BY CORDELIA MESEROW
Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea,” and to that, I wholeheartedly agree. However, it was Grace Kelly who commented on “warm friendly, France” while swimming in the Mediterranean in Paris’s neighbor to the south, Cannes, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 To Catch a Thief. I was most lucky to just spend ten days in warm, friendly Kelly country while traveling for a recent summer vacation to the Côte d’Azur.
My travels started at the heart of To Catch a Thief in Cannes at the Carlton Hotel. While the hotel is now known as the Intercontinental Carlton Cannes, it has not lost an ounce of charm, despite its corporate flag. The hotel’s location on La Croisette, just in front of the Mediterranean, makes for a breathtaking setting, and it is a stone’s throw from the other historic grands hôtels of Cannes: Hôtel Martinez (now run by the Hyatt group), Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic, and Le Grand Hôtel Cannes, each of which boasts its own beach front with chaises lounges as well as bustling beach restaurants.
At the Carlton Beach Club, the hotel’s restaurant and general beach area, chaises are available in the sand or along the coveted ponton, or pier in English. In addition to sitting down at a table at the beach restaurant, one can order from a more compact lunch menu while lounging—almost immediately upon my arrival, I did just that!
One of the more remarkable characteristics about the Riviera is how late the sun sets. Beachgoers can still be found in their bathing suits, myself included, at 7 pm, sipping a cocktail or wine and enjoying the quiet, and less potent, late-hour sun before the dinner hour begins.
Cannes offers fun dinner options—and nightlife—after the late-hour sunset. Just behind La Croisette is town hotspot La Môme. La Môme’s tables spill out onto the sidewalk, and its lively but casual atmosphere, superior service, and delicious nourriture make it the place for a fabulous Riviera dinner. The people-watching also cannot be beat. La Môme even has a daytime sister restaurant on the beach, La Môme Plage, which is similarly lively and is a great lunch alternative should one want to venture outside of the hotel fare during the day.
Following dinner in Cannes, two places to go are La Médusa and bâoli, both nightclubs. (Note one can dine at La Médusa and bâoli before they transform into nightclubs.) La Médusa, the newer of the two, is in the former Palm Beach casino. It has a stage where live cabaret-like performances are put on throughout the evening and an expansive terrace that juts out onto the New Port, providing a view of the anchored yachts.
Just west is bâoli, which has another location in Miami. At bâoli the action takes place inside, where the tables and bar are located as well as the DJ. Both places become crowded in the high season, so it is wise to reserve a table or arrive early to ensure entry.
Cannes abounds in scene-y glamour, but one must not forget to pay a visit to the local- and historical-minded offerings of the city. The Marché Gambetta is one of the great farmer’s markets. It runs Tuesday through Sunday and is conveniently located just a mere couple of blocks north of the Rue d’Antibes, the town’s main retail avenue. The Marché has anything from gorgeous produce to leather sandals and is a great place to pick up souvenirs or fresh fruit for a snack on the beach.
A visit to Le Suquet is also a must. Le Suquet is the medieval district at the western-most portion of Cannes and is the original residential area of the city when the town was just a fishing village. One can wander through a maze of cobblestone streets before reaching a steep flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, one will find Notre Dame de l’Esperance, a stunning church built in the 16th-17th centuries that is still in operation to this day—a baptism was going on when I walked in on a Sunday afternoon.
The panoramic vista from the top of Le Suquet is unmatched. One can glimpse the entire old and new towns of Cannes beneath: La Croisette; the palais de cinéma, where the Cannes film festival takes place; and, of course, the boats floating in the Mediterranean. Magnifique!
Following my time in Cannes, I traveled just a few miles east along the Côte d’Azur to the Cap d’Antibes. My journey began in Juan Les Pins, a town awash in literary history and legend, notably from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John dos Passos, and many others from la génération perdue, better known as the Lost Generation, which just happens to be my favorite era of American letters.
At the Hôtel Belles Rives in Juan Les Pins, one is “borne back ceaselessly” into the Fitzgeraldian past. The Belles Rives, prior to becoming a 5-star hotel, was once the villa Saint Louis, where, F. Scott and his wife, Zelda, lived with their young daughter, Scottie, from 1925-1926. One can feel the writer’s presence everywhere, from the eponymous Bar Fitzgerald to the sepia photographs of Scott and Zelda in the lobby to the green light on the hotel’s dock, which coincidentally or not evokes the famous “green light” in The Great Gatsby.
In 2011 the hotel’s owners also began a literary Prix Fitzgerald, which is awarded annually to an author whose work most evokes the style and content of F. Scott. Past winners have included Jeffrey Eugenides (a former Latin School parent), Jay McInerney, and Amor Towles (I highly recommend his novel Rules of Civility, for which he was awarded the prix).
Fitzgerald once wrote that the Riviera was a place where he found himself “happier than he had been for years,” and I am inclined to agree. Sitting on the terrace of the Bar Fitzgerald with a glass of crisp Chablis overlooking the sunset on the Mediterranean, I found myself to be happier than I have been for years. The Belles Rives is a truly magical place, and it is no wonder that Scott and Zelda passed two years in this beautiful locale.
Just east of Juan les Pins on the Cap d’Antibes is its sister village of Antibes. Antibes is also home to another hotel steeped in Fitzgeraldian lore, the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. The Hôtel du Cap serves as the model for Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers in Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s loosely biographical novel from 1934 based on the couple’s time in Antibes with America’s most famous society expatriates, Gerald and Sara Murphy.
It was the Murphys who put the French Riviera on the map as a summer destination (it had previously only been a winter retreat). In 1923 the Murphys convinced the Hôtel du Cap’s longtime owners to stay open with minimal staff beyond May 1st when they typically left to manage another hotel in the Italian Alps.
The Murphy’s lived at the Hôtel du Cap that summer, entertaining their wide circle of artistic and literary friends, Picasso chief amongst them, and unknowingly incited the French Riviera as a fashionable place to summer. They later purchased their own home in Antibes and named it the Villa America. The villa would become the site of many a glittering party with guests such as Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Jean Cocteau, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald all making appearances.
While Gerald and Sara Murphy are long since gone from Villa America, I had the pleasure of seeing the latest incarnation of Americans in the Riviera during my trip to Antibes: my dear Astor Street neighbors, Katherine and Julian Harvey. Katherine and Julian pass approximately half of the year at their home in Antibes and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. (Katherine has written for Classic Chicago on several occasions detailing the beauty—and to-dos—of Antibes!)
Paying the Harveys a visit was one of the highlights of my trip. They were kind enough to give me a walking tour of the town, where we passed through the beautiful Marché Provençal and even caught a youth orchestra preparing to give a concert in the town’s center. We returned to dine al fresco on their terrace overlooking the sea, enjoying bubbling rosé champagne while sampling a wonderful variety of Antibes offerings: spicy radishes, perfect tomatoes, saucisson from the Marché, and tasty terrrines and tapenades. Our night ended with the most heavenly ice cream at Gelateria del Porto. Fitzgerald could not have penned a more delightful evening.
Again traveling back in time, my trip took me to another one of Gerald and Sara Murphy’s treasured spots, the beaches on the bay of La Garoupe. During a summer in the early 1920s, the Murphy’s stayed with American composer Cole Porter (Gerald’s dear Yale friend) and his wife, Linda, in a Chateau near the Garoupe bay. Though the beach was seaweed-ridden (the Riviera was not yet a summer destination), Gerald and Sara simply cleared off a portion of the beach large enough to lounge and spent their time in the sunshine. With that, the future of the beach clubs on La Garoupe was born.
Today one can go to the Plage Keller and Plage Chez Joseph, two private beach clubs adjacent to one another on La Garoupe. The clubs have delicious beach restaurants (some open for dinner as well as lunch), kind staff, and neither is connected to any hotel. One pays to reserve a chair and towel on the sand or on the ponton and can either dine in the restaurant farther from the shore or order light snacks to one’s chair.
Two miles northeast on the Cap along the bay of Juan les Pins, Plage les Pirates is the place to be. Les Pirates operates similarly to the beach clubs on La Garoupe with a fun beach restaurant, attentive staff. It is a lively option should one be in the area.
Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night begins with Rosemary Hoyt and her mother likening their stay at Gausse’s Hôtel to serving time: “We’ll stay three days and then go home. I’ll wire right away for steamer tickets,” Rosemary’s mother assures her daughter. All I can say is, quelle folie! I could have spent an eternity on the Riviera and dream of when I can return.
Thankfully, there was another part of my journey still to come. Stay tuned for part two, exploring St. Tropez and St. Paul de Vence!