Thursday, September 21, 2006

Romance on the Riviera

St Tropez. Who wouldn’t want to go to St Tropez? The name conjures images of film stars, money, glitz, Brigitte Bardot in her prime, gleaming white yachts, cruising sports cars, topless beaches and perfect sun tans. That being the case, you can imagine how thrilled Jeff and I were to receive an invitation to the most glamorous wedding on the St Tropez peninsula since Mick married Bianca in 1971. I had my doubts, however, whether the Cote d’Azur would turn out just too Over The Top for someone hoping to turn a dislike of crowds into a career.

As it turned out, La Croix Valmer, the village where the wedding ceremony was to take place, is only a short drive out of St Tropez, but light years away in terms of temperament and tempo. If St Tropez is the place to see and be seen, then Croix Valmer is a lower key alternative for those who want to get away from the hoi polloi and relax. I was charmed.

La Croix Valmer sits at the southern end of the St Tropez peninsula and is surrounded by vineyards, has several really beautiful sand beaches, and a substantial nature reserve perfect for hiking and getting away from everyone. At the suggestion of the bride’s family, we, along with most of the guests, stayed at the Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie, just outside of town, which must have been very “non plus ultra” during the Belle Epoque and is now a comfortable three star set in a park with a great pool and spectacular views over the bay. Staff are accommodating (and we certainly stress tested their ‘bonhommie’ during and after the festivities) although services are limited. The hotel does not have a restaurant or a bar but the receptionist will happily sell you drinks from the front desk. Our pretty double room with a fabulous sea view was a reasonable €126 per night in low season and although breakfast at €12 was steep for what it was, the fact that it was served out in the garden with such lovely views seemed to help justify the cost.

What makes La Croix Valmer and its beaches truly special is their position next to a vast tract of coastal land that has been set aside as a nature reserve, backing onto the justifiably famous and fun Gigaro beach with its surfers, lively bars and surprisingly good restaurants. The night we arrived, the groom’s family had an informal drinks party at the unpretentious beach bar and restaurant ‘Pepe Le Pirate’, at which point I stopped worrying about the entire Code d’Azur being too OTT. We also had several wonderful, informal and reasonably priced meals at the pretty beachside restaurant Couleurs Jardin, also in Gigaro. Although parking regulations are enforced, parking was hassle-free and plentiful. This was hardly the yacht choked, jet setting set-up I was expecting. I can’t speak about Gigaro in high summer, but in September, this place is blissful. I have been told that if you are willing to hike, even in high season, you can escape to empty beaches in hidden coves within the nature reserve.

On the Saturday morning of the wedding, hopeful that September 16 would be late enough in the season to take the topspin off the crowds, we set out for the famous Place des Lices market in St Tropez. But, of course, we underestimated the appeal of this world famous former fishing village, underestimating as well the fact that huge amounts of people wait until September to take their holidays. By late morning, the place was heaving, traffic was at a standstill and parking spaces were long gone. With that said, this is a really fun market and September is the perfect time to buy dirt cheap, incredibly sexy bikinis and knock-off Vilebrequin swim trunks. There’s lots of tourist tat and tee-shirts but you can also find keenly priced, good quality linens and cashmere as well as soaps, lavender and all kinds of fabulous food, much of which can be eaten as one strolls the rows of stalls. As the mother of the bride had so correctly cautioned us the night before, if you want to go to the market, be sure to get there early.

After we finished with the market, we walked down to the port which was heaving as well, which seemed to be the point of the place. We, like the rest of the plebeians, strolled along the space between the yachts and the bars and restaurants, hoping to see someone famous but only glimpsing lots of folks like ourselves looking hopeful. Jeff spent much time checking out the posted menus and prices and quickly began to lobby for heading out of town for lunch. We passed lots of boutiques which you can also find on Bond Street/Madison Avenue. The architecture in the old town is lovely. But I don’t feel we need to go back.

Still, later that day, after a beautiful ceremony, we did head back towards St Tropez for the reception at Les Moulins de Ramatuelle, a small inn and fabulous restaurant set in a lovely garden, only five minutes out of town. And as the French dramatist, Jean Anouilh, once remarked, “In France, everything, from weddings to duels, is merely a pretext for a good dinner." And what a brilliant dinner we had, set in an elegant dining room of white, blond and beige opening on to the a romantically lit garden. With five rooms, the intimate Moulin de Ramatuelle would be an good alternative for couples who want to be near the action of St Tropez but at the same time, stay out of the scrum.

So what’s the verdict on the Cote d’Azur? Maybe it was the charm of the young couple getting married, the attractiveness of their friends and family, the sun which finally came out after an ominous deluge, the lunch at Coulers Jardin or the dinner at the Moulin de Ramatuelle, but in any event, I loved it. And here are my tips to make sure you love it too. Go any time except July and August. Stay within walking distance of Gigaro beach. Have a sunset drink at Pepe the Pirate’s, stay off the road to Nice and get to the Lices market early.

Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie

Route de Ramatuelle

PB 33

83420 La Croix Valmer

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 55 27 27

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 54 38 91

Coulers Jardin

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Tel: 04 94 79 59 12

Pepe Le Pirate

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Les Moulins de Ramatuelle

Route des Plages

83350 Ramatuelle

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 1722

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 85 60

Place des Lices Market

Tuesday and Saturday from 8:00 - 1:00pm

Photo of the beach at Gigaro


  1. A small update for restaurant Couleurs Gardin, Gigaro, if I may. We were there off season, October 2007 and at the end of high season also (August 2009). The restaurant is wonderfully located, it is true. If you need romantic place, go no further, but be prepare to pay extra, for example, Dorada for two would cost you 100 euro (I don’t advice to take anything else but grilled fish, other dishes on the menu not very tasteful, we ordered Bouillabaisse, they brought us about kilo potatoes in tasteless brown water.) One more thing – high season or not, be careful, if you order a table for the weekend. (Better still to place the order not over the phone, but personally). Even if you specify explicitly, that you need a table in the first row on the terrace, there is a possibility, that they will “misunderstand” you, or will say that somebody order before you and they forgot, and your romantic evening will be spoiled. In case you choose taste over romance, there is a Café Valmer in the village La Croix Valmer, you’ll get better quality for sufficiently smaller amount of money, and I hope you enjoy your holiday, as we enjoyed ours:)

  2. Thank you so much for the really useful update on Couleurs Jardin and I look forward to trying the Cafe Valmer soon.
    All the best,