When F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived on the Côte d'Azur in the twenties, he immediately got caught up in the exuberance of the day, writing that "whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art." After 80 years the same can be said about the French Riviera of the 21st century. These days, virtually every new development—hotels, shops, restaurants, galleries—is linked to experimental design and a contemporary artistic ethos. The epicenter of reinvention is Nice, France's fifth-largest city, where urban improvement is speeding along—literally. By early 2007, an electric tram will zip around town, alleviating traffic and pollution. The exhibition space Maison des Projets opened recently in a converted electric plant in the middle of the Old Town outdoor market. And in a decisive shift toward utilitarian art, the new Louis Nucéra Library commissioned Niçois artist Sacha Sosno to design its administrative office: a monumental cement cube resembling a man's head sitting on a giant neck and shoulders. Also, the city has turned its beachfront promenade into a sculpture garden with the mammoth works of such notables as Bernard Venet and Niki de Saint-Phalle. "These days the art scene is bubbling with creativity," says Cédric Teisseire, 37, founder of La Station, one of the metropolis's most progressive galleries. "Since the beginning of the century, Nice has been a cosmopolitan crossroads, and it's the mix that contributes to the effervescence."
Still, some things never change—especially on the Promenade des Anglais. After a massive overhaul, the sculpted Art Deco façade of the newly rebuilt Palais de la Méditerranée gleams like the lights on the Bay of Angels, Nice's classic "string of pearls." Built in the twenties by American billionaire Frank Jay Gould, the legendary seaside casino fell into disrepair and everything but the façade was demolished in 1990. Now the glamour is back, re-created in an updated Deco style, with a huge casino, a gilded lobby, and 188 bright, colorful rooms with wenge and sycamore furniture. (The general manager, Christophe Aldunate, hails from its sister hotel, the Martinez, a half hour away in Cannes.) On the third floor, chef Bruno Sohn prepares excellent Mediterranean specialties at Le Padouk, the dining room flanking the poolside terrace and bar (the eggplant-and-tuna cannelloni stands out).
Farther down the promenade, in the Old Town, architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte has given the Hôtel Beau Rivage a stylish, if sober, makeover (Matisse would never recognize his former digs), even remodeling the property's trademark blue deck chairs. The 118 rooms alternate zenlike grays and blues, incorporating black walnut furniture and bathrooms studded with beach pebbles set in resin. Across the street, the hotel restaurant, which serves grilled fish and salads, sits on a private beach.
Elsewhere, minimalism prevails. The Hi Hotel, which established the designer Matali Crasset as one of France's best, is an unobtrusive eight-story white rectangle on a residential street. But much more awaits behind the fuchsia glass doors: a high-tech playground of 38 rooms, a hammam, a deejay-attended lounge, a self-serve "laboratory" of organic dishes presented in glass jars, and a flowerpot-shaped rooftop pool. There are nine room styles—among them, Indoor Terrace is a luminous loftlike space featuring a sunken bed on a teak sundeck, and Technocorner comes equipped with a sliding DVD screen visible from the bathtub and bed, as well as a chaise with integrated headphones and speakers. "Guests should feel not at home," Crasset says. "We're offering them a completely different experience from the usual."
The same is true at Kei's Passion, a tiny restaurant on a tranquil square in the center of town, where Japanese chef Keisuke Matsushima concocts exquisite Mediterranean dishes with subtle Japanese touches. His octopus salad with coriander is superb, as is the delicious foie gras with fresh almonds and lemon confit. The beef mille-feuille with wasabi, however, is deservedly Matsushima's most popular dish. Another foreign newcomer outshining the locals is a young Finn named Jouni Tormanen. The Alain Ducasse-trained chef's teeny, très cozy haute-cuisine bistro, Jouni, has become an insider hangout for perfectly prepared fresh-off-the-hook fish and divine chocolate tarts.
Nice's smart set has also been turning up on Rue Defly, a street swelling with hip shops and galleries, just steps away from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. One shop worth noting is Espace Helenbeck, which specializes in vintage and antique furniture decorated by established contemporary painters. Look for everything from a Louis XV chair revisited by a graffiti artist to a show by the sculptor Arman. Among the block's newest arrivals is Les Eaux de Mars, a boutique selling one-of-a-kind silk-screen jackets and skirts for women and kids.
As the creative spark that ignited Nice radiates outward, chic Riviera towns from Monaco to the Italian border are similarly dusting off the old-world fustiness. One of the area's best small hotels, Cap Estel, which opened not long ago in Eze (just east of Nice), is hidden away on a quiet five-acre peninsula. The immense Belle Epoque-style palace once served as a hideaway for celebrities of the day, and after it sank into decrepitude in the nineties, the new owners spent more than three years—and a rumored $50 million—turning the place into an immaculate compound (very much in the manner of Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda). The three bungalows feature teak and marble terraces that face the sea, and the five huge suites in the main house include kitchens for guests bringing along a personal chef (there's no restaurant and only breakfast and poolside fare are served). Cap Estel also has a cinema, a seawater infinity pool, and a bay-windowed gym with a pool.
In Monte Carlo, Hôtel Métropole, which hogs an enviable corner near the Casino square, was another vestige of more splendid days, until the Boustany brothers decided to give their father's Belle Epoque beauty a multimillion-dollar push into the new millennium. They teamed up with interior designer Jacques Garcia and Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon, and as a result Monaco has turned a page. The opulent 146-room Italianate palace is classic Garcia: Florentine reds and beiges, Roman columns, and Napoleon III armchairs upholstered in modern floral-patterned fabrics. There is also a sexy heated outdoor seawater pool, a terrace restaurant, and a streamlined spa with 13 treatment rooms that will offer waxes and massages in January. Whisking and mincing is very much under way in Robuchon's pristine open kitchen, where a dozen chefs prepare French-Mediterranean tapas: lobster ravioli, baby squid with thyme and chorizo, caramelized quail with truffles and apples, and desserts such as Mauve for Maud, a medley of blackberry sorbet, cherries, and violet whipped cream.
At the edge of the Côte d'Azur, on the Italian border, lies the sun-drenched town of Menton. It has always been a jardinier's dream, home to some of the country's most interesting, exotic gardens (Val Rahmeh is perhaps the best of the public grounds). And now the town will have a hotel worthy of its heritage with the reopening of the Hôtel Napoléon. The three luminous new seaview suites are named after Menton's own artists, Jean Cocteau, Graham Sutherland, and Ferdinand Bac (who designed the private Colombières garden). The rest of the hotel is like a mini museum. The terrific collection includes original photos and drawings by Menton's favorite sons, as well as vintage posters from its biennial. In fact, it seems that all of sleepy Menton is waking up to the town's treasures. Currently in the works is the construction of a museum devoted to the so-called Prince of Poets, Cocteau. As a longtime Riviera resident, he foresaw the inevitable: "You have to do today what everyone will do tomorrow," Cocteau wrote. "The poet remembers the future." Words the Côte d'Azur is finally taking to heart.
CAP ESTEL From $730 to $11,370. 1312 Ave. Raymond Poincaré, Eze; 33-4/93-76-29-29; www.capestel.com
HI HOTEL From $215 to $465. 3 Ave. des Fleurs, Nice; 33-4/97-07-26-26; www.hi-hotel.net
HOTEL-CASINO PALAIS DE LA MEDITERRANEE From $445 to $3,310. 13-15 Promenade des Anglais, Nice; 33-4/92-14-77-30; www.lepalaisdelamediterranee.com
HOTEL & PLAGE BEAU RIVAGE From $330 to $730. 24 Rue St.-François-de-Paule, Nice; 33-4/92-47-82-82; www.nicebeaurivage.com
HOTEL METROPOLE MONTE-CARLO From $550 to $5,900. 4 Ave. de la Madone, Monte Carlo; 377/9315-1515; www.metropole.com
HOTEL NAPOLEON From $125 to $260. 29 Porte de France, Menton; 33-4/93-35-89-50; www.napoleon-menton.com
JOUNI $ Dinner, $120. 10 Rue Lascaris, Nice; 33-4/97-08-14-80; www.jouni.fr
KEI'S PASSION $ Dinner, $90. 22 Ter Rue de France, Nice; 33-4/93-82-26-06
ESPACE HELENBECK 6 Rue Defly, Nice; 33-4/93-54-22-82
LA STATION 10 Rue Molière, Nice; 33-4/93-51-75-41
LES EAUX DE MARS 11 Rue Defly, Nice; 33-4/93-01-47-17
A L'OLIVIER (7 Rue St.-François-de-Paule; 33-4/93-13-44-97) is the place in Nice for beautifully packaged olive oils from Italy, Turkey, Spain, and Greece, as well as local nectars on tap.
Oenologist Antoine Soave's new wine shop in Nice, COTE-VIN (14 Rue St.-François-de-Paule; 33-4/93-84-63-60), carries a terrific selection of local Bellet wines, produced in the lush hills behind the city.
Nice's HIP HOLISPA (2 Rue Longchamp; 33-4/93-16-00-20; www.hip.fr) is a futuristic salon and spa with a line of massage oils and treatments derived from sea crystals and Amazonian flowers.
Sir Lawrence Johnston's recently renovated JARDIN SERRE DE LA MADONE, in Menton (74 Rte. de Gorbio; 33-4/93-57-73-90; www.serredelamadone.com), is a 1924 dreamscape of rare tropical species. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, April 26 to October 31.
Three years and $30 million later, November marks the unveiling of the meticulously restored gold leaf-and-frescoed SALLE GARNIER, the opera house in the Monte Carlo casino (377/9806-2800; www.opera.mc).
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