Heritage

A Palace on the Mediterranean

While the tip of the Cap d’Antibes is an exceptional site renowned for its stunning natural setting, it actually owes its reputation to the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, one of the most astonishing palaces on the French Riviera. A regular haunt for stars attending the Cannes Film Festival, held this year from May 17 through 28, it continues to fascinate the Hollywood smart set.
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In Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald described the palace as “a large, proud, rose-colored hotel […] on the pleasant shore of the French Riviera.” © Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc

Natalie Portman wearing a wedding dress walking along the promenade lined with hundred-year-old oaks and Aleppo pines down to the sea. Audrey Hepburn and her husband Mel Ferrer kissing over the net during a game of tennis. A tanned Kirk Douglas in blue-and-white checked shorts adjusting his water skis. These images and others prove that every nook and cranny of the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc is intertwined with Hollywood glamor.

Designed in the style of a waterfront tea room, its terrace overlooks the Lérins Islands and is the beating heart of the hotel. In the late afternoon, when the sun glows red over the Estérel Mountains with the cobalt-blue sea dotted with yachts below, the sea air mixes with the scents of pine, eucalyptus, and rose laurels in the park. The perfect time for a glass of Champagne.

Those hoping to enjoy this unique setting have to be patient, as even getting a room is a challenge. The Baroque, Napoleon III-style establishment is clad in eggshell white and flanked by two symmetrical wings, and was built in the middle of a 22-acre park in 1870 – 20 years before the Savoy in London and 30 before the Ritz in Paris. Needless to say, the Eden-Roc is among the world’s most sought-after hotels.

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Paradise on the Rock

If you take the tree-lined gravel promenade down to the sea, you will discover the second part of the Hôtel du Cap – the Eden-Roc pavilion and its polished-deck bar. This overlooks a saltwater pool dug into the basalt cliffside, where visitors have enjoyed swimming and sunbathing since the 1930s. Just below, a jetty offers guests the option of traveling to Cannes by speedboat. Three exclusive villas are nestled in the nearby pine forest – ideal for celebrities with a penchant for privacy. And along the rocks set above the sea, some 30 green-and-white cabanas offer a stripped-down aesthetic, although each has its own terrace, lounge chairs, and butler. Picasso, Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, and the Kennedy family were all regulars.

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The Kennedy family (including a 22-year- old JFK, left) in front of their cabana at the Grand Hôtel du Cap, summer 1939. © John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
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American actress Barbara Mullen, photographed for Elle aboard one of the hotel’s speedboats, 1957. © Georges Dambier
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The hotel’s iconic swimming pool, August 1976. © Slim Aarons

There is no ostentatious luxury at the Eden-Roc. Graydon Carter, the long-time editor of Vanity Fair, organized a reception there as part of the Cannes Film Festival in the early 1990s. However, he was surprised when he discovered his room: “I was expecting something a bit more Parisian. A bit more Belle Epoque. This was not that. This was spartan. There was no television. No radio. And just two pillows for a king-size bed […]. There was a wall of glass with sliding doors leading out onto a balcony overlooking the sea, with an outdoor dining table and two chaises. In time, I grew to appreciate and then cherish the pastel tranquility of the rooms at Eden-Roc.”

The hotel is now part of the Oetker Collection, a German group which also owns the Bristol in Paris and the Château Saint-Martin & Spa in Vence. What’s more, it has been subtly modernized. The 118 rooms are air-conditioned, but their doors are still locked with keys instead of cards. And by the pool, the staff wear striped shirts in a nod to the hotel’s Club Nautique founded in 1930.

The restaurant is worth a visit for the view alone. It has just one Michelin star, but focuses on local products such as striped red mullet, saddle of Alpilles lamb, and cheeses from the inland region. Overseeing his 500 employees (those with more than 20 years’ experience at the hotel wear a small diamond on the lapel of their jackets), the director has drawn up a list of 60 rules, including “The professional attitude is neither natural nor spontaneous; it is built,” and “Service is a state of mind, a disposition to generosity and curiosity.”

An Oasis for Celebrities

In a testament to the hotel’s consistency and commitment, just three successive families have owned it since the opening in 1870. Previously a retreat for weary writers and artists, the Eden-Roc only exploded onto the international stage in the late 19th century, when English lords and Russian princes in search of sunshine discovered the French Riviera. At the time, the season started in September and ended in May to avoid the burning summer heat. This trend has since been reversed; the hotel opens in April and closes at the end of October.

Its reputation was largely built by Americans, starting with Red Cross nurses who used the hotel as a convalescent home during World War I. They were followed by artists and writers including Cole Porter, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the legend of the Grand Hôtel du Cap. It was even the setting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel Tender Is the Night. After Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich – the first stars to strip down and enjoy the sunshine – Hollywood celebrities set a trend by lounging by the pool at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946.

Guests at the American Foundation for AIDS Research gala mix in the hotel’s garden, 2016. © Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc

Ever since, the Eden-Roc has been an oasis for festivalgoers. Guests have included Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Darryl Zanuck, and Kirk Douglas, the jury president in 1980. They all enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the absence of paparazzi. Elizabeth Taylor visited with almost all her husbands, while Gary Cooper posed on the front steps in a pair of shorts. During a party in 1948, Rita Hayworth, the lead in Gilda, walked down the immense staircase in a long white gown, and caught the eye of Prince Aly Khan, the billionaire son of the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismailis and an inveterate ladies’ man. This sparked a romance that ended in a wedding the following year. Then there was French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont who came to woo Grace Kelly below her window… a few days before she met Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The following generation has taken a more direct approach. In 1990, Alain Delon landed in a helicopter in the middle of the promenade – a first in the hotel’s history! In a somewhat different style, a valet had to stop a fight between Gérard Depardieu and Robert de Niro. In 2011, Karl Lagerfeld presented the Chanel cruise collection to the hotel’s guests, and his models walked along the tree-lined path, turned into a runway for the occasion. And last July, the gala for the American Foundation for AIDS Research saw Sharon Stone presiding over a guest list of almost 400 celebrities. Has the Eden-Roc transformed from an oasis of calm into a philanthropic institution? In any case, the venerable hotel now faces the major challenge of remaining true to its original spirit while protecting its status among the world’s globalized palace hotels.


Hotel du Cap-Eden- Roc: A Timeless Legend on the French Riviera
by Alexandra Campbell, Flammarion/Rizzoli, 2021.

 

Article published in the May 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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