Beaulieu-sur-Mer is the ideal summer resort with a unique harbour and one of the most perfect micro-climates on the French Riviera.
Beaulieu-sur-Mer is located in the east of the peninsula of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, between Eze and Villefranche-sur-Mer. Sheltered from northerly winds by the imposing rocky belt of hills of Cap Ferrat and Mont Leuze, it is one of the warmest places on the Riviera with the most perfect of micro-climates.
The main thoroughfare (Boulevard Maréchal Joffre) is quite modern with broad pavements studded with large palm trees that stand like guardians. There is an amazing variety of shops offering a range of local specialities along with exclusive boutiques selling perfumes and luxury goods. Interspersed amongst them you’ll find a small Casino supermarket, bakeries, banks and of course glorious restaurants and charming cafés. There are still a few Belle-Epoque villas to be found down manicured side-streets but for others new modern apartments have taken their place.
A Bit of History
Trying to tie together the ancient history of Beaulieu-sur-Mer only becomes clearer when one understands that it once formed part of Villefranche-sur-Mer and is better seen as an area rather than a defined spot on the map. Excavation work carried out during the last century (on show at the Menton’s regional pre-historic museum) uncovered flints, arrow heads and other neolithic artefacts thus showing this was once a prehistoric site. The curve of Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s bay must have proved a safe haven as it became the antique Greek port of Anao before taken by the Romans who enlarged it.
Razed to the ground in the 3rd century peace lasted long enough for a small monastery to be built in the 4th century until the Lombards (a Germanic tribe who ruled Italy from 568 to 774) invaded the area and destroyed everything. The inhabitants fled to the hills and hid along St-Michel Plateau (Grande Corniche). And there they stayed until the end of the 13th century when they came back down to settle in and around Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Villefranche’s development takes on more importance with the arrival of the train in 1864 and the construction of the Basse Corniche between 1872 and 1876. In turn this brings about the building of a couple of hotels and a few villas that would be rented out during the winter season to a select and prosperous clientèle. Beaulieu becomes an independent commune in September 1892.
A park planted with more than 100 century-old olive trees allows the visitor to find beauty and tranquillity at a only few paces from the sea and the long promenade that hugs the length of the seafront. The harbour is set in a natural bay and has two separate ports: Baie des Fourmis, located on the western side of Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Petite Afrique, located on the eastern side.
Both beaches are sandy and offer large public areas though, like many of the beaches on the Côte d’Azur, they also have private areas set aside for hotels-restaurants. The beaches are centrally accessible and each one tucks around a sheltered cove. During the summer months there is an offshore diving platform plus a lifeguard on duty.
I should mention that, come the warmer weather and due to a combination of water temperature,; tide and winds, the Mediterranean can be plagued by jellyfish – I’ve seen them as early as April. More often than not they will be pelagia noctiluca – notable by their violet colour which makes them easy to spot and known as the mauve stinger (their sting is very painful). They tend to swarm and come close to shore – so if you notice no-one in the sea and it’s a lovely day for a dip it may well be because of them.
Beaulieu-sur-Mer has two types of weekly markets: the fruits and vegetables that takes place every morning at Place Marinoni and the Provençal market, known for its incomparable fragrance, held on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Flea markets are held the first and third Sundays of the month on the terraces of the marina.
You’ll find some excellent restaurants down by the port – adjacent to which is the Casino de Beaulieu, built in 1903 in the Art Nouveau style. Following renovation work to the tune of over 8.5 million euros, it reopened in March 2014 after a closure of three years. The renovations are impressive and return the casino to its former glory and unique luxury with thirteen huge crystal chandeliers, a monumental marble staircase and purple and gold carpets.
With the addition of a gambling room for smokers, players will have the choice between ten tables of roulette games, blackjack, stud poker and punto plus sixty-five gaming machines. Gourmet cuisine is assured by three dining areas under the leadership of Jean-Michel Chapuis. Byline: you will notice quite a few casinos when you are out and about in France. They are not casinos but actually supermarkets. And good ones too.
A Walk in the Past
While Beaulieu-sur-Mer may have been given a modern face-lift, under the covers there are still some remarkable buildings worthy of attention. Most of you will have heard of Villa Kérylos and indeed, is one of the main reasons why visitors come here. However, there are a few other buildings worthy of notice.
La Rotonde, located across from the beach is a beautiful building, now used for various exhibitions but which was originally built as part of a larger building: Hotel Bristol.
The hotel was the dream child of Sir Blundell Maple (1845-1903), a London furniture maker and business magnet.
(Byline: John Blundell Maple’s skills and vision were crucial and by the 1880s Maples was the largest furniture store on the planet. Maples manufactured their own luxury furniture in a complex eventually so vast that by the 1880s it occupied an area where once stood 200 houses. They were timber importers, and exporters of furniture and fittings to all parts of the world. They used steam power and electricity, had a fleet of horse-drawn vans, depository and showrooms, and employed a vast workforce. Maples’ market was the middle class and upwards – anyone anywhere who had money. They furnished palaces all over the world, including Tsar Nicholas’s Winter Palace, the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, all the great hotels, and town and country homes. Prestigious British embassies were all furnished by Maples, even if it meant carrying the grand piano up the Khyber Pass on pack-horses.)
The hotel’s design and construction were handed to J.B. Viale and Danish architect, Hans-Georg Tersling (a power-house of a man as he was involved in many other constructions around the Riviera – notably the Grand Hôtel de Cap, Hôtel Métropole in Monaco, villa Cyrnos on the Cap to name just three although many more could be added to the list). Building work began at the end of February 1897 and finished by the end of December 1898 when it was of course furnished by Maples. Inaugurated on 5th January 1899 its English Neo-Gothic style was a sensation. The Rotonde proved a special hit and became an independent pavilion just for serving tea. In March 1911 fire destroyed the hotel’s roof but, due to the solidity of construction work, other parts of the hotel were left intact. Roofing was quickly repaired but now, instead of five floors, the hotel opened for business shortly afterwards with only four floors.
The Rotonde was used as a hospital during World War II as a commemorative plaque outside shows. In 1954 the hotel was bought by Saglia – a property promoter – and turned into luxury, high-class apartments. The gardens and tennis courts were sold to Beaulieu commune yet the Rotonde was inexplicably left abandoned and at one point nearly demolished. However, Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s commune stepped in at the very last minute and in 1982 invested in renovation works to transform this glorious building into a congress centre. Since October 2011 it has been used as an arts and festival centre especially for Beaulieu-sur-Mer’s two major festivals: “Les Nuits Guitares” (Guitar Nights) and “Les Violons de la Légende” (Legendary Violins).
A little further down from La Rotonde you’ll find the Roman Chapel “Sancta Maria de Olico”, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Dating back to 9th century it was built on a paleo-christian site. Steps away from the chapel on the opposite side of the road is the luxury hotel “La Réserve”.
The story goes that, in 1880, a Niçois by the name of Pierre Lautier, built a restaurant by the sea at Beaulieu-sur-Mer with the intention of serving the best fish dishes imaginable. He hits on the clever idea of having large basins dug out from under its terrace where local fishermen can offload their catch of live fish and crustaceans straight into. The fishermen called the basins “la réserve” – a place for stocking supplies – and Lautier so likes the name that he takes it for his restaurant.
Word quickly spreads of La Réserve’s culinary delights but reaching it is not so easy. Unless you had your own steam-yacht like Gordon Bennett (the American press magnate) who would anchor off the bay in Lysistrata, one of the most modern steam yachts of the time (the ship included a Turkish bath and a resident cow for fresh milk).
The railway station was a long way from the restaurant and local transport was very poor – which is why the Garaccio brothers (sail makers and ship chandlers and noted for having contributed to the development of winter touring in Nice) set up a steamboat service between the port of Nice and La Réserve. Very soon the cream of European and American society come here to eat and La Réserve quickly gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre for fresh fish.
Gordon Bennett was so impressed by the quality of the dishes that in 1891 he installed a telephone in the restaurant at his own expense so that he and other clients could conveniently make reservations. It was the first telephone in the area and the number – 04 93 01 00 01 – is still used today by La Réserve. In 1892 Gordon Bennett rented a pretty villa in Petite Afrique called Belvédère which he bought in 1903 changing the name to Villa Namouna.
He called in Aaron Messiah, a well-known and well-respected architect, to oversee renovation work (notably the addition of owls). Messiah also finished the outstanding work on the Anglican Church in Beaulieu which may have been financed by Bennett. Messiah was also involved in some of the building of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat as well as Les Cèdres on Cap Ferrat for Leopold II, King of Belgians, to name just a few of his works.
In 1905 Lautier decided to build ten luxurious bedrooms thereby turning his restaurant into a hotel – and it too became an instant success. Surviving two world wars Lautier then sold La Réserve to Jacques Laroche. Keeping only the great veranda gallery that housed the restaurant since its conception in 1880, Laroche had everything else pulled down and in its place built a huge Florentine-style villa that is the luxury La Réserve we see today.
It is said that Auguste Maïcon (French aviation pioneer with a notoriety for flying his plane under the bridge in Nice that once spanned the Var river) often offered a hydroplane service to La Réserve’s rich clientèle for which a pontoon was built at Baie des Fourmis. Not everyone managed the transfer from the hydroplane to the pontoon with notably Baroness de Vaughan, mistress of Belgian King, Leopold II and his two sons accidentally falling into the sea.
As luck would have it, I was allowed to view inside the entrance of La Reserve and already that was enough to tell me here was luxury at its finest – with touches of the past here and there with a little Gordon Bennett memorabilia tastefully on show.
Another building worthy of note is the Palais des Anglais built in 1885. Built facing the railway station it would be the first hotel to open in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Designed originally with a flat roof, the building was later given an extra floor and then re-roofed with grey slates and dormer windows. Flagship for tourist hotels elsewhere the Palais des Anglais would be one of the first hotels to have porcelain sinks in its bathrooms. The lift – then hydraulic – caused much anguish amongst the locals who thought it was powered by water diverted from their area. Between the two world wars, Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and honorary citizen of Beaulieu, made it a habit to stay at the Palais des Anglais to escape English winters. In 1939 it was sold and turned into apartments.
I should also mention Gustave Eiffel who habitually stayed here during the winter months after travelling down from Paris in his yacht-steamer, the Aïda. He would later have a villa built on the seafront where he installed a meteorological station. It is through his work that Beaulieu-sur-Mer was shown to have the most exceptional weather of the region. The villa sold in 2008 for an estimated 100 million euros and is now an hotel and private residence.
Lastly, because Beaulieu-sur-Mer is such a unique harbour, it goes without saying that there is a wide choice of water sports available. The Yacht Club offers catamaran, kayaking, and windsurfing, while Riviera Sports offers high energy water activities: towed inner tube riding, jet skiing, off-shore, para-sailing, water-skiing, wake-boarding. The Deux Freres Diving Club offers first time diving, explorations, night dives, day trips, renewals and international training. For more relaxing activities, you can board the Mai Mai II fishing boat (tuna, white marlin, etc.) or walk aboard a luxury yacht. The Papetee II offers the practice of sport fishing in two different forms: night fishing for swordfish or deep water fishing.
If you have time during your holiday on the Côte d’Azur, do try and take half a day to visit this charming seaside resort. With Villa Kérylos a hop and a skip from the harbour and Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild only 800 metres away – you could still have time for a stroll around Villefranche-sur-Mer before heading off on another magical excursion unless of course you are enticed, like so many others, to stay in Beaulieu-sur-Mer a little longer…