South of France style

Follow in the glamorous footsteps of the rich, powerful and famous to Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera


After a beach party in 1938 (and no doubt beaucoup de champagne), Noel Coward composed the song I Went to a Marvellous Party, which includes the lyrics, ‘As high as a kite, living in error, with Maud at Cap Ferrat’. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

And while I’m not with Maud, but with my husband Neil and youngest son Freddie, as we pull up to Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, I’ve no doubt we’ll also enjoy a marvellous party.

Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (to give it its full name), also known as the Billionaire Peninsula, lies between Nice and Monaco on the Cote d’Azur and covers 200 hectares between Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

In 1904, King Leopold II of Belgium moved in, buying a 19th century mansion which he expanded to include botanical gardens and tunnels that ran to the homes of several mistresses.

Aristocracy and high rollers followed suit, and soon the region was the Cote d’Azur’s most glamorous destination. As you near Cap-Ferrat, you can still see Leopold’s immense mansion high up on the cliffs, blushing pink in the midday sun. Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukraine’s richest man, bought it for a rumoured 200 million euros in 2020 — around £170 million.

Arriving at Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, built in 1908 and now a Four Seasons Hotel, is a breath-taking moment. I’m distracted momentarily by a vintage Rolls Royce Silver Cloud that is parked by the entrance, but my eyes are quickly drawn back to the stately beauty of the hotel.

Designed with a sweeping curve, a gleaming marble modern Art Deco interior floods with natural light from vast windows looking through pine trees to the sea.

My head isn’t easily turned by a modern-day celebrity. I’d much rather conjure up an A-lister ghost from the past, preferably in a historic hotel — and this one has plenty of those wafting through its corridors and lavish gardens, as well as plenty who are still alive and kicking (although discretion is paramount here).

Richard Burton stayed, Elizabeth Taylor too; I’ve only been here five minutes before I imagine that I spy Winston Churchill lounging on the terrace puffing on a cigar.

We’re in a Pinewood Suite, named for the trees that shade our expansive terrace and fill the room with their sharp citrusy natural scent. The suite is enormous at 72 square metres and in the separate living-room (where a welcome gift of hazelnut ganache cake and champagne sit waiting) there’s ample room for an extra bed for Freddie.

Through a wood-panelled dressing room, I find a marble bathroom with toiletries by Hermes. The place couldn’t feel more fabulously French.

The first stop has to be Club Dauphin, the hotel’s swish beach club. Located at sea level, it’s reached on foot through Mediterranean flower gardens, bordered by cypress trees and palms, or by funicular, which glides guests sedately down the cliffside in an air-conditioned glass box.

The club’s saltwater pool is a Cote d’Azur icon with vast sea views, but for thrill-seekers looking for a wilder swimming experience, there’s also a three-sided natural swimming hole with steps fixed to the rocks just beyond. We jump in and wait for the luxury yachts to cruise by, sending rippling waves towards us which transform our pool into a swirling cauldron.

Each morning we strike out for a stroll along the paved coastal path to work off our indulgent breakfast (croissants that melt in the mouth; creamy hot chocolate; crepes doused in lemon and sugar — the only excuse needed is that we’re in France).

Walk to the right and you’ll come to Cap-Ferrat’s lighthouse, built in 1732, with far-reaching views to Nice. In the other direction it’s a 25-minute stroll to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat’s port.

While dining under a canopy of umbrella pines at La Veranda, we dither over the Mediterranean menu and then take chef’s suggestion — a whole globe artichoke, presented like a work of art with petals falling away to reveal a perfectly cooked heart, which we dip into a citrusy sauce.

Freddie and I follow this with the catch of the day just hours from the sea, before an intense debate as to which dessert is most delicious, from soft avocado biscuits with chocolate centres to a limoncello baba.

On the table next to us, holidaying with her family, is a Swiss tennis pro; just across the terrace a famous French photographer is enjoying dinner — the rumour is that she’s been flown in to take the photograph of an even more famous model who is currently in residence (I fish for a name, but staff are impressively tight lipped).

Never mind because I’m pretty sure I just glimpsed Cary Grant on the stairs.

The golden age of lavish house parties began on Cap-Ferrat in the 1920s when Somerset Maugham bought a Moorish-inspired villa and hosted friends such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and TS Eliot.

At Villa La Fiorentina, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were photographed for the cover of Vogue. Cary Grant, The Kennedys, The Rolling Stones — the list of the world’s most glamorous icons who’ve come here to escape goes on and on.

I soon realise that this is the peninsula’s allure. Sparse of beaches (and what small beaches there are consist of dusty stones), there’s a windswept far-away feel to the place, its coastline spiked with jagged rocks protruding from the sea, steep pine-clad cliffs and one lonely lighthouse. It’s the perfect destination for those who wish to disappear for a while.

We explore by e-bike — complimentary at the hotel and so handy for tackling the uphill roads — attempting a cheeky peek through the fences of the gorgeous homes we pass; most lie behind fortress walls.

There are two historic villas open to the public (a third, the home of artist, writer, and film-maker Jean Cocteau, is under renovation) and we start at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, the creation of Beatrice de Rothschild, who after divorcing her no-good gambling husband, built the lavish villa in 1907.

The house with its grand salons, rare furniture and artworks may be impressive but it’s the nine gardens of varying designs from Provencal to Japanese that wow me, with musical fountains bringing the French garden to life at regular intervals.

Then on to Villa Kerylos, the indulgent dream of 20th century scholar Theodore Reinach, built in 1902 in the style of Ancient Greece, complete with an arcade supported by twelve columns made from Carrara marble, mosaic floors, and beds at table height so that he could eat lying down.

A little further down the coast, Villefranche-sur-Mer is a fortified town with an austere blocky castle and a port lined with somewhat faded yet attractive Belle Epoque hotels; it lacks the glitz of the region’s other resorts such as St Tropez but has atmosphere in spades.

Sipping an aperitif at Dry, a lovely harbourside bar, with views back to Cap-Ferrat and its lighthouse, I could appreciate why the place so charmed Cocteau, who holed up at the Welcome Hotel to kick an opium addiction.

As a thank you to the town he fell in love with, he gave a makeover to local chapel, Saint Pierre, adding mystical motifs and beautiful interior frescoes dedicated to the Mediterranean and the life of St Peter.

A wander along the shady Rue Obscure is also unmissable. Built in the 13th century so that soldiers might manoeuvre in secret, it’s so atmospheric that it has served as a backdrop for scenes in over 120 films, including Cocteau’s The Testament of Orpheus.

Back at Club Dauphin, I order a glass of Whispering Angel rose wine and watch the sun slowly drop until it’s just above the lighthouse, giving this tapering white-washed building the appearance of a flickering candle.

Overhead, the gentle buzz of helicopters shuttling wealthy visitors from Nice to Monaco can be heard, while out at sea superyachts slide silently by.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading home too, but until then, there’s still chance to tread in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin and the stars of the silver screen on their way to another marvellous party.


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