Can a Golden Age be revisited? Very rarely, but yes. To turn back to the blazing blue glory days of the French Riviera, all you have to do is turn your back to its overbuilt coastline--much of which now looks like condo-hell on holiday--and head toward the secluded green promontory that juts into the Mediterranean called Cap-Ferrat. The discreet playground peninsula of the militantly private rich for a hundred years, Cap-Ferrat has been the haven of dotty old kings and their spoiled teenaged mistresses, international business barons and world-weary artists like novelist-in-residence Somerset Maugham. The attractions are simple. The creamy Hotel Bel-Air Cap-Ferrat is set in a pine- and geranium-scented private park overlooking the sea. The view from the terraces alone is worth the price of admission; on a clear day you'd swear you could see Africa (OK, Corsica). To gaze into the blueness, enthroned in high-backed rattan, shaded by branches and broad white umbrellas, drink in hand, is to be bowled over by calm.
Now for the excitement. Make that excitements. The hotel itself, an elegant extension of the Cap's serenity, would make a Calvin Klein art director burn his passport. Originally built as the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat in 1908, at the peak of the Edwardian era, it first drew a winter following of Russian and European nobility in need of a southerly airing. Since then the 59-room building has undergone several changes of ownership and various retoolings, the last being a multimillion dollar make-over only recently concluded. The glitz-free results now attract an international clientele year round, a sort of European version of the crowd one finds poolside at its sister act, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
Diving into the pool here is like plunging into a mirage, a shining shelf of water that appears suspended in space with nothing between it and the foaming sea below. You can lunch at its edge, choosing from a colorful salad buffet or an à la carte menu.
The chef, Jean-Claude Guillon, after the usual obligatory tours of duty in grand hotel kitchens, took charge of operations back in 1971. He has managed to keep in the diplomatic good graces of succeeding administrative regimes, deftly pruning his Provence-rooted cuisine to suit the changing gastronomic times; for his efforts Michelin has awarded him a star. Guillon's seafood and vegetable dishes are particular knockouts; try the giant ravioli of lobster filled with girolles mushrooms in a court-bouillon reduction sauce or the miniature stuffed local vegetables with pink lamb slices over chopped tomatoes and black olives. And take time to study the solid wine list, with its many interesting labels from the Rhône Valley and Provence.
The hotel is situated halfway between Nice and Monte Carlo, so figure 20 to 30 minutes to either unless you run into high-season traffic crawl. The concierge is glad to organize jaunts and outings, including yacht rentals or a chauffeured Mercedes to speed you to the casino or countryside. The little village harbor of St. Jean Cap-Ferrat, with its pale night forest of creaking masts, is a mandatory stop for strolling romantics or foraging food lovers.
You also can jog past silent villas and their electronic surveillance eyes, or amble about the rocks down by the water's edge. A dull glint slows you. What was this, a pimple in paradise, picnickers' litter here? Apparently: tossed into a stony cleft, two empty bottles of Dom Perignon.
Michael Batterberry is the founding editor and associate publisher of Food Arts magazine.