Ever since Brigitte Bardot emerged from the Mediterranean glistening in a two-piece swimsuit in the 1956 film …And God Created Woman, the French Riviera town of Saint-Tropez has never lacked for a certain kind of beauty-and all those who would bask in its reflected glow. This is a town where people watching is a competitive sport and the chairs at waterfront cafes rotate to face the line-up of megayachts that flank the docks like jewellery; where gorgeous women teeter in six-inch stilettos along cobblestone streets with well-fed men in tow and regulars like Kate Moss and Bono blow air-kisses to each other across the room; and where getting into the right beach club requires an inside connection or a serious tip. Pulling up in a Maserati doesn’t hurt either, but you might have a hard time finding it in the sea of exotic sports cars that pack all the lots.
For many reasons-that inimitable light, the authentically decadent scene-the sun-kissed former fishing village has been a playground for the international elite since at least the 1920s, when Coco Chanel and her fashion nemesis Elsa Schiaparelli retreated here to work on their tans. Artists soon followed: Picasso, Matisse and their friends fell in love with the setting on the lush Cap Saint-Pierre peninsula, where the sun fracturing on Canoubiers Bay and the Massif des Maures provided infinite inspiration. As the French novelist Colette once put it, “No road goes through Saint-Tropez. There is only one that takes you there and goes no further. If you want to leave, you must turn back. But will you leave?”
Few ever turn back, and it’s still a very hard place to leave. Since those nascent early years, Saint-Tropez has enjoyed a prolonged golden era, rich with the kinds of stories you just can’t make up: Putt’ Daddy jet-skiing in a terry bathrobe; Mick Jagger accidentally getting locked out of the church at his own wedding (the priest was attempting to thwart paparazzi; Jagger got lost in the crowd). Glamour summered here-Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, among other royalty, Hollywood and genuine, made it their warm-weather home for four decades. And though they might not have had jeroboams of Champagne at Nikki Beach back then, the same joie de vivre still courses through its narrow streets. It’s a sybaritic kind of indulgence that can’t be re-created in the nearby towns of Cannes or Nice, though they may try. So get a good seat at Senequier on the Quai Jean Jaures and watch the good life parade by in all its splendour as the sun sets into the sea. The real Saint-Tropez, both old and new, still thrives.
BEACH CLUBS – There is no beach-club scene in the world like the one in Saint-Tropez. Not in the Hamptons. Not in Malibu. Not in Monaco. Here, striped lounge chairs are lined up like dominoes along the three-mile Plage de Pampelonne (which, to split hairs, is technically in Ramatuelle), the longest and most photographed stretch of sand in the region, and scoring a pair of recliners is never easy-unless you arrive by yacht. Local lore has it that Bardot was often spotted rolling around on the sand with men in front of Club 55. Crowds who wanted to live out her liberated lifestyle followed, and with them, more beach clubs.
Club Les Palmiers – Wear white for this sophisticated day club attached to the hotel of the same name. It’s a decidedly under-the-radar scene that attracts locals, incognito celebrities and well-heeled travellers looking for fewer selfies but perhaps the best food on the beach. Expect fresh seafood and velvety pastas along with thumping music and a crowd that can’t get enough.
Bagatelle – With outposts in Sâo Paulo, Miami, Dubai and other fashionable destinations, it was only a matter of time before Bagatelle made its way to Saint-Tropez. The club, which opened in June, has since been added to the list of let’s-do-lunch favourites for global citizens. Grab one of the 200 sun loungers on the beach or book a private-section bed for the ultimate afternoon hideaway.
Nikki Beach – If you were looking for the party, you’ve found it. Nikki Beach has been hosting globe-trotting guests for 14 years, and the club’s cult following continues to grow each season. The “white party” runs all summer by the pool and lures boldface names by the boatload, quite literally. If you go, bring a change of clothes-those bottles of Cristal have a mind of their own.
Tahiti Beach – Dating back to 1946, the region’s oldest beach club draws a more casual set, by Saint-Tropez standards. Though it’s situated at the northern end of Pampe-lonne, Tahiti’s bright orange sunbrellas and waterfront huts make guests feel like they’ve been transported to an exotic Polynesian paradise.