“I remember when I was driving with my parents down this road as a teenager,” Gilles Bertolino tells me from a powder blue sofa in the marble lobby. “And we turned the corner and stopped outside the gates. I knew that I was at the Hotel du Cap then,” he says. “And I knew that I was in love.”
He’s been here for 32 seasons (ever since he was four, presumably, looking at his agelessly tanned skin) and I have just asked him if he can ever imagine working anywhere else. “I couldn’t do it. My grandfather worked here,” he says. “Hotel du Cap is in my blood.”
Once it’s in, it’s hard to get it out. In three days at the Hotel du Cap, the world’s most famous hotel, I asked almost 30 members of staff what the place meant to them. Every one of them, whether returning for their second season or their 42nd, spoke of the institution with the same misty-eyed gaze, as if describing an old friend or a teenage love.
Guests, meanwhile, describe the retreat as they might their childhood: a place where it is always summer, where the mornings smell of freshly-cut grass and sea breeze, where every whim is taken care of before it’s been given voice, and where the onslaughts of the modern day are trifles for someone else — adults, presumably — to deal with.
“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel" — F.Scott Fitzgerald
If that all sounds a bit too literary for you, then good. The Hotel du Cap originally sprung up in 1870 as a retreat for writers and artists, after all. Marc Chagall sketched at the poolside; Picasso drew the restaurant’s menu in 1955; Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound were regulars in the hotel’s sun-drenched bars.
In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald based the establishment in Tender is the Night (no, I never got round to reading that one either) on the wistful pastel villa at Hotel du Cap. “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel.” Fitzgerald writes, ever handy with the geography. “Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people.”
Well, some things never change. Hotel du Cap is perhaps the most celebrity-friendly of celebrity-friendly hotels, and yet at the same time the least, if you see what I mean. “I think these famous people like the hotel because it’s the only place where people act normally towards them.” Gilles tells me. “They are treated like human customers, not like the way they’re treated in Hollywood or elsewhere.”
Oh, if these rocks could talk! The romance between Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan is said to have blossomed in the corridors of the hotel, while actress Monica Bellucci is reported to have spent the night in a seaside cabana — usually reserved strictly for daytime use.
Marlene Dietrich began her affair with Joseph P Kennedy during a sultry summer in ‘38, at the precise moment that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor kicked off their post-abdication jaunt around the world with a stay in the master suite.
There is an unofficial slogan among the guests at the Hotel du Cap, whether they are returning for their second summer or their 52nd — ”please, never change.” And though that petition applies to the grounds, the rock-clinging cabanas, the ancient winding gardens, the pungent wisteria, the luminescent pool and the dove grey house itself, it’s really a plea to the staff. Somerset Maugham described the French Riviera as “A sunny place for shady people”.
But in this 52-acre stretch of coastline draped partway between Nice and Cannes, there is a sunny place filled, invariably, with the sunniest people imaginable.
The charm of Hotel du Cap may well be that it is both glamorous and yet drastically down to earth — that it is of the modern age and yet of a simpler era entirely. “They asked us to never change” says Gilles. “But the trick is that we did change, we just did it so carefully that they didn’t even realise.”
The decor in the rooms, meanwhile, runs a line straight from the Fitzgeralds to the modern era — French chintz, high ceilings, original oil paintings, delicate mahogany desks, books on the shelves you’d actually like to read. And yet the place operates with the modern slickness of a Monaco pit crew. The keys remain solid, heavy, ornate things (no cards — sacre bleu!), but the amenities behind closed doors have been updated to include well-appointed minibars and modern marble bathrooms. There is even wifi, should you want to be reminded of the outside world.
But plus ca change, etc etc. When a small garden needed to be shifted 30 feet recently to extend a deck down by the pool, every single rock was numbered on a scale diagram and put back in precisely the same place. You still wake in the morning to the gentle pock of tennis balls on the clay courts down to the sea, a sound that Greek shipping heir and high life columnist Taki Theodoracopulos tells me he recalls from his childhood in the 1950s.
Fitzgerald’s “deferential palms” still undulate against the floating lights of the Riviera at night. And the staff still greet and treat you like a family member returning happily to the fold: “Welcome home.”
The service at Hotel du Cap is never fawning nor hovering as it is at some retreats, but at once attentive, casual, telepathic and intimate. The staff all seem to be genuine friends, and exude a warmth and humour towards the place and to each other that is infectious. The experience is that of visiting your most entertaining, well-mannered and generous friends for a country weekend.
But even your grandest and dearest friends don’t have cooks or sommeliers or pastry chefs like these. Arnaud Poette, the Executive Chef at the hotel, has been here for 36 years. On the odd day when he allows himself time off to dine on the gleaming, Mediterranean-flecked terrace at the Eden Roc grill, he opts for the sea bass, caught that day and simply grilled.
There is something utterly lovely about clambering from the turquoise water up a little white rock face, strolling to a lounger swaddled in Eden Roc’s pastel towels, and then trotting up to the dining room (one should always trot, I find, near dining rooms) for a club sandwich and, yes, why not, a little more Chablis (and I’m sure I heard someone say something about some sorbet).
The appeal is not lost on the staff, either. “We have the greatest office in the world” Christopher and Stephane, two of the younger crop of pool boys, tell me, as they reel in the rope step ladder that drapes over the ocean.
There are other charms, of course: The old world grandeur of the wood and glass lift at the centre of the spiral staircase; the way that the postprandial walk from the Eden Roc grill to the back steps of the hotel is the perfect length in which to finish a Gauloises; the infectious laughter of head doorman Michel as he golf-buggies guests around the twists and turns of the ancient gardens.
“I have been here for forty two years, but forty two years in paradise is not a long time!”
But you ought really to discover these charms yourself. There’s no particular hurry — one suspects the hotel will be operating on its own happy schedule for many years to come. Certainly, no-one here is in much of a rush to alter this idiosyncratic way of life, or to usher in the winds of changes. Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc — a sunny place for sunny people.
“I have been here for forty two years” Head Doorman Michel tells me with a pat on the back one cool evening. “But forty two years in paradise is not a long time!”
This article first appeared in our May/June 2018 issue. Subscribe here…