It’s probably the prettiest expanse of real estate in the world—the golden and fabled Cote d’ Azur. It takes very little effort to get there — a mere eight-hour hop from New York to the Nice Airport. Upon arrival, a sporty rented convertible is all that is needed to turn you into one of the bronzed gods or goddesses of the fabled French Riviera.
This is an effortless place to vacation. There are no wrong choices. Almost everything is perfection and all the distances are easily drivable. Best of all, it’s impossible to get lost, even if you don’t speak French. There are three winding highways, les Trois Corniches, each at a different elevation to follow the coastline. They all connect the places of interest.
Start your cultural immersion a quick twenty-minute drive away from Nice Airport. The famous Musée Matisse exhibits the works of the celebrated artist Henri Matisse. Enter the huge brick palace set in the middle of an olive garden. Here are brilliant canvases, flowing drawings, and graceful sculpture. In this part of the world, color and form have a shimmering life of their own, and an hour here sets up the visual feast that is to come.
Another thirty-minute drive away is the tiny village of Èze, perched on the cliffs above the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Getting to Èze by car is a heart-thumping series of hairpin turns that gradually bring you up a thousand-foot rise. Upon arrival, it seems you have stepped back into a medieval town, all stone buildings and cobblestone streets. Have a café au lait and observe the charm of an ancient bell tower.
There are picturesque little alleys with galleries and shops. And many of the wares are handcrafted in the local vicinity. You’ll find blown glass, cut crystal, and elaborately embroidered table linens. Perfumeries produce floral essences pressed from the famous fields of Provençe. Art abounds, and galleries offer the gamut from charming watercolors to abstract sculpture.
Everywhere is color. Red geraniums festoon the window boxes and bougainvillea flourishes in shades of pink and coral. It is no surprise to hear that Walt Disney spent a lot of time here. Perhaps Èze colored his visions of sleeping princesses in their castles.
This doesn’t have to be a sedentary place. The botanical splendor of the Jardin botanique d’ Èze is a horticulturist’s fantasy. Its winding paths are filled with flowers, cactus, and exotic succulents, a moonscape in the hot sun. And it’s also the perfect vantage point for looking down on the terracotta tile roofs of the towns along the seaside.
Lunch at the celebrated Chateau de la Chevre d’Or is memorable. Bring your Hermès scarf and sunglasses and order a glass of champagne. The food is expensive and mouth watering, served in elegant portions: mushroom ravioli, sea bream with fennel, lamb with ratatouille, and cloud-like tiramisu.
But it’s time to come down from the heights and mix with the beautiful people. At the base of the cliffs there is a difficult decision: straight ahead, the fabled enclave of Cap Ferrat with its gated villas. To the left, the Principality of Monaco, and to the right, the ooh-la-la of Cannes and Saint-Tropez.
Choosing the stately and elegant peninsula of Cap Ferrat, we enter an enclave for the fabulously wealthy. The Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat is where you should stay at least once in a lifetime. This is movie-star turf, filled to the brim with A-listers during the famous Cannes film festival. Impeccable grounds and pristine rooms are de rigeur for the royalty of Hollywood. And nothing says pampered starlet like having brunch at Club Dauphin with a private cabana and swimming in the heated, Olympic sized, seawater pool. You’ll be reaching for your dark glasses and turban by the time your salad Niçoise arrives.
From here, Monaco is only a twenty-minute drive — an afternoon excursion. Park your car in Monaco Ville — the old city. By going on foot you are able to reach the landmarks in ten minutes or less: the fabled casino, the cotton candy pink Royal Palace, or the fascinating Oceanographic Institution. The terrace of the Café de Paris, right in the middle of the main square, is a great spot for a drink or light meal, Even jaded New Yorkers cannot help being impressed by the glamorous parade of fabulous automobiles and equally gorgeous pedestrians. During the Grand Prix Race in May, another watering hole commands front and center. Formula-1 fans choose La Racasse, right on the turn of the famous circuit. Here they can socialize and watch the cars zoom by.
But when it comes to people watching, nothing surpasses the beaches of the Riviera. And why not the fabled Club 55 — the first beach club in Saint-Tropez, said to be a favorite of the actress Brigitte Bardot. Going to the beach here is an all-day affair. Reserve the lounge chair in advance and valet park. Bask all morning, and then slip on a beautiful caftan for lunch. The food is simple and pure: crudités, prawns, grilled fish, Provençal artichokes, and baked potatoes. Then go back to the sand, oil up, stretch out, and keep one eye open. You never know whom you might see.
I have only one piece of advice to anyone who comes here. If you are going to go to the French Riviera, do it in style. The feel of being pampered like this is not an everyday occurrence. Vacations should not be for penny pinching, and this goes double for the South of France. I speak from experience; order the best wine, rent the sports car, and take lots of pictures. It is money well spent. This magical place will keep you inspired for decades to come.