Dotted with villas in the Belle Époque, Art Deco, and Renaissance styles, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat personifies the grandeur of the French Riviera. The sumptuous nine-mile promontory juts dramatically into the Mediterranean Sea just east of Nice, with an upper-crust charm that once lured the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Gregory Peck. Hidden behind tall hedges and surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, villas that once belonged to the Hollywood elite are now the summer homes of the ultrarich.
At the turn of the last century, this windswept peninsula had scrubby, rocky terrain, but that changed when European aristocrats arrived and started cultivating the landscape. In the late 1800s, King Leopold II of Belgium acquired several large properties (one of which was later sold and became the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat), and Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild bought her parcel in 1905. Eventually, Cap Ferrat grew dense with the lush tropical vegetation you see today, and the well-heeled inhabitants amassed real estate that now ranks as the second-most expensive in the world after Monaco.
But don’t be intimidated by Cap Ferrat’s five-star reputation: day travellers can enjoy its beauty as well. Take the road into its main port town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (often referred to as Saint-Jean) and you’ll find that it has a small-town feel. Fishing boats docked alongside yachts and a handful of low-key cafés and restaurants cater to all tastes and budgets. Mass tourism can’t quite get there (the roads in and out are too narrow for huge coach buses, and there’s no train station), which means the best ways to take in the million-dollar views are by car or on foot. My favourite way to explore the cape is on foot, hiking the coastal path.
Le Sentier du Littoral, or coastal path, is one of the most stunning walks of the Riviera. If you’re coming straight from Nice, bus number 81 can take you from the Promenade des Arts directly to the town of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat – about a thirty-minute ride – for €1.50.
Hiking Around Cap Ferrat: Le Sentier du Littoral
The southern tip of the peninsula, with the lighthouse in the background, is your view as you leave town for the coastal path.
Fortify yourself with a coffee at one of the cafés around the port. Then head out to avenue Jean Mermoz; keep straight until the dead end, then turn right onto avenue Claude Vignon. This road leads to chemin de la Carrière on your left, which is the start of the trail. It will take you all the way around the cape. There are no places to buy water, however, so be sure to bring some along, and a hat.
The terrain is quite rugged. On one side is the sea, its waves crashing onto the rocks, and on the other a steep bank. Beware: there is no safety railing, and it’s best not to bring very small children. Along the way, on your right you’ll see stunning villas. Their gardens are meticulously manicured, full of cypresses and pine forests typical of the surrounding landscape. You’ll also pass several beaches and hidden coves, and the legendary Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, with its funicular running up the cliffs. The path is relatively flat, and it takes about forty-five minutes to reach the lighthouse, a distance of just under two miles. I usually stop here, but you could continue around the west side for another hour and a half (about four more miles). Climb the steps to the lighthouse, take chemin du Phare to avenue Jean Cocteau, and you’ll find the enchanting Villa Santo Sospir at number 14.
Villa Santo Sospir
Hidden behind tall umbrella pines, high up on a cliff, Villa Santo Sospir feels like the end of the earth. The villa has sweeping views of Villefranche and Nice and is positioned at the very tip of Cap Ferrat. Walk through the gates, along a shady path, inhale the pine scent, and step through a mosaic-tiled courtyard to the front door of the house. The villa itself is not grand, and that’s part of its allure. It’s decidedly nonchalant; glamorous but not drawing attention to itself, a beauty that just can’t help being so beautiful. There are four bedrooms, a living and dining area, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, and a terrace. Terra-cotta pots overflow with nasturtium and hibiscus. Sentimental objects are scattered around the tables. It’s a magical place.
Owned for the past seventy years by the Weisweiller family of Paris, Villa Santo Sospir is known today for its most famous houseguest, Jean Cocteau, who painted murals all over the walls.
There have been no renovations and very few changes made to the villa since the 1950s. A worn rug or two has been replaced, but the fabrics, while a little tattered, are intact, and the original drapes, though long ago faded, are still hanging.
In 2016, the family sold the villa, but the new owners plan to keep it open to the public. At the time of this writing, it was still possible to schedule a tour of the house.
Walking to the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat
It’s a ten-minute walk from Villa Santo Sospir to the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. Take avenue de la Corniche, and on the left you’ll see the hotel gates and a central walkway leading up to the building.
The Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat
Built in 1908, the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat (not to be confused with its equally decadent neighbour, Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on Cap d’Antibes) was a winter escape for well-to-do Europeans, and favoured by the likes of Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor. In the late 1920s a group of writers asked the owners to stay open for the summer to host their guests, and a new trend was born. The hotel is now part of the Four Seasons hotel group.
The hotel is surrounded by seventeen acres of stunning gardens and fronted by a meticulous lawn leading down toward the sea. Although the hotel is set back from the water, you can cross the road at the foot of the gardens and descend to the seaside Club Dauphin via funicular. Here you will find an Olympic-sized saltwater infinity pool, built in 1939, and a poolside restaurant. The more adventurous can dive off the nearby cliffs and swim in the sea.
With its lush landscaping and waterside perch, this hotel is considered one of the most iconic on the French Riviera.
Today, the hotel is a hub during the Cannes Film Festival and continues to be a popular celebrity getaway. A private villa with its own pool is available for just over €5,000 per night. Those on a more modest budget can enjoy a cucumber julep (made with freshly picked herbs from the hotel’s aromatic garden) on the terrace for €26 and wander the gardens for free.
Farther up the coast, in 1905, Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild began work on a spectacular yellow ochre villa from the ground up, in the style of an Italian palazzo. While the setting was idyllic – on the west side of Cap Ferrat, looking out over both the Bay of Villefranche and the Bay of Ants (baie des Fourmis) – the terrain was unfavourable. She hired the best landscape architects in Europe and enlisted hundreds of Italian workers to dynamite and relevel the rocky ground, and then spent another seven years planting the gardens around what is now known as Villa Ephrussi.
Most of the themed gardens that you can stroll through today – including the Japanese, Florentine, Stone, Exotic, Rose, Provençal, and Sèvres – were created later, after Béatrice’s death. In her will, she left the villa to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and it hired landscape architect Louis Marchand to continue Béatrice’s vision.
Béatrice was a serious art collector, and the walls of the villa are filled with her treasures. She installed Venetian murals by Giambattista Tiepolo, pastoral rococo scenes by François Boucher, and pen-and-ink washes by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Although the site is close to Villa Santo Sospir and the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, I recommend devoting a full day in your itinerary to this villa.
Enjoy a light lunch of salad or a vegetable tart followed by tea on the terrace of what used to be Béatrice’s dining room. Through floor-to-ceiling gold-scalloped windows, look out at the incredible view of the Bay of Villefranche.
Adapted from Travels through the French Riviera by Virginia Johnson (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018.