All that jazz: French Riviera

A trio of French Riviera hotels blend 1920s hedonism with contemporary elegance

Travel and Wellbeing 31 May 2022

French actor Annabella at Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in 1933

French actor Annabella at Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in 1933

F Scott Fitzgerald, look away now. I’m perched on Cap d’Antibes’ creamy cliffs, my elasticated trunks from TK Maxx paired with a shiny slathering of Ambre Solaire to resist the Riviera sun. Could this be the very spot where you and Zelda, high on cocktails and Cole Porter, dived into the moonlit Mediterranean in full evening dress? How very déclassé.

We can’t all be urbane writers skewering the elite with wry observations. However, exactly a century after the Jazz Age, we can enjoy a heady sip from Fitzgerald’s “golden bowl” when the beautiful and the damned lazed, danced and drank their way through several sultry Côte d’Azur summers.

A view of the Eden-Roc Pavilion, 1948
A view of the Eden-Roc Pavilion, 1948

Those limestone cliffs are the only place to start. They belong to the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, immortalised in Tender is the Night as Hôtel des Étrangers, a ‘resort of notable and fashionable people’ shaded by ‘deferential palms’. In 1923, two charming American socialites, Gerald and Sara Murphy – the inspiration for the novel’s Dick and Nicole Driver – persuaded its owner to remain open past April. The South of France, previously a winter haunt of pale North European aristocrats, never looked back. The summer season had arrived. For the next two years, the gilded Murphys and their rat pack of creative expats, from Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker to Rudolph Valentino, Picasso and Man Ray, basked around the hotel pool beneath its classic Napoleon III château.

Evenings could be wild. Not just midnight cliff dives but spontaneous skinny dips initiated by a naked Zelda, and desperate dawn walks to recover from overdoses of sleeping tablets. The modern-day Eden-Roc is a little different. Refreshed by a £37.5m facelift, its elegant rooms sport Colefax and Fowler fabrics, alongside a radiant lobby with imposing artworks and sublime explosions of flowers, and exquisite gardens whose tasteful riot of umbrella pines, cypress and cedar trees gaze across Golfe-Juan to the Iles de Lérins.

A sculpture at Hotel La Colombe d’Or
A sculpture at Hotel La Colombe d’Or

However, as the spiritual home of A-listers attending the Cannes Film Festival, the discreet celebrity bolthole is no stranger to 21st-century shenanigans. Sharon Stone requested a harpist in traditional Irish costume and a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne while Kate Moss trashed her room after being reprimanded for wearing a bikini in the corridor. Flicking through famous guests’ quotes in the hotel’s Golden Book, I find self-portraits by Johnny Depp and Karl Lagerfeld, followed by Katy Perry’s recommendation to burn her room’s sheets.

The Murphys’ hedonistic coterie no doubt graced the hotel’s iconic trapeze, suspended over the Mediterranean since the 1920s, now selfie central for the likes of Kendall Jenner, whose elegant Insta pose received 3.5 million likes. I sample supper in the Eden-Roc Pavilion, formerly a seafront tearoom, now a spectacular, superb and seriously pricey restaurant whose curved decks and rails suggest a liner from the golden age of travel. It’s a ‘soft-pawed’ fabulously Fitzgerald evening with ‘the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below’. Tender is the night – and the Dublin Bay prawns in champagne and cep emulsion.

Writer F Scott Fitzgerald and friends on the French
Writer F Scott Fitzgerald and friends on the French Riviera

The glamorous post-war crowd also colonised nearby La Garoupe Beach, the Americans embracing peasant chic by pairing espadrilles with striped fisherman’s jerseys and igniting a new fashion for sunbathing – a co-credit shared with Coco Chanel. On a heaving weekend, I amble along Garoupe’s blonde sand and, despite the forest of hooped parasols, can still see the picture of the Lost Generation sophisticates enjoying their pine-fringed paradise.

It wasn’t all sunbathing and soirées. A property with equal lineage to the Jazz Age tells a more domesticated tale. Hôtel Belle Rives in Juan-les-Pins, formerly Villa Saint-Louis, was rented by Fitzgerald in 1926, two years after he’d moved to France alongside his mentally fragile wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, seeking a simpler life: ‘a new rhythm’ in the ‘Old World’.

The hotel’s Art Deco interiors still reflect that louche, languorous era. The curved antique counter of the Fitzgerald Bar (milk it, why don’t you?) is surrounded by leopard-print chairs, a grand piano and period artworks. In short, cocktail heaven. The lobby, with its original iron and brass lift, keeps everything 1920s with uplighters, potted palms and travel posters: Antibes Côte d’Azur Trains Extra-Rapides!

The sprawling white exterior of Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc
The sprawling white exterior of Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc

The atmospheric rooms are drizzled with black-and-white photographs of the Fitzgeralds; he in plus-fours, she with a sweater tossed over her shoulders. Their image suggests sunny times, as does the engraved quote taken from his letter to Hemingway: ‘With our being back in a nice villa on my beloved Riviera… it’s one of those strange, precious and all transitory moments when everything in one’s life seems to be going well.’

It didn’t last. The married couple argued constantly, with Zelda storing packed luggage in every room to allow instant escape. Indeed, the Fitzgeralds fought just about anywhere. Head up into the hills above Nice on a balmy summer evening and bag a seat on La Colombe d’Or’s tranquil garden terrace. Now imagine the soft buzz of conversation interrupted by a furious Zelda – jealous at Scott’s flirtation with dancer Isadora Duncan – launching herself across the dining table, over Gerald Murphy’s head and down a steep staircase. The only casualty was her dignity.

The lovely Colombe d’Or maintains another link with the joyous creative era of which Fitzgerald wrote ‘whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art’. Sarah Murphy, pearls draped down her back, was a secret muse for several Picasso portraits. The Spanish painter’s works feature in the hotel’s remarkable art collection, alongside canvases by Matisse, Chagall, Léger and Renoir, most displayed casually in the dining room where they now gaze down on the kitchen’s acclaimed blend of signature Provençal and classic French dishes.

Such private artistic treasures are now the preserve of billionaires. We can only speculate how Fitzgerald, a writer obsessed with the corrosive effect of great wealth, would have viewed Cap d’Antibes’ current residents including Roman Abramovich and Suleiman Kerimov. But take their villas and superyachts, add in a horrific European war with France sanctioning billions worth of oligarchs’ assets, and it would surely have spawned another great novel. Anyone for The Great Gatski?;;



Images: Lipnitzki/Roger -Viollet; Getty Images