There’s more to this French sea haven than a film fest, as gay travelers know

ALONG THE MEDITERRANEAN | A view from Fort Royal of Ile Sainte-Marguerite looks across the harbor to the hills of Cannes and the French Riviera. (Photo courtesy Andrew Collins)

Last week, we profiled the French Riviera gay hub of Nice, but smaller, neighboring Cannes may be even more famous. Renowned for its legendary film festival each spring, Cannes curves gently around a sheltered bay, its glamorous hotels and swanky beach bars strung like jewels along La Croisette promenade, it has an increasingly visible LGBT community (Cannes Rainbow promotes gay tourism to the area).

This city of about 80,000 is perfect for strolling and window shopping, rife as it is with antiques and food markets as well as luxury boutiques and department stores.

To get your blood flowing, climb the steep, narrow streets to Suquet hill for majestic views of the harbor, and then walk back down through Old Town, perhaps stopping at a sidewalk café for lunch.

Set aside a half-day for taking a passenger ferry across the harbor to the Lerins Islands, the most famous of which is Île Sainte-Marguerite, home to the famed 17th-century Fort Royal, the cliff-top fortress (now a museum) in which the legendary Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the 1600s. The island is also home to the excellent (seasonal) open-air restaurant, La Guerite, which serves superb seafood, including the addictively delicious tiny fried fishes, called blanchaille.

Wine is, of course, important to French culture, and rosé is the most commonly produced wine in Provence —  locals consume it happily at virtually every meal. If you’re looking to pick up a bottle or two, check out the outstanding La Cave Bianchi wine shop in Cannes. The town also has some favorite gay restaurants, including breezy Restaurant le Vegaluna along the beach; see-and-be-seen Le Sparkling et son Club, which is also fun for pre-clubbing cocktails; and Barbarella, a romantic spot with sidewalk seating in at Old Town.

For gay nightlife in Cannes, the intimate and rather ancient Zanzibar tavern makes a nice starting point, perhaps before heading to the city’s top gay venue, trendy Le Night Disco. Also, the nightclub and casino Palm Beach Cannes occasionally hosts gay parties and is always very LGBT-welcoming.

You’ll find a nice mix of swanky seaside hotels and affordable gay B&Bs throughout the region. Movie stars in Cannes regularly nest at the stunning Carlton Inter-Continental Hotel — many suites are named for luminaries from Sean Penn to Elton John. The gay-popular Hôtel 3.14 lies just around the corner and is notable for its over-the-top quirky rooms — floors have fun, if bizarre, themes like American pop art and Moroccan chic. The rooftop pool is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.

Picasso’s stomping grounds

OOH LA LA! | The swanky Hotel 3.14 is popular with gay travelers, in part because of its uniquely flamboyant rooms.

You don’t have to plant yourself in only the two biggest cities in the region to have a gay ol’ time. Between Cannes and Nice, you can visit a pair of lovely communities, Vallauris Golfe-Juan and Antibes, whose Roman fortifications overlook the largest pleasure-boat harbor in Europe. A walk through Old Town’s narrow lanes leads to the exceptional Picasso Museum, outside of which a small sculpture garden looks over the sea. Around the corner you’ll find the city’s famous city market, which hums with activity and sells everything from fresh peaches to stuffed rabbits.

Vallauris Golfe-Juan, where Picasso lived for many years, has boasted a reputation for pottery-making that dates back 2,000 years. It’s home to several art museums, including the amusingly offbeat Museum of Kitsch, a celebration of jade-hued ceramic poodles and tropical-fish ashtrays. More esteemed attractions include the Castle Museum complex, which comprises three distinct art museums, including the National Picasso Museum “War and Peace” (with massive murals by Picasso).

Finally, there’s Espace Jean Marais, a gallery celebrating the sculpture (and film career) of the celebrated gay actor Marais, once the lover and muse of Jean Cocteau.

In the leafy, inviting Juan les Pins section of Antibes, the gay-friendly Hôtel Juana and Hôtel Belles Rives — which have the same owners and are within walking distance of each other — make excellent bases for exploring the entire Riviera. Hotel Belles Rives, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald lived while writing Tender is the Night, is the more historic and atmospheric of the two, and it’s home to the exceptional restaurant, La Passagere. Up in the hilly Vence, the gay-owned La Maison du Frêne is an exquisitely decorated B&B whose stunning rooms are hung with bold, playful contemporary art — it’s a perfect hideaway for a romantic vacation.

Two nearby interior villages of note include the medieval town of Vence, whose delightful village center is home to Chapelle du Rosaire, which contains stained-glass by Henri Matisse, and nearby Saint-Paul de Vence, a walled, medieval hilltop town whose cobblestone alleys are lined with art galleries, open-air cafes, and fashionable boutiques. Be sure to walk through the cemetery in which artist Marc Chagall is buried — he lived here late in life, as did the gay American novelist James Baldwin. Down the hill, check out the Maeght Foundation museum, whose grounds and galleries are filled with dramatic, large-scale contemporary art installations and sculptures.

— Andrew Collins

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2011.