The reason I will never go back to the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat is sentimentality, stabbed with romantic nostalgia
Can a critic recommend a hotel that one can never go back to? The reason I doubt I will ever return to the wedding cake palace of the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat is not the cost (and the hotel is not cheap). Nor is it to do with any aesthetic failings in the impeccable taste of the designer Pierre-Yves Rochon who picked out the exquisite lemon patterned curtains in our balconied suite overlooking the sea, and who masterminded the decorative renovation of the hotel as part of its 100th anniversary.
These celebrations included selecting new Robbe & Berking Art Deco collection silver cutlery for the dining room, alongside Neptune porcelain from Haviland commissioned to represent the gods of the sea. Keeping up this marine theme, the interior of the restaurant now features a mural in the style of Jean Cocteau. Other classic features of the hotel have remained – such as the old brass gated lifts and the beautiful lobby featuring a baroque chandelier by Tisserant of crystal doves enclosed by a silver lantern that reflects the light coming in from the Gustave Eiffel-designed Rotunda.
Nor is my reluctance to return anything to do with the imperiously precise cuisine of Michelin-starred chef Didier Anies, who also bears the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France, who supervised the menu of one of the most memorable dinners of my life. Or even the charming (but slightly annoying) habit of the little singing local birds – their flecked breasts the colour of a Meissen porcelain parrot – who swooped down at the breakfast table, dive-bombing off the branches of Aleppo pines, to raid the basket of fresh croissants and fly off with a corner of toast, freshly spread with beurre d'Echivé (the best in France) and little pots of jam.
No. The reason I will never go back to the Grand Hotel is sentimentality, stabbed with romantic nostalgia. For a few luxuriant and blissful days last September, when the Vilebrequin beau monde had packed their Louis Vuittons and sun-oil away, and the season was winding down – save for an athletic London hedgie by the pool – I enjoyed one of the best holidays of my life with a woman I loved.
How we laughed into our glasses of Bandol rosé when said Mayfair hedgie stood up by his sun-bed by the deserted pool, put down his Blackberry – which he had been clamped to – and put on his Olympic swimming hat and Speedo goggles to do his marathon lengths. To impress who? As he crawled away, we ordered our second bottle of rosé of the morning. It was still 11.45 am.
BUT WHAT IS it with me and the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat? Despite it being one of my favourite hotels in the world – and justly the only hotel on the Cote d’Azur awarded ‘Palace’ status – we seem to have a doomed relationship. Like Charles Ryder returning to Brideshead in the war, (and the Grand was used as a troop hospital during World War Two) ‘I had been there before’; yes, I had stayed at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat back in 1991, some 21 years before, while working as a young reporter on The Times covering the Cannes Film Festival, and also moonlighting as a fledgling hotel critic.
It was a memorable stay – but for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately the first night I was meant to be staying in the hotel I ended up in Cannes police station for most of the night. I was driving back to the hotel with a blonde California film producer/girlfriend and a drunk French driver had collided into us at some traffic lights. The Grand Hotel manager was most accommodating, I recall, when I checked in around 2.30 am looking as if I’d just been pulled out of a giant cactus tree in the neighbouring gardens of the Rothschilds' Villa Ephrussi.
Service then – as now – was impeccable. Dinner was served in our room at around 3am without any fuss and a bottle of champagne was delivered to the room with the manager’s compliments. A few months later, I moved to LA to work as The Times’s Hollywood correspondent and moved in with the said thirtysomething film producer. We never returned to Cannes: she died a year later.
OUR STAY AT the Grand some twenty one years later was branded into the memory vault for all the right reasons. This was the holiday – ironically – that was to take things from ‘holiday romance’ to official romance. Around that awkward romantic bend when the present suddenly turns into a future. The happy details remain as clear and beautiful as the hotel’s crystalline water of the infinity pool that stretches out towards the rocks and the edge of the sea like a giant dripping silver oyster salver.
Unquestionably, Le Cap restaurant is one of the very best on the Cote d’Azur. Dinner was a Proustian assault of the culinary senses. Whenever I stay in a serious gastro hotel, I always ask for the menu to be sent up to the room before dinner so that I can read it – ‘study’ might be a better word – lying on the bed after a bath.
My girlfriend (who was not a foodie like me although the Grand helped with a temporary mini-conversion to the cause) used to find the habit a bit unusual at first as I would lie on the bed in a towelling robe and say things like, ‘Darling, how about Le Loup de Mer aux Herbes Fraiches or Le Turbot Cuit Epais sur l’Arete? That’s for the fish course – or do you want to start with La Langouste Rose Tiede?'
My French accent is not good, so I cannot blame her for not knowing quite what was being ordered but at the end of the majestic six course dinner – even with the little birds swooping down to pluck at our bread rolls – she did turn to me and say it was ‘probably the best dinner in my life’. I think she also said it was the best holiday of her life as well.
IT WAS CERTAINLY a better holiday than either of my two honeymoons so that was promising. By quite a margin. Towards the end of dinner, after we had enjoyed Le Souffle aux Fraises and Glace à la Reglisse, followed by La Charlotte Glacée Framboise (I loved that ‘Charlotte’ was my girlfriend's middle name), she was swirling down an Armagnac. I said: ‘If we get married, I promise to include a return trip to the Grand as part of our honeymoon. And we’ll stay in the same room.'
She looked up to the brilliant Cote D'Azur stars and smiled back. She was wearing a cream chiffron evening dress that shone as luminously as her eyes in the garden candlelight. I took another scoop of the Charlotte Glace – it tasted of pure happiness.
Alas, it was only to be a holiday romance. The little birds – and the crystal doves for that matter – can sing for other honeymoon couples. There will be no Room 204 Revisited.