Spring breaks: The art of lazing and looking good

Despite its glitzy reputation, the Riviera still has pockets of paradise unknown to many tourists.
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The Independent Travel

Yachts dot the inner harbours and sheltered bays along the meandering sweep of the French Riviera. Like contented swans bobbing gently up and down, they seem loath to move on or, indeed, to do anything much. These gin palaces comprise an elegant pointer to what the Riviera is all about. Being lazy and looking good has been raised to an art form.

Yachts dot the inner harbours and sheltered bays along the meandering sweep of the French Riviera. Like contented swans bobbing gently up and down, they seem loath to move on or, indeed, to do anything much. These gin palaces comprise an elegant pointer to what the Riviera is all about. Being lazy and looking good has been raised to an art form.

The Riviera has been hyped to the heavens over the years. Think of Cannes, with its film festival, the Grand Prix in Monaco and the hillside villas of film and sport stars – all have helped to embellish the dream.

Yet the Riviera is supremely accessible. It can be savoured in a weekend, courtesy of a two-hour no-frills flight to Nice, the unofficial capital of the French Riviera. You could quite easily lose yourself in this beautiful city for an entire long weekend.

Start with a stroll along the 4km-long Promenade des Anglais. On one side are the shingle beaches, sloping gently into the Mediterranean. On the other are luxury hotels, boutiques and restaurants, interspersed with palms and manicured gardens. At night, with a warm breeze wafting in from the sea, the atmosphere is electric.

After your stroll, have a drink amid the belle époque elegance of the Hotel Negresco, a white, blue and pink dream. Opened in 1912, the Negresco is an Edwardian time capsule. This is the Riviera of Queen Victoria and her son, Edward VII, both of whom did so much to orchestrate the English love affair with the region at the end of the 19th century.

Just a six-minute helicopter flight away from Nice, Monte Carlo is the epitome of hype – but without too much substance. The casino is still there, a beautiful turn of the century building, fronted by fabulous fountains and flower gardens. Externally, it lives up to the myth. Inside, it's a different story. You won't find James Bond squandering a fortune on the roulette wheel; more likely, it'll be a bevy of cruise passengers, fresh from one of the ships at anchor.

The real trick of the French Riviera – rather like a no-frills flight – is that it makes heavenly locations so easily accessible. A breathtaking railway journey cuts a swathe through Cannes, Nice and Monaco, before scything into Italy. A drive along the Riviera's corniches gives early morning views over the Med, past beaches and avenues of flowering bougainvillea. Roadside cafes appear sporadically. Palm trees hint at the opulence behind wrought-iron gates while a gentle sea breeze wafts over you.

The whole of this region originally belonged to Italy, and its influence is still evident in buildings with bright window shutters, painted in pastel shades. Quaysides play host to fleets of fishing boats, their day's catch probably sizzling in a nearby frying pan. Bars and shops fringe the edges, while cars sit discreetly in alleys: a Porsche 911 here, a Rolls Royce Corniche there. Their owners lounge nearby, eating ice cream or drinking pastis.

Within easy reach of Nice, yet bypassed by most tourists, there exists one of the most beautiful and affordable resorts that you are likely to find on mainland Europe: Villefranche-sur-Mer. The French Tourist Board only slightly exaggerates in calling it "Paradise on the Azur". No other village sums up the subtle charm of the Riviera so perfectly.

Situated near Cap Ferrat and the Baie Des Anges, the harbour is one of the prettiest in the Mediterranean. Greenery climbs to incredible heights, separated by a ribbon of sand from the cool, azure blue sea that laps tamely at its edge. From up in the hills, houses, villas and hotels peek out from the vegetation overlaid by hibiscus and oleander. Along the bustling waterfront, bars, shops and small hotels curve around the foot of the hills. A high viaduct carries the railway along the rest of the coast.

In the early evening, people- watching is the order of the day. As the sun descends slowly into the bay, this most perfect of waterfronts takes on a slightly more upbeat tone. The music is subtle, yet infectious: cool jazz here, calypso there.

As you saunter from street to street, the bars are warm, welcoming and vibrant. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything more taxing than sip another drink. And frequent trains will deposit you smartly in Nice, seven kilometres away.

Go (0870 60 76543, www.go-fly.com) flies to Nice from Stansted and Bristol from £65 return; easyJet (0870 6 000 000, www.easyjet.com) has return flights from Gatwick, Luton and Liverpool from £60; and Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) flies from East Midlands from £50 return

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