The best place on the Côte d’Azur has been debated since the southern French coast was so named in 1887, and there is still no consensus. For many, it’s the Croisette in Cannes, home to film and other festivals. St.-Tropez, a consistent attention-getter for almost a century, is “it” to even more. But the sexy beach resort has been falling in and out of fashion since the writer Colette reportedly declared it too crowded—back in 1923.
Undiscovered spots on the well-traveled shore no longer exist. Nonetheless, as the fickle constantly seek novelty, great places are beloved and abandoned and inevitably circle back from forgotten to fabulous once more. Such may be the case with what is sometimes still called the Italian Riviera, even after France took over the vast coastline that surrounds the principality of Monaco. Last summer, seeking something new but reflective of the Riviera of old, I rented a small villa, Les Arondes (from $1,400 a week; Av. Louis Laurens; 33-6/62-07-19-60), in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Roquebrune is an ancient village perché—a fortified hill town—with beaches beneath it; Cap Martin is a peninsula halfway between Monaco and the Italian border, where today’s French Riviera ends at Menton and Italy’s begins in Ventimiglia.
I had hoped that its obscurity meant realityTV stars and other de trop St.-Tropez types hadn’t discovered it, either. Certainly there were none near my villa. An easy climb up from a beach called Golfe Bleu, the house seemed on first impression to strike a rare balance between glamour and simplicity, hallmarks of the Côte of old. Roquebrune isn’t Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s glam Riviera or some sizzling new St.-Tropez manqué. Instead, I had found the other side of paradise—where a sybaritic present rubs shoulders with the ghosts of the Riviera’s past. Where one moment you are Cary Grant, zooming along the Moyenne Corniche, and the next you are strolling past 19th-century villas clinging to cliffs planted with acanthus, agave and eucalyptus, en route to a beach club where Pétale de Rose flows while Jay-Z rhymes and barely clad beauties dance on tabletops.
The Côte d’Azur became a winter resort in the 1830s, when British and American invalids and sufferers from lung ailments first discovered its temperate climate and never left. Still today, aging English speakers swarm Menton’s covered market, an architectural landmark near the sea, shopping a cornucopia of cheeses, fruits, meats, fish and accompaniments as varied and visually stunning as they are delicious, even though the market’s twin in nearby Ventimiglia, while less picturesque, is better stocked and better priced.
In 1863, after Napoléon III of France annexed Menton and Roquebrune, which had seceded from Monaco 15 years earlier, its ancient ruling family, the Grimaldis, created the Société des Bains de Mer de Monaco and opened a casino and several hotels on a plateau near their palace to keep tourists coming. Named Monte Carlo after Charles, the reigning prince, it enhanced the area’s appeal—and in the Belle Époque era, the region, centered on Menton, had its first heyday. British royals, czarist grand dukes and Parisian bankers filled new hotels and erected villas like Cap Martin’s Cyrnos, home of Napoléon III’s wife, Empress Eugénie. Many still stand, but few are open to visitors. One, La Mortola (Corso Monte Carlo 43; giardinihanbury.com) in Ventimiglia, allows a peek at its magnificence—the 19th-century tea merchant Sir Thomas Hanbury’s lovingly maintained villa and 45-acre botanical and medicinal gardens occupy an entire promontory between the coastal road and the sea, 300 feet below.
World War I marked the end of that era. Though this stretch of the Riviera remained “spectacular geographically” and “the most aristocratic socially,” as Geoffrey Bocca wrote in his 1962 book, Bikini Beach, it was also the “dullest” stretch of the region because “whatever action exists is going on behind high walls and away from the eyes of the populace.” Sounds like heaven, no? Which it was for the likes of Coco Chanel, who built La Pausa on Cap Martin, and Daisy Fellowes, a Singer Sewing heiress whose second husband brought his cousin Winston Churchill to their Villa Zoraïde not far from what later became producer Dino De Laurentiis and Italian film actress Silvana Mangano’s sprawling beachside villa, Casa del Mare. It still overlooks Plage du Buse, a public pebbled beach now ringed by the latest iteration of Russian royalty, post-Soviet oligarchs.
Buse is also where the great Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier died in 1965 while taking his daily swim beneath his Riviera refuge, Le Cabanon (Sentier Le Corbusier; 33-4/93-35-62-87; fondationlecorbusier.fr), a one-room timber shack with sweeping views of the Bay of Monaco. It was attached to a restaurant, whose owner gave him land to build on after he first visited Cap Martin to see his frenemy Eileen Gray, the modernist designer, and her architect lover, who lived with her just down the hillside. Today architecture buffs queue up to tour Le Corbusier’s perfectly preserved bolt-hole and the five spartan cabins he designed for rental. Like the near-by Jean Cocteau monuments—a museum, a marriage hall he painted in Menton and the Villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat, which he decorated—Le Cabanon is a window on the lives of the international creative class that long sought refuge in these parts.
Over the course of a week, the eastern Riviera revealed itself to be as diverse, diverting and sometimes decadent, but nowhere near as crowded, as the infamous strip of private beach clubs jammed together on St.-Tropez’s Plage de Pampelonne. Finding their equivalents wasn’t easy, but it was worth the effort.
The best of its beach clubs is Anjuna Plage (28 Av. de la Liberte; 33-4/93-01-58-21; anjunabay.com) in Èze-Bord-de-Mer. After parking on the Basse Corniche, I walked through a tunnel under the road and the coastal train tracks to a bay surrounded by rocky hills. Awash in turquoise and teak, Anjuna has a small bar, a bamboo-roofed dining deck furnished in a vaguely Balinese style, a menu that ranges from loup en croûte to suckling pig, rows of sun beds inches from the gentle surf and a clientele that includes yacht owners who come by tender; U2’s Bono and The Edge, who both own villas on the beach; and packs of raucous Russians—some of whom danced away one afternoon to Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” providing a St.-Tropez moment in Éze.
The best beach is Plage de la Mala, a tiny cliff-ringed cove with clear water and good snorkeling, hidden off twisty roads lined with Belle Époque villas and down a gentle (but longish) stairway in Cap d’Ail. It has a water-sports dock at one end and two private beach clubs at the other: Eden Plage (Allée de la Mala; 33-4/93-78-17-06), a hippy-chic restaurant done in wood and red, and the larger, white-on-white La Reserve de la Mala (Allée de la Mala; 33-4/93-78-21-56; capresort.com), an oasis of chic, right down to the sand that fronts its beach. (As with most of this coast, the beach at Eden is covered in pebbles.)
The dining scene is just as sophisticated. Mirazur (30 Av. Aristide Briand; 33-4/92-41-86-86; mirazur.fr), on the Menton side of the Italian border, has a clean, intimate design with peeks into the kitchen; long, sweeping views of the town and the Mediterranean; and cuisine by Argentinian chef Mauro Colagreco. Just as dramatic for its location on the Cap d’Ail–Monaco border, if not quite as culinarily distinguished, is Philippe Starck’s three-year-old A’trego (Port de Cap d’Ail; 33-4/93-28-58-22; restaurantatrego.com), a spacious lounge-restaurant barely disguised as a simple fisherman’s shack that attracts the showy Monégasque crowd. More traditional fare can be found among the tourists at Au Grand Inquisiteur (18 Rue du Château; 33-4/93-35-05-37; augrandinquisiteur.com), a cave-like restaurant carved into the fortress walls of Roquebrune.
The best meal of the week was also the simplest. Le Cabanon (Pointe des Douaniers; 33-4/93-78-01-94; capresort.com) in Cap d’Ail is a modest, informal, mostly outdoor establishment at the tip of Pointe des Douaniers, a former military post with a view across the water past Monaco to Cap Martin. The restaurant sits on the Chemin des Douaniers, part of the Sentier du Littoral, a coastal footpath linking Cap d’Ail to Menton. Its tile-roofed kitchen produces perfect Provençal country food (daube, grilled fish and vegetables, a superb artichoke salad) as dogs wander free and locals play pétanque under the stars on the large, well-groomed grounds. As the sun set, Monaco dissolved into ink-blue darkness, and I sipped my last glass of pale, dry rosé, finally ending the debate over the best of all Riviera worlds. I was there.