The Riviera is all about the good life, but you don’t have to be a millionaire to hire a lounger at a beach club. For a more down-to-earth trip, you can explore coastal paths, unspoilt islands and historic towns.

Cap Ferrat, a wooded peninsula between Nice and Monaco, has more than eight miles of eucalyptus-scented walking paths, with magnificent views all the way. All the itineraries are easy going; the tourist office at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat has maps. One suggested walk (1½ hours) follows the coastal path to Pointe Malalongue with its lighthouse and on to Passable beach.

France’s smallest national park was created in 1963 to protect the three-square-mile island of Port-Cros and the waters around it. Today, walkers can explore 20 miles of marked trails. The Sentier des Plantes is a lovely aromatic trail that wends its way for a mile past wild lavender and rosemary to Plage de la Palud, a beautiful beach on the island’s northern shore. Here, you can also follow a signposted snorkel and scuba trail (ferry from £23 return).

With the exception of Monaco, you can walk the dozen-mile stretch of coast from Cap d’Ail to Menton without passing a car. The path is well signposted – take it in stages or make a day of it, with beach and lunch stops. The Sentier du Littoral follows the rugged coastline from Plage Mala in Cap d’Ail to Plage Marquet just west of Monaco. After lunch, pick up the path at Larvotto at the other end of Monaco and walk along the wooded shores of Cap Martin until you reach Menton.

The hang-out of superstars in summer, and a strangely quiet, pretty seaside town the rest of the year, St-Tropez has by far the best beaches on the coast. About 2½ miles southeast of town is the start of Plage de Tahiti and its continuation, the famous Plage de Pampelonne, studded with drinking and dining haunts, such as the legendary Club 55.

Despite the influx of daytrippers, the island of Porquerolles is wholly unspoilt: most of its white sandy beaches and pine woods are protected by the Parc National de Port-Cros. Potter around rough trails on foot or by bike, breaking with a picnic lunch and a dip. Beaches stretch along the north coast from Plage du Grand Langoustier in the west to Plage Notre-Dame in the east (ferries including from La Tour Fondue; £16 return).

Although there are some free public beaches along the strip, if you’re in Cannes, you may as well embrace it for what it does best. Designer swimwear, oversized sunglasses and cocktails are de rigueur for a spot of sunbathing at Zplage private beach club at Hôtel Martinez. Book ahead for one of its sea-blue sunloungers – the top spot is on the exclusive pier (73 Boulevard de la Croisette; beach lounger from £27, pier lounger from £34).

Coastal towns
Vieux Niche – Nice’s old town – is a mellow rabbit-warren of alleys that has scarcely changed since the 1700s. In the morning it teems with shoppers at the market square, Cours Saleya. In the afternoon, visitors stroll along the boutique-lined alleyways, admiring the Baroque heritage (check out the 17th-century Palais Lascaris) and lapping up ice creams.

With its boat-decked port, 16th-century ramparts and narrow cobblestone streets festooned with flowers, lovely Antibes is the quintessential Mediterranean town. It’s home to the Musée Picasso, and the historic quarter, Vieil Antibes, which has a pleasant mix of shops and restaurants. Check out the views from the sea walls as far as the snowy peaks of the Alps.

Monaco, the world’s second smallest country, is more about skyscrapers, yachts and unabashed hedonism than historic sights, although there are some fine Belle Époque buildings, including the marble-and-gold Casino. For some uniquely Monégasque experiences, witness the daily changing of the palace guard at 11.55am and dress up for a game of blackjack at the Casino.

British Airways, easyJet, Flybe, Jet2 and Monarch fly from most major UK airports to Nice (from £90), while Ryanair flies from Stansted to Toulon (from £120). You can also travel by train: take the Eurostar to Paris then the TGV to Nice (around 9 hours, from £120). Driving around the Côte d’Azur is easy and essential for exploring the smaller towns, but be aware that in July and August there’s lots of traffic on the roads. Car hire at Nice airport starts at around £30 per day with Europcar.

Where to stay
A hotel with a b&b feel, Hôtel La Jabotte is a minute’s walk from the sea and 20 minutes more to Vieil Antibes. Its ten whimsically decorated Provençal-style rooms all look out onto a lovely patio where breakfast is served from spring to autumn (13 Avenue Max Maurey; from £90).

Hôtel Ermitage draws inspiration from ’50s to ’70s-era St-Tropez. Rooms are designed by celebs, including Chloë Sevigny, and the hotel’s off-the-beatenpath hillside location adds to its exclusivity (Avenue Paul Signac; from £170).

Guests have been known to drop in by helicopter at Le Mas du Langoustier, an exceptional hotel on Porquerolles, with great views from its seaside perch, and two restaurants, one with a Michelin star (Apr–Oct; from £185).

The article 'Mini guide to coastal Côte d’Azur' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.