"For God's sake, girl, cover up" .. the hotel owner said to Brigitte Bardot.
Can Jack Nicholson, Kylie Minogue and Cathérine Deneuve all be wrong? Well, naturally they can and doubtless often are – but not, I submit, about accommodation in St Tropez.
Tucked away by the ramparts in the old fishermen’s quarter, La Ponche breathes the discretion of a place with plenty to tell. I always think of it as a beautiful mature woman quietly confident of her continuing allure after a tumbling, tantalising youth. It’s an obvious destination for the classier, cleverer elements of showbiz (in which category I absolutely include Kylie. I should be so lucky).
La Ponche is guardian of St Tropez’s most appealing traditions, for the very good reason that they started here. In the 1940s and 1950s, the place was a fisherman’s basic bar. As such, it attracted the arty, cultivated and libertine types then making St Tropez their HQ, a sort of summer-time version of the Parisian Left Bank
In the bar and on the terrace in the tiny square out front, they drank, smoked, talked and played jazz through the night. Juliette Greco and Boris Vian were there. So was Sartre. Picasso sipped his pastis overlooking the little Ponche beach and bay beyond. Shortly, a rudimentary night-club was added. Brigitte Bardot would occasionally shed her clothes on the dance-floor. The boss – step-father of the present owner – was almost certainly the only man on earth who ever urged Bardot … “for God’s sake, girl, cover up”.
With BB’s appearance in And God Created Woman, the resort’s raunchy reputation went world-wide. La Ponche became a hotel but (and this is the point) remained the sort of place where you could talk of abstract art or existentialism until very late and no-one would ever, ever mention whom you woke up with next morning. It never took the champagne-spraying route: that’s why it was Romy Schneider’s favourite.
Mrs Duckstein's mum
And, though now a four-star of no little contemporary comfort, it still hasn’t embraced bling. In the image of owner Simone Duckstein, there’s a simple Provençal elegance about the 18 rooms and suites. Many have their own little terraces amid the Tropezien rooftops. A feminine family pride is evident in the soft colours and fabrics, the bathrooms and furnishings. You might not meet many fishermen in the bar these days, but the stools remain those upon which Greco, Sartre and Bardot sat.
And the restaurant still serves the fish soup which made Mme Duckstein’s mum’s culinary reputation. Settle on this old terrace with the soup, a sole meunière and a bottle of rosé and you begin to understand the real enchantment which underpins the St Tropez hype.
The past is present, but as an undertone, not a weight. La Ponche has seen half the interesting people in the world, but it’s still pleased to see you. Mme Duckstein is the grand-daughter of a fisherman and a winegrower. Her class is deep-rooted. She will not tolerate those who are rude or off-hand to her staff, no matter how celebrated the offenders might be. There’s a secret red list in Reception of people who won’t be coming back. Needless to say, Jack, Kylie and Cathérine are far too civilised to be on it.