There are places that have their moment in the sun, like Ibiza, then flame out, caving in under the weight of the buzz. Then there are others that continue to charm and surprise, seemingly in perpetuity. The mystique of the Côte d’Azur-Grasse, Nice and Cannes-has always been its heady combination of languid luxe, swaying palms and its mix of Euro-chic and Euro-trash. Some people seek adventure by following the Inca trail; for me, thrills abound in following the region’s famous perfume trail.
The heart of France’s perfume industry, Grasse is famous for its fields of May rose, jasmine and orange blossom. For economic reasons, many raw materials for fragrances are now imported into the region, but a few great perfume houses, such as Chanel, keep their own flower fields (for Chanel, it’s May rose and jasmine) in Grasse to manufacture their own essences from scratch.
The vibe Elegant and low-key.
Why you should go If you love fragrance, there is no better place on earth to indulge. There are several perfumeries that offer guided tours, as well as a few that offer studio classes in perfume creation. I signed up for a course with Monsieur Maurel at Parfumerie Galimard. I was aiming to create a subtle fragrance with a hint of tea, violets and raindrops-something Bloomsbury-esque. Mon-sieur Maurel was quite pleased with my progress, until I began adding essences for the top notes. Somehow I took a fatal detour-but I do have a nice certificate from him to assuage my disappointment. He also keeps your formula on file should you wish to reorder it or have the scent added to soaps, shower gels or lotions, which he will make up and send to you.
You should also visit the International Perfume Museum, with its own greenhouse, as well as the Provençal Costume and Jewelry Museum, which houses a private collection of 18th- and 19th-century fashion and jewellery and is located right across the street from Parfumerie Fragonard. In May and June, you can visit the rose fields at the Domaine de Manon in the afternoon to learn how to harvest and process them, and from August to October, you can pay a morning visit to the jasmine fields. (Breakfasts can also be arranged right in the fields themselves. Heaven!)
What to buy Perfume and more perfume! Many of the museums have adjoining shops where you will be able to purchase classic and new fragrances that would probably be hard to find anywhere else. Fragonard, in particular, has a wonderful shop. The Jewelry Museum also has a great boutique that sells semi-precious gem jewellery from India, as well as beautiful silk scarves. If your luggage can handle it, you should also pick up a bottle of delicious olive oil from Palais des Olives on Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon.
Where to stay The Bastide Saint-Antoine is a Relais & Chateaux inn with two Michelin stars. Its eleven rooms each have a low-key Provençal charm, but it’s the food that is the big feature. In addition to his wonderfully sensitive seasonal menu made with local produce, co-owner Jacques Chibois also offers a perfume-making class followed by a special menu where the natural fragrances-such as thyme, lavender, jasmine and rose-are adopted into the recipes. Once you have tasted his refinedcuisine, it comes as no surprise that the soft-spoken Chibois writes poetry in his spare time.
Photography courtesy of The Bastide Sainte-AntoineNice
This gorgeous city is nestled in a microclimate: it faces the Mediterranean Sea but is protected from the wind by mountains. On entering the city, head straight for the Bay of Angels and the belle époque-era Promenade des Anglais.
The vibe A great mix of modern tastes and old-world charms-more laid-back than Cannes, with a more youthful energy.
Why you should go Nice has the best flower market-Cours Saleya, located in the Old Town-in the Côte d’Azur region, with more than 100 stalls. Nice’s tourism bureau will also organize walking tours of luscious gardens-both modern and ancient-as well as tours of greenhouses and perfumeries. The Parfumerie Molinard offers short courses in perfume making.
What to buy Every Monday is antique market day, when you will be able to find wonderful silverware, costume jewellery, antique perfume flacons, vintage clothing and art. Nothing is a bargain, of course, but the prices are slightly better than in the Paris flea markets. Other great buys are perfumed soaps from Molinard, Provençal table linens and leather goods in the Old Town.
Where to stay Because Nice has such an avant-garde art scene, try the Hi Hotel, a 38-room luxury hotel with a twist. Designed by Matali Crasset, an industrial designer, Hi Hotel is in a former 1930s era pension-located near the Promenade des Anglais-where the rooms are created around nine different concepts. I stayed in the Indoor Terrace room, where all the furniture was placed in the centre, a vegetal curtain hid the shower, and the toilet resembled a garden shed. (Toto, we’re not in belle époque land anymore!)
Where to eat The hotel restaurant is a 24-hours “organic canteen.” Every meal costs six euros and offers such culinary delights as Chinese cabbage with sprouted seeds and beetroot and cucumber gazpacho. For something a little heartier, I would recommend heading back into the Old Town-Nice is a perfect walking city-and stop in at the restaurant L’Escalinada (22, rue Pairolière) for an inexpensive, traditional niçoise meal. Also, ask them for a glass of the local digestif made from thyme. (My only regret is I didn’t buy a bottle when I saw it in a nearby shop.)
Famous for its International Film Festival, the Croisette and its opulent belle époque architecture, Cannes has everything from designer shops and posh spas to local flower and fruit markets, such as the Marché Forville.
The vibe Euro-Miami. Affluent-looking, perpetually golden-brown Europeans wearing top-notch designer clothes and leather goods.
Why you should go It’s the perfect city to start your trip on a high note. A stroll along the Croisette is a must-test your handprints and footprints against the stars’ at the Allées des Stars-but venture toward the Old Town (Le Suquet) to sample Cannes’ other charms.
What to buy The Forville market has stalls selling artisanal cornflower, jasmine and rose waters that are inexpensive and high quality. They’re perfect to keep around to splash on during long road trips.
Where to stay When in Cannes, live large and splurge on a room at the Hotel Martinez. (Tip: bring the good luggage.) The largest luxury hotel on the Croisette, Hotel Martinez has played host to all the big movie stars. A recent renovation has made it even plushier, and they have added a gorgeous Givenchy spa, should the stresses of shopping and dining overwhelm you.
Where to eat By day, save your euros and shop at the Forville market for delicious fruits and sandwiches, but have your dinner at La Palme d’Or at the Hotel Martinez, which overlooks the Bay of Cannes. They have a top-rated chef, Christian Willer, who has created a fragrant Mediterranean menu that has earned him two Michelin stars. The sommelier, André Toscano, has been with the restaurant for a dozen years, has served everyone who’s anyone and will find you the perfect burgundy (his favourite grape) from the region.
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