The French Riviera is one of those legendary locales that conjures images of decadent luxury. Of a fabled resort playground for the rich-and-famous. Of endless sunshine and romantic nights spent along Mediterranean beaches. It’s all that, but also a place where you can kick back and chill, dropping as much cash as you want—or as little. You can party and shop like a rock star here, but much of the South of France’s appeal—beach-hugging coastlines, 300-plus annual days of dazzling sunshine—comes courtesy of Mother Nature and doesn’t cost a dime.
Weather-wise, most of the year is great for visiting the French Riviera—or the Côte d’Azur, as the French call it. It’s gorgeous right now and through October, when the sun’s still shining and the weather’s pleasantly warm. (July and August are when the area is most densely packed.) But don’t forget about the “off-season.” Come after New Year’s or through March, when you can don a light jacket, fabulous shades and still dine al fresco, taking advantage of the sparse crowds, lighter traffic, and more affordable prices.
And there’s a spot for everyone. If you want to be part of the sexy, “beautiful people” scene, St-Tropez and Cannes are for you. If you want the hustle of a city with incredible art inside museums and on public view, don’t miss gorgeous Nice. Feel like maxing and relaxing in an authentic seaside village? Villefranche-sur-Mer is your place. Want to feel like you’ve stepped into Italy? Check out Menton, the French Riviera town just minutes from the French-Italian border. If you’re all about the high-roller, international player thing, there’s no place like Monaco. And there’s much, much more.
LIVING THE LIFE OF LUXURY
When visiting the French Riviera, your best bet is to choose a resort town or village as your “home base” and make day or overnight visits to others. If St-Tropez is your place, it’s ALL about the Hotel Byblos Saint-Tropez, a legendary and luxurious 5-star property that looks just like you’d expect a well-heeled Mediterranean village to appear. That is, if everyone was gorgeous and fabulously dressed. And just this summer, it earned “Palace Distinction,” granted to exceptional 5-star properties that both boost French culture and France itself as a destination. A spacious heated pool sits inside the middle of the 91-room resort, offering its glamorous guests a place to soak up the sun, chat on their mobiles, or savor breakfast, lunch or aperitifs from B. Restaurant, depending on the hour. The Byblos’ spacious suites, many of which feature balconies with stunning views, will make you wish you lived this well at home.
The hotel’s Soins Essentiels Spa by Sisley even features a Lebanese-motif treatment room with dark leather and wood shades, paying homage to the Byblos’ original owner. There’s an ever-present aural thing going on here, as luxurious showers allow guests to listen to rainforest or foot-pounding DJ sounds from the Byblos’ world-famous nightclub while they rinse their cares away.
Sleeping in the “big city” of Nice? Its most famous hotel is Le Negresco, a pink-domed, Belle Epoque-era grande dame that dominates the Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais, a gorgeous long stretch of sidewalk that runs alongside the city’s beaches. The renovated 5-star property—which has hosted stars ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Michael Jackson—owns a dazzling 2,000-piece art collection that’s displayed throughout the hotel. Many of Le Negresco’s 96 rooms and 21 suites (all of which are uniquely decorated) look out on the Mediterranean Sea—and guests can enjoy it up close at the hotel’s partner private beach across the boulevard. This whimsical hotel legend kicked off its 100-year anniversary with a fabulous party in July and is offering a range of special offers through 2013. If you’re there on the first Thursday of the month, don’t miss its “Jazz Evening” events.
If you’re headed to Monaco, check out the sublime Hotel Métropole Monte-Carlo. A stunningly chic 5-star property that takes full advantage of its Mediterranean locale, it’s hosted everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Sting. A sensual experience from the moment you walk in and are greeted by the scent of Nepalese amber, a stay here is all about understated luxury for the Métropole’s international guests. Whether you’re traveling to Monaco for the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix car races or merely using the hotel as a base for visiting the principality’s casinos (guests get free access to the glamorous Casino de Monte-Carlo), you can’t go wrong staying here. The luxury style factor will soar this fall when the Métropole introduces its Karl Lagerfeld-designed outdoor space, including a new pool, terrace, gardens, poolside Robuchon restaurant and glass fresco-style art installation.
Pretend you live in this paradise—and get way more room than in a hotel—by renting one of seven beautifully decorated apartments from Riviera Experience, in the gorgeous and friendly village of Villefranche-sur-Mer between Nice and Monaco. Three are housed on the Villefranche waterfront, which overlooks the Bay of Villefranche; most of the others are in the colorful and charming Old Town. Or if you’d rather make Nice your Riviera base, check out Parler Nice Apartments, two stylishly furnished sunny flats perfectly located in the city center. Both apartment-rental firms are offer personalized English-speaking service, all the comforts of home—and THEN some.
ROLL LIKE THE 1%…EVEN IF ONLY ON VACATION
The French Riviera’s been a hangout for the gorgeous jet set for decades. These days, everyone from Rihanna (who this summer strolled the streets of St-Tropez) to P. Diddy (known for his yacht parties) to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian plays hard on the Côte d’Azur. But you don’t have to be Hollywood royalty to do it in Cannes during May’s annual Film Festival, or at Les Caves du Roy, the place to be seen and to party in St-Tropez. This always-sizzling nightclub—open weekends April through October but every night in July and August—is housed at the 5-star Hotel Byblos Saint-Tropez and is as well-known for its eternally long lines as for the electro-house sounds spun all night long by legendary DJ Jack.E. Stars like Diddy, Jay-Z, Naomi Campbell and George party here—but if you’re staying onsite at the Byblos, you TOO get to roll like a VIP and skip the endless queue.
Keep your groove going on the eastern side of the Riviera at Black Legend Monaco, another fabulous and upscale nightclub from Groupe Floirat, the French-based enterprise behind Les Caves du Roy and Hotel Byblos. The brainchild of CEO Antoine Chevanne, this stylish, harbor-side restaurant/bar/lounge morphs into a pulsating dance spot about midnight—and it’s all a tribute to black American music, from Motown to contemporary R&B from funk to soul. Live music also reigns here, with French and international singers and bands covering African-American classics from Marvin Gaye and Prince. Spend the evening at Black Legend. Savoring its newly revamped dinner menu with Italian-French-Spanish-with-an-American-twist cuisine and inventive cocktails and then hang half the night when the youthful partiers fill the place later on.
The Côte d’Azur is a jazz lovers’ paradise, with year-round festivals keeping both tourists and locals entertained. The world-class Nice Jazz Festival is a must, with international A-list headliners each July (and with many performances staged in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Cimiez, a swanky hilltop ‘hood in Nice). And don’t miss the Jazz à Juan festival, which follows Nice’s larger fest in nearby, nightclub-happening Juan-les-Pins.
Try your luck in high style in Monaco at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, where guys can channel their inner international spy, wearing jackets in the evening (or at least long pants and closed-toe shoes) at the Salons Privés for a night of roulette and blackjack. Or hit the more relaxed, American-style Sun Casino for poker tournaments, slot machines, and more. Cannes’ massive Casino Croisette is another, as is Nice’s glittering Casino Ruhl and the casino inside the Art Deco-inspired Palais de la Méditerranée. Both stand on the Promenade des Anglais, facing the Mediterranean and offering great views when you enter and exit.
The Riviera’s also known for historic perfume production—and its awesome hillside towns of Grasse and Eze both export scents to the world and explain them to visitors. Stop in Grasse, about 26 miles west of Nice and check out an open-to-the-public 18th century factory owned by perfume legends Fragonard. Take a free, year-round guided factory and museum tour at Galimard, another 18th century gem in picturesque Èze Village. And don’t miss friendly Molinard, which operates a well-stocked store in Nice, not far from the beach.
Car lovers can catch the Grand Prix of Monaco, which takes to the streets of this tiny principality for several days each May.
DINING AND DRINKING WELL
You’ll dine fabulously across the Côte d’Azur, whether you’re going upscale or casual—and many of the best spots are housed inside hotels. Michelin 2-star restaurants like Le Chantecler, which looks out on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in Le Negresco hotel, offers a gastronomic adventure, thanks to the creativity of Chef Jean-Denis Rieubland’s Provençal cuisine (with many of its vegetables and herbs grown nearby at his family’s hillside farm!). French celebrity chef Alain Ducasse is the mastermind behind Spoon at Byblos, a gorgeous see-and-be-seen spot whose seasonal Mediterranean cuisine takes its cues both from the French Riviera and nearby Italy. And its jaw-dropping garden-terrace seats hundreds of guests. At Hotel Métropole Monte-Carlo, you can dine at one of the hotel’s two Michelin-star restaurants from celebrity chef Jöel Robuchon—both the Mediterranean-themed, open-kitchen Jöel Robuchon Monte-Carlo and the chef’s first Japanese restaurant, YOSHI.
You’ll find cuisine in the south of France taking advantage of the region’s seasonal produce and traditions—that’s everything from ratatouille, a side dish made from tomatoes, eggplant, onions, peppers and zucchini to socca, a chickpea-and-olive oil pancake sold sliced by vendors in Nice. And with a mild, sun-drenched climate that allows for dining and drinking outdoors most of the year, take a terrace table at cafes and restaurants like Villefranche-sur-Mer’s always-hopping Le Cosmo. You’ll find Riviera locals and tourists alike hanging out even in cooler months.
GETTING THERE IN STYLE
Even if you think of air and train travel as a necessary evil, you might rethink it after getting to and from the French Riviera. No matter how you arrive or depart the Côte d’Azur, you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping Mediterranean views nearly everywhere you look. Take the bullet-like TGV to or from Paris, with its Premier (First Class) cars and reclining seats a special treat (Even if you're traveling from elsewhere, navigate the continent's 50-plus different railway systems through the Rail Europe (http://www.raileurope.com/index.html) network.)Or take a scenic day trip via the area’s Ligne Azur trains from the Riviera into Ventimiglia, Italy, less than an hour away, and get a taste of Italian culture and cuisine.
If you want to start feeling très French on your flight across the Atlantic, Air France is the ticket, whether you’re flying La Première (first), Affaires (business), Premium Voyageur (Premium Economy) or Voyageur (economy), as its long-haul international flights offer complimentary champagne to all its passengers. You’ll change planes in Paris on your way to the south of France, and the city’s bustling Charles de Gaulle Airport recently introduced the airline’s largest Business Class lounge. However you’re traveling to the Riviera, ask for a window seat for flights into or out of Nice—one of France’s three busiest airports—and drool at the sun-dappled landscape below.
Monaco’s home to the annual Grand Prix, so if you’ve got the nerve, rent your own wheels and drive along the Riviera’s three corniches, or winding roads that stretch between Nice and the Italian border. If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, regional buses also travel the same roads and offer the same stunning scenery. If you travel here between April and October, don’t miss the chance to enjoy the Mediterranean—take a seasonal ferry to hop between towns. You’ll find them operating between Nice and Monaco , Cannes, and St-Tropez. Who needs a yacht, anyway?
A Chicago native, freelance Travel and Food writer Maureen Jenkins blogs at UrbanTravelGirl.com about “Black women living globally through international travel.” She also shares her perspectives on African-American expatriate life in Europe on EBONY.com.