The South of France, There isn’t another place that evokes a sense of the old Hollywood glamour. When the who’s who will be paparazzied coming out of Monte Carlo casino, dressed in their finest evening wear. Today it is the playground of the Oligarchs and Tech Billionaires. Find their mega yachts parked off the shore in Nice over the summer. It’s not just for the elite as the lifestyle is quite achievable for those seeking a bit of affordable luxury.
Away from the glitz of the Cote d’Azur, there is so much to explore. So many artists like Picasso and Matisse have made their home in the South of France as the light here is spectacular. With year round temperatures a few degrees warmer than the UK, many people have moved to live here.
Arrive at Nice airport and pick up your rental car or your limo. You will need one to get around the see the most of the South of France. Be careful where you park your car in Nice. Don’t leave your passport or valuables visible as car crimes are rife. Book a non hatch-back car with a hidden boot (or trunk for the cousins across the pond). Pick a nice seaside restaurant and indulge in a bowl of Bouillabaisse with freshly caught Mediterranean fish straight from the fishing boats.
If you are staying in Nice, drive along the promenade and make like a Hollywood star. If it’s not the film festival season, it is not as hectic and you can retrace the steps of the film crowd.
All the beaches are dotted with perfectly aligned deck chairs. Some are clearly marked for topless sunbathing. Most of the beaches within easy reach belong to the beach hotels. They are not accessible to the public unless you pay. For the price, you get a deck chair and sometimes a stripey beach towel and the privileged to order some over priced drinks. You are on the Cote d’Azur after all. If you look, there are some public beaches too.
2. St Tropez
Drive through St Tropez, the stylish seaside resort, and find a bar by a marina for a drink. People watch, celebrity spot and make some friends. You might get an invite one of the yachts moored there. The streets are lined with massive villas but they are all hidden behind high walls, so no chance to ogle here.
3 Juan Les Pins
Drive on the winding cliff top roads from Nice towards Monte Carlo. Stop in Juan Les Pins. This is one of the younger and more lively towns along the coast. This is also where lots of people go to party. Evidenced by streets with bars and al fresco restaurants offering pizzas and the dreaded Menu Touristique, thumping music and lots of atmosphere. In July, their Jazz festival draws massive crowds.
If you want glitz and glamour, it has to be Cannes. This little town along the Riviera is thronged with people from the film world during the famous Cannes Film Festival. Unlike in Venice, this is purely an industry event. If you are there to celebrity spot, you’ll need to have some contacts to get to the after parties, the premieres and yacht parties.
Here you will find the picture postcard beaches lined with colourful parasols and deck chairs. Not all the beaches are private, for a small fee, anyone can mingle with the beautiful people.
My favourite town along this drive is Beaulieu. It’s a quieter town to stay in than the big towns along the coast. When I found this place years ago, it was not on any tourist maps. It’s not as glamourous or as St Tropez and the like but it is charming. Wander along the streets and find one of the local bistros. We found one up the hill with al fresco dining and superb local cuisine, without the inflated prices. It’s a great place to stay, away from the summer crowds.
Monaco and Monte Carlo, is a must visit. It is so tiny that it takes only 15 minutes to drive from one end to the other of the principality. Drive along the Corniche, follow the path that the Formula 1 race goes through.
Visit the Casino de Monte Carlo. It is owned by the Monegasque Royal Family and managed by the Société des Bains de Mer. Nightlife if of course super stylish here although you don’t have to wear evening dress to go anymore.
Most of the beaches in Monte Carlo are hotel managed, however we did find one that is public, not very picturesque and super crowded. The water is shallow enough to just wade in. Tides are not too strong so you can swim here.
Don’t miss the Royal Palace which charts the history of the family and the palace. Of course, Princess Grace features prominently. The stunning mosaics were quite unforgettable.
Drive up to Grasse and visit one of the perfume houses. This is where they grow thousands of roses and other aromatic flowers. A visit to the Perfumeries and seeing the process is fascinating. Buy some perfume from Fragonard, who make affordable facsimiles of famous scents. Follow up the visit with a read of this iconic book, Perfume.
Provence is just magical. There are so many little towns and villages to explore. The food and wine here is quite unique, using many of the locally grown herbs and vegetables. Beneath the Luberon mountains, you will find quaint old villages, markets, vineyards and lifestyle at a pace which makes you slow down and ponder.
Around Provence, you should visit Gordes, a hill top town that is untouched by time. It is a bit of drive but well worth it. In the central square, sip rosé en piscine, grab a Provencal meal where the local lavender features in many dishes.
It is also a bit of an artist colony so meander through the little art galleries in the town. Linger for a glass of the local favourite, the anise flavoured pastis, drunk cold, while watching a game of petanque.
Before you leave, detour to see the old Villa of the Marquis de Sade. It’s not really on a tourist map and you can’t go in.
Provence has so many little villages and to help you find some of the special places, read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. It is bit dated but gives you an idea of the lifestyle, quirks and secret little Provencal artisan producers and restaurants. There even used to be a tour based on this book. Peter still lives in the area and fans of his book have been known to drop by unannounced.
If you want a real local French experience, book to stay in a Gite, which is a French B&B on a farm or agriturismo as the Italians would call it. We stayed in a charming farm for very little money. The farmer’s wife spoke no English so we had to dig up our very basic and rusty French.
In high summer, stop and smell the lavender, take a selfie with the never ending vista or purple fields. The roads around Provence are lined with lemon and olive trees. Interspered between these are vineyards. Watch out for the signs inviting you in for a wine tasting. Make a random stop. It is all good in the sunshine that makes the South of France so enticing.
How to get to the South of France
The main International airport is Nice if you are flying. If not, you can take one of the many seaborne options, rent a yacht or take a cruise.
Where to Stay
You can choose to stay in one of the grand ole hotels along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, find villas in France with a pool, pick one of the smaller towns along the French Riviera or even book into a gite in Provence. The choices are endless and so diverse.
How to plan your South of France itinerary
Depending on what you want to see and do, you can find a lot of information on their official website.
For Provence, this site might give you some great ideas. http://tourismepaca.fr/welcome/
This post was done in collaboration with James Villas.