Secret Hotels of the French Riviera

Where life is both sweet and salty, thanks to the Mediterranean breezes.

By Margie Rynn, Tuesday, May 23, 2006, 12:00 AM

MENTON

Hotel Napoleon
On the bright blue Bay of Garavan, about a 10-minute walk from the center of town, this bit of affordable chic is just across the street from the beach--and less than a mile from the Italian border. (You can jog there on your morning run.) The entire 44-room hotel underwent a two-year renovation, completed in 2004. Colors are light; rooms are airy; and there are soft, square armchairs in the lounge, which is right next to a small pool. It's worth spending extra for a room facing the sea--you'll be rewarded with a great view and a wooden balcony with a table and chairs. A road lines the entire seafront of Menton, but once the double-paned windows are closed, the whoosh of traffic is gone. Breakfast is served on the downstairs patio, under the banana trees. For the true Riviera experience, rent a lounge chair and umbrella ($18 per day) on the private beach and have a waiter from the beach restaurant bring you a drink. The hotel even has its own ice cream parlor next to the beach. 29 Porte de France, 011-33/4-93-35-89-50, napoleon-menton.com, doubles $131-$155.

ROQUEBRUNE-CAP-MARTIN

Les Deux Freres
Go up--past the crowds, past the noise--to the tiny cliff-top village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Stop to gasp at the panorama from the tiny town square, and notice the lovely dining terrace to your right. It's attached to the restaurant of the intimate Les Deux Freres, in a 19th-century stone building that was once a school. A mahogany bar fills the lobby; a narrow staircase leads up to the 10 small, pretty rooms. Each has a name indicating its theme: Provencal, African, Marine, and so on. Views range from lovely to stupendous; depending on your room's orientation, you might look out on the town square, the rugged hills, or--if you get the full frontal--the cliffs, the sea, and, in the distance, Monaco. 1 place des Deux Freres, 011-33/4-93-28-99-00, lesdeuxfreres.com, doubles $120-$132, closed late November to early December.

NICE

Hotel Windsor
Owned by the art-loving Redolfi family, the Windsor fits somewhere between classic accommodations and an artist's loft. A massive Chinese Imperial bed frame decorates the lobby, while the elevator has a NASA-themed photo collage and a liftoff soundtrack. Twenty-four of the 57 rooms have been designed by artists: One is adorned with colorful writing, and guests are invited to record their dreams in a book; another is a bare room papered in gold leaf, with a glowing white double bed. There are other artists' rooms that are less demanding conceptually, the primary element being tropical murals. Two huge wooden Buddhas keep an eye on the fitness area on the top floor, where you can have a massage or a sauna for an extra fee. A lush garden surrounds a plunge pool. 11 rue Dalpozzo, 011-33/4-93-88-59-35, hotelwindsornice.com, doubles $132-$187.

Villa La Tour
Decent hotels are virtually nonexistent in the center of Old Nice, so the reopening of this one in late 2003 was a welcome event. It's in an 18th-century convent, and the new owner, from the legendary Hotel Negresco, brought with her more than a whiff of style: The 16 rooms got complete makeovers, with designer fabrics on the walls and chic lamps and lighting fixtures. The overall effect is cozy and contemporary, if a bit cramped. (For more space, opt for the "superieure" rooms, though they cost more.) Hairdryers and data ports are standard, but there's no elevator, and the hallways are very narrow. Most rooms have views of the old town, and a few have small balconies that look down on the labyrinth of streets; if your room doesn't, you can always go up to the roof garden. The flower market is a short walk away. En route, you'll pass a plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants. 4 rue de la Tour, 011-33/4-93-80-08-15, villa-la-tour.com, doubles $63-$94.

VENCE

Auberge des Seigneurs
A former tavern and postal relay, the hotel has six large, high-ceilinged rooms for rent; they retain a feel of Ye Olde Days without being kitsch. The ancient walls are painted white, setting off the bold curtains and dark wood furniture. Oriental rugs are scattered over the tomettes, the octagonal terra-cotta tiles that cover the floors of old buildings all over Provence. There are flowers and fruit in every room, but no Internet connection, no TV, and no A/C (the thick walls make it unnecessary). Downstairs, copper bed warmers hang over a wood-manteled fireplace. Through a side door is the restaurant, in front is a flower-bedecked square, and just behind, out the back entrance, is the old city of Vence. Place du Frene, 011-33/4-93-58-04-24, doubles $83-$101, closed November--February.

Hotel Le Provence
A far cry from the gloomy cut-rate hotels of Nice and Cannes, this 200-year-old former private home has a flower-filled garden and cheerful rooms that get plenty of light. Most of the 16 rooms are in a separate building on the far side of the garden. They're furnished with remarkable care for a hotel at this price. Lace bedspreads and faux family heirlooms are mixed with a few modern chairs; some rooms have old-fashioned wallpaper that'll make you feel like you're in your grand-mère's house. There's no A/C, but some rooms have ceiling fans. Most have a view of the garden, and six look out to the sea, which is a 15-minute drive away. The owners and a good deal of the clientele are from Sweden, and the website is in Swedish, but you'll find the staff speaks excellent English. 9 avenue Marcellin Maurel, 011-33/4-93-58-04-21, hotelleprovence.com, doubles $55-$94.

LA-COLLE-SUR-LOUP

La Bastide Gourmande
If you like to be near the beach but can't take crowds, La Bastide Gourmande offers a nice compromise. In the hills south of the medieval village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but less than two miles from the beaches at Cagnes, the friendly hotel offers clean, colorful rooms; a good restaurant; and a lovely pool with a great view of the classic Provençal countryside. There's even a boulodrome, should you feel inclined to indulge in a game of petanque. It's an excellent deal, especially when you consider how much even the most basic of lodgings cost down by the water's edge. The eight rooms are a little on the small side, but each has a different theme, such as Coquelicot (with bright red poppies on the curtains), Bretagne (a life buoy on the wall), and even Disney (this is a room for kids). In summer, chirping cicadas are pretty much guaranteed. 660 route de Cagnes, 011-33/4-93-22-62-42, labastidegourmande.fr, doubles $72-$84.

CAP D'ANTIBES

La Jabotte
Adorable is the only way to describe this one-story villa with its three bungalows clustered around a garden shaded by orange trees. Though lacking A/C and not at all luxurious, each of the 10 smallish rooms has been decorated in a manner that's usually reserved for high-class accommodations--rich colors on the walls, original artwork (including paintings by one of the owners), and imaginative choices of furniture and fixtures. Some rooms have distinct themes: birds, calligraphy, angels. Breakfast receives equal attention: The orange juice is fresh-squeezed, the jam homemade. It can be taken in the courtyard or in the entry/lobby, which resembles a cross between a living room and a crafts boutique; paintings and ceramics here are nearly all for sale. Though the hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood, the beach is only 60 yards away, and Old Antibes is an easy walk. 13 avenue Max Maurey, 011-33/4-93-61-45-89, jabotte.com, doubles with breakfast $101-$118, closed the last three weeks of November and Christmas week.

PLAN-DE-LA-TOUR

Hotel le Mas des Brugassieres
The most stressful thing about staying here is pronouncing the name. Once you've managed that (broo-gah-si-ehr), it's simply a matter of throwing your luggage on the hand-quilted boutis bedspread, freshening up in the large bathroom, and heading out to the hammock. Nine twisty miles inland from the glorious madness of Saint-Tropez, the low-key hotel is in the Massif des Maures, a sparsely populated region of low mountains, scrubby pine forests, and an occasional vineyard. The two-story hotel is based on a classic Provencal mas, or house; each of the 14 comfortable rooms has a private entrance and a terrace with table and chairs. All but three rooms have A/C. Take breakfast on your terrace or next to the pool shaded by olive trees. (Breakfast is mandatory in high season, which raises the rate by $10 per person.) Biking, hiking, and horseback riding are all available nearby; the beaches of Sainte-Maxime are eight kilometers away. Route de Grimaud, 011-33/4-94-55-50-55, mas-des-brugassieres.com, doubles $114, closed mid-October to late March.

LE LAVANDOU

Azur Hotel
The hotel sits atop a hill behind the tiny beach resort of Cavaliere, and every room enjoys a view that includes Cavaliere Bay and the Hyeres Islands. The 24 rooms are very simple and bungalow-like, but cozy, and each has a private entrance and terrace. There's no A/C, but a refreshing breeze comes in off the sea. You can walk down to the beach in a matter of minutes, but the last stretch back up is a killer. Driving is an easier option--or just stay on the premises and paddle around in the pool. It'd be a shame to miss the beaches around here, however, as they're some of the best on the coast. Less frequented than the more developed areas near Cannes and Nice, this stretch of the Riviera has smaller crowds, golden beaches, and crystal-clear water. Domaine de l'Aragail, 011-33/4-94-01-54-54, lelavandou.com/azur-hotel, doubles $80-$98, closed mid-October to March.

SAINT-JEAN-CAP-FERRAT

Hotel Brise Marine
On this terribly exclusive peninsula, where most homes have gates and names like Lotus or Mon Plaisir, a room rate that's less than your monthly salary is a true bargain. Amazingly, this gorgeous Italianate villa, just steps from town and around the corner from the prettiest beach, is relatively reasonable. Dating from 1878, the seaside mansion is encircled by a beautiful garden filled with palm, orange, and lemon trees, and bougainvillea; its various patios and terraces look out on the bright blue bay, the cliffs of the coastline, and, in the distance, Monaco and the Italian Alps. The 18 rooms are simply furnished with modern furniture and the occasional family armoire, but many share the amazing view, and a few have spacious balconies. Many of the guests have been coming here for years, some even for decades. "We've grown old together," says longtime owner Yves Maîtrehenry, who can be found on the premises with his wife, as well as various children and grandchildren. 58 avenue Jean Mermoz, 011-33/4-93-76-04-36, hotel-brisemarine.com, doubles $168-$187, closed November--January.

AND IF OUR TOP CHOICES ARE ALL BOOKED UP . . .

Menton

Hotel Paris-Rome: A family affair. Pleasant rooms, next to the water and near beaches. A 15-minute walk into town. 011-33/4-93-35-73-45, paris-rome.com, $83-$135.

Hotel Aiglon: Old mansion converted into an atmospheric, if stodgy, hotel. Lots of antiques, some frayed carpets, beautiful architectural details, and a pool. The bar/salon is right out of the belle epoque. 011-33/4-93-57-55-55, hotelaiglon.net, $123-$175.

Cannes

Hotel de Provence: A small hotel 110 yards from the La Croisette promenade and just behind the massive Noga Hilton. The rooms are comfortable, the beds firm, and the amenities plentiful. 011-33/4-93-38-44-35, hotel-de-provence.com,$110-$123.

Saint-Raphael

Ambassador Hotel: In a nice resort town, midway between Cannes and Saint-Tropez. A short walk to the beach. Relatively spacious rooms with high ceilings, wrought-iron bedsteads, and thick walls (most rooms don't have A/C). 011-33/4-98-11-82-00, $95-$110.

Les Issambres

Hotel les Calanques: On the edge of a calanque, a rocky cove with a small beach. Out front is the coastal highway. Colorful rooms and cute wrought-iron fixtures. Most rooms have at least a partial sea view. 011-33/4-98-11-36-36, french-riviera-hotel.com, $102-$163.

Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

Hotel Clair Logis: In a residential area a 10-minute walk from town. Lush garden. Cheaper rooms are very simple; decor improves as the price goes up. 011-33/4-93-76-51-81, hotel-clair-logis.fr, $108-$228.

Sainte-Maxime

Hotel Montfleuri: Elegant pool surrounded by tropical foliage. Pricier rooms have terraces; there are also ones for $115 with small balconies and lovely sea views. 011-33/4-94-55-75-10, bestwestern.com, $102-$222.

A FEW GENERAL TIPS ABOUT HOTELS IN THE REGION

Rates: Prices shown are for a double in highest season: Some hotels distinguish between "high" and "highest" seasons, and you may see prices doubled and even tripled mid-July to August (and during the Monaco Grand Prix in May). Likewise, many properties close during winter.

Rooms: A "mountain" view is often another way of saying the room looks out on the back of the hotel or onto the town. Ask for specifics. All these hotels have air-conditioned rooms, unless otherwise noted.

Breakfast: It's wise--and considerate--to let the front desk know the night before if you'll be taking breakfast. Having breakfast at the hotel adds $7-$14 per person (unless otherwise noted).

Taxes: They're fairly negligible--around $1.20 per person per night--and as a result, not usually included in published rates.