"What's the most outrageous pet that has ever stayed here at Le Negresco?" I ask Guillaume Bourniquel, the duty manager who is giving me a pre-arranged guided tour of possibly the most bizarre five-star hotel in the world.
"Salvador Dali used to bring his lions," Bourniquel answers quickly before correcting himself. Not lions, that would just be silly, he says. "He came with his pet cheetahs."
Le Negresco – the fabulously pink-domed palace that has pride of place on Nice's timeless Promenade des Anglais – is now more than 100 years old, having celebrated its centenary in 2013 after a multimillion-dollar renovation. For decades, it has played host to the fabulously wealthy, the internationally famous and the socially notorious. And through it all Le Negresco has been an enduring monument of eccentricity.
This is obvious from the moment you arrive at the entrance and are greeted by the theatrically costumed bell boys wearing an anachronistic livery that rivals the Vatican's Swiss guards for daftness (the blue frock coats, red knee britches and black stockings are inspired by the Belle Epoque apparently).
Guests have included great artists (Matisse, Cocteau, Picasso, Chagall), movie stars (Valentino, Eastwood, Bacall), musicians (Sinatra, the Beatles, Piaf), politicians (Churchill, Khrushchev, Chirac), literary giants (Hemingway, Sartre) and countless royals and heads of state.
Some, like Dali and his giant cats, left priceless anecdotes. Richard Burton famously forgot an expensive emerald necklace he'd just bought for Liz Taylor, leaving it (surprise!) on a hotel bar stool. Michael Jackson once disguised himself as a prostitute to avoid being photographed by the paparazzi.
But for eccentricity perhaps no one rivals Jeanne Augier, the animal-loving heiress whose family has owned Le Negresco since 1957 and who still lives, in her 90s, in the hotel's best suite under the famous dome with spectacular views over the Baie des Anges.
Augier's personality is stamped all over Le Negresco. She's the reason guests are still encouraged to bring their exotic pets (animal charities are well looked after in the trust she has set up to ensure Le Negresco survives when she herself goes to the big pet shop in the sky).
And though Le Negresco is said to be the only hotel in France with its own art curator, the idiosyncratic, museum-standard collection is unmistakably inspired by Augier who was friends with many of her famous artist visitors.
A sign at the entrance announces Le Negresco is only open to guests. But even if you can't afford to stay in one of the 96 rooms or 21 suites, treat yourself to a cocktail at the English-style Le Relais bar or a meal at La Rotonde Brasserie with its playful carousel furnishings so you can marvel at the hotel's unforgettable decor. (Of course, if you're flush, the hotel's signature restaurant Le Chantecler, under head chef Jean-Denis Rieubland, is the only one in Nice with two Michelin stars).
Augier began collecting seriously in her early 20s, and her hotel now boasts 6000 works of art, from huge tapestries and formal portraits to contemporary sculpture and children's toys. Her mission, she said, was to show not just the story of France but to display France's contribution to the world.
She inherited a magnificent gallery to show off her treasures. Henri Negescu, a Romanian-born hotelier, opened Le Negresco in the halcyon days before World War I sent him bankrupt. But he had spared no expense.
Take the Versailles Room. The gigantic stone fireplace came from one chateau; the ornate wooden ceiling from another. As for the huge portrait of Louis XIV which dominates the room, it is one of only three by the Sun King's favourite artist Hyacinthe Rigaud; the other two are in the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles.
Now head to the Royal Lounge, under a glorious and historically listed glass dome that was designed by Gustave Eiffel. According to legend, the chandelier – made of 16,000 pieces of Baccarat Crystal – was one of two commissioned by the Russian royal family before the Bolshevik revolution. The other made it to the Kremlin; this one was diverted to Nice.
Venture upstairs and you'll find Augier has selected different artistic themes for each floor. The top floor is devoted to art from the Second Empire, the fourth to Napoleon Bonaparte and the third to Chinese art. If you're a guest, you'll have no idea what artwork may be in your room until you open the door.
I splashed out and had booked (via a web deal) an ocean view room for a night, spending the rest of my time in Nice at a cheaper hotel that was perfectly acceptable.
But sometimes you feel like treating yourself, staying somewhere a bit special. Negresco is certainly special.
Leaving the next morning, I even felt a little eccentric. Having the hotel door opened by a man wearing black stockings tends to have that effect.
Hotel Le Negresco, 37 Promenade des Anglais, is five kilometres from Nice Airport and one kilometre from Old Nice. hotel-negresco-nice.com/en. Its partner private beach offers water sports, beach chairs and meals.
Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.