The Expert’s Guide To Doing Summer On The Riviera Right
Illustration by Mr Bratislav Milenkovic
The pull of the sun-licked Riviera has barely faltered since the 1950s. All iridescent coves and haute hedonism, this irresistible chunk of coast – running all the way from Toulon down to Tuscany – simply screams summer. From the oft-forgotten spots and scene-stealing big hitters, to the routes between them by road, rail and sea, here’s how to squeeze every last drop out of your trip…
Marseille to Sanary-sur-Mer (55km)
Pedants would argue that this French port city – a melting pot of grandeur, grit and nostalgia-charged creativity – falls outside the Riviera. But Marseille is too good to miss and its well-placed airport makes it a terrific starting point (see our recent guide).
Aim for lo-fi Les Goudes and check in to Tuba, an achingly cool waterside stay spread across the wave-lashed rocks. Just around the headland lies La Baie des Singes, where heat-shimmered afternoons are whiled away devouring inadvisable quantities of their famed bouillabaisse.
For a fresh perspective on the coast, board the classic yacht Le Don du Vent and sail between the steep-sided inlets notching the coast all the way to Cassis. Back on dry land, head to Saint-Charles station and await the train to your next destination: old-school Sanary-sur-Mer.
Sanary-sur-Mer to Saint-Tropez (80km)
The pleasures are deliciously simple in Sanary-sur-Mer. Archetypal Mediterranean charm aside, the main draw of this Provençal resort has to be its Grand Marché, which spills down Allée Estienne d’Orves and onto the sun-scorched quayside. From fist-sized tomatoes, weighty braids of garlic and swordfish reeled in that morning, tourists and locals jostle to snag the finest produce. Save for the weekly Les Joutes tournaments (an oceanic equivalent to jousting wherein the goal is to send your opponent plunging into the harbour), that’s about as lively as things get in these parts.
Sticky summer days are best spent lazing on Plage de Portissol, stirring only for lunch at Ô Petit Monde, a driftwood-clad waterfront spot with a list of biodynamic wines and a few pared-back bedrooms. Fidgety types can chug across the limpid expanse to wildly beautiful Île des Embiez (all hidden coves and far-reaching salt marshes) aboard the Frédéric Mistral ferry. You’re going to need some wheels for the next chunk of the trip, as you trace the palm-fringed shore on to Saint-Tropez.
Saint-Tropez to Saint-Raphaël (40km)
A honeypot for movers and shakers the world over, this once-sleepy French fishing village requires little introduction. You’ll want to hold onto your car – or switch to an open-topped Mini Moke – while you’re here, but it’s worth noting the jammed-up road between the main drag and the beach allows few opportunities to go full throttle. Lean into it and consider the scenic, slow-going drives part of the thrill. Glimpsing the dune-backed Plage de Pampelonne feels akin to stumbling onto a film set, with unrivalled people-watching opportunities (behind a good pair of shades, naturellement) and the tang of heat-baked pine on the breeze.
Later, when dusk rolls around, eschew the haunts crowding the yacht-packed port in favour of Hôtel La Ponche’s low-lit piano bar, to sip ice-cold pastis before retiring to one of the suites, designed by Mr Fabrizio Casiraghi. Back on the road in the morning, set your sights on lesser-known Saint-Raphaël, an hour or so east.
Saint-Raphaël to Laigueglia (165 km)
Before bidding adieu to the Côte d’Azur and heading for its Italian counterpart, zoom out from the sleepy resort town of Saint-Raphaël and turn your focus to the sun-washed wedge of coast that encompasses it. Les Roches Rouges hotel, with its rock-hewn showstopper of a pool, makes for an unbeatable jumping-off point, luring, as it does, Europe’s beau monde for carefree frolics in environs worthy of Mr Slim Aarons.
When you’re not supine, idly thumbing your choice of lounger literature, paddleboard out to Île d’Or, named for the honeyed glow that falls upon its high-perched tower come sunset, or head inland to the Massif de l’Esterel, where gnarled fig and olive trees dot a rust-red landscape. As you hop back behind the wheel and continue east towards the Italian border, it’s worth veering away from the water briefly to visit Fondation Maeght, home to a staggering line-up of sculptural works by the likes of Messrs Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró.
Laigueglia to Genoa (100 km)
Despite its timeless beauty, Laigueglia – a pin-up of a village fronted by fisherman’s houses painted raspberry and egg-yolk yellow – flies under the radar among the Italian Riviera’s better-known spots. Pull off the road, seek out a parking spot (no mean feat in this part of the world, it must be said) and explore the cobbled piazzas and carruggios (alleyways), fuelled by slabs of olive-dotted flatbread from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Focacceria del Bastione.
Just steps from the shorefront, the majolica-domed Chiesa di San Matteo looms, and there are some great biking trails to tackle in the pine-shaded hills beyond. Settle in at Hotel Windsor, a sensitively transformed stay with views out to Capo Mele and its own lick of sand. Spend a couple of days embracing the slower pace, then press on along the coast towards Genoa.
Genoa to Portofino (35 km)
Genoa is a city of contrasts, where graffiti-scrawled backstreets give way to rows of magnificently frescoed palazzi. Liguria’s up-and-coming capital was long considered a mere waypoint en route to the Riviera’s quintessentially scenic spots. However, a smattering of new openings are drawing a fresh crowd.
You won’t need a car from here on out, so drop that off and chart course on foot for the stucco-fronted beauties that line Via Garibaldi. Don’t miss Palazzo della Meridiana, with its exquisite sundial and Luca Cambiaso frescoes. And you’ll want to root around the botteghe storiche for souvenirs before it gets too hot. Afterwards, work your way down to Boccadasse, the former fisherman’s quarter, for a dip in the Ligurian Sea.
As the sun sets, hop in the Art Nouveau lift up to Spianata Castelletto, a lofty lookout suspended above the Centro Storico’s slate rooftops, then hot foot it to caught-in-time Marescotti di Cavo before they call last orders. The hotel scene still has some way to go here, so Grimaldi the Great, a chandelier-hung appartamento right in the thick of the action, is your best bet when it’s time to turn in. You’re off to Portofino next, so saunter down to the old port and keep an eye out for the Golfo Paradiso ferry.
Portofino to Lerici (90 km)
Decidedly easy on the eye, with an atmosphere so ravishing it takes a while to acclimatise, Portofino more than lives up to the hype. With whip-smart service and wrought-iron balconies peering out over the inky expanse, Splendido Mare, A Belmond Hotel takes the prize as far as superlative stays go. You could be forgiven for frittering away the hours playing cards beneath the parasols on jam-packed (but still sublime) Baia di Paraggi, but the sights just beyond are too impressive to ignore.
On to Monterosso and set out on the five-hour scramble along the Cinque Terre’s Sentiero Azzurro trail, zigzagging (somewhat perilously) between the hill-clinging villages. Granted, it’s quite the commitment but the killer views go some way to counter the fatigue.
Less strenuous, but equally rewarding are afternoons aboard Belmond’s wooden gozzo. Glide along the oak-studded shoreline and drop anchor in San Fruttuoso Bay, before bombing into the emerald depths to gawp at the long-submerged statue of Christ of the Abyss.
Conclude your coastal odyssey with a stint in Lerici, an hour by train from Santa Margherita Ligure-Portofino station. Remarkably scenic and rich with literary renown, it’s as good a spot as any to wrap up your trip.