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Beach Holiday Inspiration: explore France’s seaside cultural play ground

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Sarah Assenti
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Stylist’s video producer and director Rosanna Cole absorbs amazing seaside views at nhow Marseille, a revamped hotel on France’s south coast.

I grew up in Cornwall, so naturally I spent my childhood weekends by the sea, zipped up in wetsuits and plunging into different water sports. Sometimes, my dad and I would sail boats together in competitions, but with the boats being very small and my dad being 6ft6, we rarely had much success. One of my favourite memories is the sight of him falling unceremoniously into the water as he tried to step from one of the inadequately sized dinghies to the jetty.

Now as an adult living in London, the seaside is a time capsule, allowing me to reconnect with comforting childhood memories. Every so often I get an urge for coastline views and salty air so a trip to Marseille in Provence to experience the nhow hotel – which has just been given a facelift – seemed like the perfect remedy.

Perched on the Corniche waterfront, nestled in rocky coastline, the designer hotel almost leans out into the sea. The view from some of the 150 rooms can trick you into thinking you’re about to set off on a voyage, albeit with less chance of falling in. You’re so close to the sea, in fact, that I’m told a guest once complained that they couldn’t sleep because of the noise of the waves.

Throughout the hotel, the views continue to impress, letting you make the most of the Provençal sunshine (there are 300 days of sunshine a year in Marseille). Breakfast is fresh fruit, pastries, breads and yoghurts (or if you’re like me, just pastries), all served on a terrace overlooking the water. Later you can work your way through the cocktail menu by the stunning outdoor pool, which is right at the sea’s edge.

The nhow’s design reflects the city’s rebellious nature 

Founded in 600BC (five and a half centuries before Paris), Marseille is France’s oldest city and a historical port. A nautical theme runs throughout the hotel, but this isn’t your standard seaside-themed accommodation. Marseille itself has been described as France’s ‘outsider’ city and has struggled with a rebellious reputation. The design of nhow is not afraid to reference this. The hotel is quirky and eclectic: natural landscape views clash against wild, electric colours, darkness is mixed with light. It is an interesting hotel to experience and you’ll find something unexpected at every turn. Look up at the Sky Bar and you’ll see a chandelier made up of 4,000 steel sardines. The beds in the rooms are presented underneath a white sail hanging from the wall, printed with the exact longitude and latitude of your location. The dazzling yellow Cactus Bar is crammed full of exotic plants.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like to rely solely on a sun lounger and a cocktail menu to pass the hours, Marseille has so much more to offer. It’s a vibrant city bursting with character and boasts an impressive art scene, delicious seafood and more places to drink rosé while looking wistfully at the sparkling Mediterranean water than I could possibly get through.

Another day, another stunning sea view…

A 10-minute drive from the hotel will take you to the Old Port. The bustling hub of the city, it surrounds an impressive yacht marina, which looks amazing lit up at night. Foodies will love strolling past and sampling the waterfront cafes, restaurants and bars.A favourite with the locals is the relaxed Le Bouchon Provençal (lebouchonprovencal.com), where you can sit with a view of the boats in the harbour and choose from a menu of reasonably priced meat, seafood and regional speciality dishes. I’d recommend starting with the cheeseboard and then moving on to the steak.

Major seafood fan? Try the gourmet dining experience at Le Petit Nice (passedat.fr). It dreamily combines a vast fresh seafood menu (65 varieties!) with scenic views of the water from the outdoor terrace (did I mention I like sea views?). This one’s pricy, but it’s a great place to try bouillabaisse, the traditional fish stew of Marseille. 

The city may lack the glamour of St-Tropez or Cannes, but its time as European Capital of Culture in 2013 helped renovate the port and boosted its cultural vibrancy, inspiring a wealth of creatives to cast their imagination across the city. From the Old Port, you can walk to MuCem aka The Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean, one of Marseille’s newly introduced cultural hubs. Its modern-looking concrete-lace shell is spectacular to see from the inside and out.

If you want to exercise your mind, then the permanent and temporary exhibitions will provide insights into the city’s past and present. Its outdoor terrace, meanwhile, is the perfect spot to drink rosé, while peering through the ‘lace’ at the 17th-century Fort St-Jean.

A short walk from here, art fans can immerse themselves in the Musée Regards de Provence. Here you’ll find classic and modern art connected to the area with a cafe located on the second floor (yep, more harbour views) for when your feet get tired. Explorers can also while away sun-soaked afternoons in the warren of streets in the Panier district. It’s Marseille’s oldest area – full of artsy French charm and sophistication. If your Instagram feed is in dire need of an injection of colourful shabby-chic doors, add a visit here to your to-do list now.

Rooms at nhow Marseille start at £135; nhow-marseille.com 

Images: nhow Hotels

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