The day before we were scheduled to fly home after a stay at the wonderful new Le Grand Contrôle hotel in Versailles (see the November Hideaway Report), the fall weather was so beautiful that we decided to postpone our departure. Instead, we headed to the south of France for a long weekend.
It was a particular pleasure to arrive in Nice following a long absence; after all the months of lockdown, I find that I see everywhere with fresh eyes. After picking up our rental car, we headed to Le Negresco to sample the cooking of chef Virginie Basselot, the first female chef at the hotel’s legendary Le Chantecler restaurant. In a sign of the times, the stratospheric pre-COVID prices had come back down to earth, and we enjoyed a prix fixe menu that began with roasted pumpkin with white truffles and pecorino mousse — a brilliant autumnal composition of varying tones of earthiness — followed by cod fillet with baby artichokes and beef with tiny black Niçoise olives and anchovies. A poached pear with tonka bean ice cream concluded a memorable meal.
Leaving the main highway to reach the 69-room Maybourne Riviera hotel near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, we drove through the village of La Turbie, which is dominated by a spectacular Roman monument known as the Trophée d’Auguste. It was built 2,000 years ago to proclaim the greatness of Emperor Augustus, who had conquered the Ligurian tribes. The monument, and La Turbie itself, has one of the most spectacular views of the Mediterranean to be found anywhere in Europe. Which is why, in 1870, a wooden chalet housing a tearoom was built just outside the village, on an outcrop 1,100 feet above the sea. The peerlessly dramatic site meant that the tearoom eventually evolved into a small hotel, which was completely rebuilt in 1963. German industrialist Max Grundig gave the property a new name when he bought it in 1978: the Vista Palace Hotel.
We were curious to see what Irish hotelier Paddy McKillen, owner of the Maybourne Group, which includes Claridge’s in London, had achieved with a $120 million makeover.
Having endured underwhelming experiences at the property over the years — the atmosphere was cold, and the service often haughty and imprecise — we were curious to see what Irish hotelier Paddy McKillen, owner of the Maybourne Group, which includes Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley in London, had accomplished with a $120 million makeover. We learned one answer to this question when we arrived and were greeted in turn by a charming porter, car valet and receptionist. During our entire stay, the staff throughout this property were warm, gracious, attentive and instinctively hospitable.
Under the direction of French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the existing hotel has been strikingly transformed and expanded. Its modernist aesthetic has been softened by retro references to the ’50s and ’60s, when the Côte d’Azur was a favorite destination of artists and designers — including the Irish-born architect Eileen Gray, whose nearby vacation villa has been restored by McKillen and is open to visitors by appointment. The hotel’s new room interiors are the work of an international all-star cast that includes Michelle Wu, Pierre Yovanovitch and Bryan O’Sullivan, plus the London-based design firm Rigby & Rigby.
A whole new six-story wing of the hotel has been built into the cliffside adjacent to the original building. This spectacular feat of engineering was necessary both to profit from the almost vertical site and to integrate the expansion into the natural setting as discreetly as possible. The wing includes two swimming pools, one of which is a sensational infinity pool that almost induces a feeling of vertigo.
Our suite was located in the original building. Sleek and contemporary but very comfortable, it immediately reminded me of the interior of a luxury yacht. The spacious bedroom and lounge, painted white and oyster, came with a balcony running the entire length of both rooms. Since the balcony itself was enclosed by plate glass, we could enjoy the panorama of Monte Carlo below from anywhere in the suite except the marble bath. Aside from the stupendous view, we especially liked the exceptionally comfortable sofa, with leather-upholstered cushions and a wool fleece back, which was perfect for movie watching, and the built-in glass-topped table and leather chairs, ideal for room service meals.
Immediately we understood that this is a place where you settle in, relax and forget about the world. To be sure, The Maybourne Riviera has a private beach club on Roquebrune-Cap-Martin for anyone who wants to spend a day by the sea. And the hotel’s car service will ferry you down to Monte Carlo or Menton. But the whole concept of The Maybourne Riviera is to make that superfluous. This cliffside aerie is a place to escape.
The hotel has two restaurants by Michelin three-star chef Mauro Colagreco (whose own Mirazur, in nearby Menton, regularly ranks as one of the five best restaurants in the world). At the Maybourne, the Riviera Restaurant serves local comfort dishes from Provence, Liguria and Corsica, such as veal sautéed with olives and accompanied by gnocchi and chanterelles, fish of the day (alla Ligure, with purple artichokes, zucchini, tomato, potato, capers and basil) and tarte Tropézienne (a light custard-filled brioche tart), while Ceto presents a menu of mostly Mediterranean fish and shellfish in ways that highlight the natural tastes of increasingly rare and expensive wild seafood.
At Ceto, Colagreco opts for brilliant simplicity. Most fish is aged in a custom-built cellar with rock-salt walls to develop its natural flavors and then grilled over briquettes made from crushed olive pits. Highlights of our meal included tuna belly in housemade XO sauce, scorpionfish fillet with kale and bread-crust sauce, and a mille-feuille made with nori, the Japanese seaweed. This remarkably original cooking is stunningly light, fresh and healthy.
The resort also offers the Pool Bar & Terrace for wood-fired pizzas and Riviera Playa for Mediterranean classics served close to the beach. A wellness center will open next year — in the meantime, massages and other treatments are available in your room — which has been designed by acclaimed Hong Kong-born architect André Fu, whose portfolio of work includes The Upper House in Hong Kong, The Berkeley in London and Villa La Coste in Provence (our 2018 Hideaway of the Year).
Impeccable service from the friendly young staff; the sensational views; the very comfortable and well-decorated rooms; the world-class restaurants.
The considerable expense.
Make restaurant reservations when you book your room here, since Riviera Restaurant and Ceto are popular with locals. Off-property, our favorite restaurant nearby is L’Hostellerie Jérôme in La Turbie, where brilliant chef Bruno Cirino is at the helm.
From Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it was a pleasant two-hour drive to the elegant university city of Aix-en-Provence — the birthplace of Paul Cézanne — and the 34-room Villa Saint-Ange, the region’s newest five-star property, which opened in July 2019. The hotel was the brainchild of Jean-Brice Garella, who owns another simpler hotel in the city (Les Quatre Dauphins). It has been created from an 18th-century house set on a 2-acre estate that had miraculously survived intact in the heart of the city just a few minutes’ walk from the famous Cours Mirabeau. After acquiring the property in 2017, Garella hired architect Henri Paret to transform the original building, construct a new restaurant and add more rooms in the landscaped gardens adjacent to the magnificent 90-foot swimming pool.
Garella is a stickler for details, and apparently, 37 different types of craftsmen worked on the property, including blacksmiths, stone carvers and trompe l’oeil painters. He also ransacked local antique stores and flea markets for pieces that would convey the Napoleon III ambiance he sought to create. For the gardens and landscaping, he took inspiration from the wild English style of gardening, as opposed to the formal French one, while using plants and trees native to Provence.
Arriving late afternoon, a friendly bellhop took our bags and then parked our car in the hotel garage. Check-in took place in our Junior Suite. Alas, the receptionist was rather chilly and standoffish. The room itself had beautiful herringbone oak parquet floors, powder-blue wallpaper with pastoral scenes, ivory-velvet drapes, a chaise longue, a writing desk and a pair of velvet tub chairs at an inlaid stone-topped table. Although not especially spacious, the suite was comfortable and extremely attractive. The bath came with two vanities and a walk-in shower; happily the lighting was easy to use, at a time when hotels strive to outdo one another by installing lighting systems designed to baffle anyone not in possession of a lengthy instruction manual.
That evening we had an enjoyable dinner in the conservatory restaurant. Talented chef Nadège Serret serves a menu of Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, and we enjoyed foie gras with a prune compote, followed by succulent veal fillet accompanied by a ravioli stuffed with soft cheese and basil-and-pistachio pesto sauce. The restaurant has quickly gained a reputation among the Aixois, so reservations are essential, even for hotel guests.
Overall, the Villa Saint-Ange is an extremely attractive hotel, in a setting that is blissfully tranquil, despite being an easy walk or short cab ride from the center of this enchanting small city.
The ideal location; the excellent restaurant; the spectacular pool; the astonishingly lavish décor.
Spotty and sometimes offhand service; the $35 a night charge for parking, in a place where there are no alternative options.
Specify that you do not want one of the rooms that are located under the swimming pool; they’re dark and come with tubs but no separate showers; it has become nearly impossible to park in Aix, and the one-way traffic system is infernally complicated, so leave your car at the hotel.