Selecting the most romantic hotel on the French Rivieria is as different as choosing a favorite French wine? Sometimes you're in the mood for a feisty, new Beaujoleis or a bright rose; either times a mature Cabernet or Chardonnouj is just right. Likewise, in the matter of hostels, a quite, intimate inn is sometimes perferable to a grand center-city palace.
Fortunately for visitors to the Cote d'Azur, there is a trio of hotels that seem designed for romantics and, like the wines of France, offer contrasting but delightful alternatives. Actually, there are more than a dozen legendary hotels on or behind the Riviera between Marseilles to the east and Monte Carlo to the west. But the dazzling Ho tel de Paris in Monte Carlo, the luxurious Ho tel du Cap on Cap d'Antibes, and the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or in the village of Eze are world-class examples of traditional European hotels, and each differs from the other in only the most pleasant of ways.
If your vision of romance includes bejeweled women stepping out of limousines into a hotel that reeks of Old World elegance, then the Ho tel de Paris should be your headquarters on the Riviera. In the heart of the tiny principality of Monte Carlo, hard by the casino that looks like an art gallery, the Ho tel de Paris is a class act. Both its public rooms and its guests are dramatic--the place and its people seem part of a lavish movie set just waiting for the cameras to arrive.
"Monte Carlo," says Leslie Blanche, a writer and neighbor of the principality, "is a deeply religious center. Its god is Mammon and the temple is the Ho tel de Paris."
Indeed, the jet set worships over saumon fume' at the hotel's rooftop restaurant, the Grill. Or takes caviar under the stars at the dining terrace whose perimeter tables are so near the hoods of Rolls Royces parked by the hotel's entrance that you can feel an engine cooling.
I prefer the terrace restaurant at night, the better to watch aristocrats and their playmates arrive for drinks or gaming. And if you have a choice, request a room at the rear of the hotel. Come morning, you may drink your freshly squeezed orange juice on a balcony overlooking a harbor where the yachts of the world's millionaires jostle for space in the summer.
Daytime entertainment ideally begins around noon, when you've recovered from the champagne of the night before. A taxi or minibus will take you to the private beach available to guests of the Ho tel de Paris. It is, as they say, the ONLY beach. Women should keep their tops on poolside, but on the shoreline the relaxed dress code of the Riviera applies. Champagne is sold from refrigerated carts by vendors who cater to the cabana crowd.
At night, the Ho tel de Paris is in the middle of the action. The casino is steps away, as are some of the more popular bistros. At nearby Rampoldi's one night, I spied an exotic-looking blonde eating pasta in a booth with what, from a distance, appeared to be a small cat on one bare shoulder. Curious, I weaved my way toward her booth, and the closer I got, the more bizarre the pet appeared. When I arrived at the table, she and her companions gave me a withering stare.
"It ees a monkey," she said in a chilly tone of voice that seemed to suggest I was underdressed for not having a small primate of my own to nibble at my ear.
Despite its central location, the rooms of the Ho tel de Paris are quiet and, if you overlook the harbor and Mediterranean, offer peaceful views. Your maid will come at a ring to press your evening gowns, and the shower gel is Lanco me. Such luxury costs about $150 a day for a double room including service, but it's a small price to pay for a feeling of larger-than-life, sweep-you-off-your feet romance; there are closet-sized hotel rooms in Manhattan with a view of an accountant's office that cost more.
If it's seclusion and charm you want, halfway between Monte Carlo and Nice is tiny Eze, a 900-year-old village seemingly carved into a cliff 1,200 feet above the Mediterranean. At the top of a cobblestone alley--a porter will come down the hillside to fetch your baggage--is the Cha teau de la Chevre d'Or, a six-room, four-suite hotel (from $100 to $200 a night) where guests have no choice but to fall in love.
Every detail points to that inevitability. Down below, through the brilliant bougainvillaea that climbs the stone walls of the hotel, is a vista matched by no other hotel on the Riviera. On a clear day you can see Corsica. At night, the lights of Cap Ferrat sparkle. There's even a small swimming pool on a ledge, tucked beneath the renown dining room enlarged 18 years ago by the hotel's current owner, Bruno Ingold, who knew a breathtaking setting when he saw one.
I've never been lucky enough to stay at the hotel because its few rooms are booked far in advance. But there is no excuse for anyone on the Riviera not to take a dinner there. Try the lamb raised on the herbs and grass of the Alps and, for dessert, a raspberry souffle' with icy raspberry sauce. Linger. Have two cognacs instead of one after dinner. Consider whether life could ever be finer. From the vantage point of the Chevre d'Or, it seems quite impossible.
Combine the elegance of the Ho tel de Paris with the peace and privacy of the Chevre d'Or and you have one of the great jewels of the Riviera, the Ho tel du Cap d'Antibes. Built in the late 1800s by a Russian prince as a mansion (until the Russian Revolution disturbed the prince's plans), the hotel is situated on 20 acres of flowers and pine trees on Cap d'Antibes, between Nice and Cannes. Its neighbors are the magnificent vacation homes of the rich and royal of the world.
An immaculate driveway delivers you to the front door of a white mansion with sky-blue wood shutters. A valet whisks your car out of sight to an underground parking lot. After driving through the heavy coastal traffic, you will be struck by the tranquility of the place. When I arrived one afternoon last summer, the hotel's 110 rooms were fully booked, but there were no cars in sight and only one guest in the open, sunny lobby of marble and glass. He was comedian Bill Cosby in tennis whites, smoking a cigar.
The hotel has been a favorite hideaway of celebrities--Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, George Bernard Shaw, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Pablo Picasso and, more recently during film festivals in Cannes, Jack Lemmon, Liza Minnelli, Liv Ullmann and Julie Andrews have called the hotel home.
"I like to give the impression that each of the guests owns the place for himself," says veteran general manager Jean-Claude Irondelle of the illusion of privacy he has so successfully cultivated.
After registering, I walked to the rear of the hotel to admire, to my left, several clay tennis courts and gardens in which grow the roses for each guest's room. Below me stretched a wide walkway to the Mediterranean and the hotel's beach club, the original Eden Roc. Walking toward me, his arm entwined with his wife's, was the artist Marc Chagall.
The hotel's rooms are spacious and luxuriously appointed, with fabrics designed for the hotel and bathrooms finished completely in Portuguese pink marble.
"I'm very precise about the bathrooms," says Irondelle, "because I feel people spend more time in the bathroom than the room sometimes."
Monsieur Irondelle is also very precise about his guests, a luxury he can afford because the demand for his rooms between June and September far exceeds the supply.
"I like to keep it an international hotel," he says, "and as I have the privilege of selecting the clientele, I can mix, so not one nationality becomes the majority."
If a guest prefers more privacy at the beach than the Eden Roc pavilion offers, nearby is a limited number of green and white cabanas made of wood and terraced on large rocks to the sea. There, for an additional $80-a-day last summer, Johnny Carson snorkled during his annual pilgrimmage to the Ho tel du Cap.
I asked him why he regularly chose this hotel.
"This place is 'Fantasy Island' come real," Carson said. "The only problem is, you have to go back to reality."
But that, of course, is the whole problem with the French Riviera.