Cannes:Â Sun, celebrities, and a world-renowned film festival have made Cannes synonymous with glamour, guaranteed prime people-watching and a chance to relish the good life against the backdrop of palm trees and yachts.
From Brigitte Bardot to Angelina Jolie, Grace Kelly to Nicole Kidman – the stars of yesteryear and today have flocked to this port town once a year to fete the best of international cinema, but it’s not just movies making this holiday spot hum.
Sandy beaches, magnificent views of the Cote d’Azur port, cafes serving aperitifs and fresh seafood, and proximity to other charming spots along the Mediterranean Sea all make Cannes a must-see stop when touring the south of France.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a visit to the swanky French Riviera spot.
DEALMAKERS IN SPEEDOS
First, start with the pronunciation that immediately distinguishes whether you’re a regular, or someone just off the plane from Los Angeles.
Pronounced “Can” and not “Cahn”, this town of 74,000 permanent residents just 32 km (19 miles) west of Nice swells each May for the Cannes Film Festival, an industry-only event now in its 67th year that brings in hoards of artists from around the world, film executives, journalists and others.
The massive Palais des Festivals looming over the old port also welcomes an annual advertising festival and is home to a host of other business and entertainment fairs, bringing the annual visitor count to 2 million and keeping revenue flowing nearly year-round.
But while plenty of deal-making happens at Cannes, the vibe is decidedly relaxed, and few visitors come without first starting their visit with a stroll down La Croisette, the palm-lined boulevard flanked by sandy beaches on one side and luxury hotels and boutiques on the other.
During the film festival, you can pose for a photo on the red carpet steps leading up into the main screening room. If you’re an avid film buff, you can join the many fans hoping to score invitation-only tickets to the films in competition, which are not sold to the public.
Don’t be disheartened if you have no luck – open-air screenings of classic films take place every evening at 9:30 p.m. on the beach, and in various theatres. here
But you don’t need to sit in a dark theatre to have a good time in Cannes, and in truth, many visitors prefer the low-key vibe when a festival is not in town.
Only then can one feel what the town must have been like as a modest little fishing village, before the who’s who of international cinema, whether Gary Cooper, Simone Signoret and Brigitte Bardot, descended on Cannes.
BLUE SHUTTERS AND BAY VIEWS
Start at the Vieux Port (Old Port) for a stroll by the sailboats, catamarans and, bien sur, yachts. The port is dotted with restaurants serving fresh fish from the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the most popular is Astoux & Brun, known for triple-tiered platters of shellfish washed down with crisp white wine.
After you’ve sated your craving for tasty crustaceans, walk past the locals playing petanque, a popular game involving throwing a heavy ball towards a target on a hard dirt court, and head for Le Suquet, the oldest neighborhood built on the hill overlooking the west side of the bay.
Wind your way up the narrow Rue du Suquet past the many restaurants with outdoor seating nestled underneath shuttered homes painted in sun-kissed shades of pink and yellow.
A sharp left and series of stairs take you to the top, where the vestiges of the imposing chateau built in medieval times by the monks of Lerins still loom large. Today the spot houses Le Musee de la Castre, exhibiting primitive arts, Mediterranean antiquities, 19th-century paintings from the region and a collection of instruments.
Worth the many stairs is the 12th-century tower, which provides a stunning 360-degree view of the bay and the gently undulating hills surrounding it.
Small boutiques selling lavender and olive oil, as well as cheesemongers and cobblers can be found on Rue Meynadier, a narrow street dating from before the French Revolution that is now reserved for pedestrians.
Don’t miss a stop inside the traditional provencal Forville Market, where locally produced fruit and vegetables, as well as fish, can be bought. On Mondays, the marketplace is reserved for a typical ‘brocante’ or flea market, with vendors selling books, paintings, vintage clothing and knick-knacks.
Walking tours costing 6 euros ($8.30) organized by the tourist office (located inside the Palais des Festivals) take place every Monday at 2:30 p.m. in English, with an additional 9:15 a.m. tour during July and August.
For those with sore feet, a tourist train that departs from the Palais des Festivals takes visitors down La Croisette or up the Suquet, or a tour that covers both lasting one hour.
Cannes is just one of many delightful spots along the Cote d’Azur, and the region offers multiple get-away choices.
An easy way to get on the water and out of town is with a 15-minute boat ride to the Isle Ste-Marguerite, offered by a number of boat services along the port.
Imagine yourself as the “Man in the Iron Mask”, the mysterious 17th-century prisoner immortalized by Alexandre Dumas, as you visit the Fort Royal. For hikers and nature lovers the tranquil island also offers a series of marked trails.
A 12-km (7.5-mile) drive east up the coast from Cannes takes you to postcard-ready Antibes, a major entry point into Gaul in Roman times. Home to multiple ports, a lighthouse and one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, the Hotel du Cap-Eden Roc, one can also walk the town ramparts and visit the 16th century fort.
A more olfactory experience awaits in Grasse, 20 km to the north, the center of the French perfume industry. Grasse may be less flowery with lavender, jasmine and roses than it once was, many raw materials now being imported, but the 600-million-euro industry still makes up two thirds of France’s production.
An International Perfumery Museum walks you through the history of fragrance and most perfumeries provide tours. But those with sophisticated noses may wish to try creating their own signature scents.
At Molinard and Galimard, amateur perfume makers can mix and match individual bases and ingredients, honing in on the top, middle and base notes that suit their fancy. Personalized creations to take home cost between 30-59 euros.
After all that sniffing, it’s time to head back to Cannes and its 7 km of fine white sandy beaches. The most chic are the luxury hotels’ private beaches, but for a fee, even non-guests can relax in their lounge chairs and under their multicolored umbrellas. Public beaches are at La Bocca and Moure Rouge.