Twenty one years ago I made a promise to my two best friends in college that we would turn 40 in style. Mission accomplished.

I chose Nice because it covered most of the bases: beach, architecture, food, gambling, culture, vistas. We’d later find out gambling was a bit of a bust but the beach. The beach!

I told my friends that their gift to me would be the cost of the flight to Nice. My partner and I would rent the flat. American Express recommended Riviera Holiday Homes. I took one look at the pics of the selected flat online and said done. It was a gorgeous four bedroom penthouse with a wrap around balcony, high ceilings, big windows, a table that seats eight and a baby grand piano. It was so nice not to have to eat out every night of the week. I mean, my two best friends from college were there with their partners–it was always going to be about playing Hearts at night anyway. We’d play Hearts back in university because if you were too drunk or stoned to play your hand, you’d only hurt yourself, not your partner like in Spades.

I originally envisioned this vacation as more of a cultural tour. You know, a tour of this church, that museum, this vineyard, that scenic village. But mid/late September is still beach weather in the South of France. And with those clear blue waves lashing at the stoney beach, how could you not want to just dive in? Or at least wade in. The waves were rather cold and I have a fear of the water, Jaws and turning into shark poop.

The first full day we headed to the beach. Now that our median age is approaching forty, the six of us opted for a private beach. Managing hard, round stones only armed with a flimsy beach towel is fine when you’re 20, not so fine when you are 40. The first private beach we chose was Castle Beach, at the far left side of the beach. There was some loud competition taking place on the boardwalk and we wanted to be as far away from the noise as possible. Good reason. Lousy result.

Castle Beach is the beach I think gays go to thinking that because the service is brusk if not rude, and the lounge chairs only somewhat comfortable, that it’s somehow chic. The eccentric hostess with the cute dog should have tipped me off. They nickel and dime you to death. Because it was the last beach until you hit the rocks, getting into the water was tricky. We saw one older couple call for help when their soggy bathing suits threatened to weigh them back into the surf. It’s more dangerous than you think. You’d go from ankle deep to shoulder deep in one step. Not my kind of beach. And at 110 euros for six people, not worth the money.

We went to the beach on our second full day too, this time at Hotel Plage Beaux Rivage. Much better. Much! At 105 euros for six people it was slightly less than Castle Beach but the lounge chairs were big and comfy, the wait staff was mostly attentive, the beach was easier to access, and that catty gay attitude was nowhere to be found.

As a gay man, I really dislike that whole attitude thing. It’s old. Tired. Of the six of us, four of us are gay. One is bi and the other is a straight guy. There is a reason my two best friends from college are women and not men. Attitude. Sure, I can dish it out when needed but ugh. Why bother? I’d rather stick to gay women and straight men. Little attitude, better drinks.

We got some looks on the beach. None of us is shy about being affectionate, not that we do anything more than hold hands occasionally or give a quick kiss. You’re on an exclusive private beach in the South of France for God’s sake. I guess it’s not everyday that a gay couple, a lesbian couple and a mostly straight couple holiday together. But I digress.

We went back to Hotel Plage Beaux Rivage three more times. Again, Nice became a beach holiday. We did the Matisse museum one afternoon. I Love Matisse. And we took the train to Monte Carlo one day for lunch. The ride was nice, but Monaco was not for me. It was very cold and soulless after Nice. It’s like where the super wealthy go to flaunt being super wealthy. No real street life, all cars, cliffs and narrow corners. We were happy to get back to Nice.

For my birthday dinner, we went to L’Univers de Christian Plumail. It has one Micheline star and was reviewed as not pretentious, not super expensive and spot on for the value. It was fantastic. They easily accommodated my vegetarianism. Some courses were left as is, some were tweaked and my main was a delicious improvisation of seasonal vegetables, garlic and mushrooms. I even got to blow out a candle in my dessert after the host serenaded me with the Happy Birthday song. Normally, I’m not a fan of this sort of thing but you only turn 40 once. I really wanted to live it.

The night before I turned 40 was one of the nights we ate in. We played Hearts at the table, drinking wine, vodka or beer, munching on baguettes, cheese and fruit. My friends had secretly bought several pastries earlier that day and when the clock struck midnight, we had a mini fiesta. I blew out my improvised birthday candle and took in all the love. I know I’m a cynical bastard, but I’m also gregarious, friendly and kind. I like to think that’s why I’ve gotten so damn lucky. My health, a great partner and amazing friends. What more does one need?

My favorite memory from the trip will be us in the surf, shoulder deep, laughing and talking about the past, the future, the afternoon sun reflecting off the water, the hills and peaks in the distance, the taste of salt water in my mouth.

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