When winter descends on the Côte d'Azur, the wise come out to play


To steal a line from the Cole Porter song, I get no kick from the things that turn everyone else on. I love L.A. during a downpour, avoid the Hamptons in season, bake in Miami in August. So where to head on a dreary winter weekend?Why, the Côte d'Azur, the necklace of beach towns between Monte Carlo and St.-Tropez that glistens in summer, when crowds and celebrities and the cell-phone set storm the place.

One damp, overcast morning, my wife and I arrive on a côte more gris than azur. "It's much nicer when the sun shines," a friend had warned. "Without sun, it's really terrible." But we hadn't planned to do much swimming. So as we drive out of the generic urban sprawl near the Nice airport and into the hills above, our mood lightens — even if the sky doesn't.

A century or so ago, the French Riviera was a winter vacation destination. It was "invented" — if anyone can claim credit for such a thing — by Henry Brougham, lord chancellor of England, after he was delayed in Cannes en route to Italy in 1834. "It became," writes Mary Blume in Côte d'Azur: Inventing the French Riviera, "more than an escape from winter's cold or life's harsher realities; it was a place where . . . life could be re-imagined." By the end of the last century, it had become a world of cold-weather villas filled with wealthy show-offs and expats up to no good. In 1922, Nice's tennis club stayed open in summer for the first time, and Cole Porter rented the Château de la Garoupe in Cap d'Antibes. He brought a friend, Gerald Murphy, and his wife, Sara, and they brought a fellow named Picasso, inspiring not only F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night but also the birth of a major resort. Ghosts of that storied past hide from the sun, but are everywhere in winter.

Even in off-season, arriving at La Colombe d'Or, in St.-Paul-de-Vence, is like biting into the first peach of summer: infinitely satisfying. Our room has a view of the valley—or at least it will if the showers ever subside. For now we get to look at two paintings by Paul Roux, who founded the place, and whose family still runs it.

Out the window with the fog goes our ambitious plan for the day. Instead, we eat all three meals in the hotel and wander its halls. The Roux family was friends with Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Calder, and all these artists are represented in their rotating collection (not every hotel offers a world-class art walk as a rainy-day activity). We sneak out between cloudbursts to watch a pétanque game in the square. Then, after passing through a François I gateway and a delicate tracery of white holiday lights, we wander along cobblestoned streets into St. Paul's Old Town. When the sky darkens, we return to La Colombe d'Or via the ramparts, to feast beside a fire on the restaurant's renowned crudités and lamb sprinkled with black truffles.

The morning arrives gray—so pretty, filling the valley outside our window, that I convince myself not to think about the even prettier views we're still missing. The famous villes fleuries of the Côte d'Azur are sans fleurs in winter, and many trees have lost their leaves. But ripe lemons explode from others, tart consolation.

Defying the season, a few sailboats drift on the bay as we amble along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The water is a stubborn blue; the succulents jutting from the tall rocks insist against all evidence that it's warm enough to swim. We resist the impulse and head to the sprawling flea market that spills out of the Cours Saleya, in the heart of old Nice. Afterward, everyone lunches on the sunlamp-lit outdoor terrace at Le Safari, wrapped in furs and designer sunglasses.

On Cap Ferrat, we hike around the point on a rocky path strewn with pine needles, finding humor in the high walls and armed security guards protecting the villas—from what, the fog?We stop at Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild's palazzo turned museum, set amid 12 acres of gloriously uncrowded gardens. A few minutes' drive away, just above the waters of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, is archaeologist Théodore Reinach's Villa Kerylos, an early 1900's restoration of an ancient Greek house that's also a museum. Ephrussi's palazzo is sumptuous, Kerylos spartan, but between the two dance reminders of the days when haut monde blended with demimonde under these same winter skies.

Though the weather is even more blustery the following day, it's a fine accompaniment for another bit of famous coastline—Cap d'Antibes. As we circle the peninsula by car, we spy a path just like in Cap Ferrat, but this one has had both thought and money spent on it. Abandoning the car, we hike past walled gardens, climbing with the aid of high-tech handrails, and wonder aloud where we are. "C'est le chemin des milliardaires"—it's the path of millionaires—"but we are not," two wry ladies in sensible shoes and raincoats explain in a mix of French and English. They stroll out of sight. Turns out this millionaire's path runs past vast properties such as the Château de la Garoupe and the Hôtel du Cap, closed for the winter but in spring and summer the home of movie stars and rock music executives. For the moment, though, it's ours alone.

Cannes, once the center of Côte d'Azur winter life, is disappointing. Lunch at a restaurant on the Croisette (that has a terrace full of director's chairs emblazoned with STALLONE! TRINTIGNANT!) is served in a surly fashion, the food not even worthy of a street vendor. The seaside city bustles with traffic, bourgeois families, and elderly women in elderly furs; its chic is clearly seasonal. But in the suburb of Grasse, the restaurant at La Bastide St.-Antoine hotel helps us rise above our midday travesty, with its views of the lights of Cannes below, and its prix fixe menu: soup of chanterelles, truffles, and foie gras; coquilles St. Jacques in cauliflower sauce; strawberries in orange granita.

On our last night we drive to Monte Carlo. As we enter the Principality of Monaco, a change is obvious—there are policemen dressed up like characters in an MGM musical and a startling 98-foot fir tree paved solid with lights as bright as the August sun. We eye Monaco's casino, at the Société des Bains de Mer, and consider the gleaming fleet of Ferraris, Rollses, and Lotuses purring outside, the sparkling gems on the patrons. Is it suddenly summer?We let the thought go and zip out of town on quiet, twisting streets until it's just us and winter again.

La Colombe d'Or, Place du Général de Gaulle, St.-Paul-de-Vence; 33-4/93-32-80-02, fax 33-4/93-32-77-78; doubles from $222. Le Safari, 1 Cours Saleya, Nice; 33-4/93-80-18-44; dinner for two $50. La Bastide St.-Antoine, 48 Ave. Henri Dunant, Grasse; 33-4/93-70-94-94, fax 33-4/93-70-94-95; dinner for two $210, doubles from $158.