Why the Côte d'Azur?
Nearly 80 years ago, the sleepy Côte d'Azur suddenly became the unofficial headquarters for an international enclave of artists and writers who picnicked and swam together, threw lavish parties to the tune of the latest jazz, and talked endlessly about art. The word was out: head south to a fantasyland of escape, to palm trees and a deep blue sea that promised the renewal of simple pleasures.
Today, despite overdevelopment, traffic and skyrocketing real estate, some things about the Riviera never change, such as the dazzling light that attracted so many painters, from Picasso to Bonnard. You can still wander through the cobbled streets, people-watch in a cafe at sunset or bathe in the same turquoise shallows enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, who were already living it up on this same fringe of coast.
A comfortable bed
Built in 1880 by a Russian Prince, Le Cap Estel (wwwcapestel.com; 00 33 493 76 29 29) sits on a lush, private peninsula just outside of Monaco. The restored rooms and grounds include suites of varying sizes, including cosy on-the-beach nautical double rooms. The Riviera splendour harks back to a different era (everyone from Churchill to the Beatles stayed here in its heyday), but now there's also a gym, a spa, and an infinity pool at the water's edge. Suites cost from €390 (Dh1,911) per night, including taxes.
When F Scott Fitzgerald rented the seaside Villa St Louis on the Cap d'Antibes in 1926 (where he wrote Tender is the Night), little did he dream that it would be transformed into the splendid Hotel Belles Rives (www.bellesrives.com; 00 33 493 61 02 79) three years later. This family-run Art Deco hotel has everything from a 1920s-style bar of polished wood and parquet floors to a private beach and a waterskiing school. The starlit terrace restaurant, La Passagère, headed by chef Pascal Bardet, is as romantic as it gets. Double rooms cost from €158 (Dh774) per night, including taxes.
For an affordable, artsy experience, the Hotel Windsor (www.hotelwindsornice.com; 00 33 493 88 5925) in Nice's shopping district has whimsical but comfortable rooms designed by a group of international artists as well as more conventional garden-view rooms. Breakfasting by the poolside amid banana trees and palms makes this a real treat for those on a budget. From €129 (Dh632) per night, including taxes.
Find your feet
If you want to explore the woodsy backcountry and medieval villages, renting a car is advisable, but it is not a must for getting around the coast. For sun worshippers, even the loveliest secluded beaches in Cap d'Ail (Plage Mala) or Cap Martin Roquebrune (Golfe Bleu) are in walking distance from the bus stops (€1; Dh5) and train stations.
Taxis are available at the airport but rates are exorbitant - the 15-minute ride from Nice airport-to the city centre costs about €30 (Dh147). Airport buses run regularly and the more exclusive hotels provide shuttles.
To get around Nice's city centre, take the electric tram (€1; Dh5), or rent one of the city's new self-service blue bicycles (Vélos Bleus; €1 for the first 30 minutes), available at 175 stations all over town.
No visit is complete without a glimpse of the red cliffs of the Estérel mountains and a stop in St Tropez; take a boat from Nice's Old Port (www.trans-cote-azur.com) that will drop you at Saint-Tropez harbour and get you back in time for dinner (€58; Dh285).
Meet the locals
Grab a straw basket and stock up on local specialities at the open-air flower and produce market on the Cours Saleya (Tuesday to Sunday) where all the well-heeled shop for vine tomatoes, goat's cheese, olives, and Nice's pride-and-joy, socca - a paper-thin savoury pancake made of chickpea flour cooked in a wood-burning oven. On Mondays, the square turns into an antiques market.
Book a table
Hidden in exotic gardens by the Italian border in Menton, the Mirazur (www.maurocolagreco.com; 00 33 4 92 41 86 86) overlooks the coast and is headed by young chef Mauro Colagreco, newly awarded a second Michelin star. A wizard with vegetables, his delicate flavours are a mix of Mediterranean-style classics infused with Argentinian ingredients (risotto made with red quinoa and wild cèpes; scallops with fennel ice cream), plus refreshing light desserts made with lemons from the garden (a seven-dish tasting menu costs €85 [Dh417] per person).
For market-driven dishes, book a table at Le Bistro d'Antoine, (00 33 493 89 29 57) in Nice's old town. A retro brasserie with a tiny open kitchen, it serves comfort food at its best: generous portions of risotto, mackerel and potatoes, and hearty stews of lentils, sausage or grilled calf kidneys, and fruit tarts. Dinner costs €40 (Dh196) per person.
For a creative menu, make for the splashier "Z Plage" (www.z-plage.com) across from Cannes' Hotel Martinez, the place to be seen during the film festival.
Cannes glitters with boutiques, all within walking distance. Check out the hip sportswear, shoes and swimwear along rue d'Antibes, then refuel at the elegant chocolate shop, Atelier Jean-Luc Pelé (42 rue d'Antibes). Those with big wallets should head for the seafront La Croisette, a stretch of international designer shops, including the new Ferragamo store. Bargain hunters can also scoop up Chanel, Hermès and Dior cast-offs from last year's festival in one of the several luxury consignment shops that line the side-streets.
What to avoid
Dodge the traffic snarls during the Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27) and the Monaco Grand Prix (May 24-27) by catching the local train that runs from dawn until the wee hours and stops at all the coastal Riviera towns (www.ter-sncf.com).
The new seafront Cocteau Museum (www.menton.fr), housed in an ultra-modern, curvy white trapezoid designed by Rudy Ricciotti. The colossal rotating Severin Wunderman collection includes 1,800 works, with 990 by the multi-talented poet, painter, playwright and film director, Jean Cocteau. Entrance is €6 (Dh30).