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Warming Up to Pleasures of Cannes

What was once a tiny fishing village surrounded by cane brakes has become, thanks to a member of the English gentry, one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful watering holes.

Henry Peter Lord Brougham, a bit of a sun freak who had a half-open carriage named for him, was on his way to Nice in 1834 when a cholera epidemic there forced him to do a U-turn. As a result, he spent his yearly holiday here and built a villa.

Brougham praised Cannes’ blue waters and warming sun to his London friends and they began coming here in droves, creating yet another first for the Britons in establishing Cannes (named for those cane brakes) as one of the Continent’s jewel-in-the-rough resorts headed for bigger things.

From the Cannes Film Festival in May until the end of summer, the main road along the sea, La Croisette, becomes a radiant parade of peacock-hued strollers and pricey autos moving slowly along past the lineup of pricey hotels.

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But in the narrow streets of Le Suquet (Old Town), the tone and texture of Cannes changes into that of a small French town, with all the charm, warmth and joie de vivre one invariably finds in such places.

Getting here: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris and then to Nice for $834 to $971 round trip, with advance purchase, depending on the month flown and day of week. American, Delta, TWA, Pan Am or Continental will get you to Paris for $758-$854 round trip. Paris-Nice with Air France or Air Inter is $139 one way. It’s 17 miles by shuttle bus, car or helicopter from Nice to Cannes.

How long/how much? Give Cannes a couple of days, but the Haut Pays (hill country behind the Riviera) is dotted with little towns more than worthy of exploration. Food and lodging costs run the gamut, from tres cher down to moderate.

A few fast facts: The French franc recently traded at 5.79 to the dollar. Visit April through November, after which much of the town is closed. February-March is Cannes’ low season.

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Getting settled in: Hotel Festival (3 Rue Moliere; $32 to $38 B&B; double, low season, $46-$60 high) is a small and elegant house furnished with the owners’ family antiques from Provence. The Festival is very quiet, has a small garden and is a short walk from La Croisette. Nine of the 17 rooms have small kitchens; only breakfast is served.

Hotel de France (85 Rue d’Antibes; $38-$44 B&B; double, low season, $55-$68 high) has a tiny lobby and entrance, but the interior recently has been refurbished in a bright and fresh way. Bedrooms are neat and comfortable but on the small side, with baths the same. It’s on a busy shopping street just off La Croisette.

Hotel Univers (2 Rue du Marechal Foch; $49-$60 B&B; double, low season, $79-$104 high) also has a good central location in from the beach. Contemporary, with a rooftop terrace-bar that has views of the bay and hills behind town.

Regional food and drink: Cannes and all of the rest of the Cote d’Azur enjoy the best of all worlds when it comes to food: French, with overtones of nearby Italy and herb-blanketed Provence. While the town claims no dish as its own, expect to encounter bourride (a whitefish soup served with garlic mayonnaise), Marseille bouillabaisse, plenty of loup (sea bass), lotte (angler fish), oysters and mussels.

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Most Frenchmen breakfast on cafe au lait and a croissant, but many old hands on the Riviera and in the Haut Pays get the day rolling with their beloved pissaladiere , a small slice of pizza loaded with onions, black olives, anchovies and olive oil, downed with a glass of red wine.

White wines from Cassis down the coast go well with the seafood. And the roses from Provence and reds of Bandol are a treat with anything.

Good dining: La Toque Blanche (3 Rue La Fontaine) opened 70 years ago but is now run by two brothers who double as chefs. The place has a beamed ceiling, pink walls, linen, china and, during our visit, tulips. Fresh food of the season is emphasized, including Alsatian choucroute in cool weather. Menu selections begin at about $20.

Astoux et Brun (27 Rue Felix Faure) is on the port, an informal place with paper napkins, lots of chatting between tables. The specialties are oysters, shrimp and shellfish, and locals say it’s the best place in town for getting them fresh. Sit at an outdoor table and order a gigantic platter of shellfish (three kinds of oysters) for $20.

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Le Caveau “30" (45 Rue Felix Faure) is down the street from Astoux et Brun and across from the flower market. It, too, is popular with the Cannois and usually crowded. Our $16 menu choice brought a first-course of mussels, then bourride , salad and dessert. It also does a superb salade nicoise .

Going first-class: The Carlton Inter-Continental Cannes (58 Blvd. Croisette; $241-$413 double) is the Grande Dame of hotels here. It is a legendary palace of exquisite lounges and beautiful bedrooms, now glowing from a $25-milliom renovation. That bought a casino and the new La Cote restaurant.

Movie moguls favor the Carlton during festival week, gathering around the pool or at its private beach bar to wheel, deal and be seen.

On your own: Although cultural requirements are slim in Cannes, take a walk through Le Suquet, resting on a terrace by a 16th-Century church for views of the bay and town.

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Also stroll down Rue Maynadier, joining the new town with Le Suquet, for its great food shops. The Cenerie cheese shop at No. 22, which has more than 300 types of cheeses displayed in a floral setting, is an absolute Eden for connoisseurs.

A few doors down at No. 16 you’ll find La Boulangerie Banette, another must-stop for anyone really interested in a formidable display of great breads.

Driving into the Haut Pays is one of the great joys of a Cote d’Azur visit. The village of Mougins (seven miles north) is an enchanting little hilltop town and also one of France’s culinary wonders, with its clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Chef Roger Verge takes deserved accolades for his Moulin de Mougins, but Andre Surmain’s Relais a Mougins gets our gastronomic vote for his good humor and a magnificent table. Both expensive.

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For more information: The French National Tourist Office has a new (900) 420-2003 telephone number (50 cents per minute) for information requests. Call it for a brochure on the Riviera, including Cannes, and other information on France. Or write to 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212, for the same.


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