As the world's movie stars and directors head for the French seaside resort, Jonathan Brown asks if it's possible to take a budget break in this Mediterranean haunt of the rich and famous

It was as a callow teenager that I first arrived in Cannes on my first and long-dreamed of solo foray into the glamorous world of abroad.

On that occasion, armed with little more than an InterRail ticket and a well-thumbed copy of Tender Is the Night, I found my spending power inversely proportional to my youthful idealism: both of which haemorrhaged uncontrollably from the moment I dragged myself from the discomfort of a couchette into the sweltering heat of the Riviera summer. It was a steep learning curve for a boy from Essex, that when it came to experiencing the romance of travel it was often best left to such masters as F Scott Fitzgerald.

Returning nearly two decades later, no longer the raggy-arsed backpacker but now with two small children in my charge, I was keen to see if it was possible to feel at home in this prohibitively expensive, sun-kissed playground of the rich and famous.

The world knows the ancient port for rolling out the red carpet each May to Hollywood's biggest movie stars. The film festival has become one of the swankiest dates in the calendar since it helped relaunch France on the road to post-war recovery in 1946. The really classy way to arrive here is by yacht, and even out of season the bows of these vast floating gin palaces rise like gleaming white skyscrapers from the harbour side.

The first film festival was held at the old Casino de Cannes, and pretty much ever since the eminent Victorian Lord Brougham "discovered" the then sleepy fishing village as an over-wintering place for consumptive British noble folk, the dropping of a small fortune at the roulette table at one of Cannes' gilded gambling houses has been a right of passage for young aristocrats and wannabe playboys.

The Scottish social reformer's statue still stands proudly among the boule players and slouching youth in the vibrant Marché aux Fleurs. Brougham helped kickstart the belle époque, putting up the first of the ostentatious villas in the Quartier d'Anglais that are sadly off limits to casual gawpers.

Unlike the well-heeled Victorians, most of those who come to Cannes these days must make do with a self-catering apartment in one of the many large blocks which march up and down the surrounding hillsides. One such development is the Italian-styled Villa Francia, owned by the French company P&V.

The resort has garnered some unprepossessing reviews online and unfortunately first impressions were disappointing. Arriving at what felt like an underground car park with two tired and hungry children, we were forced to stock up at the stratospherically overpriced resort shop. We managed to negotiate our way to our apartment juggling luggage, shopping bags, pushchair and kids with only the help of a map. Here we found the addition of a travel cot to our ultra-bijou quarters meant the only possible sleeping configuration was to upend the bed in the main room to make space for the baby. Meanwhile, my wife shared the bunk bed in the hall with our eldest daughter and I retired to a sofa bed in the lounge.

But the niggles were soon overcome and the next morning brought those famous blue skies, the use of the vast infinity pool overlooked by our generously proportioned balcony, and a stunning view of the Mediterranean. We visited out of season, so the resort was quiet, but there were still some activities: a small playground, a basketball court, ping pong and an introduction to archery – all free. Tennis was extra as was the Wi-Fi connection. There was also a children's club, though we never managed to locate it.

Being without a car, salvation was at hand with the regular free shuttle bus service that makes the five-minute journey between the resort and the Hotel de Ville. It puts you down close to the superb Marché Forville and its dizzying array of fish, vegetables, fruit, olives and charcuterie. On Monday it is given over to antiques. The old town or Suquet with its Saracen-thwarting ramparts ensures a pleasant half day ascending cobblestone alleys and passing by inviting restaurants.

It is impossible to avoid La Promenade de la Croisette, the palm-fringed strand frequented by wafer-thin women, their tiny dogs and deeply tanned men with pink jumpers slung nonchalantly over their shoulders. One side drips with designer boutiques, jewellers and extravagant hotels. The other plays host to immaculately swept stretches of private sand, expensive restaurant-bars and nightclubs.

Personally, I would swap my own weight in Bulgari and Chanel for a ferry trip to the Iles de Lérins. At just €10 (£8.90) return, the short voyage from Cannes harbour to these eucalyptus-scented oases has to be one of the finest cruises anywhere. Here children can play and families dine out at wonderfully scenic picnic spots. This was where the mysterious "Man in the Iron Mask" was incarcerated and where Bonaparte's men pummelled their (English) foes with red hot cannonballs. A perfect place to dream – and that, I am glad to say, is something anyone can do in Cannes, no matter how rich and famous they are.

Compact facts

How to get there

A week's accommodation in a one-bedroom apartment at Villa Francia, sleeping four to five persons, starts at €560 with P&V (0870 026 7144; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; flies from Manchester to Nice from £19.99 each way.