The difference can best be summed up in a word: socks. Boris Messmer absorbed the Maybourne Hotel Group’s ethos for six years while working at Claridge’s, the Berkeley and latterly the Connaught. If he had not been wearing socks when reporting for duty at any of the London grandes dames, questions might have been asked in parliament.
However, now Messmer is ensconced as general manager of the Maybourne Riviera on the C?te d’Azur, the Qatari-owned collection’s newest outpost and its first in France. And while his wardrobe is dapper, it’s deconstructed: slim-fit seersucker suit, form-hugging shirt and sporty loafers — and no socks. As we take our seats beside the Steinway amid the copper-toned charm of the bar, he flashes some ankle flesh. It’s disconcerting, as I am still deep in “isn’t this Claridge’s on sea?” mode. He probably puts my rapid eye movement down to a combination of the generous quantity of lavender-infused gin in my Valensole cocktail and the genuinely unbeatable view.
He brings me up to speed on the group’s mentality, Riviera-wise. “Something happens between London and the C?te d’Azur,” he says, laughing. “In London guests order a glass of white wine; here it’s a magnum of ros?, so the ambience is lighter, more modern and relaxed, but it is still very Maybourne.”
A Panoramic suite
It’s also very Monaco. Europe’s cornucopia of capitalism — where nannies earn high five-figure sums and get to borrow the Aston Martin — lies a stone’s throw from the hotel, and asserts its influence. I think of two films on the limo transfer from Nice railway station. First, Jerry Maguire: Rod Tidwell’s brazen pleas to “Show me the money” would be greeted with a Gallic shrug hereabouts, given that evidence of excess cash sizzles from every street corner. Then, To Catch a Thief, in which Hitchcock captured the innate glamour of the mountainous swirl of road that we’re negotiating to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The journey is as intoxicating as ever, so Ruby, my twentysomething goddaughter, and I are at Grace Kelly fever pitch by the time our driver pulls up (alongside a Bugatti) at the Maybourne Riviera’s entrance.
And wow, it was just like opening a Christmas present — specifically the feeling when joyful anticipation gives way to stoic disappointment. Despite the website photography, I had persisted in picturing the baby sister of Claridge’s as having the old girl’s elegant Roman stone fa?ade and topiary guard of honour, transported to a seaside setting. Instead, I stare at an awkwardly angled modernist glass box clinging so perilously to its precipice that another classic cinema image springs to mind: the final scene of The Italian Job.
The visual dissonance makes me woozy. I’m hesitant to step inside in case that second croissant I ate on the train is enough to tip this Jenga tower into the Mediterranean, almost 1,000ft beneath. I’m not alone. Messmer tells me that when interviewing prospective employees his first task is to reassure them that they aren’t going to die. Construction was a monumental feat of engineering, requiring six years’ wrangling with planners and another year of drilling Samson-strength steel girders into the rock face to ensure that the 69 rooms, three restaurants, spa and pool stay securely in place.
The Riviera Playa restaurant
You’d think that such technical wizardry might have gobbled up most of the project’s ?255 million budget, but when we enter the lavish Tate Modern-esque lobby it’s obvious that there’s been a reassuringly astronomical spend here too. The space is dominated by a sculpture, dramatically suspended from a sky-high ceiling; it’s by Louise Bourgeois, one of the pre-eminent artists of the 20th century. The Couple, fabricated in cast aluminium, depicts lovers entwined by their entrails — which looks significantly more alluring than it sounds. The room bears zero resemblance to the mirrored foyer of Claridge’s, but I stay strong because the service is very Maybourne . . .
The immaculately presented reception team look utterly thrilled to see us. The left side of my brain whispers: “They’re not really thrilled, they’re simply very, very good at their jobs.” I ignore logic and consequently feel pretty damned thrilled with myself. They work hard at keeping up this pretence — ergo my mood — for the entire stay.
The interiors lift my spirits too. The hotel is sprinkled with world-class art, and one of my new best friends points out homages to various names associated with the area — stained glass in the style of Charles-?douard Jeanneret-Gris (aka Le Corbusier, who lived in a beach hut in nearby Cap Moderne) and a white screen inspired by Eileen Gray, the doyenne of 1920s design whose unmissable Modernist Villa E-1027 stands below Le Corbusier’s pad. Her timeless classic, the Bibendum Chair, was created for the villa, and its instantly recognisable curves are replicated in furniture throughout the hotel.
The pool bar
I don’t pay much attention, though, because a celestial light lures me into the Riviera restaurant and lounge, the hotel’s main hub, where floor-to-ceiling windows unleash the panorama beyond. On the terrace I look east and see bellini-coloured Menton, its drape of belle ?poque buildings folding into a soft-focus border with Italy. To the west I’m blasted by the 21st century, courtesy of Monte Carlo’s mega-yachts and money towers, while straight ahead is an extraordinary blue haze. I could happily waste years trying to decipher precisely where sky meets sea. Jean Cocteau and Dal? were entranced by it too, while Coco Chanel eschewed Antibes and St Tropez to build her home here, and WB Yeats, his wife and his mistress spent his final days in this enchanted spot.
Interiors try heroically to attract my attention and — with a roll call of the world’s finest designers involved — occasionally they succeed. Public areas have pastel shades and luxurious fabrics, and are so generously spaced that we can’t even eavesdrop to discover if that well-groomed man is the father or the boyfriend of that striking young woman. Everybody apart from us looks as though they’ve walked straight out of a Dior ad, yet the service and relaxed ambience mean that mercifully we don’t feel intimidated. Bedrooms are a cumulus cloud: fluffy, creamy, ethereal, sleek — save for a deep blue crystal vase or coral-shaped ceramic. The oval baths cut from single slabs of marble will break your Instagram record of likes. But since all rooms have sea views — and some have pools or terraces — the design is fighting a losing battle.
Mauro Colagreco, chef of the three Michelin-starred Mirazur in Menton, oversees two of the hotel’s three restaurants (the third from Jean-Georges Vongerichten is yet to open). The Riviera is the closest the hotel gets to casual dining, while Ceto, Colagreco’s top-floor seafood grill, already has one Michelin star. At its entrance, we peek through the window of a climate-controlled, pink salt-lined chamber at the hulks of whole tuna hanging from hooks. Later, our waiter serves us slivers of the fish and tells us reverentially that it has spent two months in that curing room, slowly maturing so that it melts in our mouths. We are dazzled by a plate of micro algae sabayon fashioned into a psychedelic spiral — its vibrant pops of yellow, red and blue are natural colouring.
Mirazur in Menton, voted the world’s best restaurant in 2019, proves even more mind-blowing. Colagreco is serious about his greens — the environmental ones. Not only is produce local, organic and seasonal, the menu is biodynamic. The part of the plant receiving the biggest cosmic boost during any particular phase of the moon takes centre stage at dinner: either leaves, flowers, fruits or, in our case, roots. Dishes defy convention. Colagreco makes beetroot, not the caviar, the star of one dish, while the humble turnip shares top billing with lobster on another plate. He challenges our perceptions of commonplace too, so bread rolls shaped like water lilies are served with a poem by Pablo Neruda. Even the four loos are noteworthy, each themed around an element. We float through a sensory journey elsewhere known as dinner.
Previously, we had been spellbound during a visit to Colagreco’s kitchen gardens and charmed by the fusion of French and Italian sensibilities in Menton. Our tour of Le Corbusier’s hut and Gray’s Villa E-1027 is another highlight. Only 12 people can visit daily, and the Maybourne Riviera has a rolling order for two tickets a day in case guests decide at the last minute to join.
Poolside loungers have a perfect sea view
Finally, we relax in the spa, where Ruby’s facial by Augustinus Bader, the A-list’s go-to skin guru, is so good that back home her brother says she “looks nice”. The last time he paid her a compliment was, um, never.
But the external architectural ugliness rears its head again at the infinity pool. Its irregular shape jars, and while the view is mesmerising, glance to the side and the bedrooms wedged into the cliff look like a landslide waiting to happen. Add to that the fact that the third restaurant and bar are directly behind the pool, so swimmers provide a floorshow for diners. Awkward.
The rates make this a once-in-a-lifetime treat for most, but I’d bet that two nights here create more enduring memories than two weeks in the Maldives. At least, I’m banking on it, so that when I turn into a cantankerous crone all I’ll need say to Ruby is “Maybourne Riviera” and this godmother ain’t heading to a rest home. Claridge’s has gone on holiday, and it’s no socks please, even though we’re British.
Susan d’Arcy was a guest of the Maybourne Riviera (maybourne.com). Room-only doubles from ?642. Fly to Nice
Richard Burton joked that “Bulgari” was the only Italian word Elizabeth Taylor knew. The luxury jeweller has expanded into hotels, and she would have undoubtedly approved — the Parisian architects Valode & Pistre and the Milanese designers Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel having turned a 1970s office block into the capital’s hottest hotel. Public areas are clad in marble, silk and lacquered eucalyptus, and decorated in golds, blacks and browns. Photos of stars such as Sophia Loren ramp up the dolce vita ambience. Dining stays Italian, with menus overseen by Niko Romito, whose Reale in Abruzzo has three Michelin stars. For the full effect, book a courtyard table. The 76 bedrooms are tastefully muted with Febo sofas, herringbone carpets and saffron headboards; the lamps are inspired by Bulgari silver candlesticks.
Details B&B doubles from ?1,200 (bulgarihotels.com). Fly to Paris
H?tel Belle Plage
This 1930s seaside hotel in Le Suquet has just emerged from a makeover by Raphael Navot, whose CV includes the Silencio members’ club in Paris. The 50 rooms and eight apartments work the sand-and-sea vibe with marine blue and cream pastels, custom-made furniture and views over the palm trees of Mistral Square and out to the Mediterranean. There are cocktails on the rooftop, and the Israeli chef Eyal Shani provides dinners dictated by the morning markets for his mainly vegetarian-focused creations. The spa will be the largest in Cannes when it opens next month, with water-based watsu massages, meditation and yoga.
Details Room-only doubles from ?230 (hotelbelleplage.fr). Fly to Nice
La Maison Fragonard
Fragonard is one of Grasse’s most famed perfumers, and the sisters at the brand’s helm, Agn?s and Fran?oise, have opened a guesthouse above their boutique in Arles. The six bedrooms are spread over three floors of a classic Proven?al townhouse, close to the Roman amphitheatre. Rooms have terracotta floor tiles, lime-washed walls and marble fireplaces, and are quirkily furnished; the eclectic look ranges from 18th-century antiques to 1960s wicker chairs. All have access to a rooftop terrace overlooking the Clock Tower.
Details Room-only doubles from ?215 (fragonard.com). Fly to Nimes
As May heats up, a daydreamy stillness falls over the Lot, the next big valley south of the Dordogne. Orchids fill the…
As May heats up, a daydreamy stillness falls over the Lot, the next big valley south of the Dordogne. Orchids fill the meadows, lipstick-red…
May 14 2022, 12.01am