I admit to a lifelong obsession with St-Tropez. As a child in the 1960s, I sat riveted to our new color TV, mesmerized by those steamy Bain de Soleil commercials. Bronzed, toned bodies splashed in the faraway Mediterranean to the sounds of that hypnotic jingle: "Bain de Soleil, for the St-Tropez tan." To me, it was summer in a tube.
It took decades, but last month I finally made it to the beach of my dreams. I'd heard, albeit from friends who hadn't been there, that St-Tropez had lost its sheen, that its halcyon days as the shiny epicenter of the French social scene were over. But I found the former fishing village that Brigitte Bardot helped turn into a jet-setter's paradise anything but dead. Newly opened boutiques like Dior, Pucci, and the SuperdryStore—where Formula One racing champ Lewis Hamilton and David Beckham shop for their studied-casual look—are buzzing, as if to snub the global economic meltdown.
To be sure, St-Tropez is a shopper's mecca. The Place de la Garonne, where yachts the size of boutique hotels are docked, hosts the revamped Pucci and scores of other posh clothing and jewelry shops. This seems to be the place to procure that €30,000 Breitling. It's also the place to spend an afternoon sipping Provençal rosé at the Hotel Sube's bar, perched on a balcony overlooking the port. The hotel, the town's oldest, long a hangout for American and European writers and artists, has been re-modeled but retains its creative air. The nearby Senequier cake shop sells soft, chewy nougat made of egg whites, honey, and pistachios.
One-off boutiques sell handmade goods along the narrow Rue Georges Clemenceau, just a three-minute walk from the port. Sandals are made to order at Atelier Rondini (No. 16), and exquisite tabletop décor, linens, and candles are on offer at Marinette (No. 4). On Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the open-air Marché de St-Tropez sells colorful straw baskets, Provençal linens, charcuterie, and exotic spices.
I had to check out the legendary rock-star party spot the Hotel Byblos, where Mick Jagger proposed to his first wife, Bianca, in room 401, and then returned for their media-crazed wedding (byblos.com; €594). Sure enough, the party's still going on. At breakfast, my teenage son noticed the hotel plays hipster techno music, which makes for a party-all-the-time vibe. Dinner poolside consists of tapas and cocktails, sonically enabled by a young and sexy jazz ensemble that plays Brazilian samba. Lately, Jagger sightings have given way to glimpses of Puff Daddy, Tom Cruise, Naomi Campbell, and Elle Macpherson. Downstairs, Alain Ducasse's Spoon, an outdoor restaurant attached to the hotel, acts as a launch point for evening parties, where nightclubbers fortify themselves with California-style sushi rolls and an incredibly sinful runny-egg, asparagus, and morel-mushroom dish.
What Byblos is to the party, La Reserve is to the peaceful and meditative mind. The new resort opened last month atop the cliffs of the nearby village of Ramatuelle (rooms from €400; lareserve-ramatuelle.com). Bleached white floor-to-ceiling linen drapes waft in the breeze before wide-open sliding glass doors. It's impossible not to relax just looking at the expansive coastal views. A full-service luxe spa only heightens the Zen atmosphere.
The star attraction of St-Tropez is, of course, its beaches. At Club 55, visitors can rent a lounge chair and umbrella for about €50 per day, but the real treat is the club's tented restaurant. The white chairs and Provençal-blue tablecloths are inviting. But it's the €25 deconstructed megasalad that's the showstopper here. Enormous heads of cauliflower; red, ripe tomatoes, as big as softballs; and perfectly shaped mushrooms, carrots, radishes, scallions, and cucumbers are artistically arranged atop a thick slab of cork for diners to cut and take what they like. Simply gorgeous.
On the sand, it's all very Beach Blanket Bingo. Bathers look seriously pretty here, wearing the latest designer swimwear and sunglasses—or nothing at all. Remember, I brought my teenage son on this trip. Let's just say he made room on his camera chip for a few shots of the local custom.
Much of St-Tropez's appeal is its exclusivity. Never mind that it's prohibitively expensive for those of us who aren't royal; it's also difficult just to get to the place. A jet strip about 10 kilometers outside town is just long enough for private planes. For everyone else, the closest commercial airport is more than two hours away in Nice. An easy and reasonably priced four-and-a-half-hour Eurostar train (€80; eurostar.com) runs every few hours from Paris to the town of Toulon, about an hour's drive away. Hotels will arrange for transfers from the station.
But it's this exclusivity that makes St-Tropez a fantasy destination, more so than, say, Cannes or Nice. There's something romantic about traveling hours for a beautifully deconstructed salad that most people will never get to see, and walking on the same sand where Brigitte Bardot once did. For anyone who remembers those melodic midcentury suntan-lotion commercials, St-Tropez really is all that.