by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, July 26, 2017
An insider's guide to the best things to do and attractions in Cannes, including walking along La Croisette, viewing the Palais des Festivals and visiting Fort Royal. By Anthony Peregrine, Telegraph Travel's Cannes expert.
There’s surprisingly little to do in Cannes itself – no vital gallery, outstanding historical monument or particularly vibrant memories of great former residents. Which might strike you as ideal. It releases the visitor to do what he or she really wants to do – which is stroll around a bit, shop a little and make full use of the farniente potential of the beach. Before retiring for drink, food and whatever else the evening might promise. Having said that, it helps to stroll with some particular destinations in mind.
What to do
This is the splendid promenade curving around the bay where, at film festival time, you might think you have spotted a star or two (they’re usually lookalikes). At other times, it is the stage for the spectacle that is Cannes. With a sparkling acreage of briny out front and exotic greenery on the prom itself, even ugly people look good.
You’ll see beautiful youth, handsome families and over-tanned ladies with brush-head dogs still wearing furs in June (the ladies, that is, not the dogs – though…). Weaving in and out will be joggers, rollerbladers, clowns on stilts and perhaps even a particularly impressive chap I once saw there. He would light a cigarette, place it in his mouth, then on his tongue, then swallow it and blow smoke out of his ears. Then pass the hat round.
Palais des Festivals
Despite its red-carpet fame as HQ of the annual film thrash, the Palais des Festivals used to have the architectural eloquence of a nuclear power station. Clearly, whoever designed it didn’t much like Cannes, the seaside, people, beauty, elegance or, in all probability, movie stars. In recent times, though, its dull stone exterior has been turned bright white. This is a serious improvement, and a far better backdrop for photos of chaps in tuxedos and star ladies in shiny frocks.
Talking of whom… down the side of the building, very many of the most prominent movie figures have left their hand-prints in coloured bricks set in the pavement. Frankly, this Allée des Stars is looking a bit neglected now – it’s a collecting area for cigarette butts – but gradually they are replacing the brick hand-prints with stainless steel. This is another good move.
The grand palace hotels
More glorious, to my mind, are the Palais’s immediate environs. Amble along the seafront and revel in a prospect which has been enchanting elites for generations.
The palace hotels line up like grandees on the other side of the road: the Majestic Hotel, and beyond it La Malmaison, a private 19th-century mansion open to the public; the belle époque Carlton Hotel; the more modern Palais Stéphanie (now known as the JW Marriott), incorporating the façade of the former Palais des Festivals, pulled down in1988 after serving as the venue for the Cannes Film Festival for 40 years; and the art deco Hotel Martinez.
More glorious, to my mind, are the Palais’s immediate environs. Amble along the seafront and revel in a prospect which has been enchanting elites for generations
In between are gardens, the odd playground and stretches of water where you may loose a child (or a husband) on the remote-controlled boats.
Hotel Majestic Barrière Cannes
Pointe de la Croisette
By the time you arrive opposite the Hotel Martinez, you’ve done the essentials of the stroll. But I’d continue, round the coast past the (newish) Port-Canto to the Pointe de la Croisette headland. There used to be a little cross (“une croisette”) here, protecting sailors setting out to sea. Hence the name of the headland and of the promenade. The cross is no longer. There’s a casino in its place. That’s Cannes in a nutshell.
Before the great, good and filthy rich discovered the place, Cannes was a small fishing village concentrated on Suquet hill. This rises quite sharply back from the port. Fishermen and associated folk lived doubtless tough lives in the wriggling labyrinth of sinuous streetlets and steep stairways. The labyrinth survives, of course – these days colonised by bars, restaurants and shops selling mainly inessentials.
Don’t complain. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t say “touristy”. For a start, we’re all tourists. Secondly, if you had told the fishermen that they could make a far better living flogging postcards and decorative earthenware, they’d have dropped their nets in a flash. Anyway, Le Suquet retains a certain atmosphere.
Go in the morning or very late at night and you might still get a sense of the place and of the close-knittedness of lives lived there. Head in on Rue St Antoine and then wander the warren as you will.
Musée de la Castre
At the top of Suquet Hill, this fine 11th-century pile was once the land-based HQ of the monks of Lérins (see below). Now it’s a diverting museum of eclectic collections – from archaeo-material to musical instruments… and a first-class assembly of ethnic art and artefacts from the five continents. It’s well worth a look, especially on the first Sunday of the month from November to March, when it’s free. And the views from the top of the tower are outstanding, if you can manage the 109 steps.
Address: Place de la Castre
Contact: 00 33 493 38 55 26; cannes.com
Opening times: October-March Tues-Sun, 10am-1pm; 2pm-5pm (6pm April-June, and September). July-August all week, 10am-7pm
Admission: €6 (£5). €3 for under-25s. Free for under-18s and students under 26.
Some 10 to 15 minutes offshore from Cannes lie the Iles de Lérins, two lovely islands, free from bling, where you can breathe free and easy – Ile Ste-Marguérite, and Ile St-Honorat. Ferries to the islands are based on Quai Laubeuf, on the western side of the old port in Cannes. For annoying reasons too complex to go into, you cannot take a round trip to both islands. If you want to go from St Honorat to Ste Marguérite, or vice versa, you must return to Cannes and start again.
Ile Ste-Marguérite, whose pine and eucalyptus aromas hit you the moment you step off the ferry, is the larger of the two islands. First port of call should be the island’s Fort Royal (see below). Less fascinating, to my mind, is the adjacent Musée de la Mer – though, if you’re passionate about marine archaeology, you may disagree.
I’d prefer to wander the forest and rocky edges of the island. It’s easy to do – Ste-Marguérite is but two miles long by half a mile across and the trails are well marked. So it’s more of a park stroll than a country hike. Inebriating, though, with nice mini-coves where you might settle with a picnic – by far the best bet. There’s a handful of eateries on the island, but I find them pricey.
Riviera Lines (riviera-lines.com) and Trans Côte d’Azur (trans-cote-azur.com) run regular trips from Cannes to Ile Ste-Marguérite. Return fares: €13.50 adults, €9 children aged 5-10, €12.50 children aged 11-14, over-65s and students. Prices are a touch cheaper if booked ahead on-line.
Like so many French coastal forts, this one on the Ile Ste-Marguérite wasn’t much use for defence but proved an admirable prison – notably for the Man In The Iron Mask. He was banged up there for 10 years from 1687. Nobody yet is sure who he was. The adulterous brother of Louis XIV? A noble debtor? The child of an affair between a black manservant and Louis XIV’s wife? The guesses go on…
Whatever the truth, the Mask’s cell has been preserved, as have those of Protestant pastors imprisoned for their faith during France’s Religious wars. They are fascinating.
Contact: Fort Royal (00 33 493 38 55 26; cannes.com ), Ile-Ste-Marguérite.
Opening times: October-May 10.30am-1.15pm; 2.15pm-4.45pm (until 5.45pm April and May); June-September 10am-5.45pm every day. Closed Mondays all year.
Admission: €6. €3 for under-25s. Free for under-18s and students under 26.
Ile St. Honorat
You must go to the second island, the Ile St-Honorat, with modesty in mind; it still belongs to Cistercian monks. There are some 25 of them in the island monastery (see below). They allow us on if we dress decently, don’t make too much noise and, if possible, buy something very expensive from the monastery shop.
In the Middle Ages, the original monastery – founded in the fourth century by (of course) St Honorat – was among the most important in Christendom. Popes visited, pilgrims rolled in, and the monks effectively ran Cannes from what is now the Musée de la Castre (see above).
They also had a dickens of a job keeping pirates and Saracens at bay. The woodland and coastal wandering on Ile St-Honorat is quite as enjoyable as on Ste-Marguérite. Look out for the many chapels which dot the landscape.
Ferries for St Honorat depart from the Planaria berth (cannes-ilesdelerins.com) in Cannes. Return fares: €16.50 adults, €7.50 children aged 5-10; under-5s free. Fares are slightly cheaper if pre-booked through the website.
St. Honorat monastery
The old monastery, heavily fortified, is the key visit on St-Honorat island. It is on the southern point, with its feet in the water. Though pretty dilapidated, it retains a powerful presence – and admission is free. In the centre of the island, the more modern monastery is off-limits.
You may, though, bob into the church, and then the shop. Like monks everywhere, the St Honorat Cistercians have holed up in a beauty spot to do God’s work of distilling spirits. Also, more recently, of making some rather good, though very expensive, wines from the island’s vineyards. The price tags in the shop are not suitable for those who have taken vows of poverty.