The words Côte d’Azur ,

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for most trav­el­ers, con­jure up a dis­tinc­tive set of men­tal images. Rosé on a beach. Night­clubs filled with sun-kissed Brigitte Bar­dot types. Lan­guid af­ter­noons spent loung­ing on a yacht off the Cap d’An­tibes. But there is a side to this re­gion that couldn’t be fur­ther re­moved from the star power of La Croisette—that fa­mous palm-lined board­walk in Cannes. The French fam­i­lies who sum­mer down here know ex­actly how to side­step the glitzy façade, seek­ing out se­cret beaches, pine-scented cliff walks, and sim­ple yet spec­tac­u­lar Provençal food. For for­eign vis­i­tors, how­ever, find­ing the French Riviera’s more au­then­tic side has, for the past few decades at least, proved more dif­fi­cult.

Hô­tel Les Roches Rouges, a strik­ing, newly re­opened re­sort tucked into the cliffs mid­way be­tween Cannes and St.-Tropez, aims to make it a bit eas­ier to ex­pe­ri­ence the true Côte d’Azur. Un­til very re­cently, this ho­tel was pre­cisely where you didn’t want to stay in Provence. A run-down, two-star place, it was stuck in the tack­ier reaches of mid-cen­tury France, and not in a clas­sic, nou­velle vague way. But even at its polyester-ev­ery­thing nadir, the prop­erty still had a few things go­ing for it. To start with: lo­ca­tion. Les Roches Rouges lies in the turquoise heart of the Riviera, hov­er­ing over a tran­quil in­let near the har­bor town of St.-Raphaël. The ho­tel is named af­ter the red rocks of the Mas­sif de l’Estérel re­serve—the 32,000-hectare swath of moun­tain­ous wilder­ness it sits along­side. You get there by driv­ing along a road called La Cor­niche d’Or, or the Golden Coastal Path, which is among the most scenic drives in France. And the ho­tel it­self has al­ways been in sync with the land­scape, set into a low cliff with guest rooms cas­cad­ing down to­ward the sea.

Nev­er­the­less, un­til a cou­ple of years ago, its for­tunes were look­ing rocky. Then a sav­ior came in the some­what un­likely guise of 42-year-old Valérie Grégo, founder of the French bou­tique­ho­tel chain Les Hô­tels d’en Haut. Grégo is the type of tat­tooed, black-clad Parisian who looks as if he’d be far more com­fort­able in the dive bars of Pi­galle than loung­ing on a beach. But while search­ing for prop­er­ties in the area, he was blown away: “When I first came to check the place out I saw this two-star ho­tel, and thought it was a day wasted,” Grégo con­fessed. “Then I opened the front door, and bam. You walk in and you feel like you’re ac­tu­ally in the wa­ter.”

Grégo bought Les Roches Rouges and gave it a five-star up­grade, re­open­ing the 50-room ho­tel last May. He wanted to cre­ate a re­sort where guests could peel back the glitz and ex­pe­ri­ence Provence the way it’s meant to be. So he put the build­ing’s mid-cen­tury aes­thetic front and cen­ter, ac­cen­tu­at­ing its

floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows and long, straight lines with an all-white pal­ette and iconic fur­ni­ture like Transat chairs by the in­flu­en­tial Mod­ernist Eileen Gray. The spruced-up swim­ming pool—a basin set into the rocky cliff­s­cape and fed by the wa­ters of the Mediter­ranean Sea—is a marvel. Af­ter an af­ter­noon spent read­ing un­der an um­brella, as pool boys de­liv­ered carafes of pastis to my fel­low sun­bathers and waves splashed against the rocks, I never wanted to leave.

The way Grégo most sought to con­nect with the ho­tel’s his­tory and sur­round­ings was by em­pha­siz­ing clas­sic lo­cal food. His in­spi­ra­tion was a 1963 recipe book called Tra­di­tional Provençal Home Cook­ing by the poet René Jou­veau. It isn’t so much a cook­book as an art book about how peo­ple used to live and eat in Provence—and still, oc­ca­sion­ally, do to­day. “I wanted ev­ery recipe in the ho­tel to come out of that book,” Grégo ex­plained. The tra­di­tional Provençal dishes I feasted on dur­ing my stay in­cluded ev­ery­thing from an ex­em­plary rata­touille with rose­mary honey to a per­fect grand aioli, or seafood and raw veg­eta­bles with a gar­licky fresh-may­on­naise dip en­livened with Men­ton lemons. The kitchen even of­fered my beloved torta de blea, a Swiss-chard piequiche some­times served in a sweet, raisin­spiked it­er­a­tion but here pre­sented in sa­vory form, topped with toasted pine nuts.

And at the ho­tel’s beach restau­rant I also found, to my amaze­ment, a type of soup called aigo boulido, which you rarely see on menus in France any­more. An an­cient Provençal spe­cialty, the dish con­sists of gar­lic and wild herbs cooked in wa­ter, then la­dled over day-old bread that’s been driz­zled with olive oil. This de­cep­tively ba­sic-seem­ing broth (its name trans­lates to “boiled wa­ter”) is so pro­foundly soul­ful and nour­ish­ing, it has given rise to a lo­cal ex­pres­sion: “aigo boulido sauvo la vido,” or, boiled wa­ter saves lives. Re­cently, how­ever, it has be­come ob­scure, mean­ing lovers of tra­di­tional Provençal cui­sine (the sort cham­pi­oned by iconic cook­books like Richard Ol­ney’s Lulu’s Provençal Table or Mireille John­ston’s Cui­sine of the Sun) usu­ally have to con­tent them­selves with cook­ing it at home—as I do—if they want to taste the real fla­vors of south­ern France. The dish came in a large earth­en­ware tureen so eye­catch­ing, a woman a few ta­bles over came by to ask what I was eat­ing. When I ex­plained what it was—wa­ter with gar­lic and bay leaves poured over slices of yes­ter­day’s baguette—she didn’t seem con­vinced. Fair enough, I told her, but in a place as image-ob­sessed as the Côte d’Azur, it’s al­ways worth re­mem­ber­ing that ap­pear­ances can be mis­lead­ing.

THE FRENCH RIVIERA

wasn’t al­ways an ex­clu­sive des­ti­na­tion. His­tor­i­cally, it was known as a poor, rus­tic stretch of coast where res­i­dents made a liv­ing grow­ing olives, herd­ing goats and net­ting mul­lets. Then, in the late 19th cen­tury—the dawn of the Belle Époque—the rail­road ar­rived, bring­ing well-heeled vis­i­tors from Paris and Lon­don in search of balmy climes. Queen Vic­to­ria was among the early adopters to hol­i­day on the Riviera, and by the 1930s, the pine-clad cliffs of St.-Jean-Cap-Fer­rat bris­tled with grand vil­las built as sum­mer homes for the aris­toc­racy. Other towns took longer to catch up—when St.-Tropez made an ap­pear­ance in Bar­dot’s 1956 break­out movie And God Cre­ated Woman, it was still a fish­ing vil­lage. But as the now-fa­mous Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, founded in 1946, grew into a global event over the sec­ond half of the last cen­tury, it ce­mented the re­gion’s glam­orous rep­u­ta­tion. To­day it is the most vis­ited re­gion of France af­ter Paris. It’s be­come the sort of place where Rus­sian oli­garchs and mu­sic moguls com­pare megay­achts in the ma­rina, while the rest of us sigh over €45 plates of salad on the prom­e­nade nearby.

In­deed, so many peo­ple want to travel to the Côte d’Azur that there’s been lit­tle in­cen­tive for the lo­cal hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try to do things well. It’s not that there aren’t ex­cep­tional places to stay— more that the stand­outs have been around awhile. Take La Colombe d’Or, a leg­endary inn a half-hour drive in­land from Nice that, since it started life as a café/bar in 1920, has at­tracted an ex­tra­or­di­nary list of artists and lu­mi­nar­ies (a num­ber of whom, such as Pi­casso and Cha­gall, left be­hind mas­ter­pieces that still hang on the ho­tel walls). There’s also the im­pos­si­bly re­gal Hô­tel du Cap-Eden-Roc, the model for the Hô­tel des Étrangers in F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s Ten­der Is the Night. When I stopped in for a drink one night, I found the bar pop­u­lated by a ri­otous mix of Euro­pean roy­alty and ag­ing rock mu­si­cians. Fitzger­ald and his wife, Zelda, used to stay nearby at a pri­vate villa that has since been con­verted into the Hô­tel Belles Rives, which re­mains an idyl­lic place to drink a gin and tonic while admiring a pink-hued sun­set over the coast of Juan-les-Pins.

At the same time, clas­sic Provençal cui­sine has be­come much harder to find—though if you know where to look, you can still find invit­ing spots to score le­git pe­tits far­cis (stuffed veg­eta­bles), a fine pissal­adière (an­chovy-and-onion flat­bread), per­haps even a non­bo­gus bour­ride (aioli-spiked fish stew). When I wasn’t ex­plor­ing the menu at Les Roches Rouges, I made ex­cur­sions to a few nearby restau­rants. In the beach­side town of Sa­nary-sur-Mer, I ate at La P’tite Cour—named af­ter the small court­yard at the back where din­ers are seated. It was crowded with lo­cals de­vour­ing one of two set menus of home-style cook­ing, which that day in­cluded a spec­tac­u­lar fish spe­cial of dau­rade royale, or gilt­head sea bream.

Then there’s the Au­berge des Mau­res, in St.-Tropez. At this sto­ried restau­rant, where the sur­re­al­ist Paul Élu­ard was fa­mously mar­ried in 1950 with Pablo Pi­casso as a wit­ness, a singer sat in a cor­ner croon­ing dreamy French pop songs while I dined on hearty stan­dards like daube de boeuf (beef stew) and ar­ti­chokes à la barigoule steamed in a white wine broth.

In Nice, Kiosque TinTin is the go-to place for a pan bag­nat, that niçoise-salad-on-a-bun de­serv­ing of global renown. It’s not far from the ex­cel­lent Cours Sa­leya mar­ket, where the city’s best chefs—such as Do­minique Le Stanc, who runs the cozy La Merenda restau­rant, just a cou­ple of blocks back from the beach—stock up on Provence’s fa­mously sun-kissed pro­duce. Mar­ket stalls here also sell panisse and socca, ad­dic­tive re­gional snacks made from fried chick­pea flour bat­ter.

THERE’S A LINE

in the open­ing of Tra­di­tional Provençal Home Cook­ing that sug­gests that even if Provence should lose touch with its iden­tity, it will al­ways be able to re­dis­cover it­self: “The soul of the old coun­try is not quite yet dead; the hour ap­proaches when it will be re­born.” Re­turn­ing from my culi­nary wan­der­ings to Les Roches Rouges, with its Serge Gains­bourg sound­track and bed­side read­ing by Jean Cocteau, I got the sense that the ho­tel as­pires to be a part of that re­birth. “In their wis­dom,” the book con­tin­ues, “these peo­ple have been so adept at ac­cli­ma­tiz­ing them­selves to poverty that they dis­cov­ered through it the grandeur of sim­plic­ity.” The grandeur of sim­plic­ity: It’s a beau­ti­ful idea, and to me, en­cap­su­lates ev­ery­thing spe­cial about this re­gion.

Food isn’t the only way in which Les Roches Rouges evokes this grandeur of sim­plic­ity. There’s also its re­la­tion­ship to the in­land land­scape known here as the ar­rière pays, in the form of the Mas­sif de l’Estérel na­ture re­serve. Grégo wants to en­cour­age guests to take hikes, so each room at the ho­tel is out­fit­ted with a walk­ing stick. These beau­ti­ful olive­wood staffs are lac­quered to a deep brown hue, and are ob­jets very much of this place. On Sun­days, a state guide of­fers tours of the park; there are also maps of its trails in each room for any­one want­ing to ex­plore on his own.

In­spired by the wooden stick, I set out one morn­ing and quickly found my­self sur­rounded by a uniquely Provençal ecosys­tem known as gar­rigue: a resiny, piney, sage-scented ag­glom­er­a­tion of low-ly­ing bushes and per­fumed herbs. (Notes of gar­rigue ac­cen­tu­ate the re­gion’s wines.) There were end­less tufts of wild fen­nel, sprawl­ing rose­mary patches, brit­tle thyme bou­quets and dusty out­crop­pings of what I can only de­scribe as a feral le­mon ver­bena—all far more po­tent and sticky than the do­mes­ti­cated ver­sions we’re fa­mil­iar with. These were not just any herbs: they were gen­uine herbes de Provence, the real thing, free for the pick­ing. And they were all sprout­ing from an epic Death Val­ley–style land­scape of sun­baked por­phyry rocks the color of rouille, that rust-toned saf­fron aioli so crit­i­cal to the re­gion’s famed bouil­l­abaisse.

As I hiked, walk­ing stick in hand, I felt over­whelmed by a sense of Provence à l’an­ci­enne. I could see my­self com­ing here reg­u­larly, maybe be­com­ing one of those wiz­ened, wise-crack­ing guys who goes to play an early-evening game of pé­tanque in the town square. The French are mas­ters in the art of whiling away time. When French vis­i­tors come to the Riviera, their days are filled with read­ing and eat­ing and chill­ing by the pool—per­haps even one as In­sta­grammable as Les Roches Rouges’s. Oc­ca­sion­ally they rouse them­selves to search out the best beaches along the coast. When I did the same, the sandy shores of Beau­val­lon and the car­free is­land of Por­querolles were my best dis­cov­er­ies.

Spend­ing time here, you re­al­ize that the French tra­di­tion of a month­long sum­mer va­ca­tion makes com­plete sense. If I ever make it back to the Riviera—and I’m pretty sure I will—there will need to be room in the sched­ule for an in­or­di­nate amount of hang­ing out. But that won’t be too com­pli­cated, now that I’ve fi­nally un­cov­ered the gen­uine, life-af­firm­ing side of Provence I’d al­ways sus­pected was there—but just didn’t quite know how to find.

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