The French riviera: off the beaten path

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Pristine beaches, charming villages, mouth-watering food, and deep blue Mediterranean waters — the Cote d’Azur is a destination that many dream about visiting. Around five million tourists visit the area every year making it the 2nd most popular destination in France after Paris. If it’s on your bucket list too, and you’re starting to plan, no doubt you’re considering the super popular destinations like Cannes, St. Tropez and Nice. But stop right there.


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Adding a few of the ultra-charming out of the way towns to the itinerary will ensure an escape from the crowds and provide some cultural insight. Plus, an off-the-beaten-path French Riviera experience will add a little of the magic that you’ve always imagined was at the core of the luxurious south of France.

Cassis

Cassis is a fishing port flanked by dramatic limestone cliffs and overlooked by an age-old château (where you can actually stay). But the real reason to visit is for the many trails that lead to Calanque D’en Vau, a national park boasting dramatic views of the Mediterranean and secluded beaches that can only be accessed by hiking to them.

After a day on the trails, enjoy the lovely white wine made by local wineries situated near the narrow streets and pastel-colored buildings of this tiny town close to Marseilles. Cafes and restaurants lining the streets create the perfect end of the day setting for a true French meal and the casual atmosphere and seaside locale are ideal for sunsets.

Where to Stay:

Château de Cassis
ibis La Ciotat Hotel
Le Jardin d’Emile

Menton

Bordering Italy, this village is a wonderful juxtaposition between French and Italian culture, architecture, and cuisine. Menton is a must-see, an oft-overlooked town as picturesque as they come. Its 18th-century bell tower adds an elegant air to the medieval city with colorful buildings and restaurants lining the marina. Menton boasts a micro-climate that is said to be regularly 3 -degrees Celsius warmer than the rest of France on any given day.

When visiting, make sure to enjoy the culinary delights at the 2-Michelin starred Mirazur, which has consistently been ranked in the World’s 50 Best. Mirazur is going to be far less crowded than the other fantastic restaurants on the Cote d’Azur simply because of its location here. After enjoying the exotic gardens around Menton, be sure to stroll to the edge of the marina to capture the best shot of the charming town.

Where to Stay:

Prince of Wales Hotel
Hôtel Napoleon
Grand Hôtel des Ambassadeurs

Nice

Nice is not exactly off-the-beaten-path. It’s the 4th-largest city in France and a prime destination on the French Riviera with one of the largest international airports in the region. Still, this very popular, crowded, and touristy city should still not be missed. The city has the most museums and cultural sites in the south of France. It can be the perfect home base if you prefer to stick to one hotel and enjoy day-trips to the small towns and villages along the coast and in the surrounding hills.

The beaches in Nice are the best on the Cote d’Azur. Along the sea is a pathway called The Promenade des Anglais that runs about 7 km stretching from the Nice airport to Castle Hill. Beginning in the 18th century the English aristocracy chose Nice for their winter residences and convinced the French to construct the path which is still aptly named today. Lining the beautiful walkway are numerous private beach clubs where you can snag a lounge chair on the smooth rocky beach for the day and enjoy the brilliant sun and warm Mediterranean waters.

Where to Stay:

Marché aux Fleurs
La Negreso
Mercure Nice Centre Notre-Dame

Vence

Perched in the mountains off the coast lies the ultra-charming city of Vence. Strolling along its streets you’ll feel as if you’re taking one step after another back in time. The beautiful stone buildings in this market town make it seem like it’s the most authentic French Riviera escape. While the other towns lining the sea are bursting with French culture, they don’t come close to transporting you to the real France like Vence.

The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence boasts some of Matisse’s last works surrounded by stunning, colorful stained glass. Vence is an art town. As you walk the streets, you’ll find plenty of galleries with both paintings and sculptures by local artists for an affordable price. Vence is up and away from the coast so its elevation provides dramatic views of the Mediterranean Sea and the surrounding area.

Where to Stay:

Château Saint-Martin & Spa
Hôtel Les Vergers de Saint-Paul
Château Le Cagnard

Île Sainte-Marguerite

Enjoy island life on the Île Sainte-Marguerite, a small island off the coast near Cannes. Regular ferries run from Cannes run every 15-minutes making it convenient to go for the day. There are only about 20 houses on the island in a historic village by the dock, but it’s still worth adding to the itinerary. It boasts quiet forests and secluded coves that make it easy to escape the commercial side of Cannes to perhaps explore a romantic daydream of your own.

The 17th-century fort on the island gained notoriety for housing the “Man in the Iron Mask” — a prisoner during the time of Louis XIV and immortalized by writers Voltaire & Alexander Dumas. The tour is fascinating and the island boasts beautiful beaches and scenic trails where you can lose track of time. Île Sainte-Marguerite is a special and very unique addition to your visit to the Cote d’Azur.

Where to Stay:

InterContinental Carlton Cannes
JW Marriott Cannes
Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes

This article first appeared on TravelSquire.com