Pour Les Familles: Top Five Family Days Out
1) Seek Inspiration at the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul de Vence
My perfect Sunday starts with a trip to the Fondation Maeght (tel: +33 4-93-32-81-63, www.fondationmaeght). The brainchild of art dealers Aimé and Marguerite Maeght, this private art foundation has a jaw-dropping collection of 20th-century artworks by Chagall, Matisse, Bonnard and other artists that lived and worked in the sun-drenched French Riviera. It’s best to visit on a sunny day as the gardens are filled with sculptures and pools. Kids will love exploring the numerous garden rooms from Miró’s labyrinth to Giacometti’s courtyard of bronze figures and Georges Braque’s mosaic pool. There are several staircases inside and no lift, so it’s worth bringing a baby harness rather than a pram.
After you’ve had your fill of Chagall, head to the dandelion-strewn hills behind Vence for Sunday brunch at Graine & Ficelle (tel: + 33 6-85-08-15-64) in St Jeannet. This diminutive farm is a bucolic paradise for young kids. While Parisian exile Isabella Sallusti busies herself in the kitchen, you can admire the organic vegetable patch, feed the donkeys and coo over the baby rabbits and hens in the chicken run. Afterwards, everyone sits down for a splendid vegetarian brunch that even non-vegetarians wolf down. The atmosphere is informal with baby lambs running about between the tables as you dine. There are special low tables and chairs for kids, as well as drawing materials to keep little ones amused.
2) Take a different perspective of the French Riviera on a trip to Monaco
An unusual way to celebrate a family birthday is to treat your kids to their first helicopter flight. Héli Air Monaco (tel: +377 92-05-00-50) organizes baptème (baptism) flights for families and they’ll even organize a birthday cake if you ask. The 10-minute bird’s-eye tour covers Mer et Terre (Sea and Land) over the bright-blue Mediterranean Sea to the Italian border and back via the mountainous backcountry. Babies under two are provided with a special harness.
After your helicopter trip, head to the Oceanographic Museum (tel: +377 93-15-36-00) in Monaco Old Town. Extra-keen visitors may want to explore all floors, but otherwise go straight to the aquarium in the basement. Here, you’ll enter the darkened sub-aqua world of diaphanous Moon Jelly, Knobbly Seahorses and circling Seabass (the latter keep my daughter entertained for hours). When you’re feeling peckish, try the top-floor museum restaurant with its sweeping views and kids’ menus or take your pick from the numerous Italian restaurants in the backstreets of the old town. Before you go home, stop off at Toys Mania (tel: +377 93-25-31-51) in Place de la Mairie where you’ll find a treasure trove of wooden mobiles and musical boxes.
3) Learn about Greek mythology and pottery at Villa Kérylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer
Born out of the imaginative collaboration of two 20th-century Hellenists, Villa Grecque Kérylos (tel: +33 4-93-01-01_44, www.villa-kerylos.com) is a modern interpretation of an ancient Greek villa complete with mosaic-tiled walls, marble columns and even an extravagant sunken bath. One of my favourite Riviera palaces, it’s also the perfect place to inspire young, creative talent. Expert potter Jean-Gabriel runs pottery workshops for kids aged three and upwards every afternoon during school holidays or every weekend during term-time. If you ask in advance, he’s happy to bring one of his English-speaking colleagues to translate.
The best place for lunch beforehand is the Royal Riviera hotel (tel: +33 4-93-76-31-00, www.royal-riviera.com) , at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, with family-friendly kids’ menus and highchairs. Once you’ve checked out the after-dinner kids’ cinema, private beach and interconnecting rooms, you may be tempted into an overnight stay.
4) Explore the Vallée des Merveilles by 4WD
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that within an hour’s drive of the buzzing French Riviera coastline, you can find yourself in the remote, alpine pastures of the Mercantour National Park. My favourite family day out in this Alpes-Maritimes hinterland is Franck Panza’s 4WD tour of the Vallée des Merveilles (tel: +33 4-93-04-73-21/6-07-58-37-19). It’s the ideal option for families that want to explore Europe’s largest collection of pre-historic rock engravings without hours of walking with young kids.
Franck wheels you through alpine pastures dotted with wild orchids and along bumpy, military routes (nicknamed ‘rock-and-roll’ routes by locals) towards a sparser, snowline landscape. From here, it’s only a short walk to the rock engravings. While toddlers coo over rabbit-like marmots, older kids can spot ancient pictograms scratched into reddish slate and listen to Franck’s stories about this fiercely-independent Vallée de la Roya people. The best month to go is June when the rhododendrons are out in force. If you don’t speak French, ask for one of Franck’s English-speaking colleagues who are all official Mercantour National Park guides.
5) Sail and swim around the Cap d’Antibes
Sailing has to be one of the most fun activities for kids on the Côte d’Azur. With its enviable location overlooking the 16th-century ramparts, Yacht Club d’Antibes (tel: +33 4-93-61-01-42, www.yc-antibes.net) organizes individual lessons and beginners’ sailing course for kids from the age of five (Optimist from five years and Catamaran from the age of 12) and wind-surfing courses from the age of eight. While your would-be yachties are learning how to sail, you can take the rest of the family to nearby Marineland (tel: +33 892-30-06-06, www.marineland.fr) – Europe’s largest marine park. As well as its whale, sea lion and dolphin shows, kids will love spotting clown fish and sharks in the aquarium.
After the morning’s activities, you can wind down with a late lunch at Les Pêcheurs (tel: +33 4-92-93-13-30, www.lespecheurs-juan.com). With views over the Cap d’Antibes towards the Lérins islands, this private beach resort offers a simple lunch of grilled meat, fish and salads beneath a canopy of pine trees. Despite the stylish surroundings, it’s very informal so you can swim in the sea with your kids as you wait for your food to arrive.