Kensington Tours generously arranged this daylong tour, but all opinions are my own.
As anyone who’s asked me for travel advice knows, I’m not a big fan of tours. Large group tours are useless; it’s hard to pay attention, usually you don’t get to see the thing the tour guide is talking about until after they’re done talking about it, and also it’s mortifying to be herded around like sheep. And although none of these things were an issue on a very small tour I took of the Vatican a few years ago, for example, we were required to practically jog the entire museum complex – twice – in order to get through everything before the REALLY big crowds showed up. I was exhausted. And when I’ve spoken to other people who’ve done small tours, the majority unfortunately have had the same experience.
But seeing as how three of the four of us had never been to the French Riviera before, and that Kensington’s proposed itinerary featured places I’d never been to either, I decided that this would be a good way to get as much in as possible – for work and for pleasure. And so it was that on a warm and sunny morning in Nice, we found ourselves walking with Pierre, our driver and guide for the day, to our comfortable, roomy, air-conditioned minivan for an adventure.
There were two things I noticed right away about Pierre:
- Although the tour hadn’t officially started yet – after all, we were just walking to the van – he kept dropping these cool little facts about Vieux Nice, our neighborhood.
- The way he did this was not stereotypically tour guide in style. He wasn’t walking backwards in front of us, or speaking loudly, or trying to instruct us. As is normal when five people are walking together through a busy market, we weren’t all together in a huddle; during our 10-minute walk, we were in varying combinations of two and three. Pierre was more like a super-knowledgeable friend than a tour guide, easily moving between us and imparting his knowledge conversationally. I really liked this. It felt natural.
Not only was his easy style consistent throughout the day, but there was nothing he didn’t know. While we drove to our first destination he gave a shockingly thorough explanation of why there are rocks on the beach in Nice and not sand, just off the top of his head.
Our first stop was St-Paul-de-Vence, an adorable and immensely popular town on a hilltop. Pierre instinctively hustled us past the tourist-trap gift shops, and showed us some interesting things we would have easily overlooked on our own. And then, seeing as he was with four photo freaks, he let us roam around snapping pictures of, well, everything – including the spectacular mountainside cemetery.
We had lunch together at the gorgeous Cafe de la Place, and Pierre gave us some options for what we could do next. This was another great thing that Pierre did throughout the day – kept us apprised of the time, and gave us our options, and let us decide what we wanted to do or not do. It helped us feel like although he was the guide, we were in charge and not trapped on a treadmill.
And then, while we waited for him to bring the van around, a Pétanque game broke out!
Pierre had suggested a quick stop at Tourrettes, another hilltop town that was on the way to our main destination. He pulled into a parking space on the main square, pointed us in the direction of an archway, and told us to meet him back in 20 minutes.
And, oh! What a blissful 20 minutes it was! (And by the way, it was like he knew exactly how long it would take; 19 minutes later we were all back at the van without feeling rushed.) We were the only ones on the streets, and it was like the entire town was erected just before we got there, just for us and the constant clicking of our hungry, hungry camera shutters.
What a treat! And when we got back to the van, Pierre had cooled it down with the AC and had bottles of water for us as well. Class act. I recommend letting your Kensington tour guide know if you’re more into empty towns for exploring rather than the more “important” destinations in the region.They’re super flexible, both prior to and during the tour.
Pierre had asked if any of us got nauseous in cars, and thankfully none of us do. But what he didn’t ask was if anyone had recently had several terrifying experiences driving up and down mountains. I was able to power through by covering my eyes and/or looking away from the vertical drops, but there are several people I know who would have literally lost their minds. It was really, really scary. If you have this fear, and you’re going on any driving tours at all, make sure you ask directly if the itinerary includes mountainside driving.
That being said, my fear is NO indication of Pierre’s ability to drive. He was an absolute master of the road. And he knew the area so well that he even knew when to stop the car to show us a hidden waterfall, which anyone else would have driven past in a heartbeat.
In any case, the terrifying ride was totally and completely worth it, because check out this view from Gourdon!
Our next stop was at Fragonard, the perfume maker in Grasse, which is the world capital of perfume. This was a great break – we weren’t tired, per se, but we had just seen a tremendous amount of beautiful things, and it was a welcome change to exercise another one of our senses (while sitting down).
We were guided through the world of scents via our wonderful teacher, who herself was a “nose” – one of the few people in the world who makes a living because of their extraordinary sense of smell. We learned a lot – for example, if you want to “cleanse” your olfactory palate, smell your forearm! – and Mrs. Pants kicked our butts when it came to naming smells.
And then came the moment at least three of us had been waiting for – WE GOT TO MAKE OUR OWN PERFUME.
In a word? Thrilling. And when we finished, we got certificates of completion and our perfumes in custom bottles AND a tour of the factory from another wonderful, knowledgeable woman! You guys, DO THIS. IMMEDIATELY. Fellas, too – Mr. Pants had himself a ball and found it fascinating.
The Drive Back
To finish up the day we drove back along the coast, and Pierre, shown above, was excited to show us this exact vantage point – a turn in the road that revealed a view of pretty much the entire French Riviera in one go. And once we got back into Nice, he generously pulled over in front of the historic Negresco Hotel so we could snap a pic of Melanie at its doors for her grandmother.
All told, it was an absolutely fantastic day. We learned a lot, we covered a lot of ground, and we never once felt rushed or wrangled or herded in any way.
As a final note, I recommend Kensington without reservation. The team was great; they give you a dedicated web page for your tour(s) that you can refer to and send along to friends and family, and the tour itself was the perfect way to see and experience the region without feeling for a second like you’re schlepping.