Insider's Guide to Spas

The South of France

A superb collection of favorite spas in the South of France.

Becca Hensley

Grand-Hotel du Cap Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel

Don’t be ashamed. The moment you catch your first glimpse of Grand-Hotel Du Cap-Ferrat, you won’t be able to control yourself. You’ll moan; you’ll sigh—you might even cry—as I do—just from the sheer beauty of it. A turn-of-the-century vision of white that crowns a hill, the hotel has that effect on people. Immersed in gardens, overlooking the cobalt Mediterranean, it stands like a mysterious portal, calling you to repose. Through its front door, an Art Nouveau rotunda by Gustave Eiffel only adds to the allure.You’ll feel like an enhanced version of yourself when you visit. You might be entering the set of a film—or might be an artist setting up your easel to paint the view. You might be a matador or a refugee queen in disguise.

Blame part of that otherworldliness on the light. It flows from the heavens muted, and gossamer—as fleeting and all-encompassing as apple blossoms carried by the wind. People have long visited the Cote D’ Azure for such celestial illumination. This part of the French Riviera, just thirty minutes from Nice was once rugged, unloved terrain, but Victorian-era English and the last Czars of Russia arrived first to sun themselves, followed eventually, between the wars, by a coterie of both established and rising artists from every discipline. Feeding off one another’s creativity they settled in—Picasso, Cocteau, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Jules Verne—and scores more, from actors to musicians, from poets to painters.

Their vestiges remain at Grand-Hotel Du Cap-Ferrat, where luminaries aplenty have dallied. Re-done by star designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, the glamorous hotel reopened last year under the management of the Four Seasons. Part of the stunning re-configuration, Le Spa, lies amid the garden, its 8,000-square-feet holding five treatment rooms and an indoor pool. Already utilizing the opulent Parisian cosmetic brand Biologique Recherche for treatments, Le Spa, just this summer, becomes the first spa in the world to collaborate with Dr. Burgener, a Swiss brand from Geneva, touted for its technological ingenuity. Highlights will be luxury green caviar products eased into the epidermis with Vitaskin Ultrasound. Also, novel, a mini-triathlon series just for men, under the tutelage of famed swim instructor Pierre Grueneberg (he taught Picasso and Paul McCartney, too, how to swim), will keep fellows fit, and their bodies will be smoothed to perfection with a sea scrub that uses black sands from Tahitian volcanoes, enriched with extracts from pearls and red algae. Not to be left out, children can partake of a pint-sized spa menu that includes chocolate facials and pedicures around the seaside, Olympic-sized, saltwater pool.  Here’s more info.

Grand Hyatt Cannes, Hotel Martinez

At Palme D’Or, Grand Hyatt Hotel Martinez’s two-Michelin star restaurant, Chef Christian Sinicropi starts each meal with some whimsy—a child’s colorful merry-go- round bedecked with foil wrapped foie gras or a striped, ceramic circus tent, offering treats—such as gastronomically prepared smoked fish or herbed goat cheese attached as part of the culinary oeuvre. “Life should be fun,” says Chef Sinicropi, who is also an artist, potter, and sculptor. He makes his ceramics in a studio in nearby Vallauris— as Picasso did before him, Many of his creations are used as plates to serve the miraculous meals he concocts.

But it’s on the seventh floor, where the stressed replenish their energy and the beautiful maintain their glimmer—in the Hotel Martinez way. L.Raphael Beauty Spa, an outpost of the revered Geneva-based brand, spreads across 3,000 fashionable square feet of spa space.

In a restaurant often thronged by jet-setters, Sinicropi has a mission. “I am searching for the sheep with the fifth leg,” he says, meaning that he always focuses on taking things up a notch. He wants to provide the unexpected, to conjure magic and provide the stuff of dreams to crowds who have seen it all. As Sinicropi does in his award-winning restaurant, so too, does Hotel Martinez manage to dazzle with excellence and abundance. Overlooking the Bay of Cannes, on the famed beachfront boulevard Le Croisette, the 409-room hotel has one of the largest Penthouse Suites in Europe. Built in 1927, to be the most astounding Art Deco palace in the world, the extravagant structure towers over its own pier and beach, and cossets with marble laden interiors and huge, classic guest rooms.

But it’s on the seventh floor, where the stressed replenish their energy and the beautiful maintain their glimmer—in the Hotel Martinez way. L. Raphael Beauty Spa, an outpost of the revered Geneva-based brand, spreads across 3,000 fashionable square feet of spa space. When I visit the week before the Cannes Film Festival, I’m lucky to capture an appointment, as the spa has been booked for weeks. During the festival and other citywide attractions, L. Raphael might be the most well-attended gig in town. Even when busy, it exudes a peaceful air, and reminds me of walking through an 18th-century orangery (I can almost smell the blossoms) with its key colors of cream and bright orange. Espousing a holistic approach to beauty and wellness, the spa purposes a “cruise” experience, borrowing from its windswept location on the sea.

A five-day series of integrated treatments, the “cruise” is customized for each guest, and includes appropriate treatments (depending on need, from detox to anti-aging), salutary meals by Chef Sinocropi, and plenty of free time to inhale the sea air along the Croisette. With just one day for renewal, I partake of the Oxy-Power Lift Caviar Facial, a truly result-savvy signature experience, popular with movie stars, which combines the dermatological benefits of oxygen with the nourishing elements of caviar. With a stunning outcome that lingers for days, I prance about the French Riviera, my newly ageless visage proudly presented at a number of fetes. I’ll be back this year to sample the spa’s newest innovation, the Diamond Oxy-Lift, a facial which utilizes diamond dust to deliver luminosity, markedly metamorphosing the look and feel of the skin. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Terre Blanche, Provence

In Provence there is no such thing as a cheese cart. That’s because the French have a grander name for it: the cheese chariot. And why not? Like the purveyor of heroes to to an epic battle scene, the cheese chariot delivers a panoply of cheeses to diners mid-meal, a nutritive blitz to buttress that gastronomic space between the savory courses and the gut-busting grand finale of dessert. It’s a fixture in restaurants across France, a highly curated box that pays homage to local cheese—from mushy and smelly types to aged, chunks studded with caramel-like crystals. Point to as many as you like when it’s “cheese chariot” time, and your waiter will organize small bites on a plate with the concentration of an assemblage artist. He’ll even dollop house-made marmalade on the side, and present a basket of bread and crackers—all that before dessert. And know this: there will be chocolates, lollipops or lavender marshmallows later, too, passed cavalierly with end-of-meal coffee and tea, as if to belie the multiple courses you’ve consumed already.

All that gluttony ensures that at some point during your visit, you’ll need a spa. An all-villa resort which spans a cypress, lavender, and rosemary studded landscape larger that the municipality of Monaco, Terre Blanche Hotel Spa Gold Resort, A Leading Hotel of the World, has one of the best spas in France. Providing that rural Provencal experience, the village-like hotel complex, just an hour from the coast, lies inland near olive groves, vineyards, and characteristic medieval hamlets. Its spa, a centerpiece of the resort, occupies 35,000 square feet that invoke a Greek Revival motif. Here, I burn off my cheese sins submerged in the indoor pool on a bike, pedaling through the water to instructions issued by a slave-driving Aqua Bike teacher.

Afterwards, I join a friend in one of the spa’s two couple suites (each named for Mediterranean herbs). Within, we rest on the private terrace and partake of our personal jacuzzi and hamman, then enjoy a couple’s massage—enhanced by the spa’s use of Carita, one of France’s most revered brands. I end the indulgence with a renewing facial by Ivo Pitanguy, not wanting to miss the opportunity to test out this Brazilian dynamo’s not oft available (in a spa) skincare line. When evening comes, the cheese chariot bears down on us again at dinner, and greedily, we sup. After, we stumble to our terrace to sit down beneath a velvety night sky, where the lights of nearby hilltop villages glitter like shooting stars and the perfume of wild-grown herbs fill the air. More info here.

Hotel du Palais, Biarritz

Maybe it’s an echo. But, inside the cranberry and white walls of this seaside palace, somewhere amongst the shimmering chandeliers, priceless art, old world fabrics and Second Empire embellished rooms, I hear a rustle. It sounds a lot like hoop skirts. And if I believed in ghosts (full disclosure: I do), I’d be sure it was the spirit of Empress Eugenie whisking by to lead me through this chateaux, which her husband, Napoleon III, built for her in the mid-19th century. Now a Leading Hotel of the World, still a playground for Belle Monde travelers—as it has been since Victorian times—Hotel du Palais retains a kind of house-party status, where storied visitors return year after year, where significant business transactions get made, and day-to day langor becomes the stuff of novels.

Poised over the Bay of Biscay, Hotel du Palais entreats guests to congregate at the pool or beach—or to nibble at its gastronomic, Michelin-star restaurant, La Villa Eugenie, (where men must still don jackets in reverence for the past). Along the nearby beachy streets of Biarritz, casual bars, cafes, and shops galore offer much to do. Legions of sandy crescents await, too; and vineyards, as well as the epicurean capital of Spain’s San Sebastian, lie just a car ride away. But, despite the distractions, I spend most of my time at Palais in the Imperial Spa—as I am sure Empress Eugenie sans hoop skirts—would have done herself.

What entices me most is the longstanding relationship between the hotel and the skincare (and perfume) house Guerlain, which the spa uses for its treatments today. Back in Eugenie’s time, Guerlain held the title of “court perfumer,” for these royals after he created a special blend “Eau de Cologne Imperial” for the Bonapartes. A spa so heavenly one expects to see cherubim afloat along the ceiling, the cloud-evoking space faces the sea, incorporating panoramas of rolling waves into its ambiance. Unique, treatments can be booked in very large time slots—three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, even eighteen hours. This allows staff to create customized, result-driven rituals that complement one another. Conversely, spa goers can sign up for smaller appointments. I savor a classic Guerlain treatment called Orchidee Imperiale Prestige Treatment, inspired by the longevity of the orchid, brimming with fragrance, marked by contour defining facial massage and resulting in ravish-worthy skin. Find out more here.



Becca Hensley

Becca Hensley

Based in Austin, Contributing Editor Becca Hensley writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.