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Landmark Riviera Hotels

Even the most world-weary, been-there-done-that travelers admit that the Côte d'Azur exerts a special power over them. A suave cocktail of expatriate novels, movies filmed through the besotted lens of Hollywood, and a lustrous string of legendary hotels has sculpted a granite image of the Riviera as the ultimate in sophistication and elegance. But what is the contemporary reality?

It's time to check in.

Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat

On St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a spit of land that seems no bigger than a gumdrop, this hotel corresponds precisely to the romantic, sepia-toned, anything-goes picture many people have of the Riviera. Only Somerset Maugham, who lived down the road and religiously drank champagne at the hotel each evening at sunset, would complain that the atmosphere of languor tinged with decadence isn't thick enough today.

Decadence and St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat have always had a good rapport. Belgium's King Leopold II, who once owned the whole peninsula, built two houses there, one for each of his mistresses. The sensory pleasures that must have consoled those inevitably neglected women are the same ones that greet guests at the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat today: the fragrance of pines, the chorus of cicadas, the papal brilliance of a cascading purple bougainvillea. A more sensual, quintessentially Mediterranean welcome is hard to imagine.

Built in 1908 on what has become some of the most expensive real estate on the planet, the hotel is endowed with 22 ravishing acres, land it uses in a way that is perfectly in keeping with the priorities of its clientele. The pool is right on the shore, the hotel on a perch 500 yards behind it. Travel time from room to cabana is never less than five minutes, giving you plenty of opportunity to show off your Liza Bruce bathing suit. If you linger on the twisting rosemary- and broom-fringed paths, or keep pretending to miss the funicular, getting to the bottom just might take you all morning.

The pool, when you're in it, plays the marvelous trompe l'oeil of seeming to flow uninterrupted into the sea. The trick works especially well since--against the vulgar expectations of certain guests--the pool's tile isn't turquoise (unlike that of a similarly designed pool at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc). Rather, it is the same steely blue as the Mediterranean. An underwater shelf at just the right height allows you to stand, schmooze, and stay wet all at the same time. But no cell phones, s'il vous plait. The person who thought of banning them should win a peace prize.

The owners of the Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, whoever they happen to be at the moment, are always attempting to steal the crown of their most irksome competitor, the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Wall Street honcho Saul Steinberg tried in the late eighties and failed. So did the Japanese who succeeded him. The latest bid, made by the current proprietors, a group of Lebanese investors who also have the Hôtel Vendôme in Paris, hinges on the renovation last March of 32 of the Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat's 57 rooms and suites. A chief goal of the makeover was to increase the size of the bathrooms. Now how about something a little more exciting to replace the scandalous no-name toiletries?

The renovation did not extend to the lobby, which is too bad. Its willy-nilly, truly weird mix of Lucite furniture, potted palms, and a piano that almost certainly belonged to Liberace gives a profoundly upsetting first impression. The Cap-Ferrat is one of the great dowager hotels of the Riviera. A little more face powder, please.

Blvd. du Général de Gaulle, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat; 33-4/93-76-50-50, fax 33-4/93-76-04-52; doubles $175- $879.

La Réserve de Beaulieu

The lumbering sommelier, a ringer for Pavarotti, wore a tastevin and a $12,000 18-karat Rolex Oyster. The Audi Cabriolet parked under the palms was probably his, too.

La Réserve is that kind of place. Like the guests, everyone from the gardener up wears a halo of prosperity and entitlement. Given the level of luxury the place has attained since opening as a fish restaurant in 1880, it is amusing to reflect on what had to be endured by those early patrons: arriving from Nice took longer by land than by sea; fresh water was delivered in kegs on wagons; there was no gas or electricity. By the time the war closed down La Réserve in 1914, however, it had become a world-class hotel suggesting a Florentine Renaissance villa and offering every amenity. Pashas and princes found that it compared favorably to home.

But even pashas--and the American movie stars who later glittered up La Réserve--can be hard on the furniture. Acquired in 1993 by a French bank, the hotel was renovated to the tune of $1.5 million. Boiserie was cleaned, antiques restored--and old-timers worried. These were pre-war regulars who still remembered when winter was the fashionable season on the Côte d'Azur, not, heaven forbid, summer.

Finally, the last stroke of ivory paint had freshened the walls, and the last pair of luscious peach taffeta curtains had been hung. Relative to the other big-gun hotels on the Riviera, La Réserve--with its seven suites and 30 rooms--has always been a boutique operation. Indeed, scale has everything to do with its appeal. The Côte d'Azur does not always bring out the best in people, who feel that its outsize reputation calls for outsize behavior. Add to this the effect the spatial grandeur of places like the nearby Hôtel du Cap has on such people, and you can get quite a show.

Not at La Réserve.

As for the refurbishment, guests perceive it in different ways. One man's "brittle," I learned while eavesdropping at the bar, is another man's "brilliantly polished." Yet some aspects of the renovation cannot be disputed. The bedside light in my room was insufficient, making it necessary to switch on the chandelier to read. And it is impossible for one member of a couple to take a shower in peace while the other watches CNN, because there is no way to turn off the bathroom's piped-in television audio.

Just as inarguable is the cool allure of all that beautiful Pyrenean marble (the same used for chimneypieces at Versailles), those dotted Swiss envelopes the bed blankets wear like lingerie, and the housekeeper's haute cleaning products that smell, however improbably, of cognac. Best of all is the whispering proximity to the Mediterranean. What more can you ask of a Côte d'Azur hotel room than the feeling that you are on the prow of a ship?

5 Blvd. Général Leclerc, Beaulieu-sur-Mer; 33-4/93-01-00-01, fax 33-4/93-01-28-99; doubles $240- $565; closed October 19- March 1, except for New Year's week.

Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc

As hotels go, only the Paris Ritz is engulfed by more legend. Fitzgerald modeled the Hôtel des Étrangers in Tender Is the Night on the Cap. No one has ever designed a more glamorous approach to a body of water than the palm- and parasol pine- lined allée that delivers guests from the hotel's limestone staircase to the Mediterranean. The restaurant--cantilevered over the sea on one of several terraces stacked like decks on a ship--serves up a view of the Îles de Lérins, unusually lovely even by Riviera standards. Near the spectacular pool blasted into the cliff face, Madonna famously grabbed her body parts while dancers vogued under the showers in the film Truth or Dare.

The Cap is almost always referred to as not only the best hotel on the Côte d'Azur, but one of the best in the world. Certainly it can be that. But for a stay here that lives up to the hotel's reputation, it definitely helps to be Somebody. It is a well-known fact in luxury European hotel circles that, in the eyes of the Cap management, all guests are not created equal. The staff's greatest attentions--and they can be exquisite--are often reserved for names and regulars. If ever there was a hotel with stars in its eyes, this is it.

Which is not to say that as a Nobody you cannot have a good experience, especially if you aren't shy about tipping. As one top New York travel agent who books dozens of clients into the Cap every year told me, "What I hear over and over again is that a good tip goes a long way." Money does talk here--$8 for a bucket of ice, $35 to dry-clean a linen shirt. Since credit cards are not accepted, most bills are settled--awkwardly--with cash or traveler's checks.

The "Cap" in the hotel's name refers to the main, original 1880 building, a pristine white mastodon with pearly gray shutters, set regally back from the shore. This is where you find the grandest rooms with the most French character and the highest style quotient. If you want to feel like a high-rolling member of the Lost Generation with nothing on your mind except where the next martini is coming from, book here and bring your cigarette holder. Rooms in the Eden-Roc annex are less seductive, but for people who want to be bang on the water, nothing else will do. In all, there are 120 rooms and 10 suites.

As a Nobody, my own relationship with the Cap took several punishing turns into S&M territory. Bored with my questions, the clerk hung up on me when I called to reserve. After requesting my car, I was handed the keys to get it myself. Though I did not ask for a wake-up call, I got one anyway, repeated calls the hotel denied placing, clearly intended to make sure I was gone by checkout. Labels on the blankets guaranteed that they were "min. 85% acrylic," but at least this wasn't directed at me personally.

The lobby is a wonderful spot to lick your wounds--truffled marble floor, crystal sconces, low brass-and-glass tables, quilted upholstery the color of beaten egg yolk. By the time I had taken a walk over the sumptuous grounds, discovering the hotel's own nursery, cutting garden, and dog cemetery (headstones read patou and dou-dou), I was ready to resume my Jazz Age fantasy.

Blvd. J.F. Kennedy, Cap d'Antibes; 33-4/93-61-39-01, fax 33-4/93-67-76-04; doubles $350- $515.

Affordable Riviera…

Hôtel Welcome 1 Quai Courbet, Villefranche-sur-Mer; 33-4/93-76-76-93, fax 33-4/93-01-88-81; doubles $95- $160.

The Hôtel Welcome, in the adorably steep and labyrinthine town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, should not be overlooked. The hotel is so near the water its balconies could serve as springboards into what everyone agrees is the most charming harbor on the Riviera. Breakfast on those balconies is one definition of heaven. The mattresses are foam, but with views like these, who cares?Jean Cocteau, a habitué who painted frescoes in the 16th-century Chapelle de St.-Pierre across the street, wrote that the Welcome is "a site which the young enthusiasts of lyricism should transform into an altar and cover with flowers." See why.

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