VISITING Normandy’s glittering jewel is a bit of a star trip even if you don’t qualify for VIP treatment
WHEN the leaders of the G8 countries descended on the Normandy town of Deauville in 2011 to discuss matters of pressing importance, it was something the chic little seaside destination was well able to cope with.
While the status of its visitors certainly varies and the extent of their world domination may alter, Deauville hosts such a high-calibre calendar of events in any given year that glitterati and dignitaries are nothing out of the ordinary. There’s the Polo Cup, the American Film Festival, the International Sailing Week, the Book & Music Festival, the Paris-Deauville Car Rally, the World Bridge Festival…You name it, if it’s a pretty posh thing to do, it will go on in Deauville. If you were to attend everything in a given year, you would surely wear out even the most resilient of Louboutins or Gucci loafers.
From the start, the breeding and racing of horses have been key parts of Deauville life – this is, after all, the town that had its own racecourse before a church. Nowadays, these hoofed little earners are so important, the town’s airport five miles away is equipped to handle the travel requirements of any arriving equine VIP. The season at the lovely track on the edge of town runs throughout most months of the year (including the winter) thanks to the oiled fibre-sand the horses race on, but the undoubted equestrian highlight is in August, when the great and the good arrive for the Lucien Barrière Polo Cup.
Away from all the chukkas and champagne, it is noticeable while walking in the town how marvellously maintained the public areas are. There are flowers in bloom everywhere and small fountains gush in appropriate measure. With around 90 per cent of the town’s economy derived from tourism, it’s important the place looks good. A little road-based toy-town train scoots tourists around the streets through a world of half-timbered architecture, pointy roofs and enchanting turrets which together create a definite Disneyland feel – as if you have somehow stumbled into the Beauty and the Beast Experience.
But real life definitely does go on here. I stop by the farmers’ market and remind myself what strawberries actually taste like – shame on you, supermarkets of Britain. Then, I do my darnedest (yet fail) to avoid the tantalising patisseries that lurk temptingly every hundred yards or so.
Just behind the Casino – one of the biggest in France – lies a small pedestrianised area where top notch designer boutiques such as Hermes, Ferragamo and Louis Vuitton vie for your euros. In a way, it is strange there is no Yves Saint Laurent emporium since the celebrated designer used to have a house in town. As I amble as decorously as possible around this pretty retail enclave, it appears quiet – the price tags in the windows enough to be out of most visitors’ reach – and maybe it only really gets busy during that polo season when some bigwig’s squeeze scurries in to salvage an unexpected wardrobe malfunction.
A short walk away is Deauville’s most striking attraction – all 1,400 metres of it. The beach is justly famous: it featured prominently in Claude Lelouch’s iconic 60s love-fest A Man And A Woman, where – to Francis Lai’s legendary “Ba-da-ba-da-bah” theme tune – brooding racing driver Jean-Louis Trintignant zoomed his sports car along the sand in search of Anouk Aimée and her cheekbones.
A wooden boardwalk now stretches along the majority of the beach and if you want to get into your swimming togs in privacy or store your bucket and spade for the season, you can do so in small huts which are for hire there. Each one is named after a Hollywood star, and one wonders whether “Sean Connery” would be a more expensive rental than “Gene Hackman” next door.
Dotted with hundreds of neatly tied, multicoloured parasols, the beach is a pleasure to wander along, though weather did not permit me to dip more than a toe in the sea. Well, that’s not strictly true. I did take an indoor sea water plunge in the 50m pool at the edge of the beach, though only after donning the required swimming cap and having my trunks pass muster – no long baggy surfing dude apparel in this pool, merci beaucoup.
Next door to the swimming pool rising rather inconspicuously a mere one storey above ground is perhaps Deauville’s greatest surprise: the entrance to the Centre International de Deauville, an underground lair of a conference centre to make Dr Evil proud. Remarkably, built underneath the land between the beachfront road and the beach itself is an auditorium/cinema which can house 1,500 people. This is where the main events of the G8 meeting took place and it is this facility that makes Deauville one of France’s main conference destinations. Each September, it’s the home of the American Film Festival which welcomes a starry line-up to rival (and frequently trounce) the better known festival in Cannes. It was here in 1997 that a real-life Hollywood romance took place as Michael Douglas, promoting A Perfect Murder, met his future wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was in town with The Mask Of Zorro. A real case of love blossoming across the junkets. Clooney, Brangelina, Spielberg, Hanks, Coppola, Streep, Pacino, Paltrow have all given good red carpet in recent years and helped make Deauville one of the key dates in the film festival calendar.
Providing a striking contrast to all this glitz is the neighbouring town of Trouville. With fishing being the main trade, it was built for work, whereas Deauville was built more for entertainment. It is set on a hillside, while Deauville is almost entirely flat. Trouville was here first, and does show it a little, compared with the manicured propriety of Deauville. The contrast is made all the more remarkable as the two towns now appear geographically to merge into one. As it is so easily reachable on foot from Deauville and is home to a number of fine local restaurants and a very different vibe, a trip to Trouville is well worth the effort.
Indeed, location has always been in Deauville’s favour, something the Duc de Morny clearly appreciated when he established the town back in 1860. It sits on one of the closest bits of sea to Paris, with a train whisking you from Gare Saint-Lazare in less than two hours. It has proved so popular with the capital’s residents over the years that it has been nicknamed the 21st arrondissement. It is also a marvellous base from which to explore other fascinating parts of Normandy. Divine Honfleur is under half an hour away and Omaha beach can be reached in an hour, though longer if you stop off in Bayeux to check out that tapestry.
For its part, Deauville will carry on welcoming the beautiful people who will continue going around town doing lovely things very attractively. So, if you fancy a spot of the high life – or haut monde, naturellement – it may well be time to indulge your inner celeb and join the jet set so you can at least – albeit temporarily – have a little of what they’re having.
• Ryanair (Ryanair.com, 0871 246 0000) flies from London Stansted to Deauville-Normandy with connections from Edinburgh and Glasgow International; Flybe (flybe.com, 0371 700 2000) flies from London Southend to Caen-Normandy.
• For trains from Scotland to Trouville-Deauville, contact Rail Europe (raileurope.com, 0844 848 5848).
• Hôtel Le Trophée (letrophee.com, 0033(0) 231884586) – 3 stars; Mercure Deauville Centre (mercure.com, 0871 663 0627) – 4 stars.
• Tourist information: deauville.org/en