Brigitte Bardot cemented Saint Tropez’s reputation as the playground of the beautiful, and it’s lost none of its lustre, finds Kate Wickers
Wow! You are just so jet set!” teased one friend when I told her I was going to Saint Tropez. It’s true that saying you’re off to St Trop (as we jetsetters like to call it) does sound wonderfully swanky, conjuring up images of movie stars, super yachts, champagne and risqué activities. It’s been that way since 1956 when a sizzling Brigitte Bardot starred in the film And God Created Woman, and the town instantly became synonymous with glamour. For nearly 50 years it has worked hard to retain its sexy image and remain Europe’s most celebrated resort. I was itching to find out if it could live up to its reputation.
Sadly, my yacht was in for repairs so my friend Della and I hired a zippy Fiat 500 at Nice Airport and headed along the coastal route, stopping after just half an hour for a seafood lunch and a visit to the Picasso Museum in the lovely town of Antibes. From here, Saint Tropez is another two to three hours via Cannes, dependent on the route you take, either scenic coastal (slow) or motorway (fast), which cuts a swathe through dense pine forests.
Hotel Byblos is one of Saint Tropez’s most iconic hotels, built in 1960 by Jean-Prosper Gay Para, who became obsessed with meeting Brigitte Bardot. Legend has it that he built a hotel in the hope that she would book in. In 1967, due to the Israeli-Arab conflict, he handed the hotel over to Sylvain Floirat. Floirat’s dream came true and the jet set soon followed.Mick and Bianca Jagger honeymooned here; Jack Nicholson and Cher have lounged by the pool, and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio checked in. The hotel is built to resemble the ideal of a Provencal village; a perfect palette of vivid red, orange and yellow houses with turquoise and blue wooden shutters and roofs tiled in terracotta. There are reminders of its Sixties heyday in the boutique that sells wide floppy sunhats, teeny bikinis and enormous sunglasses. And when a male peacock lands on your balcony and displays his beautiful plumage, don’t scream as we did! It turns out that Leon is quite the bird about town.
July and August are known as the “bling bling” months, when the jet set cruise in to splash their cash and party. If you’re not into dancing near naked on a table while some fool spays a nebuchadnezzar of champagne into your navel, then the nicest times to visit are April to June and September to October. According to the locals, these are the “quality not quantity” months, when you won’t have to jostle for space with up to 10,000 visitors. I was expecting nothing but designer shops, but the town’s narrow streets brim with tempting affordable boutiques such as Nina Kaufman for chic hippy dresses.
The sales girls are attentive and flattering with well-practised lines like, “Oh, you British women really know how to dress”. And you never know who you might share mirror space with. For me it was the Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, flouncing around in a peasant-style dress.
It was reassuring to see that the mega yachts have to still make room for local fishing boats in Vieux port. Leather-skinned seaman mend nets on their boats while women sunbathe topless on their yachts. Neither bats an eyelid. For those of us not quite as familiar with the scene, a seat at Café Senequier, with its distinctive red director’s chairs, is the prime spot if you’re on yacht watch. For a gull’s eye view and cheaper drinks, head for the naval-themed Hotel Sube’s first-floor balcony, overlooking the port. Here, out of earshot, you can be as rude as you like about the hopeless fashion victims below. It’s fun to speculate on who owns these decadent spacecraft-like vessels, but it can be disappointing when a middle-aged couple and their brood turn up.
At the turn of the last century Paul Signac was seduced by the quality of light and colour in the Cote d’Azur and took up residence to paint, soon followed by Matisse, Bonnard, and later, Picasso. There’s a stunning collection of their work at Musee L’Annonciade, housed in a 16th-century chapel on the quay. Gazing at Signac’s Le Quai, painted in 1899 and devoid of super yachts, is a breath of fresh air. Rivea at Byblos is one of Saint Tropez’s most stylish French-Italian restaurants, created by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. It’s not the kind of place where you choose something ordinary to eat so I order the acacia flower tempura (grown locally on an organic farm), followed by duckling breast with nougat, another of the town’s locally produced specialties and still etched on my tastebuds.
I didn’t think I’d be hungry enough for breakfast but it’s too good to miss – the bread alone is divine, but there are eggs Florentine, pain au chocolat, raspberry brioche, local cheeses and hams. We wander it off through the market on the Place des Lices, a dusty square, shaded by plane trees and the battleground of monsieurs playing boules. From here it’s a lovely stroll down Rue Georges Clemenceau, where we curse our decision to bring only hand luggage, discovering homeware shop Marinette for beautiful throws, rugs and candle holders, and join the queue at Atelier Rondini to try on leather sandals in a rainbow of colours.
As temperatures rise in April the infamous beach clubs on Pampelonne Beach, a few miles from the town, open for the season. In the summer you can’t move at Club 55 for tanned male models and the likes of J-Lo and Paris Hilton, but in spring and autumn there’s a more relaxed vibe. But with just a weekend to explore we stay in the town and climb to the Citadelle for views to the port and across the sea to the Maures Mountains. We mosey down Rue des Ramparts, with its trendy little shops and galleries. You don’t have to spend a fortune to eat well and we dine on creamy moules marinieres et frites with a sea view at La Pesquiere, run by Jacques Cadel since 1962. Dessert is Saint Tropez’s famous cake, Tart Tropezienne, a brioche filled with cream. The Byblos is also home to the Riviera’s most famous nightclub, Les Caves du Roy, with its kitsch gold palm trees, baroque columns and myriad mirrors in which to pose. We arrive unfashionably early at midnight to secure a prime people-watching position at the bar.
The only requirement for admission is a face that fits and at least e27 in your pocket, as all drinks by the glass are priced the same, whether it’s water or champagne. Friday night pleasure seekers pile in to claim their seats by the dance floor, where George Clooney was recently spotted throwing some shapes.
A young woman in a see-through dress writhes on the dance floor. “Poor love, she seems to have forgotten her bra,” giggles Della. Within minutes she has been sent champagne by an anonymous admirer. Della and I clink glasses. Saint Tropez’s reputation is intact.
• Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) fly direct to Nice from Edinburgh with return flights starting at around £88 inc. taxes. A double room at Hotel Byblos (www.byblos.com) based on two people sharing, including breakfast, starts at e440 (£316).