When most people think of the French Riviera, they probably think of the glitzy beach resort of St. Tropez or the glamorous celebrity hangout of Cannes or the jet-set resort of Nice. While these towns are the magnets that lure travelers to this slice of European paradise, there are many smaller locales that are equally worthy of a visit.
With 120 towns and villages strung across the Cote d'Azur like a necklace of shiny, cultured pearls, there is a destination for everyone. Here are four of the Riviera's lesser known gems.
Translated as "beautiful place on the sea," this town, between Nice and Monaco, is well-known by the rich and famous, but often flies under the radar of camera-toting tourists. Along with Menton on the Italian border, Beaulieu-sur-Mer has the mildest climate on the Riviera, and palm trees, as well as those bearing lemons, oranges and bananas, are a common sight.
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Many people come to shop Beaulieu-sur-Mer's exclusive boutiques, frolic on beaches such as Petit Afrique near the yacht basin (although don't expect sand here; the composition is a fine gravel) and stroll along the seafront promenade, marveling at the luxurious villas that line it.
Look for the sign indicating Villa Namouna, which was once home to James Gordon Bennett, Jr., owner of the New York Herald newspaper and the man who sent journalist Henry Morton Stanley to Africa in search of Dr. Livingstone.
While Villa Namouna isn't open to the public, the stunning seafront Villa Kerylos is. As testament to what a combination of extreme eccentricity and extreme wealth will do, French archaeologist Theodore Reinach built the villa in the early 1900s as a faithful reconstruction of the homes of Greek nobility on the island of Delos during the time of Pericles in the second century A.D.
Now a museum, the villa's interior — with plenty of marble, frescoes and mosaics — reflects Rome, Pompeii and Egypt in addition to Greece. .
If you saw the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin and Michael Caine as larcenous cads looking to swindle a young heiress, their stomping grounds, Beaumont-sur-Mer, was the fictional alter ego of Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
Often dismissed as just a suburb of Nice, this lovely town has plenty to offer in its own right. It's a main stop on three corniches which snake through the mountains connecting Nice to Italy. The gigantic sapphire oval that forms the bay was said to have been created by Hercules simply by opening his arms.
The 17th-century La Darse Harbor, one of the deepest in the Mediterranean, was originally created to hold the galleys of the Duke of Savoy. But today, it bustles with yachts, sailboats and pleasure craft of all kind. The aptly named Rue Obscure (Dark Street) provides an interesting contrast to the sunny harbor. Dating to the 13th century, it's a harbor-side underground passageway whose arcane secrets can only be imagined.
The 17th-century Italian Baroque-style Eglise Saint-Michel and the 14th-century Chapelle Saint-Pierre, dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen and decorated with stunning murals by Jean Cocteau, are the cultural highlights of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
However, it's the Belle Epoque mansion overlooking the sea which inspires "ooohhhs" and "aaahhhs." Locally known as the Villa Leopolda (an earlier estate on the property was given by King Leopold II of Belgium to his mistress), it has the distinction of being the most expensive house in the world.
When Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov purchased it in 2008, he made a down payment of 39 million euros (45 million dollars in today's market). But the half-billion dollar sale was never completed, and the French court ruled the down payment non-refundable. Ouch!
Villa Leopolda is not open to the public, but if you want to see what half-a-billion dollars will get you, rent the movie To Catch a Thief in which the villa features prominently.
Interesting factoid: When Tina Turner moved to France, she set up housekeeping in Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Just across the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels) from Nice lies Cap d'Antibes peninsula, with the twin towns of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins. If Antibes is the sleek sophisticate, Juan-les-Pins is her saucy younger sister. Said to have the best beaches on the Riviera (white sand rather than pebbles), the town gained prominence during the 1920s and '30s when notables such as Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald flocked there.
The Fitzgeralds settled in a neoclassical villa overlooking the sea, where Scott began penning his homage to the Cote d'Azur, Tender is the Night. Today, that villa is the luxurious Hotel des Belles-Rives, and though a bit calmer these days, an aura of the Jazz Age remains.
Another Fitzgerald favorite, Hotel Juana, is an Art Deco gem that sits between the sea and one of the last remaining pine forests that give Juan-les-Pins its name.
Famous for its seaside promenade, which rivals those in Cannes and Nice, the town is equally known for its year-round nightlife. It really heats up in July during the famous Jazz Festival, which has been drawing music lovers for more than 50 years, and provided the European debut for such greats as Ray Charles and Miles Davis.
In Juan-les-Pins, shopping is considered part of the nightlife. In high season, many boutiques remain open until midnight, prompting locals' advice to visitors, "Party, sleep late, shop late, party some more."
Of all the resorts on the Riviera, none has the allure (okay, the snob appeal) of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. This nine-mile promontory is dotted with billionaires' villas, hidden by lush vegetation and overlooking serene bays, beaches and hidden coves.
Unless you've recently had your company listed on the NYSE or your current album has gone Triple Platinum, you may not be able to afford one of the villas, but you can dream (and look). There are a number of public paths — Plage de Paloma to Pointe-St.-Hospice being one of the most popular — which will give you a tantalizing taste of the opulence.
Many visitors want something more up-close and personal. They can't visit nearby Villa Mauresque, a très exclusive boutique hotel, unless they are guests. The villa was once the home of the notoriously reclusive author Somerset Maugham, who spent his last years snarling to those who tried to take a peek, "I am not one of the local sights."
They can, however, tour La Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, one of the Riviera's most romantic properties. The shell pink Italianate villa and its nine gardens are run by the Institut de France, and for 13 euros ($18), visitors have visual access to a treasure trove of Sevres porcelains, Fragonard drawings, Gobelin tapestries and Tiepolo ceilings. Want a double dose of luxury? For 19 euros ($25), you can get a ticket to both Villa Ephrussi and Villa Kerylos as long as you use it within a week.
After touring Villa Ephrussi and its luxurious grounds, linger over tea in the glass conservatory with a view of the sea, and fantasize about the legend and lore (and yes, the reality) that is the French Riviera.