Breakfast at the Royal Bar along La Croisette in Cannes is typical of a petit déjeuner with café au lait, jus d’orange, croissants, pain, beurre et confiture. Having refuelled, we return to the Carlton Hotel to pack and check out. We find the lobby in chaos with people waiting for attention.
We face more delays checking out and when our car is finally brought to us, we leave the Carlton with a sense of disappointment. For a hotel that conjures up images of opulence, luxury and nostalgic charm, we found the ambience to be a little hostile, the room mediocre and the hospitality indifferent. As we pull away from the driveway, we put the experience behind us.
We drive past Vieux Cannes with a port full of fishing boats and luxury yachts. It would have been a pretty part of town had it not been for a darkening sky with melancholic shades of grey.
We take Route Nationale 98 on the way to St-Tropez. We pass La Napoule, a seaside resort connected to Mandelieu, a town with a large marina, sandy beaches extending around the bay and a medieval castle.
Between La Napoule and St-Raphael on the winding N98, we come across the imposing beauty of the Esterel Massif. The Esterel is made up of volcanic rocks which give it a distinctive contour and a flaming red colour. The range extends to the sea at some points, alternating with small bays, beaches and narrow shores. The red colour looks burnt orange under the cloudy sky. The first raindrops start to hit the windscreen.
We overtake several small groups of cyclists heading in one direction. Le Tour de France, perhaps? Is it possible that this important cycling event that originated in 1903 was on our route this early July? Bien-sur que non! Just a group of road-wise French cyclists who are considerate of drivers and overtook cars in the safest conditions.
The town of St-Raphael comes into view, a fashionable winter and summer resort located on the Bay of Frejus at the foot of the Esterel. It has a large casino, a concealed beach and many cafes and shops lining up the trottoirs of Quai Albert 1e and Cours Jean-Bart. Next we pass Frejus, famous for Roman ruins with an arena and amphitheatre. Sainte-Maxime is the next town, a stylish family resort with a sandy beach, a marina and a fishing harbour.
Traffic slows down to a halt, it is touche-touche all the way to St-Tropez. Nothing better to do than listen to a cassette of French songs to pass the time.
The sign for Port-Grimaud comes into view. After being stuck in traffic, time did not allow us to explore this modern complex of luxury housing on a marina with a fine sandy beach. This is a picturesque village designed by the architect Francois Spoerry and resembles a mini Venice with colourful houses covered with Roman tiles and linked by tiny canals, bridges and squares. Ah to have more time to explore la cote d’azur!
St-Tropez is finally in sight. Known to locals as St-Trop, it was a quiet little village until writer Guy de Maupassant discovered it later. Painters moved in. Colette spent her winters there and other artists followed. In the fifties, it became fashionable with the literary set from St-Germain-des-Pres in Paris and later with movie people. But mention St-Tropez and there is an association with Brigitte Bardot who made the property La Madrague her home, classy beaches lined with bronzed beautiful bodies and affluent people.
For many years, I have dreamt of being here and I can feel the excitement as we drive past the port with fishing boats, luxurious yachts, commercial vessels and excursion craft. Here on the waterfront and in the little narrow streets, one can bask in outdoor cafes and restaurants, shop at luxury boutiques and antique shops.
We head to the beaches looking for the most famous beach of all, plage de Tahiti. I was told it was partly a nudist beach. Could we possibly run into Brigitte?
The sign to the beach leads us away from the sea but we follow the road. According to the guidebook, the beach is 4.5 kilometres away but the drive through a narrow street leads onto a dirt road and takes longer than expected. Mr G is about to give up just before we see a tiki figure and a sign for Plage de Tahiti.
Much to my surprise, there is no entry fee. It is a public beach with a Tahitian style bar and parallel rows of empty white beach beds and closed orange and yellow parasols.
The beach is deserted apart from a few obese elderly pale tourists and this young couple taking photographs.
Mr G amuses himself at my expense as rain drops begin to fall. “Where are the beautiful semi-naked bodies you promised? Are you sure you got the right information from the guidebook? This can’t be the best beach in St-Tropez!”
We return to the car and laugh all the way back to St-Tropez. We could have chosen a better beach. We could have got ourselves lost throughout its narrow streets lined with shops, boutiques and cafes. We could have seen it buzzing with the rich and famous under sunnier skies. But not today. The jetset are clearly somewhere else and Brigitte Bardot is nowhere to be seen.
… continues tomorrow
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
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