It's high season on the French Riviera. The sun is hot, the Champagne is cold and the parties are nonstop. On the yachts and in the seaside villas and luxury hotels, the rich and famous are doing what they do best: enjoying the fruits of their fortunes.
And although there are fewer Americans among them this summer, many of the regulars are here, tourism specialists on both sides of the Atlantic say.
"Our U.S. guests who come every year are back. They haven't changed their behavior," said Jean-Jacques Lottermoster, tourism director of Cannes. "The ones that are staying away are the first-timers."
Correction: Most of the visitors are regulars. I was a Riviera first-timer, coming to this alluring region on the Mediterranean Sea earlier this month to take the temperature of the local travel industry. American tourism to France plunged as tensions over the war in Iraq rose, costing the French economy an estimated $500 million. But here on the Riviera -- the traditional glittering summer playground of the seriously wealthy -- the posh hotels are full and the mega-yachts are tied up in Antibes' bay of millionaires or anchored just offshore, as they always are. August, traditionally the most popular month for vacations, is expected to be as busy as ever.
"I'm finding it tough to book rooms for people on the French Riviera this year," said Bill Fischer of New York-based Fischer Travel, a private concierge service for the super rich. "Some Americans are opting out, but the majority of high-end people are going. If they like a place, they're going to go there. Time heals."
As my plane landed at the Nice Cote d'Azur Airport, I started to worry. If the region is oh-so-chic and oh-so-expensive, it might be way too chic and way too expensive for me.
I emerged from the terminal into white-hot sunlight. Should I take a cab to Cannes for $80 or the airport bus for $12.50? No contest: the bus. But I ended up more than a mile from my hotel, without a cab in sight. I walked, lugging my suitcase, in the steamy afternoon heat.
So much for chic.
Later that day, I joined a group of U.S. friends -- regular Riviera visitors -- for a stay on Boulevard de la Croisette, Cannes' famed promenade on the seafront.
We ogled Ivana Trump's 105-foot yacht, Ivana (she just bought a new villa in nearby Saint-Tropez), listened to gossip about celebrities who had been sighted shopping or dining in town and went in search of the legendary Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, where Bill Cosby and his family usually stay in August.
The hotel, surrounded (and isolated) by 25 acres of wooded gardens, is at the tip of Cap d'Antibes and has played host to so many celebrities, politicians, royals and literati over the years that it has an A to Z Internet site listing their names.
'Their annual fix'
The parade of stars on the French Riviera -- also called the Cote d'Azur -- began in May with the Cannes Film Festival. Although the American turnout was less illustrious than usual, Clint Eastwood, Meg Ryan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and producer-director Steven Soderbergh were among U.S. participants.
Cote d'Azur resident Stephen Twigg, longtime personal health coach to Princess Diana, said the festival's success proved nothing had changed.
"The very wealthy lead an existence which is not confined by national boundaries," said Twigg, who caters to a high-profile clientele. "Their lifestyle is international. They are always recognized and welcomed by the managers and maitres of the best hotels and restaurants, wherever they are in the world."
Trump, who was cruising in her yacht when I caught up with her by e-mail, wrote back: "It's only some of the tourists who count their money who are staying away." Her regular Riviera friends have returned, she said.
"They just need their annual fix of the sunshine, food, friends and happiness."
Less famous U.S. residents like that combination too. During my visit, I talked with an eclectic mix of Americans who had one thing in common: They enjoy the south of France.
"We try to come to Cannes every year. I think it's one of the nicest places in Europe," said Roki Movaghari of McLean, Va., a suburb of Washington. "I thought there wouldn't be many Americans this year, but there are."
Monica Fuqua of Tallahassee, Fla., was equally enthusiastic. "Let the White House fight the war; it's not my war to fight. This is a wonderful place. Everyone has been polite, and the service is excellent."
The region's ability to remain on the A-list with so many people is partly the result of its beauty. From the deep blue of the Mediterranean to the glamorous cities and medieval hilltop villages, the French Riviera is hard to resist.
There is also the light. It is clear and white, intensifying the colors of the landscape and inspiring a host of artists, poets and writers over the years. Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso are among those who were drawn by the sunlight and the bold colors of Provence and the French Riviera.
The region's long history is as colorful as its landscape. Provence, of which the Riviera is a part, was integral to the Romans, who established a "province" here in the 2nd century BC. It was also integral to the Catholic papacy, which fled here in the 14th century to avoid war in Italy, building a papal palais in Avignon. By the 19th century, the coastal region was beginning to attract visitors, many of them wealthy. In 1865 Monaco, once the poorest state in Europe, hit the jackpot by opening an opulent casino.
Stretching from Bandol on the west to Menton at the Italian border, the Cote d'Azur includes some of the world's most celebrated real estate. Saint-Tropez, Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo are among the area's best-known resorts. But villas and small communities cling to hillsides along 50 miles of shoreline from Saint-Tropez to Monaco. The corridor has been called the French Los Angeles because critics fear it is being overbuilt.
Actually, visitors from La-La Land find many things reminiscent of home, from red-tiled roofs to palms, cactuses and bright bougainvillea. Cannes even has a neighborhood called the California quarter, Quartier de la Californie, made up of luxury villas. And there's all that glam: celebrities, $200,000 cars, $50-million yachts.
I could watch the chichi parade nearly round the clock on Cannes' Boulevard de la Croisette. There was a constant stream of handsome couples, white-haired seniors carrying poodles, buff men and bronzed women strolling along the promenade. Occasionally I would spot someone shadowed by bodyguards. The "palaces" -- luxury hotels where rooms cost as much as $22,500 a night -- are here, along with sidewalk cafes and such top-end shops as Dior and Gucci. Across the palm-lined street is a narrow beach where sun seekers pay up to $50 a day for a padded lounge chair, a bright umbrella and a tiny patch of sand lapped by the warm Mediterranean.
A few blocks away is the home of the Cannes Film Festival, the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, where tourists snap pictures of one another on the grand stairway. The huge concrete building, which locals call the Bunker, holds a helpful tourist office decorated with celebrity photos from the '50s. There is a public beach here, for those who wish to avoid the sky-high prices in front of the luxe hotels.
The area is lined with sidewalk cafes and small stands offering glaces, rich, creamy ice creams. Provencal cuisine is heavy on garlic, olive oil and aromatic herbs. Its most celebrated dish is bouillabaisse. In fact, two of my friends had come to Cannes this summer on a bouillabaisse mission. Harold Rothman and his daughter, Vanessa Travis, were searching for a new recipe for their Los Alamitos restaurant, the Original Fish Co. They didn't need to look far; Golfe Juan-Vallauris, a nearby village, is home to Tetou, internationally known for its $87-a-bowl bouillabaisse. Harold thought it was overrated. "Too much white fish, not enough shellfish." At that price, I was happy I hadn't joined them for dinner.
Once a fishing village, Cannes has evolved into the glitz capital of the Riviera, with 1,200 shops, 380 restaurants and 120 hotels. But some of its roots remain. Le Suquet, an old hilltop town, overlooks the city. I wandered up its narrow, winding streets late one afternoon to watch the sun set over the water. The flashy city on Cannes Bay turned into a beautiful medieval village as I ascended. The sense of history made me eager to see more of this side of the Riviera.
Nice's old town
The next day, I set out by train ($11 round trip) for the 30-minute ride to Nice, France's fifth-largest city and largest resort town. I wasn't interested in those aspects, though. I wanted to see its old town.
The train was crowded and, along with five or six other Nice-bound riders, I found myself wedged into a hallway outside a bathroom compartment on a full sleeper car. The temperature hovered around 90, with no ventilation, and passengers were sweating profusely, including a couple of backpackers who hadn't showered recently. "Would a chic person be standing here like this?" I asked myself.
But Nice's Baroque old town, Vieux Nice, proved as wonderful as I had hoped, full of shops and restaurants, cobblestone streets and a bustling outdoor flower and produce market. As I sat sipping a soda at a sidewalk cafe, a resounding explosion sent me out of my seat, and I banged into a sun umbrella and upset the table. The other diners hadn't flinched, but they looked up and watched me, amused.
I was pretty sure I was now in the minus category on the chicness scale.
A close look at my guidebook revealed that a cannon (actually "an explosive device mimicking a cannon") is fired at noon each day to remind people it's time for lunch.
My next stop was the medieval village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, called a village perche because its builders perched it atop a hill to make it easier to defend. The picturesque village, once home to artist Marc Chagall and American writer James Baldwin, is full of galleries and restaurants. It has an outstanding contemporary art museum, Fondation Maeght, considered one of Europe's finest modern collections.
I was struck by the commercialization of Saint-Paul. Nearly every doorway opened into a shop, gallery, hotel or restaurant. It seemed to have stopped being a village. A tip from an Abercrombie & Kent tour group sent me to Biot -- another village perche -- the next day. I snagged a ride with British expat Lynne Edwards, who showed me around her adopted hometown.
The city, once the realm of the Knights Templar, contains Roman ruins as well as medieval fortifications. "Villagers still live and work here," said Edwards, who acts as a concierge and villa manager for Riviera visitors. "It's a hidden gem." I couldn't have agreed more.
Other medieval villages in the region beckoned, among them the old town of Grasse, known for its perfumeries, and Eze, which clings to a rocky outcrop 410 feet above the sea near Monaco.
But Monaco beckoned too. This time my train ride ($15 round trip) was fast and comfortable. I arrived in a little more than an hour.
Monaco, a sovereign state, is less than 500 acres, but it has a larger-than-life reputation. It evokes glamorous images of royalty, high-stakes gambling and Formula One racing. Each year, several million tourists visit the movie set-perfect town of Monte Carlo and find that it is all these things and more.
The country has been ruled for more than half a century by Prince Rainier III, whose love affair with and marriage to actress Grace Kelly was Hollywood romantic. Since her death in a car accident in 1982, their three children -- Princess Caroline, Princess Stephanie and Prince Albert -- have taken turns making headlines.
Most Monte Carlo visitors do what I did: tour the lavish casino (Europe's largest), visit the luxurious Hotel de Paris, watch the 11:55 a.m. changing of the guard at the Place du Palais square and visit the outstanding Musee Oceanographique.
I reluctantly left the striking cliff-top city and returned to Cannes. Time was growing short, and I had one more stop to make: Saint-Tropez. The next day I took an hourlong ferry ride ($17 and definitely not chic) along the stunning Cote d'Azur.
The scenery was dramatic: clear blue water, red-rock land, tan and pink hillside villas facing the sea.
The scene was no less impressive in Saint-Tropez, where a colorful old town offers shops, restaurants and galleries. Along the harbor, pink, yellow and orange buildings face the Vieux Port (Old Port), but the view is often blocked by huge yachts.
On a hillside above the town looms the 16th century Citadelle, where I looked down upon the red-roofed city and watched yachts speed by.
Visitor numbers at Saint-Tropez's luxury hotels decreased by as much as a third earlier this year, said David Singleton, a tourism spokesman who works out of a tiny office in the city's old town. But the situation has turned around.
"The up-market people are coming again," he said. "The people with the bigger incomes are not going to be thwarted by emotion."
My day on the passenger ferry left me with some questions about Americans and yachts. After my return to Cannes, I sought out Sylvie Romain, whose International Yacht Charters handles floating palaces that go for as much as $770,000 a week. Had her U.S. clientele avoided the Riviera this summer?
"Our clients know how to travel," she said. "They're not pouring out their bottles of French Champagne. They're not skipping the season on the Riviera."
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Seeing stars in Cannes
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France), 4 (local code) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Carlton InterContinental, 58 La Croisette, 06414 Cannes; 9306-4006, fax 9306-4025, www.intercontinental.com. This is the oldest of Cannes' "palaces," the luxury hotels lined up on Boulevard de la Croisette. Built in 1912, the Carlton has housed generations of celebrities and wealthy visitors. It's worth a look around, even if you don't spend the night. Doubles from $304.
Hotel Martinez, 73 La Croisette, 06406 Cannes; 9298-7300, fax 9339-6782, www.hotel-martinez.com. The Martinez, another of the palaces, had a face-lift earlier this year and now boasts that it has Europe's largest penthouse. The hotel also houses one of Cannes' highest-rated restaurants, La Palme d'Or, where you might run into Clint Eastwood -- who threw a party there during the film festival this year -- or other visiting celebs. Doubles from $281. The penthouse is $22,500 per night.
Hotel Splendid, 4 Rue Felix Faure, 06407 Cannes; 9706-2222, fax 9399-5502, www.splendid-hotel-cannes.fr. This downtown jewel, across the street from the Cannes Film Festival hall, has marvelous views of the bay and is within walking distance of the city's old town and shopping district. The only downside is a noisy restaurant; ask for a quiet room. Doubles from $137.
WHERE TO EAT:
Galion, La Plage du Galion, La Croisette; 9394-2543, www.laplagedugalion.com. A great beachfront location, creative Mediterranean cuisine by chef Frederic Nortier and fun Moroccan decor make this an excellent stop for lunch and dinner. Across from the Carlton InterContinental; open April-October. Lunch $37 (includes beach use); dinner $41-51.
Fouquet's, 10 La Croisette, Cannes; 9298-7700. Fun restaurant, great for people (and celebrity) watching. It's in the luxurious Hotel Majestic, across from the Cannes Film Festival hall. Many Provencal dishes to choose from. Entrees from $21.
La Pizza, 3 Quai Saint-Pierre, Cannes; 9339-2256. La Pizza offers families -- and other travelers -- an inexpensive dinner option. Hosts are surly, but the waiters are nice. Pizza and pasta from $10.
TO LEARN MORE:
French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. France-on-Call hotline (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, fax (310) 276-2835, www.franceguide.com.
-- Rosemary McClure