Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat Travel Guide
This peninsula on France’s Cote d’Azur is legendary for its wild beauty, stunning villas, and sleek yachts. From its glamorous heyday to today, Cap Ferrat has been a playground for Hollywood royalty to rub shoulders with bona-fide Royals – one can almost hear the champagne glasses clinking among well-heeled individuals as you admire its flora-filled courtyards and sweeping vistas.
Halfway between Villefranche and Beaulieu, it’s the most prestigious headland on the Riviera. From the Belle Epoque to the present day, it’s attracted people from all over the world who want to enjoy the good life. Its tranquility and warm climate make it a favorite holiday destination among both European aristocracy and international millionaires.
Locals—and they have included David Niven, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, the Rolling Stones, Paul Allen and Andrew Lloyd Webber to name just a few—call this one-time impoverished fishing village simply Cap Ferrat.
The peninsula is strewn with elegant houses, many of which have shocking scandals behind them, such as the delightful Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild , home to a remarkable collection of works of art. These luxurious villas are nestled among lush vegetation, discretely protected from prying eyes. They are some of the most expensive villas in the entire world, and are often include a private beach and locked gates. Otherwise masked by foliage, views of the shore can be admired from the coastal path, and from the path by St-Hospice Point .
St Jean Cap Ferrat’s History
The peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat became a leading holiday resort around the end of the 19th century. Its dry and rocky landscape was originally home to just a handful of fishermen’s and farmers’ cottages clustered around the church and harbor. This hamlet was known as Saint-Jean and was part of the commune of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Cap Ferrat has been a magnet for royals and high rollers since Leopold II of Belgium built Villa Les Cedres there in 1830; his palatial 14-bedroom home was linked by tunnel to the house of his mistress. He went on to develop most of the high-sided western part of the Cap, which remains the most exclusive stretch, with its sunsets and views towards Nice and pretty Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Balmy enough for banana trees and palm trees to flourish between maritime pines and cypresses, Cap Ferrat was the domain of pirates and fishermen. It was the convicts of Villefranche-sur-Mer prison that built the harbor, the hub of Cap Ferrat, between 1840 and 1876.
In 1876, the Compagnie Générale des Eaux created a 6800m³ artificial lake within leafy parkland. Fed by the river Vésubie, this lake also featured a small island and a waterfall. This water was the reason why the peninsula came to be covered in denser and more diverse vegetation. From then on, Cap Ferrat became a firm favorite with families who would arrive from Nice by horse-drawn carriage to have picnics under the pine and olive trees, or have lunch in one of the many restaurants that sprang up near the harbor.
As belle époque mansions burgeoned, so began a golden age that peaked during the Twenties when playwright Somerset Maugham bought a Moorish style house from Leopold’s chaplain. He hosted everyone who was anyone, from T S Eliot and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Winston Churchill.
At nearby Villa La Fiorentina – a vast property inspired by a Florentine palace with two swimming pools – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were photographed for the cover of Vogue, Frank Sinatra partied with Cary Grant, and there was an “escapade on a bicyclette” involving John F Kennedy and Grace Kelly.
A song composed in 1938 after a beach party by Noël Coward called I Went to a Marvellous Party sums up The Great Gatsby feel of this era: “Quite for no reason/ I’m here for the season/ And high as a kite/ Living in error/ With Maud at Cap Ferrat/ Which couldn’t be right… People’s behavior/ Away from Belgravia/ Would make you aghast.”
The County of Nice, which had belonged to the House of Savoy since 1388, was annexed to France in 1860. In 1904, Saint Jean separated from Villefrance-sur-Mer and became an independent commune. Originally named Saint-Jean-sur-Mer, the commune took the name of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1907.
In the early 1900s, winter tourism began to be popular on the French Riviera. Its very mild climate made it attractive to rich British or Russian families who soon made it a highly acclaimed destination. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat became very popular, and the first grand estates were built.
In 1904, the Hôtel Bedford (now the Hôtel Royal-Riviera) was built at the base of the peninsula. Its geographical location made it popular with high society. Designed to accommodate wealthy cosmopolitan clientele, 1908 saw the construction of the Grand Hôtel on the Cap-Ferrat headland surrounded by lush greenery.
Famous Visitors to Cap Ferrat
In the Fifties, tourism started to become more summer-based and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat became a fashionable seaside resort popular with celebrities from all over the world. Visitors included Edith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Jean Paul Belmondo, Roger Moore, Tony Curtis, David Niven and Romy Schneider, who got married there in 1966. It was also a haven for politicians such as Général de Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Raymond Barre, Winston Churchill, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Boris Eltsine.
Henri Matisse paid many visits to the Villa Natacha, owned by the art publisher Alec Tériade. The painter had already created a stained glass window and a ceramic mural for the villa’s dining room. The publisher invited many of the artists he worked with to his villa, notably Chagall and Picasso, and even his fellow countryman Odysséas Elýtis, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979.
Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish artist of German origins, stayed at the Hôtel Belle Aurore (now the Hôtel La Villa Cap Ferrat) for two years, where she painted her masterpiece “Life? or Theatre?”.
But the artist who had the biggest impact on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat was Jean Cocteau. A regular guest at the ‘Santo Sospir’ villa whose walls he decorated with splendid but controversial frescoes, he was also behind the fresco that graces the wedding hall in the Town Hall, which can be viewed on request at the Town Hall reception.
Ever since, royalty, artists, politicians and rich industrialists have continued to fall in love with the unique charm of this place where the expression “In order to live happily, live hidden” becomes even more meaningful.
What to see in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
It’s a small area, but one of the most beautiful on the French Riviera. Here are the can’t-miss things to see and do in Satin-Jean-Cap-Ferrat:
The beach resort town of Saint Jean sits on the eastern side of the majestic forested Cap Ferrat Peninsula, and is worth visiting. With a beach, marina, shops, and restaurants, it’s a great place to start discovering Cap Ferrat. It’s calmer and less touristy than other places along the Cote d’Azur, too. That makes it ideal if you like getting away from the souvenir shops.
St Jean Cap Ferrat became a holiday haven in the early 20th century, with the arrival of wealthy foreign families, who built vast estates, like Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Once a fishing village, St-Jean is now a smart seaside resort, greatly sought after for its peacefulness. A few old houses overlook the harbor, now largely devoted to yachts. The stepped street south of boulevard de la Libération in the village also offers some fine viewpoints.
The Cap Ferrat Walk
In order to better appreciate the beauty of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, you can visit on foot by taking the coastal path. It is signposted for 14 km and divided into 3 parts: the tour of Cap Ferrat, the pine-forest and the Maurice Rouvier walk which links Saint Jean Cap Ferrat to Beaulieu.
The Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat seaside walk is arguably the most beautiful seaside walk in the world. Cap Ferrat’s lush green, white rocks and Mediterranean blue sea makes this walk a very memorable one.
The coastal walk can be broken into two shorter sections, or you can do the whole walk at once, which takes you around the entire cap. Here is a complete guide to the walk.
If you love architecture, you’ll need to pay a visit to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The villa was built in 1905 to accommodate Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild’s ever-growing art collection. It became a hub for art of all kinds: literary parties, music, gatherings of art collectors, and riveting conversation. This was a space where culture-lovers could commune far from the hubbub of the French Riviera’s less modest areas.
This mansion is decorated with the treasures of the baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. More than 5000 works of art are displayed, together with an impressive collection of furniture, lamps and carpets.
The villa is most famous for its French, Japanese and tropical gardens, as well as the rose and plant festival that takes place each May. The Baronness was inspired by her travels to create seven gardens designed around several themes. Spanish, Florentine or Japanese… garden of the Muses, garden of the Lapidary, the rose garden… impeccable walk-ways, palm-trees and rare fragrances surround this paradise.