In the summer, the coast road along the Cote d’Azur is one long cavalcade of Ray-Bans and Rolexes. It’s dog eat dog for the most recherché spot on the terrace, soft-tops circle like sharks, hunting non-existent parking spaces. But come out of season when the competitive crowds have gone and you’ll find a different landscape.
The coastal route from Nice to Menton, the Basse Corniche, is one of the world’s great drives, snaking through creamy Italianate towns – Villeneuve, Beaulieu and Eze-Bord-de-Mer. Or venture inland to the hills, where Picasso, Matisse and Chagall came to paint, drawn by the intense clarity of the light.
I remember childhood holidays here; day trips to Monaco and St Tropez, warm evenings spent eating ice cream in Juan les Pins. I came back as a student to spend a year in Nice, sharing a poky flat around the corner from The Negresco, the iconic belle-epoque hotel that dominates the main coastal drag, the Promenade des Anglais.
That was 15 years ago but I’m back, this time on a week-long road trip starting in Nice and taking in the courses at Royal Mougins and Terre Blanche, both set back from the coast in the undulating provencal hinterland. I’m staying at the Negresco, central to so many memories here that I feel like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The hotel is no less eccentric or magical than Roald Dahl’s creation. It is part hotel, part exhuberant monument to five centuries of French art and culture, from Louis XIII to Niki de Saint Phalle. If you want beige minimalism, this isn’t for you – this is an original in all its mad, technicolour glory.
Furniture and fittings are genuine antiques, colours and fabrics clash and collide and no two rooms are alike. The Brasserie La Rotonde is built around a fully functioning 18th century carousel. All set against the quintessential Riviera views of the palm-tree lined Baie des Anges and the twinkling Med.
Nice has changed over the years, a modern tram system installed and the central Place Massena pedestrianised to make an elegant focal point. The old town, Vieux Nice, still retains an identity all its own; tall, shuttered houses with washing lines slung between upper floors, narrow, winding streets that open suddenly onto church squares.
Wander aimlessly and you’ll soon emerge on the restaurant-lined Cours Saleya, the flower market where locals still gossip in Nicois. This is a working town and there is enough to see and do for a week, including more museums than any French city outside Paris, plus it makes the ideal starting point for exploring the wider region.
It’s a half-hour blast along the A8 toll road to get from Nice to Mougins, one of the prettiest hilltop villages in a landscape liberally sprinkled with them. Royal Mougins GC is better known as an exclusive private members’ club but is also home to a four-star, all-suite hotel and spa, so non-members are welcome to stay and play one of the loveliest courses in France.
Suites are more like mini-apartments with a separate lounge and kitchen, with vast balconies overlooking the course and forest-clad hills beyond.
Many members own properties here, dotted unobtrusively around the grounds, but hotel guests infiltrating their clubhouse are warmly welcomed. The Robert von Hagge course is where Ryder Cup star Victor Dubuisson cut his teeth. It is an undulating beauty, strewn with olive trees, cypresses and stone terracing.
Beware, however, the numerous pitfalls lying in wait including the stunning, perilous par- 3 2nd, Angels’ Dive; an elevated tee drops vertiginously down to the green over lake and waterfall, and there’s no room for error.
This is a testing course where your luck rides a roller-coaster; eight lakes are linked by streams and waterfalls so hazards abound and precision is key. That said, it is impossible not to be enchanted by the beauty of the landscape, even, in my case, after three lost balls. It is easy to see how Dubuisson honed such an electric short game.
Our final stop took us further west and higher into the wooded hills bordering Provence where the air is thick with lavender, jasmine and the crick-crick of cicadas. Terre Blanche is hidden away in a 750 acre estate overlooking the ancient hilltop villages of Fayence, Tourrettes and Callian.
Spacious suites in single-storey casitas dotted through the estate have far-reaching views over the Haut Var to the indigo foothills of the Alpes. The secret to Terre Blanche is the service and the seamless running of a show where guest experience is the priority. The resort is low-rise and spread out but the super-slick concierge team will chauffeur you between hotel, golf club and spa in a fleet of stretch golf buggies.
Four restaurants include relaxed al fresco dining at Caroubiers overlooking the course, poolside Tousco and haute cuisine at Faventia. The Spa is in a beautiful bastide with a seriously glamorous colonnaded pool. For he serious golfer, there is the on-site Golf Performance Centre where the famous biomechanics engineer Jean-Jacques Rivet developed his Biomechaswing method, which through a series of exercises identifies how to maximise muscle efficiency through the swing.
This, together with world-class practice and coaching facilities makes Terre Blanche an exceptional destination for anyone wanting to work on their game without sacrificing comfort. There are two outstanding courses. Le Chateau, venue for the French Riviera Masters is the more challenging of the two and a beautiful undulating course that blends seamlessly into the landscape and rewards length and precision.
Le Riou is reserved for members and hotel guests and is a hilly, technical course with fast, elaborate greens, tempered by spectacular views. Terre Blanche succeeds in being all things to all people – pristine golf and fitness resort, wellness retreat and luxury hideaway. It’s a delicate balance and is choreographed to perfection.
This part of France is still thought of as a playground for the rich and famous, but out of season it reveals more sedate, relaxed charms and the space to enjoy both golf and the good life.