A moveable seaside feast along the French Riviera

A salad from Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
A salad from Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Photo: Supplied

With some of Europe's oldest settlements, suave seaside towns and pine-scented coastlines draped in bougainvillea and pastel-painted houses, the French Riviera has long seduced writers, movie stars and billionaires alike. Its landscapes and chic resorts are legendary, but coast along the Riviera and you're in for another treat.

It claims one of the world's greatest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants, yet also features no-nonsense, Italian-influenced southern French dining, with an emphasis on fish, tomatoes, vegetables and fragrant herbs.

Salad at Vistamar Restaurant at the Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo.
Salad at Vistamar Restaurant at the Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo. Photo: Supplied

Make a start in Marseille, southern France's largest and oldest city, which has a worn Mediterranean beauty embraced by sandy beaches and limestone rock formations. Tall houses and Byzantine-style churches rise around Marseille's rejuvenated 2600-year-old harbour, lively with morning fish vendors whose produce might end up on the plate at La Table du Mole, run by three-Michelin-star chef Gerard Passedat. As a bonus, the restaurant is lodged inside the impressive Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, which gives a good overview of the many cultures that have influenced this dazzling stretch of coveted coastline.

The famous bouillabaisse fish stew originated here, and you can tuck into Marseille's best at L'Epiusette, where you get a fabulous view of romantic island-bound Chateau d'If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. Another great bouillabaisse is served at La Poissonnerie in Cassis. You can't beat the freshness of the seafood at this half-fishmonger half-restaurant, where the menu changes with the catch but highlights grilled fish, octopus and glorious fresh sardines.

Cassis, just south-east of Marseilles, might be the coast's prettiest town. Jaunty yellow and orange houses overlook a blue harbour dotted with painted boats, and coastal paths meander towards Calanques National Park, whose white cliffs plunge into a sapphire sea. Next is Sanary-sur-Mer, a quintessential fishing village punctuated by a church spire and Romanesque tower. Sniff your way around market cheeses, watch fishermen unload their catch, and snorkel in gin-clear waters.

Washing flaps overhead, cats slink among cafe tables and shops supply a tasty picnic of cheese, pate, roast chickens and crusty baguettes.

Saint-Tropez steals the limelight, however. It shot to fame in the 1950s thanks to Brigitte Bardot, and movie stars, artists and musicians still encourage its hedonistic lifestyle. Saint-Tropez offers good but very pricey dining in shady old-town streets. Still, don't pass up a coffee on Place des Lices, where you can watch boules players and try the local sponge cake slathered in orange-blossom custard.

Brand-name shopping, waterfront cocktails and sashays along chic Croisette promenade are the indulgences of next stop Cannes, where the bronzed and beautiful flop on the beach. A teetering old town slides downhill to a harbour afloat in luxury yachts. Interestingly for the gourmet wanderer, several upmarket restaurants have abandoned classic French cuisine for more inventive, lighter fare. A fine example is Le Park 45, which ventures into the likes of beetroot with smoked-herring ice-cream, and seafood with Asian flavours such as jasmine or lemongrass.

Antibes is another ancient Riviera seaport, though its stroll-worthy sea fortifications are medieval and its best sight is the Picasso Museum. Of all the Riviera towns, Antibes is perhaps the truest to its roots. Billionaires' yachts may float in the harbour, but locals play boules in its squares and fishermen sell their catch at Cours Massena covered market each morning. Restaurant de Bacon is similarly unpretentious. It got its start in 1948 on two trestle tables and is now lauded for its bouillabaisse, crayfish salad and simply prepared fish.

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You'll also find an everyday city despite the glamour in neighbouring Nice, with its sweeping beach, Victorian-era hotels and ruined castle hunkered on a crag above kingfisher-blue seas. Nice was founded by the Greeks in the fourth century BC and has always been a significant port whose trading ties give it both French and Italian heritage. Stroll the Promenade des Anglais before plunging into alleys in the laidback and still residential old town, seemingly far from Riviera glitter. Washing flaps overhead, cats slink among cafe tables and shops supply a tasty picnic of cheese, pate, roast chickens and crusty baguettes.

Place Massena is surrounded by pretty pink buildings and flanked by pleasant gardens. More down-to-earth Cours Saleya features open-air stalls selling everything from bric-a-brac to fresh seafood and cut flowers. When the market packs up, cheerful bars and cafes unfold tables, beckoning you to a lazy hour of people-watching. Simple bistro La Merenda proves that not all tasty Riviera food has to be fancy: it features southern French onion tarts, stuffed vegetables and sardines, and zucchini-flower fritters.

Stop for another waterfront walk on the promenades of underrated but lovely Villefranche-sur-Mer on a gorgeous bay overlooking ultra-chic Cap Ferrat peninsula. Then drive the hairpin bends to medieval hilltop Eze, where the two-star Michelin restaurant at Chateau de la Chevre d'Or matches great food with sublime outlooks. The hotel is a founding member of the gourmet-focused Relais & Chateaux brand, so no surprise that its gastronomic restaurant is a Riviera institution and showcase of French haute cuisine technique and taste. If the atmosphere weren't so reverent, you'd lick you fingers after the foie gras with peach cream and the choices from the spectacular cheese trolley.

View from Monaco-Ville across Port Hercules towards Monte Carlo.
View from Monaco-Ville across Port Hercules towards Monte Carlo.  Photo: Brian Johnston

The Riviera and its food scene reach a sumptuous conclusion in Monaco, ultimate playground for the rich, royal and exceedingly well fed. Most restaurants are high-end and bag views over the cliff-clinging, sun-drenched principality and glittering Mediterranean beyond. The ultimate extravagance is dinner at Restaurant Joel Robuchon, where a multicourse meal from France's most famous living chef will run to hundreds of euros. What you get, though, are the world's prettiest salads, lobster ravioli, lavish use of imperial caviar and foie gras and astounding cheese and dessert trolleys. Sit at the chef's table and you also get a rare glimpse into a Michelin-star kitchen in full pot-clanging, steaming action.

Other fabulously posh nosh can be enjoyed inside Monte Carlo's legendary casino, where even the relaxed Rose Salon dishes up burgers topped with foie gras and red-onion confit. At the Cafe de Paris just across the manicured square outside, you can nibble caviar and sip champagne as you ogle sports stars arriving in their Lamborghinis.

However, you can dine for surprisingly reasonable prices at high-end, harbour-view Le Vistamar, where a two-course Michelin-star business lunch with wine costs no more than an ordinary Sydney or Melbourne meal. Le Vistamar's seemingly simple seafood dishes are among the best you'll taste along the entire coastline.

The dessert trolley at Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Monte Carlo, Monaco.
The dessert trolley at Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Photo: Supplied

Equally, you could just fold yourself into a corner of the square opposite the princely palace at unpretentious Castelroc, which serves Monaco cuisine such as rich cod stew, barbagiuan (ricotta- and spinach-stuffed pasta) or pissaladiere, the Riviera's answer to pizza, topped with sardines and caramelised onion. Delicious.

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FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai (14.5hr) with onward connections to Nice (6.5hr). See emirates.com/au

A cafe on the Cours Saleya in Nice.
A cafe on the Cours Saleya in Nice.  Photo: Brian Johnston

STAY

Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo is one of Europe's great heritage hotels, with Belle Epoque luxury, magnificent harbour views and several excellent restaurants. See hotelhermitagemontecarlo.com

Chateau de la Chevre d'Or has 37 rooms and suites scattered through medieval, hilltop Eze, most with glorious Riviera views, and has four top-notch restaurants. See relaischateaux.com/chevredor

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Visit Monaco, Silversea Cruises, Relais & Chateaux and DriveAway Holidays.