St. Tropez has been famous for its beaches since it first became a winter vacation spot for European aristocracy in the early 1900s. Before long, beach and yacht clubs began to pop up to accommodate the wealthy and privileged visitors seeking escape from the dreary tedium of the cities. By the 1950s, the Bohemian artists and celebrities of Paris began to summer in the south of France. Even now, the city fathers alter the height of the speed bumps in town in order to accommodate the new Ferraris and Lamborghinis that will carry the hedonistic, scantily clad vacationers to their favorite watering holes.
Modern St. Tropez remains a playground for the scantily-dressed rich and famous, and the beach clubs are mind-numbingly expensive, but there are some stretches of sand that are open to everyone. St. Tropez proper is quite small and the heart of town still has the look of a medieval village. Aside from the yachts and the nightlife, the beaches are still the main attraction.
La Ponche, once frequented by Brigitte Bardot and Pablo Picasso, is one of three small “in-town” beaches. Its little sister, La Glaye, is bookended by buildings and tiny de la Fontanette sits against a backdrop of medieval cottages. These beaches are favored by local townsfolk rather than visiting yachties, and in the summer they are packed before noon. There is no entry charge for these beaches.
The most famous of St. Tropez beaches is Pampelonne, a three-mile stretch of white sand studded with 27 beach clubs facing Pampelonne Bay. The beach clubs require a reservation and an entrance fee in order to take advantage of a private stretch of sand, padded beach chairs, a restaurant and, in some cases, a spa. On the southeast side of St. Tropez, Pampelonne technically belongs to the town of Ramatuelle, but ever since appearing in the 1950s movie “And God Created Woman,” it has been deemed part of St. Tropez. Ultra-trendy clubs include celebrity hangout Club 55, decadent pool party destination Nikki Beach, where champagne flows like water, and Tahiti Beach Club, a favorite with owners of the mega-yachts anchored in the bay. Most clubs include a water taxi in the reservation fee.
At the entrance to the city, Plage de la Bouillabaisse is a stretch of sand with both free and paid access. La Pearl Club, which requires an entry fee, has a spa, a boutique, an indoor plunge pool and, of course, a very expensive restaurant. Unlike some of the other smaller beaches, Bouillabaisse has lifeguards and free beach chairs, as well as free showers and toilets, making it a good family beach. Bring your own lunch or shell out some euros for a lunch or dinner on the beach at La Pearl or La Bouillabaisse.
Just outside of town are two free beaches that are rarely crowded. Plage de Graniers is a lip of sand jutting out from the woods about a 20-minute walk from the village. The 40-yard beach is pebbly, but the crystal-clear water is free of hidden boulders, making it a good spot for swimming. The small waterside restaurant specializes in grilled fish and offers rental beach chaises.
A couple of miles down the road await the pink sands of Plage de Salin, the last beach before Pampelonne. Edged by bamboo thickets and pine trees, tranquil Salin offers a restaurant so close to the shore you can dip your toes in the water while you sip a cocktail.
Although St. Tropez has the image of movie stars and moguls spraying one another with Dom Perignon– and they still do—you needn’t be a multi-millionaire to enjoy the pleasures of this jewel on the Riviera. Go like a local to the “in-town” beaches, or seek out something more remote. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted to go topless on the beach, this is your kind of town.