Soak up the good life on the Cannes Riviera
The film festival is in town, but at any time of year Cannes is the ideal place to indulge your starriest whims
Saturday 15 May 2010
The city of Cannes is an intriguing mix of loud and quiet. The rotary blades of helicopters chugging across the azure Baie des Anges: loud. The low warble of the early evening cicadas: quiet. The bustle of shoppers, sightseers and street performers along the celebrated Croisette: loud. The worshipful hush on the other side of the glass in the monochrome Chanel boutique: quiet.
The city lives by these extremes, defined as it is on one hand by the annual Film Festival, currently in full swing with popping bulbs and screaming fans, and by the eternal practice of exquisite elegance on the other. Loud or quiet, ritzy or reserved, Cannes is a destination for those who enjoy the good life, be it opulent or understated.
With many budget airlines serving Nice Côte d'Azur airport, access to the A-list hotspots has opened up a little. But that isn't really the point of exclusivity; pushing the boat out – or rather, the five-tiered catamaran, darling – is the French Riviera's raison d'être, so it's little wonder that those in the know are seeking ever more luxurious haunts: places to see and be seen, as well as places to hide and be hidden.
How better to mark your distinction from the herd at the very outset of your trip than by catching a helicopter from the airport to your hotel? Passengers are satisfyingly diverted on arrival beyond baggage reclaim to a quietly plush security queue that takes all of 30 seconds to form and dissolve again, without the usual scrum of amateur travellers rummaging in knapsacks or unbuckling their Birkenstocks. Then again, when your hand luggage comprises only of a pair of Aviators and an It-bag, the scanners are much easier to negotiate.
It's a 15-minute journey to Cannes by chopper, affording a view of the many private properties that pepper the coastline and corniche. The hoi polloi aren't supposed to know these exist, and they are largely obscured from the ground. It takes a posh bird's eye view to enjoy the manicured square footage and perfectly blue pools, the turrets and the sweeping driveways enjoyed by the super-rich. The overwhelming reaction, though, is to admire them rather than feel scandalised – they prompt the slightly envious praise of the sort that gets heaped upon the gardens at Versailles: the perfect setting; the ineffable arrangement of things; everything infinitesimally calibrated for pleasure and enjoyment.
Minute attention to detail provides the backbone of the true Cannes experience, and the Hotel Martinez – the largest and most prestigious of the three mainstay Croisette hotels – is the absolute embodiment of this. For a measly €36,000 per night, you can book the entire penthouse, a set of three connecting suites (also available separately) which spans the length of the building's top floor and looks out over the bay. With each of the generously proportioned rooms decorated in a studiedly pared-down tribute to the hotel's Art Deco origins, it's another of Cannes' dichotomies: the price might be loud, but the décor certainly isn't.
SGT (standard good taste, dear) abounds across the many dressing rooms, two saunas, six bedrooms and balcony – which remains chic despite cowering under the slightly surreal "name in lights" rooftop feature (a must for any self-respecting establishment on Cannes' most exclusive boulevard).
The penthouse suites have hosted the likes of Andie MacDowell and Monica Bellucci in past festivals, during which time it is generally reserved by L'Oréal for their "faces", but there is ample choice to suit varying budgets among the Martinez's 400 plus rooms – other guests have included Benicio del Toro, and even Leonardo DiCaprio's mum. (Rumour has it that she was staying at a nearby hotel which, although screamingly expensive, was a little too quiet for her tastes.)
Although the razzmatazz of Cannes can feel a little overwhelming – and isolating for the traveller with a more earthbound grip on their purse-strings – as a living city it is welcoming and vital. A walk along the Croisette left me open-mouthed at the excess and extent of the good life readily available, but there were plenty of other diversions that cost less and fulfilled more. An antiques market filled with Provençal bric-a-brac, for example, or the weekly farmers' market where the tomatoes, peppers and strawberries are as brilliantly red as the carpet down the road. Le Suquet, the old town crowned with a medieval citadel, is ripe for wandering, with winding cobbled streets such as Rue St-Antoine with its hidden bistros underneath awnings and sense of where the real inhabitants get their kicks.
Staying on the Croisette means you're also only five minutes from the marketplace and centre of town, and closer still to the clutch of exalted designer boutiques that populate the spaces between the hotels and the illustrious Palais des Festivals. You'll find ultra high-end labels such as Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta and, of course, Chanel, whose sleek and modern look first established itself among Riviera-goers during the Twenties. However, there are shops on the Rue d'Antibes with a more realistic pricing scheme, as well as artisanal handicrafts: tooled leather bags and sandals and natural beauty products made from local varieties of olive oil and lavender.
Back on the bustling seafront, the colossal hotels serve as perfect hideaways for the camera-shy, with their intimate bars, beach restaurants and, of course, the Michelin-starred dining experience at the Martinez's La Palme d'Or. This has had two Michelin stars since the mid-Nineties, and has retained them both despite a change of chef.
Based around fresh produce from the local market, meats, fish and fruits de mer of the highest quality, head chef Sinicropi's dishes are complex in both content and concept, ranging from a triptych of artichokes to start, right up to the perfectly rendered chocolate handbag (complete with sugar-strand handles) for dessert. No wonder Brad and Angelina booked a table during the last visit, although there is no record of whether Ms Jolie finished her handbag – they booked out an entire section of the restaurant that was screened off from prying eyes, of course. It's certainly a different tactic to picking up some of the local fare, like socca, a chick-pea pancake, or roussin, a filo pastry treat stuffed with rice and fragrant spinach. Pleasingly, both are perfect for eating on the move, with no reservations required.
If block-booking isn't quite within your reach, then take the other quiet option, a tour of Cannes' outlying islands, which are no less glamorous for all their earthy appeal. Ste-Marguerite is known for its historic jail (once a Roman fort) which has housed Algerian rebels and, before them, the Man in the Iron Mask. The neighbouring island was – according to legend – named after Marguerite's brother, St-Honorat, and is accessible only by private boat, or a small and rather unpredictable ferry.
St-Honorat has been home to a community of Benedictine monks for over 16 centuries; they live according to vows of silence and self-sufficiency, so it seems only natural that their attention should have turned to vinification. Their wines are served at five-star hotels across the world (although not in Britain), and they remain one of the Riviera's best-kept secrets. Produced from only eight hectares of vineyards, the Abbaye de Lérins bottles are a strictly limited edition.
The best place to enjoy them is in the restaurant situated on the island itself. It perches just above the sea, with a view across to its sister isle, all wild pines, red earth and scorched brush, its racing green foliage humming with wildlife and enriched all the more by the bluest of blue seawater. The menu is not expansive, but caters to all tastes by offering the best possible quality of traditional dishes such as king prawns, fresh fish and pasta, and culminates in a measure of Lérincello, a take on the Italian liqueur made locally on the island, again by the monks.
It has a warmer bouquet and flavour than its namesake, less honeyed and more whisky-ish, and it tastes all the better for being a quietly sophisticated, highly sought-after and incredibly exclusive treat. Just like Cannes itself.
Travel essentials: Cannes
* The writer flew to Nice with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), which flies from Heathrow and London City with return fares starting at £99.
* Helicopters from Nice to Cannes are operated by companies such as Heli Securite (00 33 4 94 55 59 99; helicopter-saint-tropez.com ).
* Hotel Martinez, 73 La Croisette, Cannes (00 33 4 92 98 73 00; concorde-hotels.com/martinez ). The hotel has a summer offer of €381 per night per superior room B&B with a bottle of wine (minimum two nights).
* The Cannes Film Festival runs until 23 May ( festival-cannes.com ).
* Cannes tourist office: 00 33 4 92 99 84 22; cannes-hotel-reservation.fr .
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