* This article originally appeared here in ASPIRE Lifestyle
Truth be told, the Riviera – or France for that matter – wasn’t my first choice for my first trip abroad after the pandemic. My wish list included several Mediterranean destinations featuring dreamy islands with tropical temperatures. Since many countries on the continent were still closed to visitors, coupled with my October visit being in the encroaching European winter, I looked through the list of options and chose the warmest: the French Riviera.
The Côte d’Azur is a dramatic piece of coastline with a string of glitzy resort towns hugging the shores and clinging to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the sought after summer escape it is today; pre-1920’s, a tan was less desirable, so the Riviera was a winter resort. Largely thanks to the sun-kissed fancies of Coco Chanel – beach towels replaced umbrellas.
Today the area stretches roughly from Marseille in the South to the French-Italian border town of Menton. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France offers a unique combination of ocean and mountains – making it possible to be skiing down snow-laden mountains in the morning and then sundowners at an exclusive beach club in the evening.
My October visit was in the shoulder season, so the crowds were fewer while the temperatures were cooler. Here’s my unofficial guide to some of the sublime stops for a Riviera rendezvous.
Thanks to its famous film festival, Cannes has a lion’s share of the limelight. Tempting beach clubs occupy the dazzling shoreline, and in town, there is no shortage of designers stores. Besides offering a Riviera landscape, art, musical instruments, and ethnographical items, the Museum Castre is a 19th-century medieval tower that also offers an excellent vantage point of the city.
The Five Seas Hotel is the only five-star boutique hotel in Cannes and salutes the city’s love for the film and arts, with design elements tastefully spread throughout the hotel. I couldn’t have been more at home, replete with a rooftop pool, a spa, and elegant dining options. Especially with my near-double volume suite with oversized windows, perfectly framing the ancient Notre Dame church next door. Step back from all the razzmatazz of the promenade into your sanctuary at the hotel, just one block away from all the action.
Antibes is a mecca for the luxury boat crew – take a stroll around the harbour, and you can fully admire a myriad of beautiful vessels. Adjacent to the harbour, the old town features a maze of cobblestone streets which are a delight to explore. A walk up to Fort Carré is a must; the ancient fort served as protection for the French Kingdom until the 1850s, when the Italian territory, which is now the Riviera, was included. Lastly, pay a visit to the Provençal market open Tuesday – Sunday mornings and feel at home with the locals doing their daily shop.
ST PAUL DE VENCE
A mere 10-minute drive inland from the coastline, you’ll discover the utterly picturesque village of St Paul de Vence, where a haven of galleries line the cobblestone streets that wind higher and higher up the hilltop. The village is also famous for being the home and resting place for artist Marc Chagall.
Not wanting to leave the countryside just yet, I was lucky enough to call one of the nearby villas home for three days. Perched on the top of a ridge with overly-generous views of the surroundings, the privately-owned five-bedroom villa is rented out during the high season and makes for an opulent but still homely base from which to explore both village and Riviera.
The largest of the towns on the Riviera, Nice, serves as a fitting central hub. Conveniently using my Marriott Bonvoy points, I booked four nights at the AC Hotel Nice – a stone’s throw from city’s promenade. The sea-view room, gardens, and rooftop pool provided ample space for downtime in between exploring.
In the old town, visit the locals’ favourite Chez Rene Socca for regional cuisine; the flat breads made of chickpea flour are their speciality. Make sure that as you continue to wander through the medieval lanes you also sample the decadent patisseries from Patisserie Lac. For a postcard Nice experience, head to the beach-front suburb of Villefranche-sur-Mer, which overlooks the fashionable Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula. Besides the backstreets bursting with bonhomie, the line of cafés on the water’s edge is unbeatable for location and view.
No Riviera visit would be complete without stopping at Éze. The village clings to the top of a mountain, with no car access. In addition to the village’s bucolic charm, its location high up in the hills provides possibly some of the best Riviera views. Arrive early to miss the crowds – or later in the afternoon to watch the sunset from The Exotic Garden of Eze – the village’s highest point. If the budget allows, plan for an overnight stay in the glorious five-star Château de la Chèvre d’Or and be the envy of all your friends with their insta-worthy poolside shots.
Last but certainly not least was a stop at Menton – the last French town before crossing the border into Italy. It’s quintessentially Italian, and the old quarter’s line of colourful multi-storey houses is beyond picture-perfect. One of a thousand reasons why I fell in love with the Riviera – and why millions of others flock here annually to lap up the piece of idyllic coastline.