Côte d'Azur See And Do
Antibes is an odd combination of cutesy medieval town and luxury yacht harbor, with one of the Côte d'Azur's longest stretches of beach at its western edge. The old walled city is almost intact and dominated by the Château Grimaldi, built in the 14th century and restored in the 16th and 19th centuries. It's now home to the Musée Picasso, in recognition of the man who seems to have left his mark on every village worth its salt in the region. Antibes's streets are crowded with tourists, at least just inside the gates; climb the Rue d'Auberon to escape the hordes and come to the town's covered market, where easygoing cafés and gourmet shops line the arcadelike square (including the funky Balade en Provence and its Absinthe Bar, downstairs). Outside the gates are a few postage stampsize beaches crowded with locals and tourists. But the real draw for the moneyed set is the port, full to bursting with yachts, many of which are for hire at the agencies lining the quais.
The Mediterranean is an often shockingly intense blue on the Côte d'Azur, but it takes a bit of know-how to find the right sandy or rocky spit to appreciate it from. For the truth is, the beaches here are better for strutting and posing than they are for sunbathing or swimming. The pebbly beach at Nice is long and almost entirely public, with gorgeous turquoise shallows. If it's sand you want, then head to Cannes, preferably with your wallet at the ready. The town's luxury hotels control most of the city's beachfront, renting chairs, and sometimes umbrellas, at prices that accelerate steeply as they approach the sea. Antibes has a few public sandy beaches near the port and old town, as well as a miles-long stretch of pebble beach that extends along the eastern shore of the Cap d'Antibes. Juan-les-Pins, on the western shore of the Cap, has a busy public sand beach that is the liveliest on the coast. The best option for the adventurous is at the Côte d'Azur's western edge, in the town of Théoule-sur-Mer, where a fair amount of stair climbing and hiking can result in a private, rocky cove straight out of a 1960s French movie.
A fashionable resort town since the 19th century, Cannes is one of the coast's primary shopping and party destinations. The Croisette is the big see-and-be-seen thoroughfare. Walk along this broad avenue under palm shade, with rows of hotel-owned beach chairs on one side and glorious 1920s hotel facades on the other, their names reminiscent of Lost Generation romance: Miramar, Carlton, Martinez. If you're not in town for a conference or the Film Festival, skip the concrete shell of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, except for a possible dip into Casino Croisette for a late-night pull at the slots. A few blocks inland, shopping happens along the Rue d'Antibes, home to the usual posh Italian and French boutiques; there are also a few high-end one-off stores that share space with the city's constantly shifting nightclub scene on the Rue du Commandant d'André. Geographically, Cannes makes an ideal jumping-off point for the western Riviera, including the Massif de l'Estérel and its trails and parks.
Arguably more glamorous than the Oscars, this ten-day mid-May schmoozefest ties up the coast's harbors with megayachts, while hotels are booked solid (at significantly higher rates) and traffic jams are the norm. Don't count on crashing any high-ticket events; security is omnipresent and the Palais des Festivals, known locally as "the bunker" for its Brutalist concrete-block design, lives up to its nickname. But check the festival's official site for tickets; you can still catch a movie after its premiere but well before it hits theaters stateside. For those dedicated to stargazing, note that Mougins, a few miles inland, is where the hottest American celebrities usually hole up to escape the paparazziand you.
Breaking the bank at the Monte Carlo Casino has happened once, and only oncein 1891. To give it a try, you'll need to cough up at least $14 at the door and put on a jacket and tie (Place du Casino; 377-92-16-20-00; www.casino-monte-carlo.com). Gambling on the Côte d'Azur is all downhill from that splendorous Belle Époque palace, however. French efforts to replicate Monte Carlo's glamour have a decidedly second-rate feelReno to Monaco's Vegas. Nice's Palais de la Mediterrannée, a swank hotel in its own right, offers a few public rooms of slot machines. At the Palm Beach Casino, on the eastern edge of Cannes, a half-hour walk from the hotels of the Croisette, Americans and Brits play poker behind velvet ropes. The ubiquitous slot machines dominate there and at the city's official casino at the Palais des Festivals (Esplanade Ponte Dou; 33-493-390-101; www.palaisdesfestivals.com). In all cases, be prepared to provide a passport and signature on your way in; it's the casinos' way of making sure your debts follow you.
466 Avenue Henri Matisse
Tel: 33 4 93 58 03 26
The simple town of Vence is unremarkable except for the Chapelle du Rosaire, a church whose stained-glass windows were designed by Henri Matisse. It was the artist's last work, consuming four years of consultations, observation, and actual glasswork. The result from the outside is simple and humble, and inside is a stunning play of light and color.
Open Mondays through Saturdays 2 to 7 pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays 10 to 11:30 am. Sunday Mass at 10 am.
The sweeping vistas, pink sunsets, and medieval towns along the Grande Corniche were romanticized in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. They are all still there and still worth the trip. There are actually three Corniches: the Grande Corniche, the Corniche Moyenne, and the Corniche Inférieure. All connect Nice to Monaco (actually to Menton, but the road after Monaco is anticlimactic), running parallel through, or above, the same towns. A lovely drive would start on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and follow the Corniche Inférieure (marked N98 on maps) along the shore to Monaco. You'll pass through Villefranche-sur-Mer, a fishing village where the Rolling Stones hung out in the 1970s and that today feels like a less spoiled, more family-friendly version of St. Tropez. After the mansions in the hills of St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat comes the shock of the high rises and marble shopping malls of Monte Carlo. The route back on the Corniche Moyenne, marked as the N7 or the D45, hugs the cliffs and delivers plenty of dramatic vistas, as well as the cliff-top village of Eze. The Grande Corniche is laughably hard to find, on a map or in either Nice or Monaco; officially, it's the D2564, a tiny departementale road.> Take the Corniche Moyenne and look for tiny signs that take you onto the Grande Corniche for a few high-altitude viewsand plan your return to coincide with sunset.
The Côte d'Azur isn't known for its hiking and camping, but nature is just a 20-minute drive west along the coast from Cannes on the N98 road, a.k.a. the Corniche de l'Estérel. The Massif de l'Estérel itself is range of red-rock volcanic mountains that go no higher than 2,000 feet. Dedicated hikers can explore national trail routes threading through protected nature reserves, but the casual day-tripper will probably want to stick to the coast, with its semisecluded coves. Just past the town of Théoule-sur-Mer, the road rises dramatically, providing elevated views of Cannes and the coast beyond. The Parc Naturel de la Pointe de l'Aiguille offers hiking (uphill from the road) and high-altitude views of Canneswatching private jets shoot down the bay and into Cannes's tiny airport can be a thrilling sightwhile downhill lies a series of steep paths that lead down to rocky inlets where swimming and sunbathing au naturel are the norm.
Menton is at the end of the French Riviera in the last dazzling cove before the Italian border. Long known as a winter spot for English aristocrats, Menton's balmy microclimate allows for spectacular gardens and lemon groves on view throughout town. Like much of the region, Menton was historically a pawn between Italy, France, and Monaco, and it wasn't a permanent part of France until 1861. It doesn't feel French: Easy streets lead off the main artery, the Avenue Félix Faure, uphill to lemon groves and downhill to the sailboat-filled port. Past the old town and almost at the Italian border, the botanical gardens of the Villa Val Rahmeh feature more than 300 plant species that tumble over cliffs and hills (Avenue St. Jacques; 33 4 93 35 86 72; pagesperso-orange.fr/.mnhn.valrahmeh). There's also the Musée Cocteau, down on the Old Port, located in a 17th-century fort and decorated by Jean Cocteau himself, with a selection of minor works on display (Bastion du Vieux Port; 33-4-93-35-49-71; www.cote.azur.fr/tourisme_musee-cocteau-menton_48.htm; open Wednesdays through Mondays).
Monaco is famous for its over-the top, stratospherically priced shops and restaurants, and the antics of the Grimaldis, its ruling family. The postage-stamp principality was said by Evelyn Waugh to be "supremely artificial," and today this feels more true than ever, with the towering luxury apartment buildings, Belle Époque palaces, and a harbor full of palatial yachts. The casino, an extravaganza of 19th-century architectural and interior design, is the place to get a quick, strong dose of James Bondstyle gambling and excess. Top-end shopping happens at the Avenue des Beaux-Arts and the Avenue Monte Carlo. Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV restaurant in the Hôtel de Paris is pretty much the swankest eatery in southern France. To get past its doors, or those of the casino or many clubs, for that matter, men will need a jacket and tie. For those in a hurry, just pop down to the port to see the yachts unload: The parade of surgical and sartorial excess is worth the drive.
The madly popular European sport of Formula One (or just F1) racing comes to Monaco just once a yearand it is an event. Held on a Sunday toward the end of May, the race often overlaps with the Cannes Film Festival down the coast, providing a double dose of glamour with two different demographics (think sports fans and lizard-skinned yacht owners vs. Hollywood celebrities, paparazzi, and, well, lizard-skinned yacht owners). The city is closed off as massively overpowered open-wheel cars scream around its tight bends, up and down its hills, and past the port, all to a packed crowd. Don't count on getting a room in town without reserving months, or even years, in advance; the same goes for staking a claim to a table at the more glamorous restaurants like Le Louis XV.
Picasso met his maker in this gorgeous hillside village-perché about 15 minutes from Cannes. Amazingly, the town contains precious little Picasso-related kitsch, a rare instance of restraint along the coast. The Moulin de Mougins, both a hotel and a two Michelin star restaurantwhere Alain Ducasse once toiledis a major gastronomic draw. The town square offers an array of surprisingly good touristy restaurants and art galleries, surrounded by a series of narrow, circular residential streets.
164 Avenue des Arènes de Cimiez
Tel: 33 4 93 81 08 08
This museum in Nice offers an exceptionally wide collection of Henri Matisse's works that appeals to casual fans as well as aficionados. The sculptures, paintings, and gouaches are displayed in an Italianate villa atop an olive grove. Major works include Nu bleu IV and Nature Morte aux Grenades, which Matisse himself donated to start the collection in 1953.
4 Rue des Cordiers
Tel: 33 4 92 90 54 20
Picasso had his studio in Antibes' Château Grimaldi for just three months back in 1946. But it was a prolific period in which he found inspiration in his new lover, Françoise Gilot. The 245 works at the museum include paintings and drawings he produced there as well as later pieces donated in the 1990s by his second wife, Jacqueline. The museum reopened in July 2008 after major renovations.
Chemin des Collettes
Located at the back of a maze of streets in residential Cagnes-sur-Mer, this complex is made up of two-story traditional Provençal houses with a series of outbuildings, all built by Renoir himself in 1907. The place works more as a lifestyle museum than as an impressive display of work, but the setting among rolling hills full of ancient olive and lemon trees is a fantasy backdrop from a now-disappeared time.
Open Wednesdays through Mondays 10 am to 12 pm and 2 to 6 pm.
Nice is chock-full of high-energy eating, drinking, and culture, all of which reflects the city's Italian heritage and proximity to Italy. Nice is the fifth largest city in France and is far more than a resort. It has genuine local color, embodied in its street food and the vibrant old town of Vieux Nice. The more literal local color extends to the city's hues: The typical French beiges and grays are mixed with ocher, yellow, and terra-cotta buildings, especially toward the port. It's all loud, very Southern and hectic, more Naples than Paris. Wander through Vieux Nice and duck into the shadowy, whispering Cathédral Ste. Réparate on the Place Rossetti. You can wander for hours among the arcades of the pink-hued Place Masséna, or take a tram ride starting therea 1-euro bargain that takes you past the Old Port and allows several drop-offs in Vieux Nice. And then there's the Musée Matisse. The local entry in the Côte d'Azur art wars is housed in an impressive villa and contains pieces from all aspects of the artist's career. For a panoramic view of the town and the blue, blue sea, climb the Parc du Château, between Vieux Nice and the Old Port; its cliffs are dotted with pines and an artificial waterfall that looks over the city.
The archetypal Provençal hilltop town, St. Paul de Vence calls itself "the most beautiful village in the world." This is debatablethere's plenty of competition in this part of Francebut the walled town is easily worth the nine-mile drive inland from Nice. St. Paul de Vence's main thoroughfare, the Grande Rue, is clogged with forgettable art galleries, but the side streets are lined with classic Provençal townhouses, and there are jaw-dropping views from the ramparts. As in many of the small towns on the coast, there is a disproportionate number of artistic masterpieces on display here: The hypermodernist Fondation Maeght is just outside of the old town and has a 9,000-piece collection of Matisse, Miró, Chagall, Braque, Calder, Léger, and Giacometti on a rotating exhibit schedule (33-4-93-32-81-63; www.fondation-maeght.com; open daily 10 am-12:30 pm and 2:30-6 pm October through June; 10 am-7 pm daily July through September). In Vence, three miles away, there's the Chapelle du Rosaire, with extraordinary stained-glass windows by Henri Matisse. The gastronomic arts are found in the old town at the Colombe d'Or restaurant, where Picasso and his cohorts swapped art for food, resulting in an astonishing art collection (33-4-93-32-80-02; www.la-colombe-dor.com). It's pricey and fantastically hard to get a reservation, so plan weeks in advance (months ahead in high season).
Cannes and Antibes are the centers for boat rental (and purchase). Several companies line the streets of Cannes just off the Croisette, including Locarama, which offers tiny speedboats at $564 per day (13 Rue Latour Maubourg; 33-4-93-94-45-81; www.cannesboat.com). MS Yachts offers even bigger, if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it yachts (57 La Croisette, 33-4-93-99-03-51; www.ms-yachts.com). Antibes's Port Vauban is one of the world's busiest yacht ports. The harbor is packed with 2,500 boats, ranging from day cruisers to megayachts. Rental agencies line the Avenue 11 Novembre and Avenue de Verdun, as well as the small streets tucked just behind them. ABYS Yachting has rentals that start at about $3,500 per day for a 56-foot Fairline Squadron (18 Avenue Mirabeau; 33-6-03-80-88-47; www.yachtworld.com/abys-yachting). Blue Water Yachting's boats start at 60 feet (and at around $29,600 per week) and include sailing yachts as well as motorboats (14 Avenue Mirabeau; 33-4-93-34-34-13; www.bluewateryachting.com).