Travel News

Sin Tropez

Pat Nourse heads to the French Riviera’s premium coastline and discovers a fishing town of plutocrats and blue-chip boutiques that confounds preconceptions. Bikinis are optional; credit cards are not.

"Two hundred luxury cars driving toward the port at five in the afternoon. Cocktails, Champagne on the yachts in the harbour…"
That's Colette writing about her sometime home of St-Tropez in 1932's Prisons et Paradis. She was probably fortunate to have shuffled off the coil before the age of the Hummer: the only things that have changed are the number and horsepower of the cars, the length of the yachts, and the expansiveness with which the fizz is sprayed. The bones of St-Tropez are the same: strict controls on building regulations and a surrounding of protected wilderness mean that it has nothing of the concrete monstrosity of, say, Monaco or the sprawl of its American resort-town equivalents. The locals, in the face of ever-growing demand from an ever-more globalised market of pleasure-seekers and plutocrats and unable to expand out or up, have come up with a simple yet cunning plan: premiumisation. You can't make enough St-Tropez to meet demand, goes the logic, but you can make more of what's here, and charge accordingly.
The result is a city that leads an intriguing dual existence, where fishing boats from the small but working local fleet ply the same waters as pleasure craft of nigh-absurd proportions. It's a city where a beer can cost $40, but where grand marques of Champagne flow so freely that some people bathe in their bubbles. Literally. It's a place where Cristal is served in gigantic tumblers filled with ice, but as you drink it you can still smell in the air the smoke from the olive farms and vineyards, and the cypress, oak and pines of the hills. It's city that belongs as much to Françoise Sagan and Henri Matisse as it does Paris Hilton and Beyoncé. This city of 5000 residents, and five million visitors a year, is an honest-to-god true village of the Var coast, but at times it can seem like a Provençal-themed Disneyland for very rich people. Here's the thing: it's both at once and completely unlike any other place in the world, let alone France.
Colette was certainly right about the traffic. Ferraris and Lamborghinis are ubiquitous along these narrow streets, and yet doing anything more than 10 clicks an hour when things are busy seems like some kind of miracle. Locals and old hands talk endlessly of traffic, but newcomers can't help but talk about how much everything costs. And no matter how much you've heard about the prices or the gridlock, when they're at their July-August peak, they'll still exceed expectations. Arriving by sea or by helicopter is a good solution, but even here St-Tropez presents its own special concerns, and in the high season, places to park your stealth-modified H-60 or your two-pool 400-footer aren't much easier to find than spots to ditch the Maybach. The smartest course is to arrive in town early, driving from the airport at Nice, planting yourself firmly in a house or hotel, and having as little to do with the Route de St-Tropez as possible until you leave.
Which of St-Tropez's worlds you choose to inhabit, of course, is entirely up to you, and there's no reason you can't be a little bit P Diddy one day and a bit more Guy de Maupassant the next. It's not a cultural treasure trove, precisely, but there's certainly more to its artistic heritage than And God Created Woman. Painters were drawn here at the turn of last century by the light, the lifestyle and the fact that thanks to the quirk of its geography, it's the only town on the French Riviera that looks back over the setting sun. Apart from the private galleries that, for the most part, appear to cater exclusively for the more-money-than-taste crowd, the sweetly tiny Musée de l'Annonciade, housed in a former chapel right by the port, is where you'll get your fix of pictures. Paul Signac, the neo-impressionist who, along with Georges Seurat, pioneered the pointillist style, was one of the first big names to fall in love with the region, back in the 1890s, painting the bay and its beaches, and his works are represented here along with explosively colourful pieces by his sun-loving fauvist descendents, Dufy, Manguin and Marquet. (For Matisse's paintings of the Riviera, alas, your best bet is San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.)
St-Tropez's true art perhaps in fact dangles from the hangers of its boutiques. Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli may have been among St-Tropez's earliest adopters in the fashion world, but it was the spark of glamour and sex that Brigitte Bardot, its most famous sometime resident, kindled here in the late 1950s that really caught the rag-trade's imagination. Any time a local has moved out or an old business has moved on in the past couple of decades, a blue-chip clothier has moved in. Everyone who's anyone is here, from the grand palaces of Dior, Gucci and Hermès to smaller boutiques stocking Alexander Wang, Repetto, Acne and APC. The must-buy, though, remains the Tropezienne sandal, invented, of course, right here at Atelier Rondini on the Rue Georges Clemenceau, in 1927 (its rival, K Jacques, is a block over and only six years less venerable). Male or female, everyone here dresses as though they're on their way from the polo straight to a regatta, although St-Tropez being St-Tropez, this may well really be the case.
If you like your shopping a little more advanced, check out the newer, Garance Doré-approved Maison Blanc Bleu, a "marché du marin" selling vintage sailing-inspired shirts, scarves, linens and leathers. It's well-named - just about everything is either white or blue, and nautical-themed to the ground. Second-hand shopping St-Tropez-style really is something else. If vintage Hermés bags or - sacré bleu! - a Chanel boules set is more your speed, this is one town that won't let you down. Provided, of course, you haven't confused "vintage" with "inexpensive". And then there's the market at the Place des Lices. Five days a week the town's dusty central square is home to old blokes playing pétanque, but Tuesday and Saturday mornings are given over to the stallholders. It's by no means purely for tourists, and runs right the way through winter, selling courgettes and aubergines, oranges and épices, caillettes and mould-ripe saucissons made from the local boars. In the warmer months, though, the cheese and sausage stalls are vastly outnumbered by hawkers of costlier and more obscure wares. You'll find tables covered in old silver or jumbles of beautiful leather-bound Larousses, Eames chairs arrayed under the plane trees alongside 1930s fly-fishing gear and antique Vuitton trunks.
Push your way through the Saturday morning throng and you might just work up an appetite strong enough to do battle with the tarte Tropézienne - a brioche sandwich filled with about an inch of pastry cream and topped with rock sugar. That this is the high point of St-Tropez's contribution to the glory of French cuisine speaks volumes about the culinary realities facing a visitor to the city. For a town this moneyed, there's nothing like Le Louis XV over in Monte Carlo or Le Mirazur at Menton at which to tilt your hat. Cast an eye over one of the standard blackboard menus in the tourist-trap cafés and you're as likely to see such homogenous paint-by-numbers standards as salmon tartare, sushi and beef carpaccio as you are grande aïoli or brandade. For the hordes who come in by bus for the day to walk the port, gawp at the yachts, ride a boat tour past Bardot's villa and say they've "done" St-Tropez, the culinary highlight is an ice-cream from Barbarac. And why not? With a double-scoop of the marron glacé or the deeply wonderful caramel au fleur de sel in hand, watching liveried staff load crates of lemons and limes, cases of Champagne and lobes of foie gras onto the likes of the Pan Deï, the Blue Bird, the Funky Town and a bobbing host of other ships registered everywhere from London to Luxembourg is a pleasant way to pass a moment before settling down for a drink at Senequier.
But not all is lost for the seeker of culinary truth and history: the hills above the port, home to the sweet little townships of Gassin and Ramatuelle, are host to the likes of La Verdoyante, a friendly farmhouse restaurant overlooking the Minuty vineyard, which does credible versions of soupe de poissons with rouille and daube with pasta. Call ahead and you'll even get chapon à la Provençale - red scorpion fish for two. (More centrally, the significantly more expensive Auberge de Maures, a restaurant heavy on the trompe l'oeil murals, is La Verdoyante's closest equivalent.) The most attractive way to eat in the town itself might just be to slip around the back of the rows of gaping daurade, hideous lotte and sparkling sardines of the beautifully unreconstructed marble fish market and smash a plate of Gillardeau and Marennes oysters at the Chez Madeleine stall.
St-Tropez hasn't been passed over by France's globetrotting super-chefs, or the Michelin brigade. La Vague d'Or, despite its surprisingly formal dining room, and the traditional setting of the Résidence de la Pinède hotel, serves some of the more progressive food in town. Chef Arnaud Donckele has earned the only two-star rating in the neighbourhood with the inventive likes of his lush "pot au feu" of lobster and Piedmont beef. The thyme sherbet ice, with fennel-heart sorbet, electrified with absinthe, is especially memorable. Just out of the village itself, the poolside terrace at the Hôtel Sezz, new sister to the property back in the 16th arrondissement, makes for a fittingly out-there setting for Pierre Gagnaire's southern outpost, Restaurant Colette. His chefs maintain his reputation for wild combinations of ingredients, incorporating the local and the global to varying degrees of success. The jellied soy-milk tofu, flavoured with lavender, accompanying sliced oysters, salted Japanese plum and koshihikari rice would be one you could count among the less successful efforts, whereas the equally unlikely sounding parmesan cream with ginger-roasted pineapple and passionfruit hits its mark at dessert.
Alain Ducasse's Spoon finds perhaps the closest thing to the right mix of celebrity sparkle and local flavour. If at times the references to Provençal cuisine seem - as they do at most of these places - a little forced, the quality of the raw product and the paramilitary intensity of Ducasse's training wash away any concerns. To see the waiters carve a roasted-to-order shoulder of lamb for two with the deftness of fast surgeons is a thing of beauty. It's when they try less hard that they tend to get it right: witness Christian Farenasso's work at Les Trois Saisons, the restaurant atop the Château de la Messardière, creating sunshine on a plate with nothing more than creamed salt cod, crisp fried zucchini flowers and olives.
And that cuts to the heart of the matter. The best eating in St-Tropez is rarely about the best food and even less often about the best chef. It's about digging your toes into the sand, feeling the sun on your face and the glass of rosé cool in your palm. The beach, after all, is what gives the place its frisson of sex and money. Australians are dismissive of the raw quality of the sand and surf themselves, but the beach-going scene here really is something else. For one thing, it's not part of the township itself, but south along a five kilometre-stretch of the Baie de Pampelonne. (It's definitely a drive and not a walk, but the hotels run shuttle services as a matter of course.) The clubs are set back from the water, and are, simply speaking, open-air restaurants and bars, some of them with swimming pools and changing rooms of their own, some of them not. It's the patronage that makes them interesting. Each caters for its own slice of the jet set. Le Club 55, which opened as a sort of canteen for the crew of And God Created Woman, is one of the oldest and certainly the best regarded of the brood. Naomi Campbell celebrates her birthday here most years; the prices raise eyebrows even among the locals. Nikki Beach is a little slice of Miami, popular with certain heiresses, while La Voile Rouge, trading on shaky legal ground these past couple of years, has a reputation for raciness. Some cater more for the gay crowd, others for locals, others still are more family-friendly. The recipe of fairly simple food, fairly high prices and a good few bottles of surprisingly good local wine (rosé, of course; Château Malherbe or Domaine de l'Angueiroun if you're lucky) is the constant. Spending the day at the beach clubs, breaking for a late dinner, hitting the nightclubs in town, sleeping till noon and then doing it all over again is a familiar refrain. The players sleep in suites or on their yachts, the would-be ingénues on the beach or wherever they can find a bed.
Speaking of finding beds, St-Tropez nightlife is more or less synonymous with Les Caves du Roy, the model/magnate-magnet under the famously hedonistic Hôtel Byblos. If you're curious about the music, it's Black Eyed Peas. If you're interested in the house cocktail, it's the Piscine, a large glass of Champagne on ice. (Fact: Caves du Roy has one of the largest accounts for Cristal in the world.) If you're worried about the prices, you're probably in the wrong city. Beyond the entry-level "drinks by the glass", at $36, a bottle of Red Bull (we're afraid so) to accompany your $521 "boutelle luxe" of Grey Goose or Chivas will set you back $53, while the limited-edition salmanazar of Perriet-Jouët customised for the Byblos by Van Cleef & Arpels clocks in at a cool $133,710. ("Perfectly well," comes the answer when you ask the manager how they're selling, incidentally.)
The Hôtel Byblos, accordingly, is regarded as party-central. This might not be for everyone. If you find thumping bass soothing and are comfortable getting your hair done before you venture out poolside, this might be the hotel for you. The Grecian theme extends to the logo. It's a stylised representation of the abduction of Europa - you know, the one where that old horndog Zeus turns himself into a giant bull to ravish a high-born Phoenician woman. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the Byblos, except that you can sometimes still hear the wild peacocks on the adjoining hillside reserve shrieking in the night.
None of the big hotel chains are in St-Tropez, and idiosyncrasy abounds. Each of the best-known properties here, like the beach clubs, has a distinct personality and attracts a particular clientele. Apart from its two-starred restaurant, Résidence de la Pinède is distinguished by its old-fashioned qualities. You don't come here for the spa, because there isn't one, but the courtly service has admirers, and the pine-shaded courtyard (its namesake pinède) is one of the prettiest places on the Riviera to take a drink. Note, too, that La Pinède is the only hotel of note in the region to front a beach of its own - a modest little bay beach with the wonderful name of Plage de la Bouillabaisse, yes, but a beach nonetheless.
For a somewhat more regal experience, it's all about Château de la Messardière, a grand 19th-century castle atop a hill overlooking the village, with 25 acres of thoroughly manicured grounds through which fat bees bumble. It's filled with surprisingly garish artworks, but the rooms are large, comfortably decorated with timber, terracotta and stone, and each has a balcony or private terrace to make the most of the view. Poolside, it's a bit of a scene for anyone who wants to dip their toe into chi-chi St-Tropez but not take the full plunge.
And then there's La Réserve Ramatuelle, which takes the idea a step further: it sits below Ramatuelle behind gates looking down over the rocky shores of the bay between Cap Camarat and Cap Cartaya. It's pretty much the ideal base for a stay of any length because although it's 15 minutes by car from St-Tropez, it's much closer to the Pampelonne beaches than the village itself (though still, it must be noted, a drive away). Unlike almost every other St-Tropez hotel, too, it has rooms of a truly comfortable scale. To be brutally honest, if you've had so much as a fleeting encounter with any of the nicer resorts in Thailand or Bali, even the most luxurious of French hotels can seem a bit cramped, as though you're staying with a moneyed aunt. La Réserve, with its dramatic views of the Med through floor-to-ceiling glass doors and spacious, airy suites, is anything but. It's properly luxe in the modern mode, with touches such as iPod docks (pretty much unheard of elsewhere in these parts) in a seamlessly elegant whole that scored a best new hotel prize in Wallpaper's design awards earlier this year.
The focus here is on rejuvenation, so the palette is quiet, letting the sun and the water do the talking, and while the restaurant is by no means Lean Cuisine (we're looking at you, amazing Tokaji baba, when we say this), the emphasis is on olive oil, local fish, and vegetables from the kitchen garden. There's a substantial and well-equipped La Mer spa, and the minibar is stocked with Alain Milliat juices and Evian rather than Toblerones and Scotch. This is not to say that La Réserve's guests don't party with the best of them, explains its general manager, Nicolas Vincent, it's just that they like to be able to get away from it when they choose. La Réserve is caught between the scent of the sea and the wildness of the hills, a sanctuary of calm, and a place special enough to savour. Finding it in proximity to St-Tropez serves only to heighten the pleasure.
Whatever your preconceptions, St-Tropez is a city that can see them confounded. A place where spotting a rare local tortoise in the hills can thrill some as much as a brush with Jay-Z on the Place de la Garonne will excite others; where locals speak with as much authority about the hilltop windmills that once ground olives for oil as they do about the current market value of George Michael's place at Ramatuelle. This is the place where billionaires dive-bomb pools and Karl Lagerfeld has been known to preside over games of pétanque, where the rich and the not-so-rich stare at each other across a velvet-roped gangplank, neither sure if they're really the watcher or the watched. Just be sure to pack extra cash and ditch any expectation of driving anywhere in a hurry, and you'll be welcomed like a local.