From an overcrowded and under-powered Fiat Cinquecento that was trying its futile best to race along the Basse Corniche, I glimpsed a perfect Côte d'Azur scene: a Grand Villa, a pied dans l'eau.

That was a decade ago. Ten years on, and after four hours searching the net, I tracked down the palace that had caught my eye - Hotel Cap Estel, with the wonderful address of Eze Bord-de-mer.

This particular address is approached via a vertiginous byway. You enter through fine wrought-iron gates and begin a hairpin bend descent to the grand 19th-century palazzo. It sits perched on a promontory between Nice and Monaco, oozing a sense of luxury that makes your toes curl and your wallet ache, while offering stunning views of the Mediterranean.

The location was first settled by a Russian emigre in the mid-19th century. Today, the comprehensively re-engineered Cap Estel celebrates the 21st-century - with more than a glance over its shoulder. The cool, neutral tones of the walls and soft furnishings are de rigueur among many new Riviera hotels, but the Cap Estel also has its feet in the past, as well as the Med; the contemporary sits perfectly beside bespoke reproduction antique furniture and grand Venetian mirrors.

The hotel also boasts a private cinema, billiard room and library housing The Complete Works of Winston Churchill - so far completely untouched. Service is impeccable and delivered with an air of discretion, presumably an unspoken demand of the A-list residents. The intense sense of privacy can, however, leave you feeling rather alone: to walk the tended gardens without a soul in sight, swim in the sea-water infinity pool in private, and dine, quite literally, à deux, in Loggia - the guest-only restaurant.

LOCATION

Hotel Cap Estel, 1312 Avenue Raymond Poincare, 06360 Eze Bord-de-mer, France (00 33 4 93 76 29 29; www.cap estel.com). In something more powerful than a Fiat 500, Nice is 20 minutes' drive away, Monaco 10 minutes.

Time to international airport: Nice-Côte d'Azur, is 35 minutes' drive away, or a 12-minute helicopter ride.

COMFORTABLE?

White Egyptian-cotton bed linen, the fluffiest of towelling bathrobes - plus slippers - and chic contemporary bathrooms. Record-timing room service delivers your chilled champagne to set the tone for the evening. This can be spent listening to the Mediterranean crashing on the rocks, or watching the lights of cruise ships anchored nearby.

Freebies: a platter of fresh exotic fruit on arrival; those slippers; sweet Molson toiletries; and bedtime chocolates.

Keeping in touch: flat-screen television, DVD player, radio, free internet access and direct-dial telephones.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Well, it's not cheap - but it shouldn't be. High-season rates range from €550 (£393) to €750 (£535), while the most expensive suite costs €12,000 (£8,570). Breakfast is an expansive affair, well worth the €23 (£16) per person.

I'm not paying that: The Hi-Hotel at 3 avenue des Fleurs (00 33 4 97 07 26 26; www.hi-hotel.net) in Nice occupies a 1930s former one-star hotel, now converted into a boutique hotel with pool on the roof. Doubles cost €215 (£153.50), including organic breakfast.

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