Saturday, September 23, 2017
   
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Nice is even nicer at this time of the year

OUI, mes amis, NICE has never been Nicer. The Queen of the French Riviera really comes into its own around this time of year when many of us are looking for a short, frost-free winter break direct from Belfast or Dublin.

Low-cost travel to Nice-Cote d'Azur Airport not only leaves us with lots of lolly to spend on the distinctively different shopping and superlative restaurants of the Riviera, but also on really good accommodation at low-season prices in Nice, Cannes and nearby villages.

That's why I'm pleased to direct you towards my two latest and most delightful discoveries - the Hotel La PErouse, with its eye-popping views over Old Nice and the the Bay of Angels, and the amazing Villa St-Maxime near St-Paul-de-Vence, a 20 minute drive from the airport.

These gems have been ranked among the Top Five places to stay on the entire Cote d'Azur by guests who submit reviews to the website I consider to be the world's best source of unbiassed (and often uninhibited) info on accommodation - www.TripAdvisor.com.

This is a site for sore eyes. No fancy flash-work or psychedelic graphics, just a fantastic source of facts about destinations and hotels, written by guests who want to share their opinions with fellow travellers. They give a Customer Satisfaction rating to everything from Value for Money to Cleanliness and the hotels are subsequently ranked 1st-2nd-3rd etc on a city or regional basis.

Since stumbling upon this superb site a couple of years ago, I would no longer dream of choosing a destination or making a reservation without browsing the latest comments and appraisals on TripAdvisor.com

Some of the world's most prestigious hotels are damned for their worn carpets, vomit stains, surly staff and suspiciously inaccurate bills; other less pretentious places are praised to the heavens for their personal service, unspoilt locations, little touches and good value.

TripAdvisor is already well-known here, judging by the number of on-line reviews and comments from Northern Ireland's increasing number of independent travellers (including Yours Trewly, who has boosted a couple of local hotels). However, I also know that a number of local travel agencies use it to check out destinations and accommodation on behalf of customers.

TripAdvisor.com is the web equivalent of "word of mouth", which is still the best form of promoting all that is great and giving warnings about the not-so-good. Here are a couple of examples:

Max points for Villa Max

Number one place to stay in the whole French Riviera is the Villa St-Maxime, according to the 22 Customer Satisfaction reviews recorded on my favourite travel website, TripAdvisor.com.

This polished gem of a modern boutique hotel halfway up a Provenal hill, far outshines the monumental Victorian hotel jewels of the Riviera which still dominate the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the Croisette in Cannes. It also beats the 560 other hotels along the Mediterranean Coast from Menton to St Tropez which are clamouring for your business now that the British and Irish have re-discovered the delights of the Riviera.

Reviewers are so enthusiastic about Villa Max (as it's nicknamed) and its hospitable hosts Ann and John, that I just had to suss it out as a suitable all-year-round destination for my discerning readers - like YOU.

What a revelation!

The villa itself is an arresting piece of modern cubist architecture, originally designed as a private getaway for a well-heeled Iranian oilman of impeccable taste. A half-dozen rooms and suites have been created around vast open-plan public areas furnished with Provenal sculptures and paintings.

The exterior white stonework reflects the sun (which shines 300+ days a year around here) onto the palm-fringed terraces and swimming pool which have a view all the way down the wooded slopes to the Med at Cagnes-sur-Mer and Cap d'Antibes.

This ocean vista is great, but the best view is of St Paul-de-Vence, the famous 'perched village' just a 10-minute walk away. There it is, surrounded by ramparts almost above your head as you sit in the warm winter sun.

I was so inspired that I spent a languid hour doing an after-breakfast watercolour sketch of the ramparts and spires. As I went to have my orange juice freshened up, the painting blew into the pool and all the colours smudged Ñ thus improving it 500 per cent!

On arrival the evening before, I rashly decided on a quick dip in this self-same pool before getting ready to dine out (a fantastic champagne breakfast is included, but other meals have to be taken in one of the many fine local restaurants.)

"The water is 18 degrees," said our affable host John. And so it came to pass that I dived straight in. Alas, instead of the tepid bathwater my body expected in this Mediterranean suntrap, I was enveloped in liquid ice of the type I have not felt since a youthful Boxing Night dip in Bangor Bay - while full of mulled wine.

"You left out one word, John," I chattered as I hastily donned a Villa Max bathrobe." You shouled have said MINUS 18 degrees!"

Exemplary hosts

Best thing about Villa Max is the personal attention of the couple who have created this hidden haven of hospitality in the Provenal countryside.

John and Ann are highly cultured, laid-back Americans who have lived all over Europe before settling in the mediaeval village of St-Paul-de-Vence. When the nearby Villa St-Maxime came up for sale, they took it over and converted it into a villa d'hote.

This is a category akin to an American B&B, namely a family-run guesthouse which provides very comfortable accommodation and breakfast. Villa Max is also often described as a boutique hotel, but I'm never sure what that means, as it is applied to everything smaller than a 400-room corporate monstrosity these days.

In fact, the villa is run like a private house-party. From the champagne breakfast in the morning, to a free aperitif bar in the early evening, plus complimentary liqueurs on your return from dining out - as well as an honour bar throughout the day - there's no shortage of refreshments and snacks.

A vast armoire is stuffed with free DVDs for the player in all rooms and there is a great library of local maps, guidebooks and huge volumes of photo-books. The location is great for exploring the coast and the fascinating hinterland between Nice and Cannes.

Best of all is John's personal attention to your every need, whether you want to get your car repaired or reserve the best tables at the array of local restaurants. Just don't trust his ability to guess the right temperature of his otherwise wonderful pool!

I told Ann and John that their classy, but casual environment would appeal particularly to affluent laid-back couples and families from this part of the world. Yes, we love the French Riviera but find most up-market places are a bit too formal or stuffy, with their uniformed staff and liveried doormen. To be welcomed by John in his comfy shorts and Ann in her jeans, is a relief.

Low season rates for 2006 start from just 145 Euros for a double-room with garden view and your own little terrace with hammocks; 175 Euros for the Villa Suite; and up to 275 Euros for the vast St Maxime Suite that would be perfect for families. High season rates average between 15 - 80 Euros more. Villa St-Maxime :Tel:0033 4 93 32 7600 ; Email: [email protected]

La PErouse is perfect

Spectacular is just one of many words that can describe the unspoilt panoramic view of the Bay of Angels from the terrace of our bedroom in the excellent Hotel La PErouse in Nice.

I was already familiar with the unremarkable entrance to this property located against the rocky cliff of La Colline du Chateau which we have often passed on the main road between the beaches of the celebrated Boulevard des Anglais and The Port of Nice.

Truth is, this road has so many scenic distractions (and is often busy with speeding Nicois taxi-drivers in search of their next guillible tourist) that I never thought that behind that narrow exterior was one of the Riviera's most highy-praised hotels, full of hidden charms.

It's no wonder that the enthusiastic guests who send in reviews to TripAdvisor.com have pushed it into the top rank of hotels in Nice. That unparalled vista which inspired famous paintings by hotel guests Matisse and Raoul Dufy (make sure you ask for a room with sea view), is the main reason for the hotel's popularity, but it's only one of many superb features.

For example, in all my world travels I have not enjoyed a rooftop sundeck as much as the one built into the cliffside of La PErouse (the hotel is named after a famous French navigator). I lay in the outdoor jacuzzi in warm autumn sunshine (21 degrees in mid-November!), with unsurpassable views, not only of the bay and beaches, but of Vieux Nice, the oldest quarter of the city, below.

The swimming pool is one deck lower, a few steps away from a spacious courtyard, shaded by fruit-laden lemon-trees, where you are offered an open-air breakfast if you so desire. I was thrilled to put a slice of a freshly-plucked lemon into my morning tea every day as I read my complimentary copy of the daily Nice-Matin. One of the few headline stories I managed to translate unaided, was about the scores of Northern and Southern Irish who are buying up seafront apartments in Nice now that they can fly in all year round.

The hotel's proximity to the famous daily Flower Market and delightful little shopping streets of Old Nice are another plus point. It is also almost next door to Don Camillo, a great Niois restaurant which changes its menu daily according to what the chef finds in the morning markets.

Service standards are outstanding. Under the leadership of charming General Manager Laure Giometti, guests are treated to exemplary personal service from the minute your car is parked for you, and check in with Front Desk staff who are always smiling. A receptionist guides you through the quaint corridors (the hotel is an historic building on different levels).

I liked Hotel La PErouse very much indeed and will return. Winter prices start at 155 Euro for a standard room but pay the extra 50 Euro for a better room with balcony and astounding sea-view. The hotel is part of the Paris-based Hotels du Roy group which often features Special Deals on its website www.hroy.com/la-perouse. Tel: 0033 4 9362 34 63

A meal todiet for

Best value meal of our five-day stay was the FIVE-COURSE lunch at Lou Balico, an utterly authentic little Nicois restaurant close to MAMAC, the modern art museum of Nice. For just 12 Euros, we had a freebie slice of onion pizza, deep fried courgette blossoms, an enormous tureen of chick-pea stew with local sausage and garlic croutons, a delicious home-made tart plus good coffee and home-baked bread. To regular readers who ask about how my GI Diet is going after a trip like this, let me say that the chick-peas, at least, had a low GI rating and I'm still well over a stone lighter than I used to be. Honest.

BY JOHN TREW

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