Beyond the beaches and boutiques, the Côte d’Azur is a treasure trove of art, culture and gastronomy. Peter Taylor, Scott Dunn’s South of France expert, shares his inside track on the area’s unexpected highlights
The French Riviera’s heyday is generally considered to have been the 1960s, but for Peter Taylor, who has lived in the area for the past 12 years, the glory days are far from over. “The region is enjoying a noticeable renaissance right now,” he says. “There’s been a huge amount of investment and the entire coastline is better geared up for visitors than it was a decade ago.”
As Scott Dunn’s representative in the South of France, Peter divides his time between the coast in the summer and the ski resort of Courchevel in the winter, having originally moved to France to run a yacht charter company. “What I like best about the Côte,” he says, “is the range of options on your doorstep, from beaches and cities to spectacular mountains. In the winter you can be on a boat in the morning and skiing in the afternoon.”
He is also keen to stress, for those who want to follow in the glamorous footsteps of Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon, that there’s more to this fabled stretch of coastline than chic cafés and star-studded ports. Culture and gastronomy are prime reasons for visiting, while art also plays a prominent role in the Côte’s appeal. Many of the 20th century’s leading painters were drawn to the Riviera for its light and lifestyle, including Henri Matisse (who settled in Nice), Picasso (Vallauris and then Mougins), Renoir (Cagnes-sur-Mer) and Cézanne (l’Estaque). Their unique legacy even pops up in unexpected places, like the famous La Colombe d’Or restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence – where many of these legends would settle their bills with artworks, resulting in a restaurant that doubles as an art gallery.
“What I love about this area is that there’s always so much going on,” Peter adds. “There are major events throughout the summer, from jazz and pop concerts to the firework festivals that happen in most of the major towns along the coast.” He does offer one important recommendation, however: “You can avoid the long queues of traffic into St. Tropez in the summer if you arrive by boat. In fact, most destinations on the coast are best reached using the public ferries from Cannes and Nice. It’s a lot quicker, and you get to enjoy a fantastic view of this amazing coastline.”
Here, Peter shares with us his top 10 South of France experiences.
Chartering a boat for the day enables you to get a good view of the coastline and explore the less well-trodden beaches. A great day trip is to the Lérins Islands, Île Sainte-Marguerite and Île Saint-Honorat. Both are sparsely inhabited, with pine forests and beaches that are often deserted. The former was the location of the prison in The Man in the Iron Mask, the latter is home to Benedictine monks who make their own wine. The channel between them feels like the Caribbean – the water is crystal clear. It’s a perfect spot to anchor for lunch and a swim.
One thing you can’t fail to notice on the Riviera is that all the towns are really lovely places to walk around on a balmy evening. For a wonderful night out I recommend visiting the beautiful port of Antibes, where you’ll find the Musée Picasso – based in the artist’s former studio in the 14th-century Château Grimaldi. After visiting the museum, stroll around the charming night market and then finish off the evening in style with dinner in the sublime restaurant Les Vieux Murs, which is built into the ramparts of the old town.
Known as the Matisse Chapel, this simple white building was designed by the artist Henri Matisse for Dominican nuns in the town of Vence, which adjoins Saint-Paul. When it was completed in 1951 Matisse described it as his “masterpiece”. The inside is beautiful, definitely a must-see – and it’s very close to one of my favourite restaurants, Bacchanales. It’s Michelin-starred and they do the most amazing suckling pig with fresh walnut and pumpkin.
Just half an hour north of the Côte d’Azur you’ll find the most stunning mountain scenery. There’s the Mercantour, a huge national park with activities like cable-guided hiking, rock-climbing and whitewater rafting – it looks a bit like Scotland, but with sunshine – and the Gorges du Verdon, a miles-long river canyon leading to an artificial lake. You can swim, rent a kayak or go hiking. Visually, it’s as stunning as Yosemite, but often missed – visitors don’t realise how close it is to Nice and they don’t think to go there.
What I love most about the harbour town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is that it has barely changed in 100 years. In the morning you can watch fishermen bring in the catch and then enjoy the same fish served to you at lunchtime in seafood restaurants with fantastic views of the bay. My favourite is La Mère Germaine, which has been there since 1938. In the summer you have to book well in advance because it’s so popular, but at Scott Dunn we’ve built relationships with the best restaurants in the area so we may be able to secure a table at shorter notice.
Make a pilgrimage to this atmospheric shop in Nice’s Old Town where the region’s best olive oil is sold. Established in 1868, it has the only olive press left in town. The oil is available on draught in the shop, along with deli products like caviar and local wines. All the top restaurants use Alziari olive oil and it’s sold in beautiful Renoir-esque tins in a range of different sizes – a great souvenir and perfect for presents.
Perched on a hilltop, Saint-Paul-de-Vence is one of France’s most beautiful villages, but also one of its most popular. During the day it can get very crowded but it’s much calmer in the evening. The Ramparts restaurant has a west-facing terrace with amazing views, where you can enjoy incredible sunsets while sipping a coffee or a sundowner.
If you’re looking for a boutiquey and independent shopping experience, head for Nice’s Old Town, where you’ll find fashion, bedlinen, fine wines and more. One of the most interesting shops is called Baobab (rue du Marché 10). They sell Mediterranean homewares and arty accessories and it’s popular with locals and visitors alike.
Monaco is surprisingly child-friendly. In the summer they create an amusement park around Port Hercule with bouncy castles and other attractions such as mini F1 cars. There’s also a really quaint little zoo, perched on the cliff by the palace. But for me, the highlight is the Musée Océanographique, where Jacques-Yves Cousteau was director from 1957 to 1988. It’s great for kids – they’ll love the “shark lagoon” – and it’s housed in a stunning building right by the sea.
Menton has 19th-century architecture, a picturesque hillside setting and the superb Musée Jean Cocteau Collection Séverin Wunderman. Napoléon Beach is sandy (many of the Côte’s beaches are pebbly) and there’s a really nice, family-friendly restaurant. The food is exquisite and the service is excellent.
Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5080 to arrange your tailor-made holiday in the South of France