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Five alternatives to Saint-Tropez to explore this summer

Star-studded Saint-Tropez isn’t France’s only irresistible seaside glamour queen. Here are five more timeless coastal retreats to discover.

By Nicola Williams
Published 7 May 2022, 06:05 BST
The seaside town of Cassis shares Saint-Tropez’s natural good looks and piscatorial heritage.

The seaside town of Cassis shares Saint-Tropez’s natural good looks and piscatorial heritage.

Photograph by Getty Images

The inherent charms of Saint-Tropez aren’t lost on anyone with a penchant for ambient old towns, powder-soft sand beaches and that old-school glamour the French do so enviably well. Since the 19th century, when artists gravitated to the Côte d’Azur to bathe in the Mediterranean warmth and light, the one-time fishing village has soared in popularity. And, if you’ve ever sipped pastis in a lipstick-red director’s chair at Café Sénéquier, browsed market stalls piled with the fruits of Provence, or rambled the region’s untamed coastal paths, then you’ll know why. Beachside cocktails, VIP clubbing and hedonist soirees behind closed doors only heighten the cachet.

The evocative landscapes of pointillist painter Paul Signac launched Saint-Tropez into the public imagination, and this spring the town celebrates 130 years of his arrival by boat. Despite few British visitors last year, tourists are returning in their droves and this summer is set to be packed to bursting. With this in mind, save the Riviera icon for the low or shoulder seasons instead, and spend summer in France with an alternative coastal queen.

1. Cassis

“Nobody shall say of me that I have not known perfect happiness,” wrote Virginia Woolf after visiting quaint Cassis in 1925. And you might well say the same after bathing in the village’s turquoise creeks, or lingering over a glass of local white and the day’s catch at fishmonger-bistro Poissonnerie Laurent.

Fifteen miles from Marseille, tucked just to the east of the cliffs and coves of the Parc National des Calanques, Cassis shares Saint-Tropez’s natural good looks and piscatorial heritage. The village was a summer favourite with London’s Bloomsbury set in the 1920s, and Winston Churchill painted in the open air at the boat-filled port. But don’t expect quaysides jostling with mega-yachts and paintings propped up for sale on artists’ easels — Cassis is low-key. Its vineyards support one of France’s oldest wine appellations and demand slow exploration on foot or e-bike. If you’re keen to taste some of the local nectar, taste wine with grape growers at Clos Sainte Magdeleine.

Where to stay: Jet-set central during the belle époque, Les Roches Blanches is a bewitching stay. The dazzling-white, 36-room villa charms with its art deco fittings, contemporary furnishings and expansive sea views from its Sisley spa. Take a dip in the pool between rocks and dine at one of a hat-trick of al fresco restaurants. From €540 (£450).

Porquerolles is a car-free island roughly four miles long and two miles wide in the Îles d’or archipelago.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Porquerolles

Swap petanque on Saint-Tropez’s Place des Lices for the eucalyptus-shaded Place d’Armes in Porquerolles. Cafe terraces framing the central square offer some rosé-fuelled refreshment after you’ve explored the island of the same name by foot or rental bike. This Mediterranean isle — roughly four miles long and two miles wide — in the Îles d’or archipelago is car-free.

Visitors can marvel at the riviera panorama that unfolds from 16th-century Fort Sainte Agathe — destroyed by the British in 1793 during the French Revolutionary Wars and rebuilt under Napoleon — before pedalling between one of the island’s three wine estates, which include certified organic Domaine de l’Île, acquired by fashion house Chanel in 2019. And that’s not forgetting the pristine white sands, swaying palms and Caribbean-blue water of Porquerolles’ Plage de la Courtade and Plage Notre-Dame beaches.

Where to stay: Celebrities shack up at superlative Le Mas du Langoustier, with vineyards, fine dining and an A-lister guestbook dating back to the 1930s. But to recreate the true spirit of maritime Saint-Tropez, check into a cabin onboard a catamaran or yacht moored at the port with Porquerolles Croisières or Jag Yachting. From €150 (£125).

Seaward Saint-Martin is one of 10 teeny whitewashed villages on windswept Île de Ré, which is linked by road bridge to La Rochelle on the west coast.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Saint-Martin-de-Ré

This chic Atlantic pearl is an exhilarating escape from the French capital. Seaward Saint-Martin is one of 10 teeny whitewashed villages on windswept Île de Ré, linked by road bridge to La Rochelle, it is just over three hours by train from Paris, and seven from London St Pancras.

On an island of shaggy Poitou donkeys (who wear mosquito-protective trousers, no less) and weathered wooden shutters, you can expect old-school glamour in buckets. At Saint-Martin’s bijou port, bask in the sun over a café au lait or ice-cream from artisan glacier La Martinière, alive with such unlikely flavours as the island’s famed spring potatoes, salt or oysters. Bird’s-eye views enthral atop Église Saint-Martin’s gothic bell tower, while a walk around the UNESCO-listed citadel, built in the 1680s by military engineer Seigneur de Vauban, is fascinating. The ultimate seduction? The serene cycling trails that run through a landscape of rose-hued salt pans, vineyards and dune-fringed shores peppered with oyster farms and golden-sand beaches.

Where to stay: Old-world harbour views mix with modern luxury at Hôtel de Toiras, set in a restored 17th-century shipowner’s mansion on the quay. Sip cocktails made with Île de Ré gin in George’s brasserie and nod off in silk-draped doubles. From €350 (£290).

Henri Matisse found creative inspiration for fauvism’s wildcat colours in 1905 in Collioure, on southern France’s Côte Vermeille.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Collioure

Just as a smitten Paul Signac sailed into Saint-Tropez in 1892 and made the village his pointillist muse, so Henri Matisse found creative inspiration for fauvism’s wildcat colours in 1905 in Collioure, on southern France’s Côte Vermeille (Vermilion Coast).

Mutual fishing origins aside (the finest, fattest anchovies in France hail from Collioure’s clear waters), both seaside towns share a piercing light, immortalised on canvas in their modern-art museums. Collioure’s peaceful Musée d’Art Moderne is by no means as celebrated at Saint-Tropez’s Musée de l’Annonciade, but is just as fascinating. Here, Matisse’s boat sketches and Henri Marre’s oils, featuring flame-red rooftops and crimson-rock creeks, are sublime to ponder — and you’ll usually have them all to yourself. To admire the big picture, however, head up high to seaside castle Château Royal, with its views of the foothills of the Pyrenees and a coastline that gradually stretches into Catalonia.

Where to stay: Intense blues are unrivalled at boutique hotel Les Roches Brunes, where all 18 neutral-hued rooms, including every bathroom, gaze out to sea. Seasonal local produce fuels the Italianate-Mediterranean kitchen. From €150 (£125).

What Honfleur, on Normandy’s Côte Fleurie, lacks in Mediterranean sunshine, it makes up for in artistic heritage.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Honfleur

A 30-minute drive across the Seine estuary separates the cross-Channel ferry port of Le Havre from the storybook harbours and slate-fronted houses of Honfleur. What this long-time maritime port on Normandy’s Côte Fleurie (Flower Coast) lacks in Mediterranean sunshine, it makes up for in artistic heritage.

Writers and artists gravitated north to postcard-pretty Honfleur in the 1950s and 1960s. Soul-stirring sky- and seascapes by early impressionists, now on show in the town’s  Musée Eugène Boudin, depict the fishing port, its sandy beaches and trio of harbours around the Seine estuary. Stone busts in the manicured Jardin des Personnalités honour the likes of Claude Monet, Raoul Dufy, Charles Baudelaire and figures from local history. Elsewhere, fishermen sell their catch at the lively Marché aux Poissons, while the town’s seafood specialities, crevettes (shrimps), are celebrated every October with a two-day festival and highly competitive shrimp-peeling contest. A lunch made with local produce at bistro Huître Brulée is a culinary highlight.

Where to stay: Bask in French country chic at family-run La Chaumière, a half-timbered, 17th-century mansion by the sea. Nine rooms are individually designed and there are another six in an enchanting maison d’hôte on the estate, Le Manoir de la Plage. From €125 (£105), B&B.

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