Where is it?
The luscious strip of coastline in the far south-east corner of France is officially contained within the département of the Alpes-Maritimes. The Côte d'Azur stretches from Théoule-sur-Mer in the west to Menton on France's border with Italy. Along the way it takes in Cannes, Nice, Antibes and even another country, the principality of Monaco. The mention of such names evokes the sun-drenched and easy-going lifestyle on offer along the French Riviera – the alternative name for the Côte d'Azur. Whatever you call it, the "azure coast" provides all the glitz and glamour you could wish for – as well as beaches, dramatic coastal vistas, medieval villages and untamed wilderness.
Winter is an ideal time to visit, since the crowds of summer disappear by the end of September, yet the warmth and light, which has attracted everyone from aristocrats to Impressionists, remains.
Where should I start?
The département's capital, Nice. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this formerly Italian city was at the centre of all that was decadent and fashionable about the Côte d'Azur. Well-heeled Brits flocked there to enjoy the clement weather and bountiful social activities on offer, while the rest of Europe shivered through the autumn and winter. England's lasting legacy to Nice is the Promenade des Anglais. Under the instruction of one Rev Lewis Way, this 5km path was built along the edge of the gently curving Baie des Anges, and soon became the place to see and be seen. The Hôtel Negresco, at 37 Promenade des Anglais (00 33 4 93 16 64 00; www.hotel-negresco-nice.com), is a venerable Nice institution, still favoured by the stars. Designated a National Historic Monument, this 1913 belle époque building is worth a visit just for its art collection, liveried footmen and the Eiffel-designed stained-glass cupola. Doubles start at ¿280 (£193), room only.
The city's old town, Vieux Nice, is an atmospheric tangle of tiny streets lined with shutter-clad town houses and appealing restaurants. The Brits were not the only nationality with a taste for the Riviera lifestyle: the Russians even erected their own place of worship, the orthodox cathedral of St-Nicolas (00 33 4 93 96 88 02; www.acor-nice.com), on avenue Nicolas II, with its six glittering onion domes. To feel like a Russian aristocrat, book in to Prince Alexei Lobanov Rostowsky's former home, the Château des Ollières at 39 Avenue des Baumettes (00 33 4 92 15 77 99). Doubles here start at around €200 (£140), room only.
For further details contact Nice Tourism on 00 33 892 707 407, and visit www.nicetourisme.com.
Can I feel the Riviera breeze in my hair?
Yes: time to hit the road, preferably in an open-top car. Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; www.holidayautos.co.uk) rents convertibles, such as the Peugeot 307 coupé cabriolet, for around £50 a day. You can choose from three parallel and twisting coastal roads: the Haute, Moyenne and Basse Corniches, which wend their way in a ribbon along the coast between Nice and Monte Carlo. The Haute Corniche is one of the world's most romantic roads – and the backdrop for many a car commercial – with sharp bends and plunging views that make you catch your breath. Take a pit stop at La Turbie, a pretty village with a sad association – it's close to the spot where Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly the film star Grace Kelly, met her tragic end when her car went off the road.
Has movie magic survived?
Yes. The most glamorous event of the Riviera's calendar is, of course, the Cannes Film Festival (www.festival-cannes.org) each May, when thousands descend on this city to publicise, prance and party. Next year's festival takes place from 14 to 25 May, but rubbernecking celeb-spotters will be disappointed to hear that most of the real action happens behind closed doors in the five-star hotels or the many sleek yachts moored in the bay. For those hungry for a piece of the action, take a stroll down Cannes's main thoroughfare, the Croisette, and you might catch a glimpse of a mega-star being bundled into a waiting limo. During the festival, the place to stay is the Hôtel du Cap Eden-Roc, on boulevard JF Kennedy, Antibes (00 33 4 93 61 39 01; www.edenroc-hotel.fr), discreetly tucked away in expansive gardens on the tip of Cap d'Antibes, between Cannes and Nice. Anyone staying here is likely to have reached the top of Hollywood's greasy pole. Since it opened in the late 19th century, guests have included F Scott Fitzgerald and the Kennedys, and, more recently, George Clooney and Tom Cruise (though not in the same room). Even when the movie moguls have packed up and gone, it's still one of the Côte's most luxurious addresses, but you pay for the privilege – double rooms start at €450 (£321) per night, room only.
Can I move like Harlow in Monte Carlo?
Yes, as long as you promise not to sing Charlene's dreadful "I've Never Been to Me", from which that line is taken. Somerset Maugham may have described Monte Carlo as "a sunny place for shady people", but its hedonistic formula of sunshine, casinos, high-rise apartments, ritzy shops and a yacht-filled harbour makes for an entertaining stay. It's also home to Les Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo (00 377 98 06 6900; www.montecarlospa.com), where you can indulge in some serious pampering and thalassotherapy spa treatments. Or, try your luck in one of the principality's casinos (00 377 92 1620 00; www.casinomontecarlo.com), where you can break the bank – or not.
Following hot on the heels of the film festival in May is the Monaco Grand Prix, when the streets of Monte Carlo become a racetrack for the F1 champions to battle it out towards the chequered flag. Next year it takes place on the 24 and 25 May. For more information, contact Monaco Tourism (020-7491 4264; www.monaco-tourisme.com).
Some medieval magic?
The prize for the location with the deepest history goes to Eze, which occupies a magical spot 429m above sea level, just off the Moyenne Corniche and a short drive from Nice. Eze was one of the first settlements established by the Gallo-Romans. Its strategic position meant that it passed into different invading hands several times, with everyone from the Moors to the House of Savoy staking their claim. A wander around its labyrinth of streets, stopping off to visit its botanical gardens and generally soaking up the views, is a must.
Spend a night within Eze's walls at the Château Eza, rue de la Pise (00 33 4 99 41 12 24; www.chateaueza.com), with its spectacular setting, clinging to the edge of the village, and with the coast spread out like a carpet below. With just 10 rooms, each is a stylish mix of old and new. Doubles start at ¿170 (£120) per night, room only. To work up an appetite, follow in the footsteps of Nietzsche and take the vertiginous pathway down the mountain to Eze's seabound sibling, Eze-sur-Mer. For information, contact Eze Tourism (00 33 4 93 41 26 00; www.eze-riviera.com).
St-Paul-de-Vence, with its ancient ramparts and unique position teetering on a hill, is frequently cited as one of France's most captivating villages. It's also an important stop on the art-lover's itinerary. The Foundation Maeght (00 33 4 93 32 81 63; www.fondation-maeght.com) is an important collection of 20th-century sculpture, drawings and paintings by artists such as Chagall, Léger, Calder, Braque, and includes a labyrinth designed by Miró. It opens daily from 10am-7pm until 30 September, and 10am-12.30pm and 2.30-6pm daily October-June. Admission costs ¿11 (£8) per adult. One of the most stylish places to stay in St Paul-de-Vence is the Toile Blanche, 826 chemin de la Pounchounière (00 33 4 93 32 74 21; www.toileblanche.com). This small hotel is just outside town and offers contemporary interiors and a beautiful terrace and pool. Doubles start at ¿140 (£100) per night, room only.
I want to be alone
The Côte d'Azur may seem to be one long and crowded sun-and-champagne-soaked party, but there are plenty of places where you can get away from it all. Nine out of 10 of the Alpes-Maritimes's one million inhabitants occupy its 120km coastal strip, so that leaves the rest – a stunning wilderness of snow-capped mountains, pine-clad valleys and undiscovered villages – to explore. A must for wildlife lovers and hikers is the u o Mercantour National Park. This diverse landscape of Alpine peaks, lakes, rivers and pine forests is home to over half of the 4,200 species of flora found in France, and fauna including eagles, peregrine falcons, ibex, chamois, wild boars and wolves. The park is also marked with 600km of walking trails. For details, see www.mercantour.eu.
Six important long-distance hiking routes – the Sentiers de Grandes Randonnées – pass through the Alpes-Maritimes. In total, there are over 4,000km of signposted tracks for walkers of all levels of fitness. You can download routes (in French only) from www.randoxygene.org.
If you prefer someone else to do the arranging, Inntravel (01653 617949; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers a six-night Alps-to-Mediterranean walking holiday. The route sets off from the medieval village of La Brigue in the Roya valley, close to the rugged wilderness of the "Valley of Marvels". There you can explore impressive rock formations and gorges, and see its unrivalled collection of 30,000 Bronze Age rock carvings. The route finishes 1km from the Italian border, in the Riviera town of Menton. The price of £428 per person includes six nights' accommodation with breakfast, four dinners, two picnics, walking maps, notes and luggage transfers. Flights or train travel to Nice cost extra.
Can I head off the beaten track?
Yes, on one of France's most spectacular railways. The Chemins de Fer de Provence (00 33 4 97 03 80 80; www.trainprovence.com), also known as the Train des Pignes, is a narrow-gauge railway that travels between Nice's Gare du Sud station and the town of Dignes-les-Bains in Haute Provence. It passes through breathtaking mountain scenery and calls at several stations, such as the pretty fortified village of Entrevaux. The full trip costs ¿17.65 (£12.60) one-way.
Or you could escape to the peaceful Iles de Lérins, just off the coast near Cannes. You can visit eucalyptus-blanketed Ste-Marguerite and St-Honorat, which is home to a monastery dating from the 11th century. Planaria (00 33 4 92 98 71 38; www.abbayedelerins.com) operates regular boat services from Cannes to St-Honorat for ¿11 (£7.80) one-way.
A day at the beach?
Rocky headlands, shingle and golden sand: you can find it all on the Côte d'Azur. Beaches are usually divided into public and private – the latter have entrance fees and offer facilities such as sun-loungers and restaurants. The Plage Mala, in Cap d'Ail, is where you'll find the beautiful people, and where you can party and sip cocktails well into the night ( www.capresort.com). On Cap d'Antibes, the Plage de La Garoupe found immortality in F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, and is one of the most beautiful beaches on the coast.
What should I eat?
Elizabeth David devoted her life to bringing the flavours of the Mediterranean to the British table, but there is nothing quite like enjoying them in situ, with locally grown olives and herbs such as basil, thyme, rosemary and sage. Look out for pissaladière, a delicious onion flan topped with anchovies and black olives, soupe au pistou (vegetable, basil and garlic soup), stuffed suckling pig, fresh fish and, of course, salade niçoise.
Temples to gastronomy are dotted all over the Riviera, but one of the most lauded is Alain Ducasse's three-Michelin-starred Louis XV (00 377 980 68 864; www.alain-ducasse.com) in Monaco, where dinner starts from an eye-watering ¿180 (£128). At Alain Llorca's Le Moulin de Mougins, avenue Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins (00 33 4 93 75 78 24; www.moulinde mougins. com), you can sign up for a lesson, from €58 (£41) per person.
Olive oil is one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, and you can can sample some of the finest at the Palais des Olives, boulevard du Jeu de Ballon (00 33 4 93 365 773; www.palais-des-olives.com) in Grasse. Tastings of some of its 45 extra-virgin olive oils last 20-45 minutes and start from €6 (£4.50) per person.
How do I get there?
Nice-Côte d'Azur airport, with a beautiful location on the shore just west of Nice, is the main air gateway. Flights from the UK are plentiful: Air France City Jet (0870 142 4343; www.cityjet.com), BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com); Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com); British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com); easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet. com); FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com); Flyglobespan (08712 710 415; www.flyglobespan.com); and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) all offer flights from a range of UK airports.
When the new Eurostar terminal opens at London St Pancras on 14 November, the journey time to Cannes will be as little as eight hours 15 minutes, with a change in Paris or Lille. Fares start from £109 per person (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com).
How do I get around?
Renting a car gives a certain amount of freedom – but in summer the traffic congestion can be horrendous. An excellent alternative is the TER (Regional Express Trains) that connect all the towns and cities on the Côte d'Azur as far as Ventimiglia in Italy. For details, see www.ter-sncf.com. The Ligne d'Azur offers a well-developed network of buses surrounding Nice, with destinations including Vence, Grasse, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Villefranche-sur-Mer and further inland. A tourist pass costs ¿4 (£2.80) per day or ¿15 (£10.80) for a week. See www.lignedazur.com for timetables.
Where can I find out more?
From Maison de la France (09068 244 123; calls cost 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com). And on the Côte d'Azur itself, contact the French Riviera Tourist Board (00 33 4 93 37 78 78; www.guiderivieria.com).
Scent of the cote
Grasse is the capital of the world's fragrance industry – many legendary perfumes, including Chanel No 5, were created there. Wander through fields of jasmine, tuberose and lavender at La Bastide du Parfumeur (00 33 4 93 75 75 16; www.labastidedu parfumeur.org) in Mouans-Sartoux on the edge of town. Opened in June, this botanical garden is filled with fragrant plants cultivated for the making of perfume. It opens 9am-5pm daily from October to March, 9am-6pm in summer. Admission €5 (£3.50).
Most of the perfumeries are open to visitors, and Parfumerie Galimard (00 33 4 93 09 20 00; www.galimard.com), Parfumerie Fragonard, (00 33 4 93 36 44 65; www.fragonard.com), and Parfumerie Molinard, (00 33 4 93 36 01 62; www.molinard.com) offer free guided tours in English. They also offer the chance to create your own perfume, with courses lasting around two hours and costing from ¿€28 (£20).
Still on a floral theme, Menton has a sub-tropical microclimate that has given rise to some stunning gardens, many of which feature rare plant species and dazzling floral and water displays. These include La Serre de la Madone and the Clos Peyronnet gardens. For details, contact Menton Tourism (00 33 4 92 41 76 76; www.menton.fr).
On the trail of the artists
"What I shall bring back from here will be softness itself, white, rose and blue all wrapped up in this magical atmosphere" – so said Claude Monet when he arrived in Antibes on the recommendation of Guy de Maupassant. Monet was just one of many artists who flocked to the Côte d'Azur to try to capture on canvas its elusive "luminosity".
A new route, The Painters of the Côte d'Azur, leads you in the footsteps of some of the Riviera's most celebrated creative residents and visitors, including Picasso, Chagall, Monet, Renoir and Bonnard. With the itinerary as a guide, you can visit the towns where they painted: Le Cannet, Mougins, St-Paul-de-Vence, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Menton. Each point has a board erected on the spot where the artist set up their easel, a reproduction of the painting and accompanying information. The itinerary can be downloaded from the Riviera Côte d'Azur website, www.guideriviera.com.
The Picasso Museum in Antibes is closed until 2008 for renovation, but there are plenty of art-related sites dotted all around the coast. The Museé Renoir at 19 chemin des Colettes, Cagnes-sur-Mer (00 33 4 93 20 61 07; www.cagnes-tourisme. com) is just one of many.
Unable to settle their bills, artists including Picasso (right) and Matisse struck a unique deal with the proprietors of the restaurant La Colombe d'Or (00 33 4 93 32 80 02; www.la-colombe-dor.com), in St-Paul-de-Vence, and would pay for their meals with their work. This has resulted in an extraordinary art collection scattered around the restaurant and hotel: visitors can dine among Picassos and lie beside the pool beneath mobiles by Calder. Doubles from €280 (£200) per night, room only.