Antibes. Photo – Gareth Huw Davies
Antibes and Juan-les-Pins, twin resorts on the Mediterranean, have been a select escape destination for the titled, the talented and the just plain super-rich for many years. It’s the crucible of jazz in Europe, the birthplace of watersking and a serene setting for painters. Now, with Nice airport close by, and fast train connections from London, it’s close enough for that special break, or just a few days of Mediterranean hedonism. I took a Riviera repose: this is my must-do list.
Go to the swing
Juan-les-Pins is twinned with New Orleans for its crazy beat. When Peter Sarstedt added the town’s name to a roll call of the glamorous and trendy in his 1969 hit, “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, Juan was already one of the hottest jazz spots outside America. Launched in 1960, the Jazz à Juan festival is held every July (www.jazzajuan.fr) on the seaside stage under the pines. In 2010 Europe’s oldest jazz festival celebrates its 50th birthday. Performers are not yet finalized, but 2009’s roll call included Wynton Marsalis, Joss Stone, Jamie Cullum, and Keith Jarrett. The handprints of 50 jazz legends who have played the festival – among them Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Domino – are in a line of ceramic tiles in the pavement.
High society stroll
It’s an easy walk from Juan-les-Pins on the west side of the Cap d’Antibes, over to Antibes town on the eastern flank. On the way we passed lavish mansions behind high walls, down cool, quiet roads. This is the habitat of the so-called Pyjama Set in the 1920s. American millionaires built or took over vast mansions and threw glittering parties. The guest included Chaplin, Dorothy Parker, Hemingway and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. The main figures in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night were based on famous party-throwers Gerald and Sara Murphy. Gerald is generally credited with launching the Jazz Age in Europe. Villa Eilenroc, designed by Charles Garnier (architect of the Monte Carlo Casino) is the best of the mansions. Limited opening every week. www.antibes-juanlespins.com
Artists were drawn to Antibes by the magnet of huge, high views across to the mountains, lit by a scintillating sun. Their many versions of this vista are scattered through the art galleries of the world. Among the visiting painters was Winston Churchill. He gave his “Sailing Boat in Harbour at Antibes” to a Cuban friend who set him up with cigars and brandy. Lining the Painters’ Trail are laminated copies of the works of 10 artists – mainly views of the rocky coast, the headland and mountains by Picasso, Monet, Boudin and others — displayed exactly where they were painted. Tourist board guides lead the walks. Then find a table at a café in the big shady square, where shops sell bright Provençal fabrics and armfuls of local flowers. www.antibesjuanlespins.com
Stroll your own
Juan-les-Pins lacks the long, leg-stretching promenades of nearby Cannes and Nice. But it offers plenty of gentle sauntering along the front. Some of the pine trees that gave the town its name tower over the petinque pitch. The mood music is the stately clunk of steel on steel. There’s a line of reasonably-priced beach restaurants. They obey the golden rule of (the more affordable) French cuisine, serving a few simple dishes, but doing them well. For the more energetic, there is diving and deep sea fishing . And water skiing was pioneered here. A steady parade of smartly-appareled runners and cyclists passed our hotel. We preferred to sit on our balcony with a drink and watch the gin palaces in the bay swing gently round in the tide.
Antibes town was founded by the Greeks in the fourth century BC. The Romans made it their main entry point into Gaul. Excavation continues today. The best finds, from local digs and ancient shipwrecks in the harbour, are on show in the Archaeology Museum in the 17th-century Bastion St Andre. Château Grimaldi, on the ramparts above the port, houses one of the world’s great Picasso collections. Pablo used the building as his studio in the 1940s and gave the museum the works he completed there. The Museum of Napoleon includes examples of Bonaparte’s striking line in hats. And now that the infamously potent green liqueur is on sale again, it’s worth checking why they banned absinthe in the first place, in the Absinthe Museum.
Bag the Beach
They sent a BMW to whisk us the 15 miles from Nice airport to the Cap d’Antibes Beach, one of the smartest new boutique hotels in the area, opened in May 2009. Once we’d arrived the style was tastefully below the brim, rather than extravagantly over the top. Rather than compete with the palatial old hotels on this coast, they blended the low-rise Beach hotel into a headland and surrounded it with Mediterranean greenery. The walls are sandstone; the walls are waxed concrete. Reflecting the local fishing legacy, our room had a vibrant fresco of a seabass covering an entire wall. There’s a private beach and spa. The adjoining one Michelin star restaurant Les Pêcheurs recently re opened. We had sublime, locally caught fish cooked with Provençal elan. www.ca-beachhotel.com/
The writer flew with of British Airways, from London Heathrow to Nice. Five flights daily; five times a week from London City. www.ba.com; 0844 493 0758