Les Voiles de St Tropez
We first stumbled upon St. Tropez in 1994, on our honeymoon. It was just a drive through on our way to Monaco and on to Italy but something clearly stuck. Since then, largely due to our friends Birgit and Harald living just outside town in Pt. Grimaud, we have been back close to 10 times.
We know it’s a blinged-up, uber gaudy spot for hip hop millionaires and Russian billionaires in July and August. The stories are legend. Roman Abramovich parking his 400 foot yacht off Pampelonne beach and bringing 20 of his cronies to Club 55 for lunch. Then, after a few hours of drinking, yelling at other patrons and abusing the staff, Fabrice the owner brought him his enormous bill, tore it up in front of him and politely told him, and his friends, never to return to Club 55. Love the French, some days anyway. Stories of Johnny Depp and J-Lo and super models abound. A famous night at the infamous Caves de Roy under the Hotel Byblos where a Russian bought vintage Crystal for the house all night with a bill of $400,000 US. That was beaten in 2010 by a 28-year-old Indonesian son of a billionaire who spent $2.6 million, in one night! There are a fleet of giant motor yachts backed into the semi circular quay, nothing under 100 feet, all hosting spectacular parties. But, the yachts are mostly for charter out of Georgetown, the Caymans, Jersey, etc. Tax havens. And the patrons? Nouveau riche would be too kind.
After Labor Day they all go home. St. Tropez becomes a fishing village again; a VERY nice village to be sure but sans the bling. Not convinced? Come to Market Day on Saturday and Tuesday mornings. The Place du Lice is the central square. A dusty, gravel, oak tree lined spot where the men play Boule in the evenings. But, on market day, it is filled to overflowing with stalls selling food, flowers, antiques, clothing, pottery and jewelry. There is no better people watching spot in France than sitting on the terrace of the aptly named ‘Le Café’ with an almond croissant and a creamy espresso. By law it ends at 1:00pm and the square must be cleared shortly after that. By just after 2:00pm the Boule players are back out practicing for the evening matches. Magical.
Then, there are the beaches. Les Plages de Pampelonne gained their first notices when a little beach shack served as a canteen for Roger Vadim’s ‘And God Created Woman’ film shoot in 1955. The woman in question was Bridgette Bardot and Club 55 is still the classiest place for feet in the sand dining under sheets of muslin hung from the sea grape trees. But, there are 10 other beach clubs to choose from along the 5 km stretch of white sand. Places like Niki Beach, Club Moorea, Key West, all catering to slightly different clientele: old, young, gay, straight, rich (maybe not the poor) there is something for everybody here. In August of 1944, this is the beach where the Allies landed and I suspect it is only slightly less hectic on a summer’s day when the famous, the merely rich and the debauched invade in their super yachts and helicopters. But again, in the fall, the celebrity buzz is gone and once again it is a quiet stretch of sand perfect for a lazy afternoon.
A few years ago, we were coming down to St. Tropez to see our friends Birgit and Harald from a villa we had rented in Avignon. It was late in September, a time of still warm days and cool nights. St. Trop is pretty quiet by the end of September. It opens up again for one week of sailing races and at Christmas/New Years. By happy coincidence, this was the race week: ‘Les Voiles de St. Tropez’.
Like so much in this area, Les Voiles has a history. In 1981, two skippers challenged each other to a race from St. Tropez to Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach. The next year began formal races called ‘la Nioulargue’ that ran until 1995. In that year there was a tragic accident where Tom Perkins (the boat mad founder of venture cap heavy weight Kleiner, Perkins) in his 42 meter ‘Marietta’ ran over a 6 meter J boat, some say with ill intent, killing one of the local French crew. The resulting lawsuits and criminal case ended the series until ‘Les Voiles’ resurrected it in 1999. Now, it is an ultra professional slate of races with super Maxi yachts dueling each other and classic schooners from the 20’s and 30’s duking it own in their own series. Beautiful to see and not a mega power stinkpot yacht in sight on the quay, as they all have to anchor out in the bay.
That was two years ago. As summer in Singapore slipped away and our visa problems blew up to the point where we had to leave the country for a while, we decided that spending quality time in the South of France was the perfect remedy. This time, no 5 star hotels like The Sezz or Le Yaca. We scoured the web for an apartment close to the harbor where we could attempt to live like natives for two weeks; the week of Les Voiles and the week after. And, we found one. Not fancy, not expensive but a two-minute walk from Place du Lices with parking. Perfect.
Our fist week had all the buzz of a little town totally consumed by an over the top event. The bars and restaurants were full, the quay packed with sailors and gawkers, the shops all open and doing big business. But for us, the early morning walks down to Le Café for café au lait and croissants were a quiet highlight. Birgit and Harald were the perfect hosts from their place in Port Grimaud. We took their lovely old Grand Banks out to watch the races and were a bit too much part of the action when the wind shifted and the racing boats started going around the spectator boats. We beat a hasty retreat to anchor in a little bay for lunch and ice cold rose. And so it went for the week until, on Thursday night, we finally became part of the scene.
We were having dinner on a terrace just above the quay when our friends Manfred and Gunda walked by. They insisted in showing us THEIR St. Tropez as that night is the only one where the sailors light up the town. The crews hit the shore in outrageous costumes and in full party mode. We begin at Hotel Sube’s second floor bar/balcony right over the harbor. It is insane. The floor is awash in beer, the crews insisting on wrestling in it wearing some sort of Flintstones outfits with body paint. We retreat to the quay and worm our way into Bar du Port. It is the bar from Star Wars. Packed solid with every race, creed, size, shape, and sexual nautical stereotype imaginable. Young, old, straight, gay all dancing to the best DJ we have ever heard. And, there is a girl. Tall, in a tiny top and the shortest of shorts, she is there with her grizzled, white haired sugar daddy (Russian?). She is there to dance on tables but only when he gives her the nod. The room is mesmerized, she can move like nothing we’ve ever seen and when she stops Ellen goes over and begs her to start again.
In the corner is a monster of a guy, at least 400 pounds in a bad wig holding a teacup dog. As he strains to see the dancer he falls out of the chair nearly crushing the dog. It takes all the bar staff to get him to his feet and, embarrassed, he departs with his quirky, alien entourage. Again, we escape to the quay. Gunda insists we go up to Place du Lices to Le Café. Little do we know the terrace where we have coffee most mornings is rocking in the back. We walk in and 10 people are dancing on the bar. Gunda wants to head over to Caves de Roy but Manfred and I are soaking wet and not anxious to hang with the Versace/Crystal crowd. We call it a night.
But that day, to our surprise and a little dismay, Ellen is called to fly to New York for a client session. Off she goes on Saturday to return Wednesday evening. Just when I think it will be a quiet Sunday afternoon my phone rings and it’s Gunda. It is the closing party at Club Moorea and I must come. The place is packed and they serve magnums of rose in super-sized ice buckets. The live bar band is fantastic and the place rocks through a stunning sunset and carries on into the night. We are desperately over served and our designated driver is past borderline as well. It’s all we can do make it until after midnight but 8 hours is enough. We watch the nightly fireworks lying on the beach and, again too soon, call it a night.
By the time Ellen returns Les Voiles is over and packed up. Our German friends are heading home and St. Tropez is, once more, a quiet fishing village. There is only one beach club still open, Key West. It is perfect for grilled fish and chilled rose in the still warm sun followed by walks on the now quiet beach. It is really a perfect time to be here. In a few days all the sexy shops and most of the restaurants will be closed for the winter. But, it is still a working town. The fishermen are out every morning and the butcher shops, all the patisseries, the quay bars and cafes stay open year round. The market still goes on twice a week and the boule players still wait impatiently for their games to begin.
It’s hard to fathom that this resilient little village has survived its celebrity since Errol Flynn in the 30’s, through Bardot in the 60’s and the rock stars and .com millionaires (and Russians) of today. I’m sure residents of the Hamptons in winter and Miami Beach in summer have the same bemused stare. “Count the money, fix the nets, they will be gone again soon enough”.
I realize that while we love it for the excitement and the buzz of Les Voiles, we love it just as much when it’s over.
Now we are wondering what it’s like on a snowy winter morning, under Provence blue skies. Will the coffee taste as good, the almond croissants? I think so.