Return to Hotel du Cap

Bernard Touillon

The Cote d’Azur’s most storied hideaway.

Ahhh, the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, perhaps the most storied and pedigreed of all the many Europalaces of the rich and famous.

In fact, so rich and so famous, so glamorously pedigreed was this wedding cake of a hotel on the sea that, until recently, it was teetering on the edge of…passé, an antediluvian reminder that one can never be too thin, but perhaps, one could be too rich. Then, in 2011, following a $64 million renovation of the 142-year-old grandee, came a very contemporary new managing director, Philippe Perd—plus WiFi, the acceptance of credit cards and a menu that includes sushi, as well as soufflé; finally, the Hôtel du Cap entered the 21st century.

That’s not to say familiarity doesn’t still have its rewards. What I found, over the three days I visited, was an impeccably run palace, appropriately haute and white-gloved as ever, but attune to a more democratic traveler—albeit one who doesn’t mind airport-to-hotel service via Mercedes Maybach. It is, to be sure, one of the most beautiful “grand” hotels in Europe, perhaps rivaled in terms of architecture and setting only by Italy’s Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como. But its transformation, under Perd’s watchful eye, has also created a place that still very much matters.

Still Tender is the Night

“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

A quick historical thumbnail: For European aristocrats and nobility, the French Riviera had been fashionable since the mid-19th century—but as a winter destination. It was Americans, most famously, the expatriates Sara and Gerald Murphy, who gave it cachet in the summer: He was the ultimate bon vivant–cum–artist (and also owned the then-fashionable Mark Cross leather goods); she became a muse for Picasso. Together they arrived in 1923, inspired by their friend Cole Porter, and decamped at the Hôtel du Cap, becoming, perhaps, most famous as the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-age romance Tender Is the Night. To be honest, the Fitzgerald mystique is how many still know it—and why others still come. Joseph P. Kennedy would bring the entire clan from Massachusetts for the summer, and this is where the newly wed Duke and Duchess of Windsor honeymooned after his abdication in 1936. Last September, when I visited for the first time, the more fashionable and “familiar” summer set had already jetted their way back to Paris, Geneva, Abu Dhabi and New York. The clientele was mostly European: the ever-fashionable Daphne Guiness and her amour, so-called “pop French intellectual” Bernard Henri-Levy, were discreetly in residence; Madonna and her entourage of 15 had just left.

Family Business

The hotel, built in 1870 by the owner of France’s Le Figaro newspaper, was originally called Villa Soleil and was intended as a retreat for writers; Fitzgerald immortalized it as the Hôtel des Étrangers. With rooms beginning at $990 a night in season (it’s closed from October to March) and the tariff for the simplest—but, arguably, the most perfect—salad Niçoise running about $70, it obviously no longer romances only the writer. Yet remarkably, it is still very much en famille. Bought in 1969 by the late Rudolf Oetker and his wife, Maja, the Hôtel du Cap is part of a clutch of properties that includes Le Bristol in Paris, Brenners Park in Baden-Baden and Le Château Saint-Martin, which overlooks the Mediterranean from the hills of Vence, 30 minutes away. It was Maja who green-lighted the multimillion-dollar recent renovation, and Maja who is responsible for every element of the hotel’s decor.

The rooms, despite the volumes of cold cash pumped into them, still seem rather wonderfully old-fashioned, though comfortably updated—electronically (TVs, as well as complimentary WiFi) and otherwise. My own favorite (and actress Sharon Stone’s too, I was told) is no. 5. Despite being on the first floor, it has one large and very elegant bedroom and sitting room (not a jerry-rigged suite, with one of those deadly never-to-be-used living rooms), with floor-to-ceiling drapes, a terribly chic Louis XV writing table and French doors that open onto its own grand marble terrace overlooking perfectly groomed grounds. Nary a blade of grass is unattended, and limestone steps lead to the water.

A Sense of Place

If only for the setting alone—overlooking the Île des Lérins, a breathtakingly lovely stretch of the Riviera, and discreetly arrived at via winding avenues and the glamorous villas of Antibes—Hôtel du Cap would be remarkable. But then there is the property itself: 22 sumptuously landscaped acres with parasol pines, seaside palms and meticulously pruned gardens (the hotel boasts its own nursery and cutting garden). The architectural miracle of the pool and restaurant, cantilevered over the sea on many levels, is jaw-dropping. The original haute-French building, with its famous gray shutters, may be the centerpiece, but there is also, perched high with more stunning views, the Eden Roc pavilion, built in 1914, and its Eden Roc Suite. It is Philippe Perd’s own favorite—a spacious one bedroom with living room, walk-in closets, two bathrooms, its own Jacuzzi and a heavenly terrace.

Details, Details, Details

François Simon said it best in The Artisans of Paradise (Assouline, 2009): “When the rose blooms are so perfect, one’s thoughts turn to the hands that pruned…when the sheets on the bed are sleek as marble, one cannot help but imagine the expert hands that smoothed. These tiny gestures make up paradise.”

The master behind this paradise and its staff of 345 is Marseilles-born Philippe Perd. A veteran of London’s Connaught, the Crillon in Paris…and Harvard Business School, Perd arrived seven years ago. “When the Oetker Group offered me the position, I didn’t hesitate,” he says. “This hotel is iconic—magical, yes, and elegant, for sure.” Key to his appointment was Maja Oetker’s confidence that Perd would be able to restore and update, as well as respect, the property’s heritage and tradition. It was under Perd that the hotel began to accept credit cards. As he told the Wall Street Journal, “If a guest wants to order a ’61 Cheval Blanc, they don’t want to have to make sure there’s money in their account—and everyone wants to earn airline miles.” Thankfully, the 33 wood cabanas were left intact, pretty much as they were when Picasso and De Chirico would take one for the day in order to have private access to the beach. Perd’s proudest accomplishment? “That the hotel is ever-changing yet always the same.”

One Does Not Go Gently into This Good Night

Though the bottled water on your bedside table may be complimentary, these days, that is not a word used frequently. In fact, the Hôtel du Cap is still one of the most expensive properties in the world, where a room like no. 5 is $2,125 during high season. Though there is nothing like dining here, amid moonlight and candles, there are amazing places nearby with considerable charm that are much gentler on the pocketbook. Among them are two of my favorite Provençal dining experiences: La Petite Maison, in Nice, and Josy-Jo, in the tiny 17th-century village of Cagnes-sur-Mer. Both are about 40 minutes from the hotel and can easily be arranged by chief concierge Gilles Bertolino, who has been here for 25 years.