I have now stayed at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc twice in my life. The first time was for my sister’s wedding a decade ago. It was a surreal occasion as my sister was 45 minutes late arriving at the local church, perched on a huge cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. She was so late in fact that the poor bride who was to have been married in the same church an hour after my sister — they operate a wedding-slot policy not unlike for the planes arriving at Nice airport — actually arrived before my sister, so my brother-in-law nearly greeted the wrong bride. Needless to say this was not the best omen and the marriage didn’t last. When I later asked my sister why she was late, she said she was so comfortable in her suite that she lost track of time while having her hair done. That her watch was still set to UK time didn’t help.
So it was with surprise and a degree of astonishment that when I was invited to stay as a guest of the hotel (owned by the billionaire Oetker family whose collection of hotels includes The Bristol in Paris) over my birthday weekend last autumn, I found a beautifully wrapped white Eden-Roc sports watch sitting on the desk in our room with a birthday card from the management. Did they remember my sister? One reads about Swiss hotels in John le Carré novels where every guest request and habit is noted by the staff for future reference. I didn’t like to ask.
Nor, for that matter, when I met with the manager for a hotel tour did I like to give him an entirely straight answer when he shook me by the hand and said with gleaming smile, ‘Is this your first time at the hotel?’ I smiled back and simply mentioned my sister’s wedding — which took over half of the Eden-Roc Pavilion. What I left out was my actual first visit (not stay, alas) in rather different circumstances, aged around 23 and with a Times-accredited press pass for the 1991 Cannes Film Festival in my pocket, when I found myself paying approximately £50 in French francs to have access to the famous salt-water pool where Vanity Fair hosted their Cannes party.
Actually, it wasn’t the pool I was interested in but rather hiding behind an olive tree in the gardens of the hotel with none other than Piers Morgan — then a showbiz columnist at The Sun — as we tried to trot out behind Madonna during her morning run around the grounds while in Cannes to promote In Bed with Madonna. On our way to dinner, I passed that same tree with my wife.
One of the things I love about iconic hotels like the Hotel du Cap is that they are so fixed in glamour that you have to have stayed at least once. But whereas so many of these legendary hotels are now frozen in aspic with the only real glamour left located in the black and white photos of former guests like Hemingway, Orson Welles or Elizabeth Taylor lining the walls by the lavatories, the Hotel du Cap is time- and fashion-proof.
Whereas once-famous hotels like La Reserve in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, or the formerly grand hotels of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, have had their demi-monde life sucked out of them by the global rucksack army of 28-year-old Californian honeymooning couples, the Hotel du Cap attracts a different crowd. Despite the association with guests who have included the Niarchos family, Scott Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich and the Kennedy family, the hotel refuses to be trapped in the past. Because it has been so elegantly redecorated by Mrs Oetker herself — I especially like the new blue curtains in the main bar — it feels like a very grand plutocrat’s villa, not a museum. The hotel remains too much part of the seasonal social wallpaper of the ultra-rich and ultra-glamorous.
Some people I know treat the Hotel du Cap as an expensive mistress they cannot live without seeing at least once a year. My old LA friend Charles Finch — fixer, celebrity party giver par excellence, ex-producer, ex-agent, PR genius, lover of the very best, a larger-than-life figure who is a throwback to the Hollywood producers of the 1930s — always hosts a dinner at the Eden-Roc each year.
I am never quite sure exactly what the dinner is really for, or how the eclectic A-list guests know Charles, but I am pretty sure that if he moved the dinner to a fish restaurant in the local port, it just would not be the same. But we also liked the new features of the hotel such as the Juice and Ice Cream Bar and the Eden-Roc Champagne Lounge that I was invited to the opening of in May — alas, it was blown to pieces in a storm and the party had to be cancelled so I was glad to experience it in finer weather.
What I love about the hotel is how the area around the Eden-Roc pool is more of a high-low society stage. When I was there in the late summer, there was a superb exhibition by the New York society photographer Slim Aarons that so subtly captures two decades of social theatre of the various international types who are still there today.
These range from a darkly tanned Tim Jefferies and his well-behaved children to lobster-red oligarchs who bring mini-safes with them to their sunbeds along with three BlackBerrys; one Russian, speaking croaking English, spent an hour putting his newborn son down for about six London schools over the phone, each time paying a £250 deposit. It was September when we were there and — from their tans — many of the guests had clearly been having a long summer; my Scottish wife and I were pale, having not been away at all.
Yet familiar faces like digital mogul Brent Hoberman — co-founder of lastminute.com — were the colour of dark teak. As I spoke to him as he watched his kids diving into the sea, he explained that he liked to end his summer holiday — he has a villa in St Tropez where he spends much of July and August — with a few days at the Hotel du Cap, before a new season of school terms and deals to be done in London. And why not?
The subject of how the oiled, moneyed glitterati like to holiday is a window into the modern soul. That Vanity Fair chooses the Hotel du Cap to host their Cannes party is partly because the Hotel du Cap is not just a hotel: it is a form of society art installation.
The Aarons exhibition was also showing at the Hotel du Cap’s sister, the Château Saint-Martin, tucked away in the hills behind Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and a very different sort of holiday experience.
Slim Aarons stayed at the Château Saint-Martin in 1986, capturing something very different from today’s poolside world of BlackBerry addicts. The Château Saint-Martin has the feel of a super-luxurious monastery and has one of the very best Michelin-starred restaurants in the Côte d’Azur. The food is a little more fussily gastronomic than the Eden-Roc — where the service is such that when I couldn’t read the wine list because of the dark (or was it my age?), the sommelier came along with a tray of glasses, in every possible strength and trendy design.
Aarons was the perfect chronicler of the Jet Set from the 1950s to the 1980s. He moved as one of them, a Dominick Dunne with a lens. What he would have made of today’s cast who make up the annual Hotel du Cap social theatre troupe I do not know. But judging by the waistline of some of the Russian guests we were sitting close to at the Eden-Roc pool, he may well have had to revise his line that he only liked to photograph ‘attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places’. Thank god for the privacy of the 1950s-style cabanas, set away in a hidden garden overlooking the sea a hundreds yards or so from the jungle of the main pool. They might cost €500 a day but I can see why so many still swear by them.