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A very personal transformation… in the South of France

A very personal transformation… in the South of France

It was time to return to witness change (if any) there were and if anything had improved at this iconic “grande dame” of French hotels sitting high up on a peninsula that juts out in the Mediterranean Sea.

There is an expression in French called “La terre promise,” which, when literally translated means, “the promised land.” However, in French its meaning is slightly more general and can apply to many different areas, big or small. In English, I would venture to say that it is more specific and can be applied to a country. If there were such a land in France, it would be that small parcel of land-peninsula that juts out in the Mediterranean Sea, known as Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, home to the rich and famous, a sort of Beverly Hills by the sea, tucked in between Nice and Monte Carlo.

Every day while on vacation in the South of France I would, in the most humblest of ways, jog along a path (known as a “sentier pedestre” or foot path) passing by a lighthouse on my left, crashing waves on my right, and a magnificent and palatial like building known as the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat. It is one of those iconic “grande dames” of French hotels, that sits high up on a peninsula, as if presiding over its kingdom. The views from above are equally impressive, and on a clear winter morning, one might catch a glimpse of Corsica, 50 miles away. It has aged well and like a good wine has kept its early twentieth century charm and personality. Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maugham, and even Vladimir Putin have at some point in time lived on the peninsula and paid homage to the hotel in one form or another.

It is my marker to turn back on the jogging route. Over the course of the last twenty or so years, during various jogs, the hotel has changed owners and management style without really losing any of its character.

Last year, the hotel was taken over by The Four Seasons group which has a reputation for making palaces more palatial and service more streamlined and personable. The last time I visited the hotel must have been at least five years ago, to meet its legendary swimming instructor come life guard, Pierre Grunberg. Pierre himself is living history and an icon to the hotel. He has instructed the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Tina Turner, and Paul McCartney, to swim, through what he calls his salad bowl technique – I won’t go into detail except to say that his technique works.

Now I thought it time to return to witness change (if any) and see what had improved.

What immediately struck me was the tone of the personnel. So often in France, as much as I love it, service is dispensed to those who are worthy of it, and it is not always democratic. The cliché of the rude French waiter still rings true in certain establishments. Not here. The staff were convivial without being intrusive.

My first stop was to meet with new General Manager François Regis Simon, who has successfully managed to weave his previous Asian, Four Seasons experiences, into the tone and mood of a very traditional and previously austere personnel, transforming it into a more lighter and easygoing attitude. A delicate balance, explains Simon, “as it was a challenge to many on the staff who had been there for more than 20 years and were set in their ways.”

Simon first heard about the position, when he was on a break with family in China. He received a called from Christian Clerc, who heads up operations for Four Seasons in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, in the middle of Tiananmen Square asking him if he was interested. From that moment on he did not look back, and told his family he had to take the call.

Since his arrival, Simon watches over the smallest of details, as was the case when I had breakfast with him on the terrace. Eyeing a table that had not been cleaned or napkin not properly folded, he would get up and do it himself, at the same time greeting a guest whom he not seen in a while.

This was a perfect moment in the hospitality business.

All photos © Ted Macauley

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