Sainte-Maxime is a Riviera bolthole that trumps its brassier cousin St Tropez on all counts… and is friendly to boot
They say the only way to arrive in St Tropez is by boat and with unlimited spending power, and while it’s true that the glamour and glitz of the famous Riviera town is probably best enjoyed when you don’t need to ask the price of anything, lack of Hollywood looks or bucks doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this part of the Cote d’Azur in style.
Just across the Gulf of St Tropez from the sun-drenched haunt of beautiful people with more money than sense is Sainte-Maxime
, its face turned to the south and its back protected from the winds that can whip through the South of France
by the Maures mountain range. Ste-Maxime wins on points on its snootier cousin across the water on a number of things - there’s more space, the beaches are better, there are a host of shopping experiences on offer, and more restaurants, bars and cafes tucked into its labyrinthine cobbled streets than you could hope for.
That’s not to say Ste-Maxime is in any way cheap; those Trop aficionados can and often do bring their yachts across to moor in the picturesque harbour, and there are exclusive boutiques and top-priced restaurants aplenty. But Ste-Maxime seems generally more reasonable, less hoity-toity, and certainly more family-friendly than St-Tropez.
Like its near neighbour - and here the comparisons will end - Ste-Maxime has traditionally been a haunt for artists and writers, with one of its more famous residents for Brits being Jean de Brunhoff, the creator of Babar the Elephant. His creation is honoured with La Plage des Elephants (Elephant Beach, of course), the main town beach, which is separated from the town proper by a wide, palm-lined promenade and the main coastal road through the region. In spring and summer the promenade is home to funfairs and morning markets, the ubiquitous pétanque pitch and a host of refreshment stops running on to the harbour, where the pristine white yachts bob in the glittering blue water that gives this stretch of coastline its name.
There are a number of beachside cafes. Our favourite haunt was the Paris Plage, a relaxed bolthole where fresh salads and seafood could be enjoyed out of the heat of the noon sun, and where regulars will get to know the friendly, laidback staff. Go just out of high season and your loyalty after a couple of lunches there might well be rewarded with sun-loungers reserved for you every day, and you won’t even have to get up to have ice-cold beer and local wines by the carafe delivered to you.
If La Plage des Elephants isn’t for you (though there isn’t any reason why it shouldn’t be - it’s Blue Flag-clean, friendly and safe, with a gently sloping shelf into the clear waters), then La Croisette Beach and La Nartelle, on the outskirts of town, are considered to be superior. And away from the beach, too, Ste-Maxime has a huge amount to offer.
Accommodation is by hotel -Hotel Les Jardins De Sainte-Maxime
and Hotel Le Beauvallon
are both highly regarded - rental villa or apartment, or one of the campsites that dot the hillside and coast further around. Though high season will see the main road choked by traffic on its way to St Tropez and the beaches further south and west, a car will be useful if you want to venture beyond the town. We stayed at Les Tournels
, a half-hour drive away in low season.
Much time can be devoted to simply wandering the narrow pedestrianised streets. The keen shopper will find boutiques offering classy clothes, especially catering for women and children. Cafés offer respite from the summer, with long drinks, wines and coffees or hot chocolates, and there are no shortage of flip-flop and beach-bag shops for all your sunbathing needs. The promenade and just behind has a host of eating options, and although a booking would be necessary for some of the busier places, there are enough establishments to ensure even the most disorganised party should get a quality meal of an evening. We strayed more than once to L’Escapade on the front; their easy, tolerant manner with our children (four and two, and disinclined to sit still for long periods while mum and dad enjoyed moules marinière or a freshly-made pasta dish) ensured our repeat business.
If shopping or sunbathing isn’t your thing, then Ste-Maxime is drenched in history and culture, too. The town dates back to the 17th century (relatively young for the area) and you’ll find a museum in an old defensive tower near the port; and the historic church that gives the town its name is worth a look, with its marble altar and sculptures.
Perhaps the best way to get an overview of the town is to take a ride on le petit train, a small land-train, which sets off at regular intervals from the harbour and climbs the steep hillside, weaving between the villas of millionaire’s row and offering astonishing vistas of the coast. Across the bay you’ll see St-Tropez, and you’ll realise that all your time in Ste-Maxime you’ve never given its brasher neighbour a second thought.
Ste-Maxime is around a 90-minute drive from Nice airport, which is served by several UK airlines, including Jet2.