Nice, at least the famous beach in front of the famous Promenade des Anglais isn’t what it used to be. True the city is still as captivating as ever, with its bustling flower and food markets and overflowing restaurants, the opera house and the five-star Hotel Negresco.
So down on the beach sipping a delicious kir royale as the sun goes down over the bluest of Mediterrean Seas is the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing. At the popular Beau Rivage restaurant I order my drink and while I wait close my eyes listening to the mesmerising sound of the waves lapping back and forth on the beach. Suddenly my golden moment is shattered as an Easyjet blasts overhead as it lands at the new seaside runway at nearby Nice Airport. It seems only 15 minutes later, yet another Easyjet …passes and another….
But the locals don’t seem bothered – proof if any were needed that even the fabulously weathy Cote d’Azur residents are prepared to see low cost airlines sweeping across their fabulous bay if it brings in paying punters like myself.
It also clearly does not detract from that other enjoyable Niçoise pastime – people watching! My fellow diners are gawping at the rear silhouette of a glamorous “young” woman, model size 4, dripping in huge diamonds and wearing red six inch stilettos with huge diamonté Chanel logos on the heels. She is walking somewhat precariously with the support of her elderly male companion to a nearby table. When she turns to sit down even her cosmetically enhanced face - her hands were veiny and blue - could not hide the fact that she was probably in her 70s.
So Nice and the glamorous Riveria still attracts the well-heeled but what do the locals do at the height of the summer season, when their beaches are packed, the sun swelters and and the unmistakable oily whiff of Ambre Solaire wafts through the air?
Beautiful mountains and forests behind the Cote d'Azur
The answer is that they escape to a peaceful sanctuary of wild and rugged gorges, Alpine pastures and mountains – all within an hour’s drive – where the temperature is 10 degrees or more lower.
Once the snow has melted late in Spring, the Alpes-Maritimes becomes a wonderful playground for anyone seeking a healthier physical and financial alternative to the Cote d’Azur. The area has some of Europe’s highest canyons and national parks thriving with wildlife including wolves, lynx and golden eagles.
Taking the D6202 which skirts the River Va along an unremarkable industrialised valley, passing the perfume town of Grasse, before the road rises through the spectacular Gorges du Cians (pictured) - where it is possible to walk through the rocky river beds during the summer season if its dry. Parts of the old medieval road are also walkable.
The favourite resort of the locals, particularly in August where they decend en mass is the small ski-resort of Valberg. At 1700 metres it becomes virtually snow-bound from October until early Spring but in the summer it is a perfect outdoor activity centre.
The Adventure Discovery Park, a short walk from the village centre, has an abundance of activities for all fitness levels, including children. There is an assault course in the nearby forest where you abseil through the trees, get the ski lift up and return down a winding chute in a sled. There is also trout fishing, horseback riding and golfing. Even watching from the safety of a nearby café is quite entertaining as unsuspecting tourists scream as they gather speed at the end of the abseil and crash into a padded wall at the end.
But my favourite is walking. Though, I must confess, one of the most bizarre I have encountered is the Le Sentier Planétaire in which scaled down model of the Earth’s solar system has been set in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Our guide Cedric Robion, who also doubles as ski instructor also has difficulty explaining the concept.
Walking through shaded forest and sunlight glades we pass giant sculptures representing the seven planets, earth and the sun. The trek which can last anything from 1.5 to five hours starts opposite the tourist office in the centre of the town. Despite my own scepticism the walk takes you through some beautiful countryside with sunlite glades and meadows covered in the most beautiful Alpine plants (pictured).
Is is worth getting a guide as ours points out a whole wealth of flora and fauna we could otherwise have missed including wild orchid, rare birds and landmarks in the nearby Parc National du Mercantour, a giant national park which joins another in nearby Italy and is home to wolves, 50 pairs of golden eagles, griffins and vultures and the lynx which was reintroduced to the area.
Not to be missed is a round of golf at the nearby Valberg Golf Club, which at around 2,000 metres plus, is a bracing experience even at the height of summer. But the views of the mountains are breathtaking. Designed by mountain golf course architect Oliverie Dongradio, the 9-hole par 34 course is also home to some interesting local wildlife…A strange eerie whistle, perfected by the local inhabitants brings the creatures – a species of ground squirrel, called Marmots, out of their burrows and they play, even doing somersaults in the favourite habitat…the bunkers.
The variety of flowers and herbs which grow in this region are renowned for the medicinal properties and at La Ribière (pictured below), two kilometres north of Guillaumes, a local couple make a modest living distilling plants, gathered from the nearby Alpes.
Seventy-two year-old Pierre Parré and his wife Monique, 64, gather the plants, including wild lavender and thyme, locally and distill them traditionally in a copper vat. The villagers hit the vat from the Germans during the War. Behind their home, there is a hillside garden with examples of the many plants used and Monique, who by the way is as agile as a goat on the slopes, loves nothing more than to chat about her garden to passing visitors.
Perhaps this is because visitors are few in the winter months as their home as it is cut off by snow between October and early Spring. There is a small shop where you can purchase many inexpensive items.
As an alternative to expensive Cannes and a few miles towards St Tropez is the quieter and less flashy Mandelieu La Napoule, where they are great restaurants, beaches and even a castle – Chateau Napoule. The original site was a medieval fortress but in the 1920s it was restored by wealthy Americans, Henry and Marie Clews, as a meeting place for artists. As well as the collection of sculptures and the gardens, dining in the ramparts restaurant is worth the experience, if only for the view.
The Chateau terrace
Mandelieu has all the marine activities you would expect. At the popular Pierre et Vacances family apartment hotel, you can sail from the nearby river into the bay and swim or snorkel.
What better way to see the sunset that to take the gentle inclining path up to the highest local spot, Mont San Peyre – at the top where you get a panorama of the coast including the whole length of Cannes.
And with all the money you have saved by visiting the places the locals go to, dine at one of the only restaurants in the area to have two Michel stars. L’Oasis Restaurant’s chef is Parisien Stéphane Rimbault so expect high gastronomy.
And you won’t be disappointed the service and food are both first class and if you are lucky enough to dine al fresco it’s a magical end to your visit to the South of France.
Easyjet to Nice book online at http://www.easyjet.co.uk/
Valberg Tourist Office: T: 00 33 (0)4 93 23 24 25 Email email@example.com http://www.valberg.com/
Valberg Golf Club: Open between May and August http://www.valberggolfclub.com/
Valberg Mountain guides http://www.oeroc.fr/
Stay at a traditional chalet: Chalet La Croix Saint-Jean, 4 bedrooms with bathrooms 38 rue Saint Jean, Valberg. Run by ski teacher Christophe Menei and his wife Lucie. T: 00 33 (0)4 93 05 45 52 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Résidence Les Ancolies, apartments – 6 persons.
The medicinal plants of La Ribieré - Contact: 04.93.05.50.28
Résidence Pierre & Vacances, Les Rives de Cannes – Boulevard de la Mer T: 00 33 (0)4 92 97 72 00
Chateau de la Napoule -Open seven days a week from February to November and weekends the rest of the year. Restaurant reservations 04 93 49 95 05.
L’Oasis Restaurant, Rue Jean Honoré, T: 0033 (0)4 93 49 95 52 Email: email@example.com Book online at http://www.oasis-raimbault.com/
Club de plongée La Cigale, Port de Napoule : Tél. : 04 93 90 98 66 - Mobile : 06 29 09 87 92 - e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.lacigale-plongee.com/
Easy Nautic – motor boat tours of the nearby bay and islands where you can swim – hire costs around $375 for a morning. T00 33 (0)4 92 97 72 25
Club Plongée La Cigale, Port La Napoule – hire of wetsuits, snorkels, fins and motorboats etc.
White water rafting http://www.eau-evasion.com/
Grand Hotel Aston, 12 Avenue Félix Faure, Nice T: 00 33 (0)4 92 17 53 00 http://www.hotel-aston.com/
The Beau Rivage Hotel Restaurant, Nice Beach