In early October, Robert Fisher, editor of Fodor's Provence & the Côte d'Azur, traveled to the French Riviera to find out if reality would match the fantasy. Once upon a time, vacationers would spend a full month here, but it only took five days for Robert to be spoiled forever.
Why the French Riviera? Try these names on for sighs: Cap d'Antibes, Monte-Carlo, St-Paul-de-Vence, Nice, Beaulieu-sur-Mer -- sunbelievable shangri-las that conjure up resorts sophisticated and gaudy, melt-in-your-mouth scenery, and the feeling (insert deep sigh of contentment) that you are a million miles away from all cares. Stressed-out New Yorker that I am, an idyllic week is just what the doctor (read: psychiatrist) ordered. Somewhere there may be a more beautiful spot on earth, but as I enjoyed a picnic on the shores of the Bay of Millionaires -- where the water is an incredible blue and flowers of every color surround you -- I realized I need look no further.
What was your favorite part of the trip? The gravity-defying, mountaintop villages perché (perched villages) of the coast. Alice, of Wonderland fame, would have felt right at home in Haut-de-Cagnes, honeycombed with hobbit houses and atmospheric alleys, and storybook sights like Renoir's house and the Château Grimaldi. The magical Hôtel de Cagnard can't be beat for sheer once-upon-a-timeliness, as dinner revealed: While feasting on black-truffle lasagna (hey, if you can't be self-indulgent on the Riviera, where can you be?), I looked up to see the medieval ceiling slide open to reveal the evening sky and a shooting star. Even more stratospheric was Eze, a Fisher-Price toy village perched so high over the sea my hotel room at the spectacular Château de la Chèvre d'Or had a view just this side of a NASA space capsule.
What surprised you? Nice was so nice (oooh, pardon me). While one of France's largest cities, Nice hides an extravagantly beautiful Old Town, set by the Promenade des Anglais and studded with bonbon-colored palaces and tiny piazzas hued in every color of the rainbow. Little wonder the great painter Matisse lived at the end of its Cours Saleya flower market. You don't need to visit the city's famous Musée Matisse to understand this great artist: Simply stand in the doorway of his former apartment (at 1 Place Charles Félix) and study the Place de l'Ancien Senat ten feet away -- it's a golden Matisse pumped up to the nth power.
What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again? Spend more time on captivating Cap d'Antibes. With visions of Scott and Zelda dancing in my head, I set aside one day to visit this posh peninsula. I stayed at the gently priced Hôtel Castel Garoupe, but a picnic at the adjacent Villa Eilenroc -- one of the few gilded-age Riviera residences you can visit -- makes you feel like you have $200 million in the bank. A few feet away is the Sentier Tirepoil, a spectacular pathway lined with 50-foot cliffs, thundering breakers, and "Beware: Death" signs. For most stretches, all signs of civilization completely disappeared -- then the biggest yacht I ever saw came around the bend. A must-do.
What advice do you have for someone going to the French Riviera? Can you do the Riviera on a budget? Well, try a "speedreader's" tour -- five nights, not two weeks (so you can spend more on each day). Opt for lunch, not dinner, or an overnight. For instance, in St-Paul-de-Vence you can dine under priceless Picassos at La Colombe d'Or, but we settled for lunch under the fig trees of the famous terrace, one of the few places where movie-stars are happy to be recognized. The snail casserole was terrific, the house grappa sublime, and I didn't need to order dessert -- a fig fell right on my head during coffee. Better yet, travel NOW. With its temperate climate, the Riviera is (and always has been) a fabulous winter getaway: the crowds are gone, the hotel prices are much lower, and the sunsets are even more breathtaking.