MOUGINS, France — Food lovers have come to expect what is very near the best dining on earth in Paris and Lyon, yet neither of these gastronomic citadels can come even close to matching the concentration of creme de la creme restaurants found in this tiny French hill town on the Cote d'Azur.
Within and just outside the remains of its medieval ramparts and 15th-Century Saracen Gate, Guide Michelin has sprinkled enough of its dining stars to illuminate a town 10 times Mougins' size.
Yet Mougins has other virtues that some villages of the haut pays (the high country behind the Riviera) lack, most notably a refreshing shortage of tour buses and souvenir shops.
There's no shortage of color, however. Mougins' lofty site is wreathed in flowers, shrubs and herbs and its narrow streets and alleys are a showplace of lovely old French architecture.
Ever popular with urban refugees, the old buildings around Mougins' Place de l'Eglise have housed the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Picasso, Yves St. Laurent and other luminaries. But it was a galaxy of inventive chefs that really put Mougins on the map for the rest of us.
Getting here: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris, UTA nonstop from San Francisco. American, TWA, Pan Am, Delta and Continental will get you there with changes. Take Air France or Air Inter down to Nice, then a bus or rental car for the half-hour drive to Mougins.
How long/how much? Judge the length of your stay by how much superb food you can ingest before becoming jaded or gout ridden. Lodging costs run from moderate to expensive. Dining really well is usually a pricey exercise in France.
A few fast facts: The franc recently sold at six to the dollar, about 16 cents each. April to November is a good time to come, with August being the most crowded month. Visiting the small coastal towns of the Riviera and the "perched villages" in the hills behind can become something of a chore without a rental car. Check with American rental firms, or call Renault toll-free at (800) 221-1052 for information on their lease program, which is considerably less costly than straight rental since you avoid the 28% VAT.
Getting settled in: Le Mas Candille (Boulevard Rebuffel; $116-$128 U.S. double) has been here for two centuries, a rustic manor house surrounded by almond, pine and cypress trees. It's a very short walk down a hill from Mougins' main square. There is marvelous antique furniture in small bedrooms, plus a pool, terrace dining in summer and a commendable kitchen.
Le Clos des Boyeres (89 Chemin de la Chapelle; $77-$95 double, according to season) is at the bottom of the hill, a very pretty and informal place with bright contemporary art on the walls. There's a small pool, gardens and tennis court, with dining inside or out.
Les Muscadins (18 Blvd. Courteline; $142-$175 double) is a fin-de-ciecle home that recently was completely renovated into a most elegant eight-room hotel. Bedrooms are enchanting with their original antique furnishings, great art and rich fabrics. The bar was brought intact from Paris, a marvel of the Belle Epoque. The beautiful dining room is a study in pinks and blues, with a classic French-Provencal menu.
Les Liserons de Mougines (Route No. 85 below Mougins; $33-$49 double) is a neat and modest place with small pool and full restaurant. Nothing fancy here, but good value.
Regional food and drink: The Cote d'Azur is between Provence and the doorstep of Italy, which means a hearty cuisine often sauced with tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, garlic, peppers and squash.
Mediterranean seafood, particularly the glorious fish soups, are treated with great respect in the kitchen. Your soup or bouillabaisse will always be served with a rouille --a heavy sauce of garlic, red peppers and olive oil.
A trinity of great Mediterranean fish is made up of loup (a type of sea bass), rouget (red mullet) and chapon (a rock fish with tender white flesh). These and other seafood can be prepared in classic French ways, or given the a la Provencal treatment with the requisite tomatoes, garlic, herbs and oil.
Provencal wines can be quite good, from the fairly expensive Otts and Bellets to simple vins de table.
Fine local dining: Le Relais a Mougins (main square) is the masterful result of Andre Surmain's dedication and sublime talents. The friendliness and rustic French humor of Surmain are always on display as he moves about his elegant indoor-garden of a restaurant to chat with guests and inspect his chef's handiwork. Things are always good enough to keep his place a member of the Relais & Chateaux group.
Heaven on earth is a luncheon here that combines the haute cuisine of France (Surmain founded New York's famed Lutece) with the essence of Cote d'Azur-Provencal cooking. Surmain manages the combination with great style.