It’s been estimated that during the peak summer period of July and August around six million visitors descend on St Tropez – some for a day, others to recline portside on boats to get the obligatory pap shot, or for the privileged few, to live it up at the many clubs which populate Pampelonne beach. The main parties of the summer are held in July – from whence the elite move on to Italy or Greece. But lest you feel FOMO, as a longtime summer resident, I relished the late autumn when the summer visitors left, the weather was still pleasant and the French were in arguably better moods.
Next week sees the annual Les Voiles de St Tropez – the end of summer regatta which takes place each year until October 6. Not only is it one of the sailing world’s favourite events but it also marks the last hurrah of the season. This year marks the 20th anniversary of “Les Voiles” when more than 300 classic and modern yachts will flock to the port. For the sailing fraternity this is a must – apparently three state of the art Wallycentos are competing and The Rolex trophy is awarded to the winner of the Classic Division over 16 metres.
While not a sailor, one thing I enjoy is watching the portside action from the best vantage point – the balcony of Hotel Sube, (quai Suffren). It’s above the throng, not as expensive as Le Sènèquier and a spot where locals enjoy a verre before dinner.
Chanel’s Cruise show in 2011 on the streets of St Tropez as the fashion crowd were seated on the terrace of Le Senequier
Also of note is “La Grande Braderie de St Tropez” which is shopping heaven and held late October, when boutiques sell off their wares at reduced prices and set up rails on the little cobbled streets. I remember bagging several bargains one year from Carolina Herrera at a fraction of the cost.
Talking of shopping, since I first visited St Tropez almost 30 years ago now some of the small boutiques have been eclipsed by the major fashion houses setting up impressive flagship stores. Chanel took over La Mistralée townhouse this year and it is decorated in signature beige and black, selling among other things the new Chanel Coco Beach Collection. The Dior des Lices maison is another pretty location, off the main Place des Lices – and a more chi chi place for coffee cannot be found.
Market days on Tuesday and Saturdays at La Place des Lices are more enjoyable off season too, though parking is invariably tricky. I always love getting in early and having a coffee at Le Clemenceau (or Le Clem to locals) before browsing the brocante (which is on Saturday). Keep your eyes pealed. I’ve spotted so many celebrities in civilian gear from Giorgio Armani to Bruno Tonioli and residents such as Ivanka Trump, Jerry Hall or Tracey Emin.
You’ll often see people leaving the market with a Tarte Tropézienne to enjoy after lunch. The signature cake is an egg and butter brioche filled with a mixture of buttercream, pastry cream and heavy cream and topped with pearl sugar. The best ones I found were at Le Sènèquier patisserie (behind the café) or Aux Deux Fréres, rue des Commercants.
This summer has seen the opening or refurbishment of many of the famous beach clubs. Notably Philippe Starck’s Reserve a la Plage and the hotel Byblos’ beach club. These are posh, pristine establishments, but for me they are not the essence of St Tropez. The port attracted artists such as Signac in the early 20th century and later actresses such as Romy Schneider and Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. All were drawn to the town’s simple charms. Its light, its coloured roofs, cobbled streets and rustic beaches. Coincidentally a visit to Musee de l’Annonciade has a permanent exhibition of early 20th-century paintings by Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse and Paul Signac as well as the exhibition “Delacroix – Signac: the Color of Neo-Impressionaism” until October 13. Less high brow is an exhibition on Johnny Hallyday (the so-called French Elvis) also a one-time regular visitor, at Musée de la Gendarmerie, on Blanqui Square. Interestingly last year featured an exhibition by the Irish photographer Edward Quinn, who spent much of his life photographing celebrities on the Riviera.
Some of St Tropez’s original charm still exists at La Ponche which is a minuscule beach (and a hotel of the same name) in one of the older, quieter districts of the town. Further away still is Les Granier, 1 Plage des Graniers, where you can have lunch with your toes in the sand, or at the new Jardin Tropezina an eco-friendly garden in Ramatuelle, a far cry from the throbbing beach parties of say Moorea Plage or Nikki Beach (which celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer). A must-do though is a visit to Club 55 – where I always think the cost of lunch is offset by the calibre of people watching (Kate Moss, Elton John, models galore and royals). Order the cold fish – not on the menu but delicious. The Club opens at Christmas and Easter and serves divine Petale des Roses – from the Chateau Les Barbeyrolles. I recommend a visit to the vineyard (Chateau Minuty is also close) and squirrelling a case home if you are driving.
As for where to stay, Villa Marie would be my recommendation. Its relaxed Bohemian vibe is enhanced by the pretty Provencal garden. Rooms feature four-poster beds and antiques, while the hotel has a Pure Altitude Spa, heated pool and endless views from the terraced restaurant. On my wishlist is a stay at the newly-opened Lily of the Valley, a little further along the coast in La Croix Valmer. One bonus is the hotel, which is a Philippe Starck creation and a hymn to wellness with a spa featuring Biologique Recherche, Esthederm Ayurveda and TCM treatments), will remain open throughout the year.
For more budget-friendly options, the villages of Ramatuelle and Gassin, have many small hotels. The small, friendly L’Ecurie du Castellas (route de Paillas) in Ramatuelle has a great view over the village, where a coffee in Café de l”Ormeau feels like being part of a Joanne Harris novel. Gassin is one of all-time favourite French villages and Bello Visto, (Place dei Barri) is both restaurant and hotel. If the weather is good the terrasse restaurant is atmospheric. In cooler times the soupe a la pistou is recommended. The soup is a fresh and vibrant mix of vegetables flavoured with pesto, which like St Tropez, always leaves me wanting second helpings.
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