Swimming to Italy: Finding my happy place on the French Riviera

By Mary Kay Seales

People have images about the French Riviera:

  • A young Bridget Bardot cavorting in her itsy bitsy bikini on the beaches of St. Tropez.
  • Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald holding court at the Hotel Belles Rives in Juan les Pins.
  • Brad and Angelina walking the Red Carpet at Cannes.
  • The Hotel Eden Roc on the Cap d’Antibes where everyone from Marilyn to JFK stayed and partied on their French Riviera excursions.
  • And of course, James Bond looking oh-so cool and collected, getting out of his Aston Martin at the casino in Monte Carlo.

Luxury, decadence, spies, movie stars and yachts. To many, maybe most, this is the French Riviera.


But isn’t that the truth of it, you might ask? Isn’t the French Riviera just a playground for the rich?

Please allow me to correct this thinking. There is so much more to the French Riviera than what you see in the pages of People magazine.

For seventeen years now, I – decidedly not rich, not famous, just your everyday working stiff – have been hanging out on the French Riviera every summer. And often for months at a time!

My French Riviera

Le Corbusier TRail

My French Riviera is not at all about glamour and glitz (though I do love that it has that aspect oozing in the background).

No! My French Riviera is about hiking along winding coastal trails with a backdrop of the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea. My Riviera is about getting dripping hot from a 5-mile hike with the sun beating down, and finally getting to the next little beach where I can shed my shoes and my shorts, and jump into the salty, perfectly cool, aqua-blue water of the Côte d’Azur.

Afterwards? A meal at a sidewalk or beachside café – a chilled glass of cheap, but always good, white wine OR an icy cold beer, fresh tomatoes with olives, basil and mozzarella, drizzled in olive oil. Crusty bread. A view of the sea. A tired, but satisfied body.

Basket 1

That’s how I spend my days on the French Riviera.

Alone, walking, swimming, eating and drinking. Sun, water, and brilliant color all around. Like being in an impressionist painting. Like being inside a prayer.

This is why Matisse, Picasso and Cocteau lived here. Why movie stars and presidents hang here. It’s quite simply beautiful in every way possible. This beauty seeps into your pores and feeds your soul. This beauty makes you drunk, addicted even. You may return to your home, but your dreams and desires are now filled with the color and beauty and warmth and pleasure of the French Riviera.

For me, this is Heaven.

But how can I afford to do this every summer? Honestly, I really am far from wealthy.

L'Eden View

So here are a few of my secrets to spending summers on the French Riviera:

  1. Traveling is a priority in my life. I have a lovely home (that I rent); a great job with lots of time off (terrible pay, but tons of paid time off, teaching English at a university). I don’t buy new furniture, or cars, or clothes, or computers or TVs. I have these things, but they’re not the latest or most expensive. I don’t replace them year after  year.  When I did own a house in Seattle, there were no additions or remodels or new BBQs. All the money went to that one vacation each year. And it was completely worth it! I’ve certainly never regretted giving my daughter trips to France every summer. The experience has shaped her in deep ways that a new kitchen or bathroom remodel would not have accomplished.
  2. I use my credit card for everything all year long! Food, gas, wine (its of wine), whatever. The miles add up, and voila! A free round trip to Nice or Paris. I got my free ticket for summer 2017 with 60,000 Delta air miles.
  3. I rent a place to stay from Airbnb, where you can rent a seriously amazing place for way less than a hotel room. My very chic 2-bedroom apartment in the heart of Nice this coming summer is costing me less than $100/night! I’m sharing it with someone, so that’s less than $50/night each!
  4. I eat less and better when I’m there. I stay away from the expensive restaurants (mostly). I shop for fresh produce, olives, bread and cheeses at the open-air markets. The wine is cheap. Maybe one meal a day at a little restaurant, 15 Euros. No more expensive than eating at home.
  5. I hike and swim most days, with occasional visits to museums and often just sit near the blue, blue water, gazing out on that horizon, listening to the endless brash of the waves. What more is there?

So traveling on the French Riviera, my annual meditation retreat, may not be for everyone, but I hope I have dispelled the myth that it’s all about glamour and only for the rich. It can be about filling up your soul on natural beauty and exercise.

Finding a holy place may be part of your quest. Maybe it’s inside your head. Or at the yoga studio. Mine is on the southern coast of France, la Côte d’Azur, the Coast of Blue.

Want more ideas for traveling on the French Riviera?

If you want more ideas about spending time on the French Riviera, take a look at my 2016 travel book The Beginner’s Guide to the French Riviera: Stop Dreaming & Start Packing, available on Amazon.


“The Beginner’s Guide is written in a friendly, open style that makes you feel you are talking with a trusted companion. There are subtly lyrical moments of writing in this practical guide, and a bright sense of humor that makes it a joy to read. Gorgeous photography makes you feel you are already on the French Riviera, and clear information and advice makes you feel ready to pack your bags and go.”  Amazon Review


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