The French Riviera, or Côte d'Azur, ranks among Europe's most enduring - and alluring - gay playgrounds. True, this stretch of rugged Mediterranean coastline at the southeastern tip of France doesn't generate quite as much buzz with GLBT travelers as Sitges, Ibiza, or Mykonos, as it's not a pure party playground. But the sunny and sophisticated French Riviera (www.frenchriviera-tourism.com) is ideal for a romantic getaway, and the most gay-popular communities - Cannes and Nice - abound with beautiful beaches, chic shopping, exceptional art museums, and atmospheric cafes and open-air markets.
Nice (www.nicetourisme.com) - the largest city in the region, with about 350,000 residents and an international airport with direct flights from North America - also supports an active GLBT organization, AGLAE (www.aglae06.fr) which sponsors Gay Pride each July and produces a gay guide to that's distributed free at many businesses. The city is home to several fine museums, including the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and the Matisse Museum of Nice. This is also a fine city for shopping, with dozens of upscale boutiques set along Rue Pastorelli and Rue du Marechal Joffre, including the famous Galeries Lafayette department store.
For great views of the city and harbor, climb the stairs to Castle Hill and stroll among the botanical gardens and medieval ramparts, soaking up the views of the bustling port neighborhood - you can see for miles up and down the coast. At the base of the hill, bustling, Old Town's narrow streets, classic architecture, esteemed galleries, and open-air flower and food markets contain a number of the city's gay-frequented businesses.
Old Town fringes the city's shoreline, which you can stroll along the broad, palm shaded Promenade des Anglais, which fringes the miles of pretty (but pebbly) beaches. A couple of the many beachside restaurants along here fly rainbow flags to welcome their sizable gay clienteles: the beach at Castel club (www.castelplage.com), which is lies in the shadows of Castle Hill, and the beach club run by the trendy HI Hotel (www.hi-beach.net), a favorite see-and-sun spot of the Nice A-listers. The clothing-optional section of rocky shoreline right below Restaurant Coco Beach, a short walk beyond the Port of Nice, is another favorite gay hangout.
Continue east around Cap de Nice to reach the exclusive village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, immortalized in the Bond movie Never Say Never Again. It's also home to St-Pierre Chapel, whose restored interior contains murals painted by famed gay novelist Jean Cocteau. Across the bay is one of the world's wealthiest enclaves, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat - everybody from Tina Turner to Bill Gates have homes around here. Head farther toward the Italian border, and you'll reach the ancient cliff-top village of Eze and beyond that the Principality of Monaco, with its exclusive casinos and ritzy shopping.
The Riviera's other gay hub, Cannes (www.cannes.travel) - which is renowned for its legendary film festival each spring - curves gently around a sheltered bay, its glamorous hotels and swanky beach bars strung like jewels along La Croisette promenade. Cannes has an increasingly visible GLBT community - Cannes Rainbow (www.cannes-rainbow.com) promotes gay tourism to the area.
This city of about 80,000 is perfect for strolling and window-shopping, rife as it is with antiques and food markets as well as luxury boutiques and department stores. To get your blood flowing, climb the steep, narrow streets to Suquet hill for majestic views of the harbor, and then walk back down through Old Town, perhaps stopping at a sidewalk café for lunch.
Set aside a half-day for taking a passenger ferry across the harbor to the Lerins Islands, the most famous of which is Île Sainte-Marguerite, home to the famed 17th-century Fort Royal, the cliff-top fortress (now a museum) in which the legendary Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the 1600s. The island is also home to the excellent (seasonal) open-air restaurant, La Guerite, which serves superb seafood, including the addictively delicious tiny fried fishes, called blanchaille.
Picasso’s stomping grounds
Between Cannes and Nice, you can visit a pair of lovely communities, Vallauris Golfe-Juan and Antibes (www.antibes-juanlespins.com), whose Roman fortifications overlook the largest pleasure-boat harbor in Europe. A walk through Old Town's narrow lanes leads to the exceptional Picasso Museum, outside of which a small sculpture garden looks over the sea. Around the corner you'll find the city's famous city market, which hums with activity and sells everything from fresh peaches to stuffed rabbits.
Vallauris Golfe-Juan, where Picasso lived for many years, has boasted a reputation for pottery-making that dates back 2,000 years. It's home to several arts museum, including the amusingly offbeat Museum of Kitsch, a celebration of jade-hued ceramic poodles and tropical-fish ashtrays. More esteemed attractions include the Castle Museum complex, which comprises three distinct art museums, including the National Picasso Museum "War and Peace" (with massive murals by Picasso. Finally, there's Espace Jean Marais, a gallery celebrating the sculpture (and film career) of the celebrated gay actor, Marais, who was the lover at one time of Jean Cocteau.
Two nearby interior villages of note include the medieval town of Vence, whose delightful village center is home to Chapelle du Rosaire, which contains stained-glass by Henri Matisse, and nearby Saint-Paul de Vence, a walled, medieval hilltop town whose cobblestone alleys are lined with art galleries, open-air cafes, and fashionable boutiques. Be sure to walk through the cemetery in which artist Marc Chagall is buried - he lived here late in life, as did the gay American novelist James Baldwin. Down the hill, check out the Maeght Foundation museum, whose grounds and galleries are filled with dramatic, large-scale contemporary art installations and sculptures.
The French Riviera enjoys a fabled culinary reputation - you'll find no shortage of superb restaurants in every town, plus markets and gourmet shops specializing in local olives, oils, cheeses, pastries, and every other imaginable treat. Rosé is the most commonly produced wine in Provence, and locals consume it happily and regularly at virtually every meal. If you're looking to pick up a bottle or two, check out the outstanding La Cave Bianchi (www.cave-bianchi.fr) wine shop in Cannes. The town also has some favorite gay restaurants, including breezy Restaurant le Vegaluna (www.vegaluna.com) along the beach; see-and-be-seen Le Sparkling et son Club (www.sparkling-cannes.com), which is also fun for pre-clubbing cocktails; and Barbarella (www.barbarellarestaurant.fr), a romantic spot with sidewalk seating in at Old Town.
In Nice's pedestrianized Cours Saleya district in Old Town, you'll find dozens of sidewalk cafés, most of them specializing in local seafood and pizzas, among the flower and food markets. If you make it around the Cape to Villefrance, do not miss the wonderful seafood restaurant La Mère Germaine (www.meregermaine.com), which has tables right on the bay. If you're seeking a lunch spot in Vallauris, try cozy, gay-owned Le Clos Cosette, which turns out traditionally Provencal cuisine, or fashionable Cafe Marianne (www.cafemarianne-vallauris.com). The interior village of Saint-Paul de Vence is one of the country's finest small towns for dining - it's home to a handful of Michelin-star restaurants.
Gay nightlife in the region is relaxed, very friendly, and concentrated in Nice and Cannes. In Nice, consider Bar Le Fard (www.lefard.com), a snug spot on Promenade des Anglais - it's a good place to start the night. Other good bets include centrally located Le 6 Bar (www.le6.fr), which draws a stylish mix for cocktails, conversation, and dancing; and Le Glam club (www.leglam.org), a small but lively spot for dancing to pop tunes. Fairly near the harbor is the Eagle (www.eagle-nice.com), a typical leather-oriented and cruise bar, and the fetish/sex club called Le Block (www.leblock.com). Nice also has a few very popular gay saunas, including the small but quite clean and attractive Les Bains Douches, and the large and always-crowded Sauna du Chateau (www.saunaduchateau.com).
In Cannes, the intimate and rather ancient Zanzibar tavern makes a nice starting point, perhaps before heading to the city's top gay venue, trendy Le Night Disco (www.night-club-cannes.com). Also, the nightclub and casino Palm Beach Cannes (www.casinolepalmbeach.com) occasionally hosts gay parties and is always very GLBT-welcoming.
You'll find a nice mix of swanky seaside hotels and affordable gay B&Bs throughout the region. Movie stars in Cannes regularly nest at the stunning Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel (www.ichotelsgroup.com) - many suites are named for luminaries, from Sean Penn to Elton John. The gay-popular Hôtel 3.14 (www.3-14hotel.com) lies just around the corner and is notable for its over-the-top quirky rooms - floors have fun, if bizarre, themes like American pop art and Moroccan chic. The rooftop pool is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.
In the leafy, inviting Juan les Pins section of Antibes, the gay-friendly Hôtel Juana (www.hotel-juana.com) and Hôtel Belles Rives (www.bellesrives.com) - which have the same owners and are within walking distance of each other - make excellent bases for exploring the entire Riviera. Hotel Belles Rives, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing Tender is the Night, is the more historic and atmospheric of the two, and it's home to the exceptional restaurant, La Passagere. Up in the hilly Vence, the gay-owned La Maison du Frêne (www.lamaisondufrene.com) is an exquisitely decorated B&B whose stunning rooms are hung with bold, playful contemporary art - it's a perfect hideaway for a romantic vacation.
Nice has the best variety of lodging options, which include reasonably priced gay B&Bs like Blue Angels (www.blueangels.fr) and ThyJeff Guesthouse (www.thyjeff.fr), both of which are close to the train station - the owners of the latter also run a cheerful gay café nearby, Le ThyJeff. Also consider the upscale four-room guest house, Mas des Oliviers (www.masdesoliviers-nice.com), a gay-owned retreat set amid quiet gardens in the foothills above Nice - amenities include a pool, fitness room, and two terraces with lovely views.
Among larger properties, the chic and artfully design HI Hôtel (www.hi-hotel.net) - with its bold color schemes, rooftop pool, and stellar sushi restaurant - is a favorite of trendy and discerning gay travelers. The hotel also operates the previously mentioned HI beach club and restaurant, a few blocks. Other Nice favorites include the opulent Hôtel Palais le la Méditerranée (palais.concorde-hotels.com), a grand dame with a magnificent Art Deco facade overlooking the sea, and the elegant and smartly undated L'Hôtel Beau Rivage (www.hotelnicebeaurivage.com), an 1860s beauty overlooking Promenade des Anglais - it's been a favorite accommodation of such arts and literary figures as Matisse and Chekhov.