Moments of perfect contentment may be rare, but lying on a bobbing sunbathing pontoon off Cap d’Antibes, having swum out from the rocks at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, it was hard to believe life could get better.
Looking towards the shore, I could see the terrace of the secluded 1930s beach cabins, one of 33 you can rent by the day, where we’d lingered over a lunch of tiny purple artichokes and glittering gilthead bream. No wonder Chagall used to paint in these cabanes (Picasso was a visitor to the hotel too), for the vibrant colours and glittering light on this coast are as spellbinding as the landscape.
Immortalised by F Scott Fitzgerald as the Hôtel des Etrangers, the “summer resort of notable and fashionable people” where his 1934 novel Tender is the Night begins, the Hôtel du Cap surely ranks among the most beautiful in the world. Fitzgerald went on to describe the “deferential palms [that] cool the flushed façade” of the main villa, and they still do. It was built in 1869 by the proprietor of Le Figaro, when it was the world’s biggest-selling newspaper, and its bosky gardens are as lovely as any in France.
Historically, the disincentives to staying here were the hauteur of its staff and its eccentric pricing policy – not that it deterred the film stars for whom it is the lodging of choice during the Cannes film festival. As recently as 2005, a television in your room merited a €100 surcharge. Ice cost €7 a bucket. And the use of a pair of sunloungers was charged at €75 a day. Oh, and the hotel didn’t take credit cards: either you wired payment ahead or arrived with a suitcase of cash.
Lately, however, things have changed. Its current general manager, Philippe Perd, has not only trained the staff to charm rather than intimidate, he has introduced a tariff that includes WiFi, local phone calls and bottled water, and overseen a €45m restoration ready for the coming summer season.
The result is a triumph of subtle improvement. The air conditioning, wiring, pipework, soundproofing et al may now be state-of-the-art, but the look of the 118 rooms – pale boiserie walls hung with gilded mirrors, luxuriant Canovas and Pierre Frey fabrics and genuine antique furniture and chandeliers – speaks of an earlier era. Rather than order room service by phone, this is a place where staff are summoned by bells. Every bedside has a console with three buttons, marked valet, femme d’étage and service aux chambres. Indeed the one obvious nod to modernity – perhaps the sole false note – are the gigantic flatscreen TVs that now come as standard.
Not that one should linger in one’s room, however splendid. The hotel’s 22-acre park contains five immaculate clay tennis courts, rose gardens, woodland, a pet cemetery – where Edward VIII’s and Wallis Simpson’s dogs were laid to rest, for this is where they decamped immediately after the abdication – and a huge heated saltwater infinity pool dynamited out of the cliff, not to mention a succession of sea-diving boards and a collection of overwater trapezes accessible by rope-ladder from the waves.
Of course, all this comes at a cost. Rooms may start at a not outlandish (for this category at least) €490, but a salade niçoise at the seaside Bar-Grill, which has a superb cantilevered terrace like the deck of an ocean liner, will set you back €32, a cheeseburger €48. And you won’t see much change from €300 after a two-course dinner for two in the grander restaurant above.
But somehow it feels worth it. Sipping a bellini at sunset on the veranda, watching the soigné guests saunter down to dinner, I felt a sense of blithe bien-être. At last I have an answer to the question: what is your favourite hotel? This is as close to heaven as I know.