Nice, Marseille and Côte d’Azur
The cities that bookend the two-hour drive along the French Riviera have distinctly different personalities. Nice has uber-hip cocktail bars, private beaches and upscale clubs, while Marseille, France’s second-most populated city and 2013’s European Capital of Culture, offers a grittier take on the south, with its notable new museums, design hotels and cutting-edge bars, including a fine choice of low-key LGBT venues. Stretching between (and to the Italian border east of Nice), the famed Côte d’Azur covers 228 kilometres of legendary beaches, captivating coves, fabled towns and some of the chicest hotels and eateries in an A-lister’s address book. With a reputation as jet set as this, the French Riviera has a lot to live up to, but you’ll find it does so effortlessly and even surpasses its iconic image.
Sun-bleached and sexy, Nice charms visitors. It boasts two megastar museums — Musée Matisse and Musée Marc Chagall — a swaggering array of hotels and restaurants and a swank nightlife scene. You’ll find those museums high above town, in drowsy Cimiez. Wander the backstreets of Vieux Nice, stopping for savoury socca pancakes and to admire the battered shutters and pastel-hued homes. On winding, dark streets you’ll find tiny bakeries and meet unexpected processions. New Town extends from Place Massena and has grand boulevards and the best shopping. It’s also home to the Musée d’Art Modern et d’Art Contemporain, Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle. The port area is packed with yachts but also with surprisingly affordable dockside eateries and bars. The renowned Promenade des Anglais traces the glittering hem of the bay, offering an abundance of pricey hotels — such as the fabled Negresco, palm-shaded ice-cream kiosks, joggers, strollers and sunbathers. Many Nice beaches are private, but Baie des Anges is public year-round.
Rambling, riveting and often rambunctious, this ancient port has picked up its paces. The wonderfully diverse city of 1.5 million has undergone a waterfront renovation, got a shiny new tram network and seen rafts of design hotels, fashion ateliers, clubs and restaurant spring to life. Character-crammed Vieux Port is the place to sample the local speciality: bouillabaisse, a Provençal fish stew. Hilly, mazelike Le Panier is a lovely and atmospheric area to explore. Rue Sainte is a great shopping street if you want one-of-a-kind Marseillaise designs. La Plaine is packed with quirky stores, edgy galleries and vibrant bars. Art sites include the playful Musée d’Art Contemporain, with its stock of Basquiats, Orozcos and Césars. City beaches include the golden Catalans and gravelly du Prado. Drool over boat-fresh lobster, sea urchins or sardines from beachside bars. Daytrips from Marseille to the fishing village of Cassis and to Calanques National Park, one hour by boat, should not be missed.
The Côte d’Azur
Although the British have retreated to the blue coast since the 1700s, bohemian artists and writers, the celebrities of the 1920s, are largely responsible for making the stretch from Cassis to the Italian border the stuff of belle époque beach dreams. Artists Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso’s colour-daubed takes and F Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant depictions of socialites on the sea and on the brink did an incredible PR job on the then-unspoiled coast.
Today, the drive from the Italian border to Marseille takes in picture-perfect harbours dotted with super-yachts, glamorous beaches filled with glamorous bodies and idyllic perched villages such as Grimaud and La Garde-Freinet.
So what should you see on this must-see stretch? Opulent tax haven Monaco has to be experienced. Seaside resorts rocky Cap-d’Ail, elegant Beaulieu-sur-Mer, wild Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, super-rich Villefrance-sur-Mer, swanky Cap d’Antibes, historic Juan-les-Pins, famous Cannes, dramatic Saint-Raphael, hilly Fréjus and flashy Saint-Tropez all have their distinct charms. Off Toulon, the unspoiled Îles d’Hyères are closer to how things were round here 100 years ago — car-free Porquerolles offers an escape from it all. Celebrity-studded Saint-Tropez offers the diametric opposite; be-seen crowds cram onto the silken Plage de Pampelonne, while beach clubs sprawl casually on the sand. Pebble-dashed Plage de Mala in Cap-d’Ail is another escape from the Riviera hordes. For more tranquility, there’s a stunning trail over the rugged Cap-Ferrat peninsula.
Hotel Connexion is a diminutive gay address with friendly hosts, close to both beach and bars. Some of Nice Pebbles’ luxe apartments have swimming pools and balconies, and all come with starter packs that save you shopping your first night in town.
Marseille’s design temple Hôtel le Corbusier has rooms for architecture fans (and a restaurant with such delights as papaya-tequila sorbet). Stylish former Corsican delicatessen Au Vieux Panier has artist-decorated rooms, rotating exhibitions and a gorgeous rooftop terrace. The four luxurious rooms at Casa Honoré are built round a leafy courtyard in an old printing factory.
Make like the jet set and avoid the crowds at Antibes’ exclusive Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. A well-kept secret, Les Flots Bleus, on Baie d’Antheor, might look like a motel from the outside, but it is so much more — check in for incredible views, vivid rooms and an exceptional restaurant with 10-course tasting menus. Boutique Aeva Hotel is in Cagnes-sur-Mer between Cannes and Nice. With its own private beach and prices from under $100 a night, it’s a gem. Gentle Menton, the final stop before the Italian border, is home to a new Cocteau museum and to the charming Hotel Prince de Galles.
Most Nice LGBT venues are in the Old Town, around Rue Francis Gallo and Cours Saleya. Try mixed bar/club Le Glam or early-evening spot Le Fard. The mixed gay/straight Blue Boy on Rue Jean-Baptiste Spinetta is the city’s longest established gay club. Savour some of 600 local, organic wines at La Part des Anges on Rue Gubernatis.
Things are quite discreet in Marseille, but you’ll find a few family spots in hip La Plaine and at the top of the Canebière. Try cruisy Cerber, restaurant/dance club L’Endroit, lesbian bar O3G or dance palace New Cancan. Victor Café is a super stylish straight spot in an otherwise socially low-key city; lounge by the green-illuminated outdoor pool and sip a Ricard.
Le 7, in Cannes, is a hetero-friendly LGBT club with tons of character. Pop-star playground Les Caves du Roy, in Saint-Tropez, is the place to spot the celebrities du jour (and a few du hier) over champagne. Cannes’s Le Club 55 is another place to cross a few famous names off your list.