Allure of Côte d’Azur

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By Shandana A. Durrani

Cannes may be most famous for its yearly film festival, but the region offers even more for gourmands and lovers of luxury.

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It’s as glittery and as posh as one would assume. The beautiful people stroll down La Croisette in their Brioni suits and Christian Lacroix dresses, Chanel bags swinging in the soft breeze. Sailboats drift peacefully in the distance as the sun sets on the horizon. What was once a sleepy Mediterranean village is now the heart and soul of the Cote d’Azur. Cannes is a magnet for sun worshippers, cinema buffs, well-heeled Europeans, and expats with private yachts.

After being discovered by Lord Brougham, an Englishman, in 1834, Cannes soon became the winter vacation destination for much of the English aristocracy. It’s no wonder when one considers the paradisiacal landscape and affable people. The city gained international renown a century later when Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, and Philippe Erlanger, a fine arts attaché, launched the Cannes International Film Festival, in 1946. Since then, thousands of actors, producers, directors, journalists, and wannabe starlets have flocked to the red-carpeted steps of the Palais du Festival to witness the most prestigious movie competition in the world. But more than just movies abound on these sophisticated shores, and sojourners often indulge their fancies with shopping, fine dining, and, of course, cruising aboard megayachts.

La Croisette, the most famed street in the city, runs parallel to the pier and is a veritable mecca for high-end fashion aficionados. From Bottega Veneta and Valentino to Escada and Brioni, one can spend a day trolling the abundant shops, soaking in the heady ambiance of luxury brands, and investing in the best look for the remainder of the stay.

While casinos dot La Croisette as well, it is the array of haute hotels that make the statement of elegance that defines the French city. The historic InterContinental Carlton, built in 1913 and site of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, affords its affluent guests gorgeous suites in muted shades of gold and yellow with spectacular vistas of the sea. The hotel boasts close ties to the film festival and serves as the venue for many posh parties during the course of the May event. The Carlton’s seventh floor is host to seven expansive luxury suites, all with sweeping terraces, named after famous stars from Sir Sean Connery to Sharon Stone to Sean Penn.

 Strolling at a casual pace through the old town affords explorers a true sense of the authentic Cannes.

The lovely art deco Hotel Martinez is celebrating its 80th birthday this year. A home away from home for many celebrities (Jean-Paul Belmondo of Breathless fame was in residence when I visited the property in March), it plays host to one of the most expensive and luxurious multi-room penthouse suites on the Riviera. Themed celebrations for the 80th anniversary include a delicious 80-euro repast at the hotel’s two-Michelin-starred La Palme d’Or restaurant and an 80-euro spa deal. For readers who prefer something more modern and funky, a stay at the Le Grand Hotel Cannes is in order. Set a bit back from the sea behind its own private lawn, this unique oasis is the site of many summer soirées. The newly refurbished rooms are colorful yet chic, with ostrich leather vanities and Italian linens. The suites on the top floor feature garden terraces and are marketed as the perfect gathering place for families and large groups.

Many of the best activities in the city revolve around film, from train-car cinema tours to walking journeys of the city’s movie murals. (I ventured four miles just to gaze upon the painted beauty of Alain Delon, one of my favorite actors.) A visit to the top of the Musée de la Castre shouldn’t be missed as the entire city is on glorious display, from the old town to La Croisette, from the mountains near Nice to the coastline near St. Tropez.

Strolling at a casual pace through the old town affords explorers a true sense of the authentic Cannes. Streets are narrow as is the norm in the Cote d’Azur, with three-story homes awash in hues of pink and yellow dotting the winding avenues. Here, the pace is much slower than on La Croisette and one is more likely to see locals sipping on coffee at a café than tourists gazing wide-eyed at the fashionable local beauties. Stop at Jean Luc Pelé for some decadent chocolate or rose-flavored macaroons, which are a local favorite. Don’t forget to visit Cannes’ famous Marche Forville; the market is bustling in the summer months with fresh produce, flowers, cheeses, and local fish. I tried sea urchin, a local delicacy, for the first time but found it to be a bit too salty and runny for my palate.

The sea urchin couldn’t quell my love for French food, however, so I decided to take a cooking class at Les Apprentis Gourmets. Trained at Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo, Chef Digiusto teaches budding top chefs how to cook flavorful dishes, and at only 15 euros, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more inexpensive meal. The chef can also cater private dinners aboard your yacht or in your villa.

The sea beckons and I heeded the call to hop on a ferry to visit the nearby Lerins Islands. Each is distinctive but offers much of the rocky beauty that makes the Cote d’Azur famous. Saint-Honorat is home to an ancient abbey that was modernized close to 80 years ago. The local monks sell homegrown honey, lavender, and excellent wine and liqueur. Nearby Sainte-Marguerite is best known as the 17th-century prison of the mysterious man in the iron mask, said by some to be the twin of King Louis XIV.

Travel to Cannes is easy. Air France flies daily from New York to Nice, which, on a good day, is only around 30 minutes by car from Cannes. Monaco is a short hop away and glitzy St. Tropez is not far either. Contact www.franceguide.com and www.airfrance.us for more information.

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