I fell in love with the French Riviera as a teenager - it has a magical charm that nowhere else can emulate. And, there's no place like St Tropez. Explore the beaches, restaurants and hotels with me
I first visited the French Riviera as a teenager and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was the most dazzling, beautiful, exciting, glamorous place I’d ever been (not that I was that well travelled then.)
I have visited many places since that first trip but, to me, the Riviera still has a magical charm that nowhere else can emulate. My heart still accelerates when that jet zooms low over the bay of Nice, on its final approach to the aptly named Cote d’Azur, and it has nothing to do with the pilot’s manoeuvres.
The Riviera is a place of sublime contrasts. Running from San Remo, past the principality of Monaco, almost to Marseille, at the other end of the coast, each village, town and beach has its individual charm. The villages, for example, have looked the same for hundreds of years yet some of the larger towns, stately Monaco for one or the grand old city of Nice, with their stunning boardwalks, splendid hotels, superb shops and restaurants have combined the best of modern architecture seamlessly with 19th-century grandeur.
But for me, there’s no place like St Tropez...that humble and holy name conjures up an idyllic paradise where hedonists reign and wealth and beauty conquer all. How fitting then that it was named after a Christian martyr beheaded by Nero...
The myth of Saint Tropez is known worldwide but actually its reputation is not old, relatively speaking. Although the sleepy little village has existed for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 1950s that this seductive spot started hitting the headlines, thanks to sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, the most nubile of post-war stars, and her husband Roger Vadim.
They discovered the delights of the nearby beaches of Pampelonne - then almost inaccessible thanks to the thick brush of parasol pines and tangled seaweed - but now a mecca to people all over the world who love good food, a wonderful ambience and gorgeous weather.
Now for the beaches...
Most people think of St Tropez beaches as filled with topless maidens (and matrons), heavy hitters and sex. That certainly goes on in some of the more decadent beaches such as the Voile Rouge, where groups of rich merchants think nothing of paying €10,000 for a Jeroboam of Champagne, which they then liberally squirt over their squealing, scantily-clad lady friends. Lunches at some of these beaches begin around 3pm and rarely finish before 8 or 9pm, complete with floor shows and fashion parades of the flimsiest beachwear and wild, uninhibited dancing on the tables and bars to the heaviest of rap beats – it’s non-stop decadence and, I have to admit, lots of fun.
The opposite of the Voile Rouge is the extremely chic Club 55 (Plage de Pampelonne, Boulevard Patch, 83350 Ramatuelle; +33 (0)4 94 55 55 55; www.club55.fr), known also as “Cinquante Cinq” (or to some Americans as "Sank-on-sank"), where I am bound to see loads of people I know, and loads of people I’ve been avoiding all year. The food is simple and sublime: the best artichoke vinaigrette and salade nicoise. If it gets too hot, an automatic spraying device springs to life across the restaurant to cool the patrons off, which invariably makes me feel like a vegetable on display at Waitrose.
The antithesis of “55” and Voile Rouge is a terrific little beach restaurant called Plage des Graniers right in the heart of St Tropez village and on the seashore. It’s a secret only I and the French seem to know about (so far, so good.) There is nothing quite as sublime as lunching with the sand between your toes and the crystal water lapping at your feet. It’s simple, down to earth and as far from the perceived St Tropez as it possibly gets.
Where to stay
Another little known secret is the hotel at the uber-famous Plage de Tahiti called Hotel Tahiti. It's very small and only has 20 rooms, and is very exclusive but not as expensive as one would imagine - by comparison with the rest of the hotels in the area. Known as the oldest surviving beach restaurant in the Pampelonne beach, Natalie Wood and I stayed there in the sixties and I was amazed when, last summer, "Madame Felix", widow of the patron, presented me with one of Natalie's earrings, which she had lost when we checked out. A few of my friends shacked up there last summer and considered it divine.
Other lovely places to stay in the area are the Hostellerie Le Baou, in the charming village of Ramatuelle, and the Villa Marie. Both boast superb cooking and the ambience and surrounding areas are quaint and picturesque. I particularly love the pool at the Villa Marie.
Where to shop
As for shopping, the market every Tuesday and Saturday at the Place des Lices is a fabulous bustling bazaar where you can find everything from antiques to artichokes and from cheese to cheese-cloth shirts. It's worth hours of slow delicious shopping followed by a slow delicious lunch. There is also Senso jewellers on the Rue Gambetta that has the most elegant, stylish avant-garde costume jewellery, so much like the real thing it is impossible to distinguish. Finally Olivier Strelli (Rue François Sibilli 83990 Saint Tropez; 04 94 97 64 10; www.strelli.be) is a chic and sophisticated store (which I frequent) on the Rue Francois Sibilli, for women with conservative tastes who still want to look fashionable and au-courant.
Where to eat
The restaurant I most frequent is the Auberge de La Mole (Route Nationale 98, 83310 La Môle; +33 4 94 49 57 01) in the village of La Mole (a 30 minute drive from St Tropez), which features the most gastronomically superb five-course set menu anywhere in the area. The first and second courses consist of five distinct pates, served in large tubs which you are welcome to indulge in to your heart's content (but do pace yourself), followed by either frogs legs, salade des crevettes or omelette au cepes.
The main is simply this - duck or steak, but the most delicious magret of duck or my personal favourite Tournedous Rossini - a tender filet topped with seared foie gras - and both accompanied by the most succulent potato pie the world has ever known. Then, of course, there's the cheese - a selection of which will leave your head spinning - followed by, if you can fit it in, five large tubs of dessert which again you can indulge in at leisure, of which the chocolate mousse is the most original and delicious I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
There is so much more to tell about this rich area but, after a dinner of that magnitude, there is nothing you will want to do but sleep peacefully, dreaming of the incredible variety that this sublime part of the world can offer.