Nice, Cannes + La Cote D’Azur

On a warm winter morning, the soft light of the French Riviera is streaming into the Cours Saleya Flower Market in the old section of Nice. Just a block back from the mediterranean sea, long rows of vendors are selling African daisies, violet anemones, white calla lilies, pink irises and yellow marigolds. I look up and see housewives pulling back filigreed lace curtains in the windows of weathered, pale crimson 19th century villas to tend to their flower boxes. below, waiters are adjusting white linen tablecloths in the bright, airy bistros where every Sevres china vase of flowers is placed just so, like an Impressionist still life.

Which makes me think to myself that the French Riviera is as much a lifestyle—a subtle, daily celebration of beauty, art, food and finesse—as it is a destination. They say the art of living well wasn’t invented on this stretch of coastline known as La Côte d’Azur. It was perfected here.

The region is a magnet for US groups due to the variety of ridiculously romantic and charming places to visit within close proximity, captured innumerable times on film from An Affair to Remember to French Kiss. The city of Nice is the largest city (pop: ½ million) with the second busiest airport in France after de Gaulle, welcoming direct flights from JFK. With your group based here, you have no limit of highly cultured escapades to nearby Cannes, Antibes, Cap Ferrat, St. Tropez and medieval Provençal villages like St. Paul de Vence.

Equipped with the largest fleet of vehicles in the area servicing over half a million visitors yearly, the DMC Santa Azur is handling logistics for our group of about 15 planners. Today’s transportation, suitable for groups up to 30, is a little bit special.

We depart from the flower market for the winding seaside highway out of town inside a cavalcade of vintage automobiles, including a 1968 E-Type Jaguar, a sporty little chartreuse number that handles the cliffside curves like a nimble cat. There’s also a silver 1958 Porsche convertible Speedster and a fire engine red ’64 Mustang convertible. The girls all have silk scarves in their hair while the men who elected to drive have sly smiles stamped on their faces like Cary Grant, who motored Grace Kelly around on these same roads in To Catch a Thief filmed here in 1955.

Six miles later, we pull off the road for a look at Villefranche-sur Mer, a postcard harbor town filled with 14th century chapels and antique markets. The band U2 who lives nearby likes to come here for lunch, and it’s the favorite Riviera getaway for Corinne Foulquier, deputy director of the France Tourism Development Agency in New York, who’s traveling with us. For groups up to 110, consider a meal at the historic port restaurant La Mère Germaine, serving the area’s best bouillabaisse since 1938. This is a town where restaurateurs know the local fishermen by name, and that cozy wharfside ambience is a big part of the draw.

A few more miles down the coast, we drive up for lunch at the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa & Gardens, one of the most historically important and beautifully situated estates in the South of France. Built during the turn of the 19th century, the 2-story pink mansion sits atop a hillside peninsula in St. Jean Cap Ferrat overlooking the bays of Villefranche-sur Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer, with nine gardens on 11 acres falling into the Mediterranean Sea. We had lunch in the Tea Salon with picture windows framing the gardens and Musical Fountains, suitable for 75 diners. You can also reserve the house itself for 250 pax indoors; 400 al fresco.

While troubled artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin were drawn to the sombre color palettes deep in the rural Vaucluse region of Provence west of Marseilles, more chipper painters like Matisse and Chagall made their home in Nice. Santa Azur DMC offers a full-day Artists’ Riviera group tour including two museums dedicated to these men, as well as another just down the coast in Antibes showcasing unique artwork by Picasso.

The Matisse Museum is housed inside a palatial 17th century villa high above the city where the artist lived from 1918 until 1954. Following his death, major art bequests delivered a handsome collection of over 40 paintings and 200 drawings that illustrate Matisse’s evolution as an artist over 60 years, from his early genius as a colorist to his famous cutouts later in his career.

Nearby, we were mesmerized at The Marc Chagall Museum by the 17 religious-themed Surrealist paintings and stained glass masterpieces. The most important Jewish painter of the 20th century, Chagall is regarded as a pioneer of Modernism. This is a must. The delicate explosion of color on canvas and glass here is enhanced by the stark minimalist building.

About 20 minutes west of Nice, the town of Antibes is famous for its many music and opera festivals, as well as the incomparable Picasso Museum. It’s located inside a small castle on a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean, once owned by the royal Grimaldi family. Picasso painted here in the top floor studio for only one year but it was during a period of intense poverty, so much of the specialized artwork is painted on wood and ceramics, illustrating his extraordinary level of creativity.

Back in Nice, the 331-room Radisson Blu Hotel, Nice is smack in the middle of the 2-mile crescent bayfront, just minutes from the Flower Market. The nautical design is thoroughly contemporary, clean and well maintained, and you’re going to love the new rooftop terrace with capacity for 350 pax and some of the most jaw-dropping views in Nice.

“Nice is rebranding toward a younger audience while maintaining the old European flavor,” says Eric Talou, Director of Sales/Marketing. “This hotel was designed for corporate groups, especially from the US. We have a very modern look with American size rooms larger than anywhere else in Nice.”

Anchoring the end of the bay, Hôtel La Pérouse is designed for upscale incentives with six suites and 54 rooms inside a historic villa complex. The property feels new because every unit has been renovated within the last four years, and while the furnishings and soft goods are more typical of an upscale Parisian loft, it makes for a nice counterpoint against the traditional 19th century architecture. The lovely pool patio restaurant with lemon trees seats 100, and manager Murielle Ettori explains that groups typically run 25 rooms in summer/40 mid-season.

About 40 minutes west of Nice, the small resort town of Cannes encircles a quiet bay with imported sand on the beach—a rarity in the region. You’ve seen that beach if you’ve seen the movie French Kiss, which was partially filmed at the drop-dead glamorous InterContinental Carlton Cannes.

I enter the 345-room European icon built in 1910 a little heady with anticipation after having watched so many movies filmed here over six decades. And yes, the Carlton delivers on its promise the second you walk into the soaring all-white lobby and see the grand staircase—a registered national monument.

The seaside Grand Salon is a preserved late-Belle Epoque masterpiece with towering ceilings and fanciful woodwork straight out of a fairytale. Which, actually, it was for Grace Kelly who first met Prince Rainier here in this room. There are 12 meeting spaces altogether with the largest hosting up to 1,400, and the beachfront restaurant serves 2,000 for private dinners. InterContinental’s group space is also HQ for the American movie industry during the famous annual Cannes Film Festival.

Upstairs, the cream and butter color tones in the guestrooms are soothing in their understated elegance, following a recent 3-year restoration that managed to retain a strong sense of history without feeling stuffy or contrived. Just the right touch of glam too.

“The wallpaper pattern was inspired by one of Grace Kelly’s dresses in To Catch a Thief,” explains Verena Kuhn, international director of sales. We look at the expansive 7th floor suites named after past guests, the nicest of which are Elton John and Sean Connery with private elevator access. But the regular rooms are also voluminous, especially those with oceanview balconies.

“True luxury is the space we have for our guests,” says Kuhn, one of the nicest InterConti reps out there. Group rates are friendly too, running around $280 in shoulder season.

Also on the beach, the Hotel Palais Stephanie Cannes is a thoroughly modern group property that plays 100% on the Film Festival theme after a $53 million renovation in 2009. The 261 rooms/suites feature large black and white prints of past festival galas, so you’ll have Uma Thurman being mobbed by paparazzi in one room and Sophia Loren posing on the beach in another. The walls are covered in warm brown Italian leather with lots of wood and metal embellishments finishing off the hipster look.

For group events, there are 15 meeting rooms including an 820-seat auditorium. Five interconnected suites on the mezz floor all open up to oceanview verandahs. And the rooftop pool deck is high in demand for groups up to 650 pax overlooking the waterfront. This is just a fun, sleek hotel with a little bit of cheek and very approachable rates for Cannes. Plus, the location can’t be beat just a short walk from the historic center.

About a 1/2-hour drive from Nice up into the countryside, the 9th century hilltop village of St. Paul de Vence is a fortified community of intoxicating charm. Bring comfortable shoes for the narrow twisting walkways winding among an upscale array of bistros, art galleries, boutique shops and small hotels. Santa Azur offers a group program including lunch in a 4-star restaurant, a guided tour through the art galleries, and a tour of the Maeght Foundation, which displays artwork by Braque, Giacometti, Miró and Marc Chagall, whose final resting place is here.