CAGNES-SUR-MER, FRANCE – A visitor sits on a hotel terrace high above the Mediterranean coastline enjoying a glass of wine and watching the sun dip behind the far-off Alps. The golden streaks that appear at sunset look like they've been added by an artist's brush.
The Renoir moment is the norm in a place that during the day is bathed in such brilliant light, the great artist and many of his contemporaries spent much of their time here trying to capture it on canvas.
A charming woman named Solenne interrupts the moment with news that some of Renoir's brilliant works are on display in the castle that sits above this enchanting hotel called Le Cagnard.
The hotel, whose name means "a place bathed in light”, is the first stop on a week-long drive across southern France.
Above: France's sun drenched southern coast is breathtaking.
Along the way there are narrow roads to navigate, small towns to investigate, fine French food to sample, Provencal markets and their seductive smells to enjoy, and many more Renoir sunsets to watch in romantic-sounding places like Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Menton, Monte Carlo and Aix-en-Provence.
Getting to each is a thrill in itself. The narrow roads here cling to the sides of honey-coloured mountains and are barely passable in spots.
From Nice, I head out on the picturesque coastal road called the N98 (better known as Promanade des Anglais through Nice) in the direction of Cagnes-sur-Mer, the 13th-century town dominated by the castle built by Ranier Grimaldi, whose descendants still rule the nearby principality of Monaco.
The perfectly preserved castle sits like a crown atop a rocky cliff overlooking the seaside town. An amazing medieval village rests at the foot of the castle and seems to cling precariously to the mountain.
Jean-Marc, who runs Hotel Le Cagnard with his charming wife Francoise, welcomes me in what was once the castle's guardroom, but now serves as the hotel's main dining hall.
The room, from where 13th-century defenders could keep a close eye on potential invaders in the valley far below, is dominated by a huge fireplace and archways painted by the distinguished painter Emile-Auguste Wery. It is the centerpiece of this 24-room hotel that was purchased by Mauricette and Felix Barel -Francoise's parents - in 1960.
Above: Everything in southern France is as pretty as a picture.
The delightful Barels are still very active in the hotel, and interrupt their mid-day meal to greet their latest arrival.
"Welcome to our home," says Madame Barel, the matriarch of a property that gives visitors a taste of French village life.
Ironically, most of the homes in the old village are now owned by foreigners who forked over hundreds of thousands of euros to purchase and upgrade the historic properties. Oh, don't worry, there's still plenty of chain-smoking French "characters" lurking about to make the village feel authentic.
Le Cagnard becomes my base for the next few days for wonderful walks on steep, cobblestone lanes leading to the castle; drives to Nice and Monaco along mountain roads offering spectacular sea vistas; quiet moments sipping the area's famous rose wine in sun-drenched cafes; watching old men play boules (think lawn bowling without grass) next to the castle; navigating the hotel's narrow passages leading to rooms where famous painters once stayed; and enjoying great meals in Le Cagnard's Michelin-star restaurant.
"You like our ceiling?" asks Francoise as she notices me admiring the 200 hand-painted panels that hang over my head in the main dining room.
She pushes a button and suddenly the dining room ceiling retracts and more of the area's brilliant light seeps through. “Now you see why the great French painters came here. For this light,” smiles Francoise. The painters – Signac, Klein and even Japan’s renowned Fujita – all stayed in Le Cagnard’s room 29, which remains pretty much as it was back then. It even displays a few original Fujita prints. Then there's Chambre 27, where Simone de Beauvoir entertained Jean Paul Surette. Talk about surreal. And in one of Le Cagnard's rooms, Antoine de St. Exupery thought about writing the classic Le Petit Prince.
This drive through history is repeated at most of the historic hotels I visit in the Cote d'Azur.
At my second stop in the pretty little town of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, sandwiched between Nice and Monaco, I discover from a helpful concierge named Antonio Pennucci that the wonderful Hotel Le Metropole has played host to many famous people since it opened in 1892, among them Charlie Chaplan and Jimmy Carter.
The tranquil setting and amazing views of the Alps that sweep down to the sea at this point in France are what draws people to Le Metropole. The town, with its casino, million-dollar hilltop homes and huge yachts docked in its small harbour, is often referred to as Le Petit Monaco.
The drive off the Moyenne Corniche - one of three main roads that snake through the Cote d'Azur's mountainous region - to the hotel is highlighted by hairpin turns offering many hair-raising moments.
Le Metropole is a perfect spot to stay if you want to visit Nice, Monaco or my favourite French town, Menton. It's also within a few minutes of Eze, the medieval hilltop village that is a tremendous place to spend a day.
The last stop I make in the Cote d'Azur region is at La Bastide Saint Antoine in Grasse, the perfume capital of France. Again, the tranquil Le Bastide, set amidst an olive grove overlooking the stunning L'Esterel countryside and the far-off Mediteranean, is an historic 18th-century property that has played host to a diverse group of guests, ranging from the Kennedys to the Rolling Stones. It's also a place where a living history is played out each day in the form of Jacques Chibois, the hotel's owner and one of the most famous chefs in all of Europe.
While the peaceful setting and Tuscan-style surroundings satisfy a guest's soul, it's Chibois' amazing culinary creations that satisfy their hunger.
Chibois, whose restaurant has been awarded two Michelin stars, has turned Le Bastide into a gastronomic getaway par excellence.
His dishes come accented with earthy-tasting truffles and swimming in delicate sauces. His nine-course tasting menu is amazing and his world-famous dessert of strawberries poached in a red wine sauce and accompanied by olive oil ice cream, usually has guests rushing to the reception desk to make their next reservation.
Chibois makes a point of talking to each guest in the dining room. When he discovered I was en route to Aix-en-Provence, his eyes lit up.
"Ah, that is the heart of truffle country. I think you might get truffles in your morning jam," he winked.
Reason enough to move on.