(Telegraph) – ‘I got out of bed, opened the shutters and the sea and sky struck me full in the face with the same blue, the same pink, the same happiness.”
Decades have passed since Françoise Sagan wrote those words on St Tropez, a place she arrived at in 1955, glowing with the success of her recently published Bonjour Tristesse, but opening my shutters last week I saw the same blue, the same dusty pink and experienced the same feeling of happiness Sagan wrote about.
The tiny fishing village of St Tropez was discovered by artists at the end of the 19th century and captured vividly on canvas by Camoin and Signac, who went on to lure Matisse there. “I have enough material here to keep me busy for the rest of my life. I have just discovered what it is to be happy,” Signac said on arriving at the little port. That joy shouts from his blue and pink and yellow St Tropez, The Quay, painted in 1899 and now hanging in the not-to-be-missed, small but atmospheric Musée de l’Annonciade.
And then of course there was the 1956 film Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman), which launched Brigitte Bardot and indeed St Tropez into the larger world with its phenomenal success in America. Happiness came into that, too, when Bardot’s character, Juliette, after being told off by her mother for not working, replied, “I am working. I am working at being happy.” Something that could be described as Tropézienne.
But cut to summer 2019 and a lot of locals are not happy; not happy at all with the reimagined Pampelonne Beach, the centre of St Tropez’s social scene, which in the Fifties symbolised pleasure and hedonism, where Bardot et al frolicked and topless sunbathing became a new norm.
The disquiet is due to the application of the Loi Littoral a law France has introduced to preserve the coastline. The 27 restaurants that drew the crowds to Pampelonne Beach all summer long have been reduced to 23. The ones with concessions nearest the sea are under an obligation to dismantle their sustainably designed beach clubs at the end of the season, involving a cost that will no doubt be reflected in their prices. But the greatest outcry is over the institutions that were pillars of Tropézienne life, such as La Plage des Jumeaux and Tabou Beach, which have lost out to new arrivals from hotels Byblos and La Réserve, changing the face of this much-loved beach.
But people love to grumble and, as I found when I was there last week, this is a bit of a storm in a teacup, with resistance turning fairly fast to acceptance, even pride as the new come dazzlingly designed, and are on trend in terms of preservation, a concept that the locals support.
La Réserve à la Plage has been created by Philippe Starck, with a decor of slatted wooden beams creating shade from which natural straw lampshades are suspended, swinging in the breeze. Food, courtesy of chef Eric Canino, matches the effortlessly cool vibe with a raw bar of sushi, carpaccio and tartare begging to be shared before a lemon-scented, fresh-grilled fish arrives at the table.
Just 10 minutes away in Ramatuelle is the hotel La Réserve. A 27-bed Jean-Michel Wilmotte creation, perfect in its less-is-more simplicity. Perched high up above the Mediterranean, its rooftop restaurant has a Van Gogh-esque Provençal ceiling of stars, while the windows in its Michelin-starred La Voile restaurant pull the eye to the pine trees and shimmering sea beneath. Wilmotte was also responsible for the interiors at the newly rebranded Cheval Blanc, which opened in St Tropez in May, having previously been La Résidence de la Pinède.
It was long-time resident W Somerset Maugham who coined the well-worn phrase that the French Riviera was a sunny place for shady people, but the only shade I saw at Cheval Blanc was in the tinted windows of the hotel’s signature blue Bentley; the rest of the hotel, or maison, as they prefer to call it, is pure sunlight.
The 30 rooms and suites are clad in chic white, trimmed with Riviera blue. Muted beige rugs that top the oak floors come with designs embossed in blue velvet lines straight from the sketch book of ceramicist Roger Capron, whose original Provençal tiles and pottery lend character throughout. Lights from Gio Ponti illuminate the contemporary art that is woven through the building, starting with the colourful Carlos Cruz-Diez, which hangs in the lobby.
But it is perhaps from the outside, under the pine trees on the terrace between St Tropez’s only lick of beach and the peach-coloured facade with its white shutters, that you most feel the soul of Cheval Blanc St Tropez. Here, breakfast comes with typical French ceremony: a sliver of cheese, a local yogurt, warm patisserie. You can dine on grilled lobster at lunch, before gazing out at a yacht or contemplating a dip in the infinity pool. Then the sunset and a three-Michelin-star dinner in the hotel’s La Vague d’Or, with chef Arnaud Donckele’s thyme flower granita and Florentine fennel sorbet, bring the day to a close.
“St Tropez is like a good mayonnaise. It has the right ingredients in the right quantities,” Christophe Chauvin, the general manager of Byblos told me. Byblos is the party hotel, its nightclub, Les Caves du Roy, synonymous with celebrity and hedonism. Its boldly coloured walls have seen it all, from Mick Jagger’s wedding in 1971. This year, a new Ducasse restaurant, Cucina, has just opened here and its beach club debut on Pampelonne is proving a hit. Designed by Miami-based Francois Frossard, champagne-coloured gauze is woven through raw wood beams to provide shelter from the sun. The avocado, king crab, pomelo and lemon caviar and the plump burrata with truffle on a nest of green beans are dishes to return for.