A Return to Cap Estel

Courtesy of Cap Estel Archive

The legendary hotel on the Côte d'Azur has long been a hideaway for bold-faced names.

Once upon a time, when I was a kid reporter in London, I was invited to interview Charlie Chaplin, then living with his family at Lo Scoglietto, a great villa overlooking the Mediterranean in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It was my first sight, smell and taste of the South of France, and I fell in love, never dreaming I was destined to live on another cap, Cap-d’Ail, across the bay. Ironically, because I had lived there and had good friends there, except for my brief sojourn at Mr. Chaplin’s expense at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, I rarely again stayed in a hotel on the Côte d’Azur—until earlier this year, when I was invited to join friends at Cap Estel in Eze-Bord-de-Mer.

Cap Estel! The name evoked a sense of awe. For almost half a century I knew that the hotel, located on its own five-acre peninsula between Nice and Monte Carlo, had been the hideaway for some of the most powerful names in society, industry, theater, music and the movies—from Greta Garbo to the Beatles.

I had my own memories of Cap Estel: arriving by boat for a fresh-from-the-sea lunch served on an immaculate lawn beneath magnificent ficus trees. Owned and managed for nearly 50 years by Robert Squarciafichi, Cap Estel had a special magic because he regarded his clients as guests in his house. After his death, it wasn’t until 2000 that visionary new owners Stanley and Zea Lewis began a four-year renovation to re-create this sanctuary.

I landed in Nice after a six-hour flight delay left me frazzled. But my luggage came quickly, a driver was there, and in just 35 minutes I was arriving on the familiar Corniche Inférieure to turn left through Cap Estel’s wrought-iron gates. It had always looked like the entrance to a private home, and it still did. A sparkling white palace awaited at the bottom of the twisting drive. The manager waiting on the hotel steps welcomed me warmly. Shown swiftly to my beautiful room, I almost swooned with joy when the doors to a wide terrace outside were opened and the swiftest boost to memory—scent, a mélange of lavender, rosemary, pine and sage—breezed in.

It was already dusk. As the lights were going on in Cap-Ferrat to the southwest and Cap-d’Ail to the east, I ordered dinner in my room: the local rouget (red mullet), mixed berries and a glass of rosé from Provence. I booked a massage and hair appointment for the early morning in the spa carved out of the old seawall, with a heated indoor pool and fitness room any pro would covet.

In my earlier experience at Cap Estel, I hadn’t realized what a unique position it holds, with the vast sweep of the Mediterranean in front (all 12 suites and 8 guest rooms have balconies or terraces overlooking the sea) and, at the back, fragrant slopes leading up to the foothills of the Alps.

During a cosseted few days I discovered the hotel’s many incomparable assets: the deeply plush cinema, the alfresco café by the outdoor infinity pool, the billiard room, the cozy bar, the restaurant, the beautifully lit sitting and dining rooms. From my terrace I revisited my past, looking left at sunrise to the villa where I lived in Cap-d’Ail, to the right at sunset toward Cap-Ferrat, where Mr. Chaplin had enchanted me with his stories.

Cap Estel is at 1312 Av. Raymond-Poincaré, Eze-Bord-de-Mer. Rooms start at $480. To book, call 33-4/93-76-29-29 or go to capestel.com.