Comeback for a faded French star

Juan-les-Pins is having a moment, providing the perfect excuse to revisit.

By Anthea Gerrie, August 20, 2009
Massage tents at the Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel’s outdoor spa

Massage tents at the Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel’s outdoor spa

For all those nursing fond memories of Juan-les-Pins, that old favourite holiday playground of Anglo-Jewry — as well as for a generation which may not yet have discovered this frenetic but charming little resort — there are three new reasons to visit.

First, the town is home to Europe’s oldest jazz festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary next July. There cannot be anywhere more sublime to listen to good music than the intimate little stage in a pinewood sloping gently down to the Med.

Huge names, from Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald have played Jazz à Juan, and this year’s line-up showed a fondness for everything from pure jazz (Keith Jarrett and Jamie Cullum) to jazz-rock fusion (Stanley Clarke and Jeff Beck) to simply great voices (Joss Stone brought the house down).

A second reason to visit at any time during a season which now extends into October is the swish new Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel. The first hotel to open in years is welcome in a resort where accommodation has been a shade problematic.

British favourites, the Grand and the Provencal are long gone, leaving only the Belles Rives and the Juana, a pair of art deco jewels, to wave the luxury flag. What was lacking was a contemporary boutique hotel, and now it has arrived on the site of the old Maison des Pecheurs nightclub.

The Beach Hotel is a cool assembly of 27 rooms and suites overlooking the marina or the sea, with an integral — if eyewateringly-expensive — Michelin-starred restaurant and a good beach brasserie. And if you are appalled by those extra charges for sunbeds on the sand that every Juan hotel maddeningly charges, there is an adjacent free public beach, and a swimming-pool and sunbathing area free for guests’ use.

However, the best attribute — apart from the spacious dressing areas which keep sleeping quarters serene and uncluttered — is the outdoor spa, with treatments conducted in a series of cheerful orange tents. These allow the sounds and ambience of beach life to permeate — nicer than being closeted in a darkened room when the sun is shining outside. The large tent where couples can enjoy a massage at the same time is particularly sybaritic.

The new hotel has prompted the Belles Rives, five minutes down the road, to beef up its own restaurant offerings by calling in Alain Llorca (who won Michelin stars for the famous Moulin à Mougins) and he is now supervising both beach and gourmet cuisine at the hotel and at the brasserie of its smart sister, the Juana. A casual lunch at the Belles Rives beach was excellent, if — as nearly everywhere in the resort — the service maddeningly slow.

For all Juanophiles, the new Provencal beach restaurant is more than just a dressier waterfront place for dinner — it’s a beacon of hope. The sad, empty hulk of the much-loved Provencal Hotel has been a blot on the landscape since it closed in 1975, and it will be 2012 before the apartments promised to bring the site back to life are completed. The beach and its restaurant are the first signs of this reincarnation and coming next will be a new luxe hotel across the road where the old Alba once stood.

Another old favourite which has withstood several recessions is the Sainte Valerie, which celebrates its 90th birthday as a hotel this year and has been augmented by an elegant fin de siecle villa next door. Where budget is a consideration, it is worth knowing that, while the Hotel de France, whose modest comforts I enjoyed with my own family back in the day, has long been converted to apartments, other keenly-priced hotels which have held their ground for half a century are offering double rooms for an astonishing 80¤ (around £69) per night in high season.

A second Picasso masterwork can be seen in a drive into the hills which, for many, have become the preferred South of France destination. The little town of Vallauris, where the artist lived after he left Antibes, is the best gateway from the coast to avoid traffic.

They include Le Courbet and Le Passy, both of which now boast air-conditioning (though rooms may be showing their age), and whose prices should be positively rock-bottom in September and October, when the Beach Hotel is more affordable too.

The third reason to return to the area is the reopening of the Picasso Museum in Antibes, where the artist worked in 1946.

There are some fine paintings and ceramics on show in the nicely-refurbished galleries, and a lovely sculpture terrace overlooking the sea. The independent shop opposite sells limited edition Picasso plates for those in the market for a four-figure souvenir.

A second Picasso masterwork can be seen in a drive into the hills which, for many, have become the preferred South of France destination. The little town of Vallauris, where the artist lived after he left Antibes, is the best gateway from the coast to avoid traffic.

Here is a dedicated ceramics museum whose pride and joy — other than its Picasso pieces — is the little chapel whose walls the artist covered with his moving La Guerre et La Paix mural in 1959. It is a vivid, passionate anti-war work which recalls the more famous Guernica.

Vallauris is close to pretty Mougins, where Picasso also lived — there are fascinating family photographs of him in the village museum. The charming Mas Candille here has been renovated to create a Relais & Chateaux hotel with yet another Michelin-starred restaurant. Its shady terrace overlooking Grasse and the hills of the Var is a charming place to linger over a very good lunch.

For us, it was a stop en route to a newish Four Seasons resort, a vision of Provence reinterpreted for American sensibilities. Thus, tile-roofed ochre cottages are surrounded by a landscape fragrant with lavender and rosemary, but equipped with giant flat-screen TVs and huge, luxurious bathrooms.

Monsieur Michelin has given his seal of approval to the gourmet restaurant, there is a superb pool lined with cabanas (at no extra charge — a relief after the rip-off hotel beaches), and an excellent spa offering sensuous treatments using indigenous herbs, clay and salt.

While the food in the simpler terrace restaurant was very good, a more authentic — and less pricey — dining experience is to be had in the nearby picturesque village of Seillans.

The Jewish surrealist Max Ernst once lived here and some of his works are on show in his old house. It adjoins a ravishing central square full of restaurant tables around a large fountain, where lunch at the intriguingly named La Gloire de Mon Pere was a delight.

The small town of Fayence on the way back to the Four Seasons offers many further attractive outdoor dining opportunities.

Last updated: 3:29pm, August 20 2009