Dusk is descending on Cap Ferrat, one of the most magical beauty spots in the French Riviera. Could there be a more romantic place in the world? The birds in the umbrella pines have fallen silent, and the coastal path we’re following is bathed in the violet light of early evening, winding ahead of us along the water’s edge like a strip of ribbon, a surreal walkway between land and sea. The only sound still remaining is the wash of the waves, and everything seems suddenly timeless – as though the place is holding its breath and we’re suspended not just between day and night, but also between present and past.
All in all, it’s the perfect time for ghosts and, since Cap Ferrat can probably lay claim to as many celebrity former residents per square metre as Beverly Hills, it’s hard not to let your imagination run away with you. Right now we’ve arrived in Place David Niven, where a magnificent sugar-pink villa clings to the waterfront, its elegant lower terraces leading directly into the sea. This is the Villa Socoglio, or La Fleur Du Cap, once owned by Charlie Chaplin, and home to the film star David Niven from the early Sixties until his death in 1983.
As we peer down through the half-light into its splendid Italianate courtyards and elaborate topiary, a lost world of fur stoles and cocktail frocks and clinking Martini glasses feels only a whisper away.
Cap Ferrat is the apex of the French Riviera’s “Golden Triangle”, with elegant Beaulieu-sur-Mer and the picture-perfect harbour port of Villefranche rising on either side of its wooded peninsula. With fabulous cliff-top views east towards Monaco and west towards Nice, it has long attracted the rich and famous, and now boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Villa Socoglio’s visibility is the exception rather than the rule, however. More typically, the Cap’s extravagant villas – heavily fortified by electrified fences and tall gates – are tucked away out of sight in its forested interior.
In its glamorous heyday, Cap Ferrat held court as a high-society playground where Hollywood royalty rubbed shoulders with bona fide visiting royals from the nearby principality of Monaco and beyond.
A succession of writers and artists also visited or took up residence. The writer Somerset Maugham – who called the French Riviera “a sunny place for shady people” – lived in La Mauresque, a villa originally built by King Leopold of Belgium for his priest. (With a 16-year-old mistress installed in a separate villa on the Cap, the king had headed off any troublesome crises of conscience by ensuring that he had his confessor conveniently close to hand.)
Nowadays, the incumbents of Cap Ferrat’s luxurious private estates are more likely to be wealthy east-European bankers or industrialists than film stars. But, happily, you don’t have to be a billionaire of any description to take pleasure in what the peninsula has to offer.
The small harbour port of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, formerly a fishing village, is a delightful place to visit. An enticing string of seafood restaurants runs along the quayside. Fishing boats bob peaceably on the water, while a tall white forest of yacht masts creaks and clinks.
In the summer, there are also three beaches to visit: the prettiest by far being the small shingle cove of Plage de Passable, which offers stunning views of Villefranche’s harbour and citadel across the deep blue waters of the Rade de Villefranche. If you’re feeling extravagant, you can take lunch at the elegant beach restaurant built into the foot of the cliff. Alternatively, pack a baguette and join the crowd of locals on the public section of the beach.
There are other enjoyable diversions on Cap Ferrat. For sheer ostentation, be sure to visit the pink-and-white wedding cake palace of Villa Ile de France, bequeathed to the nation by the Baroness Ephrussi de Rothschild on her death in 1934. Set in exotically themed gardens, it houses an amazingly opulent collection of furnishings and art works. For pleasures of a simple kind, take a trip back in time to the peninsula’s unashamedly old-fashioned zoo – home to zebras, flamingos, crocodiles and (with a defiant Gallic shrug to political correctness) a chimpanzees’ tea party.
But the greatest delight of all on Cap Ferrat comes entirely free of charge: walking. The artist Matisse was captivated by the purity of the light here. “This is a place,” he wrote, “where light plays the first part. Colour comes afterwards. First you have to feel the light, absorb it into yourself.” And there is no better way to experience this almost mystical luminosity of air, sea and sky than by exploring it on foot.
There are over 14km of marked walking trails on the Cap – split across three separate routes of varying difficulty. All are charming whatever the season, but they’re perhaps at their loveliest in early summer when the rhododendrons are in flower and the hedgerows fume with the scent of jasmine.
The Sentier Littoral is the longest of the trails, a coastal footpath running the full length of the Cap from St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and passing the famous lighthouse on its southernmost tip. The hike will take about three hours and you’ll need sturdy shoes, as the cliffs are steep and occasionally rock-strewn. It can also get rather windswept. But the isolation of the location and its panoramic views across the Riviera coastline are unforgettable.
For a less challenging walk, follow the Sentier Touristique de la Pointe St Hospice, a one-hour round trip from Paloma Beach around the mini-promontory on the east of the Cap. It takes its name from the 6th-century hermit, St Hospitius who is said to have chained himself up in a deserted tower and lived on a diet of bread, dates and prayer (and, allegedly, nothing but root vegetables and prayer during Lent). You can make a short climb uphill to the 19th-century chapel erected in his honour.
Alternatively, if you want to take it nice and easy while still smelling the salt spray and enjoying the open air, then our walk will fit the bill perfectly. Much the gentlest of the three trails, it follows the Promenade Maurice Rouvier – a pretty red-Tarmac walkway that runs directly along the water’s edge on the Baie de Fourmis side of the Cap. A leisurely kilometre-long stroll from end to end, starting from St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, takes you right round to the edge of Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
Across the bay to your right are wonderful views of the coastal mountains rising up to the bird’s nest village perché of Eze and out towards Monaco. (It’s also possible to make out Bono’s villa over at Eze-sur-Mer – an impressive-looking terracotta mansion with blue shutters, right by the beach.) To your left as you walk, pretty walled garden houses peek out from behind avenues of pine trees.
By the end of your amble – especially if you meander at dusk – you’ve the perfect excuse for a hard-earned sun-downer at Beaulieu’s gracious Royal Riviera Hotel. Built in 1904, it’s a place where velvet smoking jackets, pearl earrings and little plates of cocktail olives have never gone out of fashion. Settle on the Art Deco terrace, blow your budget on the fanciest aperitif on the menu, and raise a glass to les beaux vieux temps on Cap Ferrat.