The ocean-fed swimming pool at Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, a newly renovated resort near the town of St.-Raphaël, on the Côte d’Azur.
Benoit Linero/Courtesy of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges

The Secret, Unspoiled Côte d'Azur French People Don’t Want You to Find

Though the French Riviera is often associated with glamour and celebrity, the reality can be crowded and expensive. But there’s another side to the region — one that’s charming, low-key, a little rugged.
April 27, 2018

The words Côte d'Azur, for most travelers, conjure up a distinctive set of mental images. Rosé on a beach. Nightclubs filled with sun-kissed Brigitte Bardot types. Languid afternoons spent lounging on a yacht off the Cap d'Antibes. But there is a side to this region that couldn't be further removed from the star power of La Croisette — that famous palm-lined boardwalk in Cannes. The French families who summer down here know exactly how to sidestep the glitzy façade, seeking out secret beaches, pine-scented cliff walks, and simple yet spectacular Provençal food. For foreign visitors, however, finding the French Riviera's more authentic side has, for the past few decades at least, proved more difficult.

Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, a striking, newly reopened resort tucked into the cliffs midway between Cannes and St.-Tropez, aims to make it a bit easier to experience the true Côte d'Azur. Until very recently, this hotel was precisely where you didn't want to stay in Provence. A run-down, two-star place, it was stuck in the tackier reaches of mid-century France, and not in a classic, nouvelle vague way. But even at its polyester-everything nadir, the property still had a few things going for it. To start with: location. Les Roches Rouges lies in the turquoise heart of the Riviera, hovering over a tranquil inlet near the harbor town of St.-Raphaël. The hotel is named after the red rocks of the Massif de l'Estérel reserve — the 79,000-acre swath of mountainous wilderness it sits alongside. You get there by driving along a road called La Corniche d'Or, or the Golden Coastal Path, which is among the most scenic drives in France. And the hotel itself has always been in sync with the landscape, set into a low cliff with guest rooms cascading down toward the sea.

Nevertheless, until a couple of years ago, its fortunes were looking rocky. Then a savior came in the somewhat unlikely guise of 42-year-old Valéry Grégo, founder of the French boutique-hotel chain Les Hôtels d'en Haut. Grégo is the type of tattooed, black-clad Parisian who looks as if he'd be far more comfortable in the dive bars of Pigalle than lounging on a beach. But while searching for properties in the area, he was blown away: "When I first came to check the place out I saw this two-star hotel, and thought it was a day wasted," Grégo confessed. "Then I opened the front door, and bam. You walk in and you feel like you're actually in the water."

A view of the Mediterranean from a guest room at Hôtel Les Roches Rouges.
Benoit Linero/Courtesy of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges

Grégo bought Les Roches Rouges and gave it a five-star upgrade, reopening the 50-room hotel last May. He wanted to create a resort where guests could peel back the glitz and experience Provence the way it's meant to be. So he put the building's mid-century aesthetic front and center, accentuating its floor-to-ceiling windows and long, straight lines with an all-white palette and iconic furniture like Transat chairs by the influential Modernist Eileen Gray. The spruced-up swimming pool — a basin set into the rocky cliffscape and fed by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea — is a marvel. After an afternoon spent reading under an umbrella, as pool boys delivered carafes of pastis to my fellow sunbathers and waves splashed against the rocks, I never wanted to leave.

The way Grégo most sought to connect with the hotel's history and surroundings was by emphasizing classic local food. His inspiration was a 1963 recipe book called Traditional Provençal Home Cooking by the poet René Jouveau. It isn't so much a cookbook as an art book about how people used to live and eat in Provence — and still, occasionally, do today. "I wanted every recipe in the hotel to come out of that book," Grégo explained. The traditional Provençal dishes I feasted on during my stay included everything from an exemplary ratatouille with rosemary honey to a perfect grand aioli, or seafood and raw vegetables with a garlicky fresh-mayonnaise dip enlivened with Menton lemons. The kitchen even offered my beloved torta de blea, a Swiss-chard pie-quiche sometimes served in a sweet, raisin-spiked iteration but here presented in savory form, topped with toasted pine nuts.

And at the hotel's beach restaurant I also found, to my amazement, a type of soup called aigo boulido, which you rarely see on menus in France anymore. An ancient Provençal specialty, the dish consists of garlic and wild herbs cooked in water, then ladled over day-old bread that's been drizzled with olive oil. This deceptively basic-seeming broth (its name translates to "boiled water") is so profoundly soulful and nourishing, it has given rise to a local expression: "aigo boulido sauvo la vido," or, boiled water saves lives. Recently, however, it has become obscure, meaning lovers of traditional Provençal cuisine (the sort championed by iconic cookbooks like Richard Olney's Lulu's Provençal Table or Mireille Johnston's Cuisine of the Sun) usually have to content themselves with cooking it at home — as I do — if they want to taste the real flavors of southern France. The dish came in a large earthenware tureen so eye-catching, a woman a few tables over came by to ask what I was eating. When I explained what it was — water with garlic and bay leaves poured over slices of yesterday's baguette — she didn't seem convinced. Fair enough, I told her, but in a place as image-obsessed as the Côte d'Azur, it's always worth remembering that appearances can be misleading.

The French Riviera wasn't always an exclusive destination. Historically, it was known as a poor, rustic stretch of coast where residents made a living growing olives, herding goats, and netting mullets. Then, in the late 19th century — the dawn of the Belle Époque — the railroad arrived, bringing well-heeled visitors from Paris and London in search of balmy climes. Queen Victoria was among the early adopters to holiday on the Riviera, and by the 1930s, the pine-clad cliffs of St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat bristled with grand villas built as summer homes for the aristocracy.

Other towns took longer to catch up — when St.-Tropez made an appearance in Bardot's 1956 breakout movie And God Created Woman, it was still a fishing village. But as the Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1946, grew into a global event over the second half of the last century, it cemented the region's glamorous reputation. Today it is the most visited region of France after Paris. It's become the sort of place where Russian oligarchs and music moguls compare mega-yachts in the marina, while the rest of us sigh over $55 plates of salad on the promenade nearby.

Indeed, so many people want to travel to the Côte d'Azur that there's been little incentive for the local hospitality industry to do things well. It's not that there aren't exceptional places to stay — more that the standouts have been around awhile. Take La Colombe d'Or, a legendary inn a half-hour drive inland from Nice that, since it started life as a café/bar in 1920, has attracted an extraordinary list of artists and luminaries (a number of whom, such as Picasso and Chagall, left behind masterpieces that still hang on the hotel walls). There's also the impossibly regal Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, the model for the Hôtel des Étrangers in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. When I stopped in for a drink one night, I found the bar populated by a riotous mix of European royalty and aging rock musicians. Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, used to stay nearby at a private villa that has since been converted into the Hôtel Belles Rives, which remains an idyllic place to drink a gin and tonic while admiring a pink-hued sunset over the coast of Juan-les-Pins.

At the same time, classic Provençal cuisine has become much harder to find—though if you know where to look, you can still find inviting spots to score legit petits farcis (stuffed vegetables), a fine pissaladière (anchovy-and-onion flatbread), perhaps even a non-bogus bourride (aioli-spiked fish stew). When I wasn't exploring the menu at Les Roches Rouges, I made excursions to a few nearby restaurants. In the beachside town of Sanary-sur-Mer, I ate at La P'tite Cour — named after the small courtyard at the back where diners are seated. It was crowded with locals devouring one of two set menus of home-style cooking, which that day included a spectacular fish special of daurade royale, or gilthead sea bream.

From left: The Cours Saleya food market, in Nice; torta de blea, a type of quiche made with Swiss chard, at Les Roches Rouges.
From left: Anthony Lanneretonne; Benoit Linero/Courtesy of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges

Then there's the Auberge des Maures, in St.-Tropez. At this storied restaurant, where the surrealist Paul Éluard was famously married in 1950 with Pablo Picasso as a witness, a singer sat in a corner crooning dreamy French pop songs while I dined on hearty standards like daube de boeuf (beef stew) and artichokes à la barigoule steamed in a white wine broth.

In Nice, Kiosque TinTin is the go-to place for a pan bagnat, that niçoise-salad-on-a-bun deserving of global renown. It's not far from the excellent Cours Saleya market, where the city's best chefs — such as Dominique Le Stanc, who runs the cozy La Merenda restaurant, just a couple of blocks back from the beach — stock up on Provence's famously sun-kissed produce. Market stalls here also sell panisse and socca, addictive regional snacks made from fried chickpea flour batter.

There's a line in the opening of Traditional Provençal Home Cooking that suggests that even if Provence should lose touch with its identity, it will always be able to rediscover itself: "The soul of the old country is not quite yet dead; the hour approaches when it will be reborn." Returning from my culinary wanderings to Les Roches Rouges, with its Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack and bedside reading material by Jean Cocteau, I got the sense that the hotel aspires to be a part of that rebirth. "In their wisdom," the book continues, "these people have been so adept at acclimatizing themselves to poverty that they discovered through it the grandeur of simplicity." The grandeur of simplicity: It's a beautiful idea, and to me, encapsulates everything that is special about this region.

Food isn't the only way in which Les Roches Rouges evokes this grandeur of simplicity. There's also its relationship to the inland landscape known here as the arrière pays, in the form of the Massif de l'Estérel nature reserve. Grégo wants to encourage guests to take hikes, so each room at the hotel is outfitted with a walking stick. These beautiful olive-wood staffs are lacquered to a deep brown hue, and are objets very much of this place. On Sundays, a state guide offers tours of the park; there are also maps of its trails in each room for anyone wanting to explore on his own.

Inspired by the wooden stick, I set out one morning and quickly found myself surrounded by a uniquely Provençal ecosystem known as garrigue: a resiny, piney, sage-scented agglomeration of low-lying bushes and perfumed herbs. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, notes of garrigue accentuate the region's wines.) There were endless tufts of wild fennel, sprawling rosemary patches, brittle thyme bouquets, and dusty outcroppings of what I can only describe as a feral lemon verbena — all far more potent and sticky than the domesticated versions we're familiar with. These were not just any herbs: they were genuine herbes de Provence, the real thing, free for the picking. And they were all sprouting from an epic Death Valley–style landscape of sunbaked porphyry rocks the color of rouille, that rust-toned saffron aioli so critical to the region's famed bouillabaisse stews.

From left: Shopping in Sanary-sur-Mer; escaping the crowds at Villefranche-sur-Mer, just east of Nice.
From left: Jessica Antola; Sivan Askayo

As I hiked, walking stick in hand, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of Provence à l'ancienne. I could see myself coming here regularly, maybe becoming one of those wizened, wise-cracking guys who goes to play an early-evening game of pétanque in the town square. The French are masters in the art of whiling away time. When French visitors come to the Riviera, their days are filled with reading and eating and chilling by the pool — perhaps even one as Instagrammable as Les Roches Rouges's. Occasionally they rouse themselves to search out the best beaches along the coast. When I did the same, the sandy shores of Beauvallon and the car-free island of Porquerolles were my best discoveries.

Spending time here, you realize that the French tradition of a monthlong summer vacation makes complete sense. If I ever make it back to the Riviera — and I'm pretty sure I will — there will need to be room in the schedule for an inordinate amount of hanging out. But that won't be too complicated, now that I've finally uncovered the genuine, life-affirming side of Provence I'd always suspected was there — but just didn't quite know how to find.

The Details: What to Do in Côte d'Azur

Getting There

Fly directly into Nice Côte d'Azur airport (NCE) from New York with Delta/Air France; from other cities, you can connect through Paris or other major European hubs.

Stay

Hôtel Belles Rives: This Antibes property is housed in the historic Villa St.-Louis, a favorite haunt for F. Scott Fitzgerald — who wrote Tender Is the Night here. doubles from $300.

Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc: Just because it's one of the swankiest, best-run hotels in the world doesn't mean this Antibes institution lacks personality. Not cheap, but totally worth it. doubles from $1,480.

Hôtel Les Roches Rouges: After a five-star refit, this cliff-side property near St.-Raphaël aims to revive the original aesthetic — and spirit — of the Riviera. The superb Provençal food is another powerful selling point. doubles from $250.

La Colombe d'Or: The Roux family has been running this inn in the inland village of St.-Paul de Vence since the days when Braque and Miró paid for their guest rooms with art, and it remains one of the region's most charming places to stay. doubles from $310.

Eat

Auberge des Maures: Head to this back-alley spot in St.-Tropez for classics like petits farcis, or vegetables stuffed with ground meat. entrées $45–$107.

Cours Saleya Market: For the most beautiful produce in the region, visit this marché in Nice.

Kiosque TinTin: This street-food stand in Nice offers a perfect pan bagnat: tuna, anchovies, hard-boiled egg, and salad on a bun. pan bagnat $6.50.

La Merenda: Chef Dominique Le Stanc gave up the two Michelin stars won at his previous Nice restaurant, Le Chantecler, to open this simple Provençal spot. entrées $14–$30.

La P'tite Cour: About an hour down the coast from St.-Tropez, in the fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer, this is a great place to sample the day's catch. prix fixe from $37.

Content for this article was produced with assistance from Hotel Les Roches Rouges.