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Cannes' grand affair

by Elina Fuhrman: Photos Elina Fuhrman

 


Famous French writer Guy de Maupassant wrote that Cannes is the "town of Lords, Princes and Kings." More than a century later, the ritzy town's sumptuous cuisine, serious entertaining, larger-than-life personalities and maximum style are in full swing - and the lure of this glam French Riviera address is more potent than ever.

My feet weren't sore from walking the steps of the red carpet at the famous Palais des Festivals, home to the famed Cannes Film Festival. Nor were my tootsies tired from a stroll along the curvaceous La Croissette that lines the beachfront resorts. But a night of dancing at the exclusive White Beach Club will have you burying your aching arches in the warm Mediterranean sands in the morning, and realizing shoes are the key to everything here: comfort, pace, and of course, style.

Keeping it Reel

The Carlton Intercontinental

Like those Christian Louboutin's you're thinking about, remember, comfort is all about the right fit. When it comes to the hotel scene, Cannes serves up the totally unexpected; from palaces like Le Martinez, Le Carlton InterContinental, and Le Majestic - to more eclectic boudoir scenarios found at 3.14 and Hotel Renoir.

After years of pampering royals and celebrities, the staff at Le Martinez knows how to make you feel like one. Patronized by old and new royals from throughout Europe for nearly a century, it's an address befitting glam status. "Dozens of movie stars stay with us during the festival," says Alessandro Cresta, an Italian-born hotel manager. "They demand the best service and we deliver." The word "no" does not exist, especially during the summer season when its legendary 34,000 euro-per-night penthouse suite is fully booked for weeks at a time. Why not? With room service from Le Martinez' Palme d'Or (two Michelin stars), and a beach club, Zplage, that's hotter than the mid-day sun, loyal clients with royal wallets are not in short supply.

Also majestically perched over La Croissette and the beach is Le Martinez' famous neighbor, Hotel Carlton InterContinental. As the unofficial "headquarters hotel" for Le Festival de Cannes, its landmark status was cemented when Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier III first met here in 1955. Like Le Martinez, the Carlton is packed with A-list celebrities during the festival, but expertly attracts a large share of Europe's major business meetings, which would never be called "conventions" in a city as unconventional as this. The pair are undoubtedly the most famous properties in the city, and with so much to live up to, service is astoundingly consistent and sometimes, as I found at Le Martinez, amazing.

I never stayed at the once-famous Savoy a few steps from the beach behind the Carlton, and that's a pity, because its place is now held by the entirely new hotel 3.14. This ultra-mod, not modernist, concept hotel is a sexy getaway if there ever was one. From the conveniently placed "love kit" on your pillow, to plenty of "sexual aides" in the mini-bar, the 3.14 beckons you to indulge in fantasies. (This is not where you bring your mom on a girls' shopping trip, but hey, let mom visit herself!) The rooms are covered in flashy velvet and other heavy, brightly colored textures according to the theme of the five continents. Mine was all purple and felt like a little girl's princess room. It's a perfect honeymooner's palace, with a lush rooftop pool and Jacuzzi overlooking an amazing view of the sea. The 3.14 even has a micro-spa, and its lobby boutique sells skincare products and (ahem!) larger varieties and versions of the mini-bar contents!

At Hotel Renoir, we travelgirls will find just the right fit for a glamorous night out: large white, silver and gold Hollywood-themed rooms with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and black-and-white prints of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable to take you back to the 50s. Everything is crisp and neatly in order, especially the over-sized travertine baths - a rare find in France. Not on the beach, but for under $200 per night, I'd say that was my favorite address! A short stroll takes you to La Croissette and the Azur Sea, but staying at Renior has other pleasures like its peaceful rooms and excellent breakfast. Renoir's sister hotel is Hotel Cezanne, with brightly colored rooms and an inviting Zen courtyard.

If you are counting your euros closely, Hotel Cavendish is an excellent choice, featuring the kind of Baroque romantic (read: small!) rooms you'd find in the Montmartre section of Paris. You'll be in luck if you score a more spacious room in the building's rotunda, where a balcony adds space and a view of the street corner below. Either way, you'll have to squeeze yourself into a single person 1920's elevator with a cage door - more fun for two after a night on the town! The best thing about this hotel is happy hour in the lobby with complimentary drinks and snacks - ided - excellent evening-out prep. Owners Christine and Yves Messeant-Welter are in the process of opening the nearby Villa Garbo, a more luxurious boutique hotel with modern furnishings that will be worth a look-see when it's done.

Fading in

Women with parasols

So you wake up in the morning, throw on your brand new white linen tunic from Blanc Bleu, a pair of comfy leather flip-flops from Kiwi and leave your hotel for the beach - or so you think. A quick glance towards La Croissette says, it'll be there all day, so you decide to do some window shopping before hitting the beach around noon. Before you know it, your Kiwis are gliding you in and out of the shops. You start at the top of the line, peering at elegant fashion houses, zooming in on the jewels being set carefully in window displays at Cartier, Chanel, Celine, Christian Dior and dozens of other designer galleries. "Why stop in Paris?" you ask yourself, like the girlfriend hanging on the arm of the apparently Russian "oligarch" who lights his cigar and talks on his cell phone at the same time.

Save your euros for the more affordable, but not inexpensive shops that line Rue d'Antibes (parallel La Croissette), where amazing boutiques command your attention. Browse through Paula Nani, Pink Purple, Sharon and Marinlula at the corner of Rue d'Antibes and Commandant Andre, and you'll be surprised at what can be found. Paula Nani is especially très chic - just lurking among its clientele and its labels makes you feel good inside! Designers like Maria Grazia (I'm told she is Roberto Cavalli's sister), Paola Frani, Phillip Plain and Julia McDonald might not be household names yet, but their tops and dresses are so extravagant, you'll have trouble picking just one.

Honestly, just skip the department store Galleries Lafayette; it's too small here and not as well-stocked as it is in Paris. Instead continue exploring the urban shops at Rue d'Antibes. I went through almost every one of them, but my absolute favorites were Jaime Mascaro for shoes (I couldn't leave without a pair of golden hidden platform pumps), Tara Jarmon for chic feminine dresses, Darjeeling for lingerie, Coccinelle for genuine leather purses and Ikks for kids' clothing. If you need time to stop and rest, detour to Rue des Fréres Casanova (a cross street with Rue d'Antibes), have a cup of coffee at one of the outdoor cafés, but don't leave without stopping at Cotelac, a must for glamorous travelgirls. The boutique is stocked with one-of-a-kind tunics, clever tops and adorable dresses.
Setting the scene

A bit late for lunch now, shopping bags in hand, you are ready to make an appearance at one of Cannes see-and-be-seen beach clubs - a ritual that can take some getting used to if you've never heard of paying 40 euros for a chaise on which to sit on the beach. If you make it here before noon, most chairs will still be empty, and that's your best chance. "Did you make a reservation?" is always the first question, regardless of how many empty spots you see. Getting a chaise on the front row, reservation or non, takes some serious flirting, movie-star status or cold, hard cash. Whatever method you choose, you'll be glad you did. Enjoy the precious views of gorgeous mega-yachts moored along the buoy rows set against the rocky shores. You will have a seagull's view as the flotilla of royals and other big spenders come in on their uniformed-crew piloted tenders for lunch!

The late afternoon lunch ritual is a scene to behold, as only the French can guzzle pink Bandol, made exclusively in southeastern France. Gleaming ice buckets appear first, followed by glasses, magnums of champagne and pink wine, large plates of sashimi and smaller ones with foie gras. You say to yourself, "I could do this every day," knowing in fact, some really do! What seems to be an hour goes by between your last words to the waiter and the arrival of your lunch selection. In fact it could have been two hours, but you've forgotten as the ritual lunch (all that champagne) makes time fly and service seem punctual. Besides, you have time to check out your beautiful and tanned table mates and make a note of the shopping bags they have with them (Did I miss that store?).

Choosing your lunch spot shouldn't have anything to do with which beach club your chaise is at, though often a lunch commitment can help win the desired chaise. My advice is to read the menus to see if any of the prix-fix "formulae" have what you hunger for - but in Cannes it's best to see what kind of crowd is building up first. It's pretty obvious that a wide range of prices can be found, as well as a diverse selection of people. For a truly hip happening lunch crowd, I prefer Zplage, where people-watching is at its finest. A more affordable but also busy lunchtime crowd is found at C-Beach, but there are so many more options and it's such a personal choice that it really takes time to figure out what it is you are after. If you don't want to pay but still want sun, walk down La Croisette toward Old Town, spread your own towel on the sand and enjoy the view.

Picture Show

Le Croisette

After a few days on the beach, you will greet the couple at a chaise next to you with the de rigueur question, "What party did you go to last night?" Note: that query replaces the traditional, "How are you?" in Cannes.

Cannes' nightly party mix is a combination of gorgeously attired clientele, great food, stunning settings and throbbing sound and light driven by an international DJ with his or her own following. The blend becomes intoxicating when some of the obviously rich, less obviously famous and always fashionable faces you saw frolicking during the day, show up at night. I didn't recognize anyone at the White Beach Club nor at the Le Palais Discotheque, but both places were hopping until the wee hours. White Club draws a younger crowd to its outdoor terrace, flowing with champagne and go-go dancers entertaining the crowd from water cages. The Palais Disco seems comparatively more exclusive, but no less exhilarating.

With lasers, strobes, and other techno-goodies illuminating tiny beads of sweat on the foreheads of so many bouncing bodies, smiling widely at their own good looks, it's hard to believe disco all but died off in the States. Here, against the canvas of the warm Mediterranean Sea, fueled by huge quantities of champagne and currency, the party never stops. Even on Sunday, late afternoons at some beach clubs, a dance floor is laid out and house music starts spinning while dusk arrives and the strobe lights take over once again. My advice is dress to party regardless of whether you plan to. It's better than being turned away because you didn't trek back to your hotel to change!
Take Five

Speaking of trekking, once you tire of non-stop shopping, non-stop beach, and non-stop dancing, a pair of Prada tennies, a swimsuit and light wrap is all you need for a half-day's recuperation strolling Isle of Sainte-Marguerite, a 10-minute boat ride from Cannes' marina. Once here, you feel the change of pace immediately. Spend a low-key morning on this small island's wild beaches and barely touched landscape. Stroll through the Isle of Sainte-Marguerite's crisscrossed paths, covered by pine and eucalyptus trees to Fort Royal and the Musée de la Mer. Or check out the old section of the island with former state prisons - and the cell that was home to "The Man in the Iron Mask" for 11 years.

At low tide you could almost walk (but don't!) to close by Isle Saint-Honorat, home to just 25 Cistercian monks, who live and work at the monastery, known as Abbaye de Lérins. You will hear the birds chirp, the lavender flowers whisper in the quiet wind and the waves hug the peaceful shoreline; no music, no honking and no chatter, the complete opposite of Cannes. After an initial deafening silence, I actually enjoyed the serene existence and wanted to spend the rest of the day out there.

When you are back at the marina, check out the Marché Forville, the city's outdoor produce market. It's a farmer's market every day except Monday, when it becomes a flea market. Then walk up Rue St.-Antoine to Le Suquet, the city's oldest quarter and the best spot for a bird's-eye view of the city.

For an inland adventure away from the hubbub of Cannes, take a trip up to artsy Mougins, the place that Pablo Picasso once called home, and where today's future masters of all media strut their stuff in galleries lining cobblestone streets. The classical French country village diversions and golf courses so near to the sea make a side trip here as refreshing as the Mediterranean breeze. If it smells like perfume, you're probably right; the nearby village of Grasse is considered the world's capital for fragrances of all kinds. Follow your nose north from Mougins and delight your senses with a visit to Fragonard, one of Grasse's longest-operating fragrance factories, family owned since 1926, and run by the founder's daughters today. Tours are offered that explain the origin of perfume from the essences to the noses - olfactory experts - who decide just how a new fragrance will smell.

If your wanderlust takes you east along the coastline - and it should if you fancy a glimpse of Monaco - be sure to stop in Juan-les-Pins and Antibes, on the peninsula separating the Baie de Cannes from the Baie de Anges (where your flight into Nice landed). These two seaside resort towns are precious for their views and serve as gateways to tiny Cap d'Antibes at the tip, perhaps the most expensive land in the entire Med. Nearby Antibes' most famous attraction, the Picasso Museum, pays an unusual homage to the famous artist's reputed affection for absinthe, the over-proof, allegedly hallucinogenic elixir made from herbs, including wormwood. While absinthe is not listed as a controlled substance, it cannot be sold in the US. Stopping by Absinthe Bar La Balade for a taste (or three) of the "Green Fairy," as it was called in the 1890s, is both a cultural and intoxicating thrill.

Cannes is an ideal base for all kinds of side trips around the French Riviera, with easy access to sun-drenched St. Tropez, metropolitan Nice, rustic Eze, and regal Monaco. It's been years since I visited Eze Village and Eze sur Mer, both an hour's drive from Cannes towards Monaco. But the drop-dead views from high atop the mountain hideaway of Eze Village are still etched in my mind: Ville franche Sur Mer immediately below, St. Jean Cap Ferrat in the center, and the glistening street lights of Nice beyond.

Star Power

Hôtel Martinez

You will need a pair Louis Vuitton pumps or perhaps, Chanel ballerina flats to make your culinary journey through Cannes and Cote d'Azur, a genuine adventure. From Italian and Creole, to Chinese, American, and even Thai, there are more choices than you will have time to sample. I personally prefer the traditional French fare and enjoy rustic brasseries as well as highly rated gastronomic restaurants. My suggestion is to sample at least one starred establishment during your trip, and then indulge in every French delicacy you can find.

One of the town's finest, Hotel Martinez' La Palme d'Or, whose two-Michelin-star rating is shared by only 64 other establishments in France, delivers innovative dishes (like a "napoleon" of tiny fish set atop a seabass filet, accompanied by seared foie gras, stuffed figs and grapes) and special touches (tea service hand-cut from a tableside cart of herbs) that create an experience to write home about. Chef Christian Sinicropi micro-manages the tiniest details, from handpicking herbs grown in his home garden to selecting each piece of fish, to designing the artisan constructions of flavor that sit playfully on each hand-painted plate sculpture (yes, the dishes are also designed by Sinicropi too!) Taste bud memory: a cheese selection the size and range of France itself, followed by (again) hand-cut jellies, nougats and chocolate mousses. The art-deco-inspired furnishings add to the ambiance and the staff's attentiveness is a treat in itself.

For comparison, a sunny afternoon lunch at the single-starred Le Mas Candille, a Relais and Chateaux luxe hotel and spa in Mougins, will give dedicated gourmands a delightful and refreshing experience. Chef Serge Gouloumes is known for a decidedly wellness-oriented cuisine based on seasonally-exclusive ingredients like the zucchini flower, which he beautifully stuffed with langoustines and arranged smiling in a foamed emulsion of savory sea jus. A very "girly" dessert of a bright pallet of sorbets packed with robust fruit essences was so good, I wanted a second helping, but settled for the beauty of the presentations in the idyllic hilltop inn's lush gardens and vistas.

If your favorite is fish, book a table at Restaurant De Bacon on your way to Antibes. Overlooking the comings and goings of Côte d'Azur Airport from its perch across the Baie des Anges on Cap d'Antibes, this elegant restaurant is stunning at sunset, with white tablecloths gleaming under the light of the red sun sliding behind the turquoise waters. Order De Bacon's most famous dish, bouillabaisse (fish soup with local catch like John Dory, scorpion fish, monkfish and other varieties) and devour its flavors so rich and yet so delicate, I can still taste it. The soup is so good that it's said to be the reason De Bacon earned its one-star Michelin rating. Unmoved by more nouvelle co-stars around the Riviera, De Bacon has kept its focus on perfecting the local passion for poisson.

Other memorable feasts without the Michelin pressures and prices can certainly be found throughout the region. A few more suggestions: I loved small fried smelt fish at restaurant Le RendezVous, seared duck breast at Auberge - ençale, and whole roasted sea bass at Tantra.
Fade to black

Trying to squeeze in during the May film festival will be like trying to buy those Christian Louboutin's on sale! Come instead around the Bastille Day holiday, July 14, after the festival when peak-season excitement, fireworks and a stepped-up party scene can be had at more moderate mid-summer tariffs. The euphoric combinations of la Côte d'Azur will have your heart dancing through scenes from sublime to surreal, where you're the star of your own classic, remade to perfection. As the critics gather on the red carpet yammering to the cameras, they may suggest you tighten a thing or two, but really, a visit here is work of your own creation.