The French Riviera is one of the world’s most glamourous destinations, with its Belle Époque pink palaces, nightclubs perfect for celebrity-spotting and golden beaches lined with striped parasols. Yet it’s not just about glitz and the glitterati. You may fancy swinging in a hammock in a tree house, running around a Giacometti sculpture garden or pigging out on truffles instead. After a decade of living with my family in southern France, here’s my selection of the top five places for a summer sojourn…
Another side to St Tropez
The season in north-facing St Tropez is so short that it packs in its designer-clad faithfuls from May to the end of September marked by Les Voiles sailing regatta. Beyond burnishing your tan on Pampelonne beach, lunching at Club 55 and shimmying at Les Caves du Roy, there’s another side to St Tropez. In the mornings, I like to forage for fresh fruit and fish at the mosaic-tiled market off Places aux Herbes or gaze at the Riviera’s best post-impressionist art collection at Musée de l’Annonciade. Lazy afternoons are for drinking Pastis in the Place des Lices while watching locals playing pétanque under the plane trees. In the evening, I head for dinner in the hills behind Ramatuelle at Ferme Ladouceur, a 19th century farm surrounded by vineyards. You can stay here for under €150 – refreshing in a place where summertime bedrooms regularly soar to several thousand euros per night.
Going gastronomic in Lorgues
Glamour-seekers stay in St Tropez. Foodies like me make an inland pilgrimage to Lorgues. Southern France’s King of Truffles owns Chez Bruno, the local restaurant with rooms, where diners from all over the globe join me in veneration of Bruno’s truffle-infused mashed potato. Nearby, British businessman Mark Dixon has transformed the ancient vineyard at Château de Berne into one of southern France’s most bankable wine estates with a five-star hotel, a spa and a cooking school where you can cook up recipes with vegetables and herbs picked straight from the kitchen garden. This year Château de Berne’s restaurant has won its first Michelin star.
Absolutely Fabulous in Cap Ferrat
Somehow Cap Ferrat has escaped the poor town planning that has concreted over much of today’s Riviera coastline. Time has stood still here on this forested peninsula with its picture-perfect views and pristine houses. It’s also home to my favourite Riviera palaces. As well as the Italian palazzo Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its beautiful rose garden and the ancient Greek reconstruction Villa Kérylos, there’s the legendary white palace, Grand-Hôtel, which featured in last summer’s Absolutely Fabulous movie. Since its recent management takeover by Four Seasons, the Grand-Hôtel has knocked its rival Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc from its perch as the French Riviera’s number one hotel. All the same I prefer its lesser-known neighbour Royal-Riviera, a family-friendly Belle Époque palace where a secret coastal footpath leads straight to St-Jean port with its earthy fish restaurants.
Back to nature in St-Paul-de-Vence
Not far from Nice, the country village of St-Paul-de-Vence is famed for its art. My favourite Sunday starts with a visit to Fondation Maeght private art foundation with its jaw-dropping collection of 20th century artworks by Chagall, Matisse, Bonnard and other artists that lived and worked in the French Riviera. Sunny days are best as my kids love running around the numerous garden rooms from Giacometti’s courtyard of bronze figures to Miro’s labyrinth. Afterwards, we collapse into a hammock at Orion Tree Houses. My kids love the tree-house accommodation named after characters from The Jungle Book, while I can’t get enough of the plant-strewn natural pool. Another great ecological retreat is Graine & Ficelle in neighbouring village St Jeannet. Run by charming Parisian journalist Isabella, this organic farm is the place to unwind over a cooking class or a stay in a luxurious eco-lodge tent.
Marvel at Monte-Carlo
No visit to the French Riviera is complete without visiting this over-the-top miniature principality. It’s the kind of place where policemen linger on every spotlessly clean marble-paved street corner. My favourite Monaco view is from a 10-minute helicopter flight (from €60 with Héli Air Monaco) that takes you over the Prince’s palace on the rock and the bright-blue Mediterranean to the Italian border and back via the mountainous backcountry. Afterwards, head to the beautiful Place du Casino where you can ogle the parked Ferraris and bump into a celebrity over a cappuccino at Café de Paris or champagne at the American Bar in Hôtel de Paris. Its rooftop restaurant, Le Grill, that serves the best spit-roast chicken in town, is due to re-open next month after a full refurbishment.