paul: vaguesaintpaul.com
Hotel Majestic Barriere: (800) 745-883; majestic-barriere.com or lhw.com
Hotel Windsor: hotelwindsornice.com
Rail Europe: (888) 382-7245; raileurope.com or agent.raileurope.com
Royal-Riviera: (800) 745-8883; royal-riviera.com or lhw.com