During the winter months The Grand Hotel Cap Ferrat used to host an excellent Sunday brunch. Last summer, the hotel brought in a new chef, probably with a view to obtaining a glittering Michelin star for its main restaurant, and it stopped providing Sunday brunches. But lo and behold they’ve re-introduced something similar. A three course luncheon on Saturday and Sunday which kicks off with a selection of five starters, a main course and concludes with five desserts. We were fortunate to try this out before you know what had us all in lockdown.
One of the joys of eating at the hotel is the possibility, either before or after our meal, to have a wander around its wonderful gardens and beyond. It’s an area where I frequently train on my bike during the winter months. The roads are quiet and on my bike I can look over the high walls at all the truly splendid, drool-inducing, property porn.
The peninsula of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat became a leading holiday resort around the end of 19th century. Its dry and rocky landscape was originally home to just a handful of fishermen’s and farmers’ cottages clustered around the church and harbour. This hamlet was known as Saint Jean and was part of the commune of Villefranche sur Mer.
In 1876, the Compagnie Générale des Eaux created a large artificial lake within leafy parkland. Fed by the river Vésubie, this lake also featured a small island and a waterfall. As a consequence, the peninsula became covered in denser and more diverse vegetation. From then on, Cap Ferrat became a firm favourite with families who would arrive from Nice by horse-drawn carriage to have picnics under the pine and olive trees, or have lunch in one of the many restaurants that sprang up near the harbour.
In 1904, Saint Jean separated from Villefrance sur Mer and became an independent commune. Originally named Saint Jean sur Mer, the commune took the name of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat in 1907.
In the early 1900s, winter tourism became popular on the French Riviera. Its very mild climate made it attractive to rich British and Russian families who soon made it a highly acclaimed destination. Saint Jean Cap Ferrat became very popular, and the first of many grand estates were built. In 1904, the Hôtel Bedford (now the Hôtel Royal-Riviera) was built at the base of the peninsula. Its geographical location made it popular with high society. Designed to accommodate a wealthy cosmopolitan clientele, 1908 saw the construction of the Grand Hôtel on the Cap-Ferrat headland surrounded by lush greenery.
In the Fifties, tourism started to become more summer-based and Cap Ferrat became a fashionable seaside resort popular with celebrities from all over the world. But it wasn’t just celebrities, the place was also popular with artists. Henri Matisse paid many visits to the Villa Natacha, owned by the art publisher Alec Tériade. The painter had already created a stained glass window and a ceramic mural for the villa’s dining room. The publisher invited many of the artists he worked with to his villa, most notably Chagall and Picasso.
But the artist who had the biggest impact on Saint Jean Cap Ferrat was Jean Cocteau. A regular guest at the Santo Sospir villa whose walls he decorated with splendid frescoes, he was also behind the fresco that graces the wedding hall in the Town Hall.
Before heading home, we enjoyed a ramble round the busy Harbour. Initially a life line for the village, fishing played a key role in Saint Jean’s birth and its development around the harbour. Now known as the Quay Lindbergh, the old harbour was built by inmates from Villefranche prison between 1840 and 1876 while the current marina was inaugurated in 1972. It can accommodate 580 boats, including 362 private moorings. There are a variety of restaurants, shops and galleries alongside the quay, as well as the municipal ‘Neptune’ hall that regularly hosts exhibitions, concerts and other events. On a sunny afternoon in early March, the grand summer residences may have been shuttered, but this place was buzzing.