Few coastlines inspire such glamorous perceptions as the Cote d’Azur – or French Riviera. This Provençal stretch in the South of France, between the Italian border in the east and Toulon in the west, was a favourite holiday spot of aristocrats, writers and painters in the 19th century, classic Hollywood stars and continues to host the annual Cannes film festival. It’s also unsurprisingly one of the most popular areas for holidays in France, with visitors drawn by its sun, dazzling white yachts on sparkling blue seas and chic port towns. Yes, the vibe is relaxed, but you’ll have a lot of people trying to relax right along with you if you don’t plan your trip with care – but you can still find a peaceful slice of the ‘good life’ if you know where to look….
…And also when! The number one rule of visiting the French Riviera is to time it well. And that means never coming in late July or in August when the French decamp here en masse during the summer holidays. Early June has good weather and is surprisingly not too high in footfall. My favourite time to go, however, is September – not as hot (the sun in the South of France can get scorching in high season), with far fewer people everywhere and a great relaxed post-summer feel in the air.
Where you stay will also determine how relaxed your trip is – avoid staying in cities such as Nice or busy resorts such as St Tropez. The most peaceful stays are found in the hills above the coast – in places such asLa Garde Frenet in the Maures mountains, Grimmauld (above St Tropez) or Roquebrune – where traditional French life continues unbothered by the coastal bustle. Choose from gites, hotels or even camping – you are only a short drive from any action you might want. Yet, away from the coast, the air is cooler, fragrant with Provençal herbs and you’ll often only hear sound of soft wind to accompany your afternoon on the sunlounger.
You won’t be missing out by not staying on the beach. The Riviera has many plus points, but sand isn’t one of them. That which is there is usually imported and a bit sparse, beaches are generally rocky and to get anything like a proper crescent you have to head as far as Antibes and Golfe Juan. Forget about finding secluded coves, these are big stretches of sand with everyone else on them. There are two ways to approach this. The first is to embrace the local beach club culture – offering private beaches and loungers with drinks service for around 25-30 Euros a day – and pick wisely. A good choice is the wooden decked La Reserve de la Mala on the rocks at Cap d’Ail, tucked away and tricky to get to other than by sea unless you know where you’re going, so reliably quiet – or the pretty Plage de Passable on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
…the second way is to get on a boat. You can hire small sail and motor boats for the day (with or without skippers) from marinas in ports such as Beaulieu and St Jean in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The benefits are that the water is much cleaner to swim in when you’re out to sea and you’ll have privacy as you cool off. Plus the freedom to explore the Caps and bays and find spots where the crowds don’t usually go. Bob round Cap Ferret into the bays of Saint Jean, Beaulieu, Villefranche and Paloma – in most cases, you can even phone the restaurants on the quays to come and pick you up from your boat for lunch.
Money talks on the Riviera, and if you’re willing to spend then you can always guarantee a bit of tranquility. But if you play it clever you can get A-list benefits without breaking the bank. Forested peninsula Cap Ferrat is one of the most exclusive areas on the Riviera. You won’t find crowds here, but providing you’re dressed smartly, there is nothing to stop you heading for a drink in the bar at the Grand-Hotel du Cap Ferrat, at the tip. This classic hotel is set in beautiful gardens and has an glass lift down to its iconic 1930s beach club, Club Dauphin. If you want some old-style Riviera glamour, book a cabana for the day from around 80 Euros in high season and soak up the sunshine with a cocktail and a knowing smile.