Walking among the couture shops and palaces of La Croisette, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the global downturn was all media hype. There is as much wealth and glamour as ever, and admiring Ferraris and Porsches and celebrity spotting on the liner-sized yachts are still favourite Cannes pastimes.
With its boat-bedecked port, 16th-century ramparts and narrow cobblestone streets festooned with flowers, lovely Antibes is the quintessential Mediterranean town. Picasso, Max Ernst and Nicolas de Staël were captivated by Antibes, as was a restless Graham Greene (1904–91), who settled here with his lover, Yvonne Cloetta, from 1966 until the year before his death.
It is the abundance of water in the hills that helped turn Grasse into a perfume centre. Tanners, who needed reliable water supplies to clean their hides, first settled here in the Middle Ages. With the advent of perfumed gloves in the 1500s, the art of perfumery took shape. Glove makers split from the tanners and set up lucrative perfumeries.
Settled by Massiliots (Greek colonists from Marseille) and colonised by Julius Caesar around 49 BC as Forum Julii, Fréjus is a quiet place. The appealing old town is a maze of pastel buildings, shady plazas and winding alleys, climaxing with extraordinary medieval paintings in an episcopal complex wedged between a trio of market squares.
St-Raphaël is a good base to explore the Estérel rather than a destination in itself. The very dynamic tourist office can help you book activities in the region. A great way to discover the coast is to board Les Bateaux de St-Raphaël for a scenic cruise along the Corniche de l’Estérel (adult/child €16/10, 1¼ hours).
Despite its well-preserved medieval centre, visitors often skip Vieux Vence altogether to head straight to Matisse’s otherworldly Chapelle du Rosaire. Yet Vence deserves more than a flying visit. It’s worth spending a little time here, if only to appreciate its comparatively quiet medieval streets and enjoy some of its gastronomic gems.
St-Paul de Vence
Once upon a time, St-Paul de Vence was a small medieval village atop a hill looking out to sea. Then came the likes of Chagall and Picasso in post-war years, followed by showbiz stars such as Yves Montand and Roger Moore, and St-Paul shot to fame. The village is now home to dozens of art galleries as well as the exceptional Fondation Maeght.
Îles de Lérins
The two islands making up Lérins – Île Ste-Marguerite and Île St-Honorat – lie within a 20-minute boat ride of Cannes. Tiny and traffic-free, they’re oases of peace and tranquillity, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Riviera. Camping is forbidden, and there are no hotels and only a couple of eating options, so bring a picnic and a good supply of drinking water.