The next town around the bay from Cannes is this enticing seaside escape under San Peyre, an extinct volcano.
The coast is rocky in Mandelieu-la-Napoule, at the point where the Massif d’Esterel, a strange mountain range of red rock descends to the Mediterranean.
For the drive of a lifetime get on the Corniche d’Or, which snakes along the rugged coast south of the town in a rare savage corner of the Côte d’Azur completely free of resorts.
In late winter Mandelieu-la-Napoule’s mountainsides are ablaze with the mimosa flower, which is prized by the town and worshipped during a 10-day festival in February.
Lets explore the best things to do in Mandelieu-la-Napoule:
1. Château de la Napoule
In 1918 the American artist and heir Henry Clews Jr., bought what was then a dilapidated castle on a terrace by the sea.
The Château de la Napoule had a fascinating past, involving corsairs and several Kings of France, but had lain in ruins since the Revolution.
Clews restored the building and surrounding grounds, infusing plenty of his personality as he went.
There are quirky pieces of his sculpture at almost every turn, and the interior has galleries of his painting.
The garden, with its avenues, topiaries, cypress trees and haunting fragments of the old château is recognised as a French “jardin remarquable”.
2. San Peyre
A volcanic cone of red porphyry that rises abruptly next to the town, San Peyre is 131 metres high and was formed by an eruption 250 million years ago.
The Phoenicians and Ancient Ligures used the crest as an observation point, and later the Romans built a temple to Mercury up here.
Today, as it did thousands of years ago, San Peyre gives you a sensational view of the Riviera once you scale its worn stone path.
Oscar Wilde and Guy de Maupassant both raved about it, and there’s a lookout with a panel that labels the things you can see from up here and identifies the plants that you’ll spot in the forest and scrub on San Peyre’s slopes.
3. Corniche d’Or
The coastal road from Mandelieu-la-Napoule round to the town of Frejus has a strong claim to be the most beautiful in the South of France.
Here the Esterel Mountains meet the Mediterranean in spectacular fashion, and at sunset the red volcanic stone seems to radiate light.
The landscape is so fearsome and rocky that it wasn’t even possible to get directly from Frejus to Cannes by road until this route was built in 1904. As you meander beside the coast and beneath awesome cliffs you’ll have a few places where you can park up and take it all in.
At the Calanque Saint-Barthélémy halfway along, you can follow a stairway down to a secret beach.
4. Massif de l’Esterel
If you’re a sturdy walker it might not be enough for you to see the peculiar red rocks of the Esterel Massif from afar.
Fortunately there are two long-distance hiking trails crossing the range: The GR49 and the GR51. And while the landscapes are definitely rugged and challenging, the climbs are never too taxing and the highest peak in the whole range is Mont Vinaigre at just shy of 620 metres.
In between the exposed red porphyry are olive groves and forest with stone pines, cork oaks and eucalyptus trees, which like the mimosa was imported from Australia and has become semi-wild.
5. Mimosa Festival
Every February the slopes of the Massif du Tanneron beside the town are awash with the bright yellow blooms of the mimosa.
The plant was imported from Australia in the 19th century, and Mandelieu-la-Napoule soon had the largest mimosa forest in Europe.
Its flower is such a valued part of the local culture that in 1931 it got its own festival.
The party goes on for ten days, and on the weekends there are parades with floats adorned or made entirely from mimosa blossom and accompanied by marching bands.
The town even appoints a “Mimosa Queen” on the opening night to mark the start of the festival.
6. Route du Mimosa
Mandelieu-la-Napoule is just one town on a 130-kilometre itinerary extending from Bormes-les-Mimosas up to the perfume city of Grasse.
This of course is a route to take between January and March when the mimosa is in flower, and when you can pick from seven other towns and villages for sweet-scented excursions.
Tanneron is the nearest location on the route to Mandelieu-la-Napoule and is an agglomeration of 22 adorable mountain hamlets.
The mimosa occurs naturally on these sunny slopes and is harvested every February for the perfume industry, which leads us to our next destination.
7. Local Beaches
Mandelieu-la-Napoule has nine public beaches, which are all small, cosy affairs.
The beaches to the south, like Rague and Raguette are at the foot of a rocky spur and can be reached from the road by a zigzagging path through the rock.
The largest of them all is Plage de Robinson beside the mouth of the Siagne River.
This beach is an arc of golden sand bookended by breakwaters that keep the offshore currents out.
If you need to be pampered when you’re lazing by the sea there are three private beaches in Mandelieu-la-Napoule renting sun-loungers and parasols and each one is joined to a restaurant.
8. Pointe de l’Aiguille
At the headland just past neighbouring Théoule-sur-Mer those unmistakable red Estrerel slopes plummet to the sea.
This extraordinary coastline is preserved as a seven-hectare park, and with no marine traffic the coves are as good as it gets for snorkelling.
You can swim out to designated areas and spend an hour or two seeing what you can find on the sea bed.
For bathing there’s a conventional bay and then a series of three coves around the headland, each delineated by towering red walls of rock.
On the west side the rock has been weathered into a natural arch.
9. Sea Excursions
From April to September the cruise companies in La Napoule Port have a selection of voyages to tempt you.
You can spend a whole day out at sea watching dolphins, breaking for a convivial lunch on board at midday.
The Corniche d’Or, the coves and the mountains behind are just as memorable from the sea, while there are also trips available to some of the tourist favourites a little further afield: You can sail across the Golfe de Napoule to the Île Sainte-Marguerite off the coast of Cannes.
It’s the island where the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned in the 17th century.
Mandelieu-la-Napoule has the very first golf course established on the Côte d’Azur.
The Old Course opened in 1891 a few steps from the sea behind Plage de Robinson, and was designed by Harry Colt, who drew up more than 300 courses on six different continents at the turn of the century.
In the British fashion there are long, straight fairways, which are bounded by thickets of stone pines.
It was another century before the next club arrived, and the Barbossi Riviera now boasts two 18-hole courses and a nine-hole pitch & putt.
The final stop on the Route du Mimosa is an olfactory wonderland in any season.
Grasse is where most of the mimosas grown industrially will end up, to be distilled into scents.
It’s fun to make your way around Grasse’s meandering alleys and sweet little squares, and there are florid plantations for the perfume industry that you can tour on the edge of the city.
But beckoning visitors in their droves are the perfumeries for brands like Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard, where you can become an expert in the art in perfume-making and even concoct your own scent.
12. La Croisette
Even when the glitterati aren’t in town Cannes posses a mystique that everyone should experience at least once.
La Croisette sums the city up nicely.
On the shore are private beaches that are packed out in summer and fronting the promenade is every luxury brand under the sun.
Stay on the promenade and eventually it will lead you to the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, venue for the Cannes Film Festival since 1982. An endless list of movie stars have been snapped on the red staircase here, and you can be too.
13. Le Suquet
Winding up from the marina is Rue Saint-Antoine, a tourist-friendly street lined with restaurants competing to draw you in.
But if you take a stairway off to the left and keep climbing you’ll enter Cannes’ peaceful old quarter where the city’s fishing community used to live.
Your goal is Place de la Castre, where you’ll find a medieval castle, now a museum, and the 16th-century Church of Notre-Dame de l’Esperance.
The square has a terrace where you can sit and contemplate a view of the marina, the Palais des Festivals and the Croisette.
Ten short minutes on the A8 and you’ll arrive at a divine perched village just north of Cannes.
It would be worth the journey just potter around these old streets that curl around the hilltop between houses thick with bougainvillea.
But there’s a museum of the highest quality here too: The Mougins Museum of Classical Art opened in 2011 and shows off a British businessman’s stash of antiquities and art.
These had been sitting in storage before Christian Levett decided to convert his large medieval house into a modern exhibition space.
There are Greek and Roman bronze and marble statues, and sarcophagi and funerary masks from Ancient Egypt.
Levett’s art collection is out of this world too, with pieces by Rodin, Rubens, Picasso, Cocteau and Chagall.
15. Food and Drink
If you’re in the mood for real Provence cuisine there are specialities that will be on the menus at most restaurants that are already known around the world.
First as an appetiser there’s tapenade, which is black olives crushed with anchovies and capers, and goes with bread or vegetable sticks.
Bouillabaisse is a seafood stew that uses fish like the sea robin, monkfish and red gurnard, which tend to be bony and aren’t too appetising when caught but their dense flesh is just right for this stew.
The broth is seasoned with Provençal herbs and eaten with slices of crusty bread spread with aioli.
Other specialities you should try here are escargots or mussels in a Provençal sauce, ratatouille or simply grilled sardines.