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Deauville may be 150 but it's still a star

New flights from London have provided a quick new route to this chi-chi Normandy resort. Kate Simon reports

There's a bit of a queue at Deauville airport, yet there are only 50 seats on the twin-prop plane that awaits us all on the airstrip outside the tiny terminal building.

There is good reason for the delay: the check-in staff are being trained on the job because this is the first scheduled flight the little airport has handled for at least 10 years.

Usually, Deauville welcomes private jets or charter planes. Its main business is handling horse transport; exporting yearlings raised at the stud farms of southern Normandy, or bringing them in for the prestigious summer races. On my arrival, just the day before, a charter plane from the United Arab Emirates had been sitting on the tarmac – racehorses and emirs are rarely far apart.

I had flown in from London City Airport on a Fokker 50 courtesy of CityJet, a subsidiary of Air France KLM. It has just launched a new route, flying four times a week from the east London airport to this meadow in Normandy; bringing short-breakers to the heart of the French countryside and local business people out to the London hub for connections to Europe's other major cities.

Is there really enough business to justify this route? Desmond O'Flynn, the director general of Deauville airport, is the man charged with the task of attracting an airline to run it and it was he who secured CityJet. He thinks there's a potential market for business travel here. "And there are 18,000 British people with connections to a property in southern Normandy," he tells me, many of whom come from south-east England, apparently. So, the British like this area, but account for only 10 per cent of visitors – Mr O'Flynn is on a mission to persuade more of us to go.

The majority of the other 90 per cent of Deauville's visitors are Parisians. They have been coming to this part of the Normandy coast since the days of the Second Empire. More specifically, they have been visiting Deauville since the 1860s, when the Duke of Morny built this resort on a few acres of marshes and dunes and turned the heads of the moneyed classes who had traditionally holidayed in neighbouring Trouville.

The duke conceived the perfect seaside town with all the trappings that a 19th-century Parisian socialite might desire – horseracing, luxurious lodgings and, crucially, a train line to Paris. During the Belle Epoque, a casino and two grand hotels were added. In the Twenties and Thirties, a second racetrack, a golf course and the nearby airport were built.

After the Second World War an Olympic-size seawater swimming pool and thalassotherapy centre were set behind the beach. Then, in 1975, Deauville gilded the lily with the American Film Festival (spot the names on the beach huts to discover the roll-call of Hollywood greats who have visited, from Gloria Swanson to John Travolta). And the town still pulls them in, swelling the resident population of 4,000 to 40,000 every high day and holiday.

I take a walk around with Sandrine and Lesley from the tourist board, who are as keen as Mr O'Flynn to convince me of the town's charms, a delight, they assure me, in any year, but especially in its 150th year. One thing they do not need to impress upon me is that the resort – now packed with special events to mark the anniversary – can live up to its jet-set reputation, that's clear when you see that every leading fashion house has a shopfront here, from Hermès to Louis Vuitton.

And I don't need to be prompted to marvel at the sheer audacity of the faux-medieval buildings, with their high pointed roofs and exposed timber beams on their façades: all of them younger than 150 years. No corner of this stage set has been left untouched by the pretence – on one house, a stripe of brown paint continues the line of one timber right across a drainpipe. Along the seafront, the parade of the town's original villas are even more intriguing, unashamedly drawing architectural references from various periods and countries with no thought to context.

But I'm not so sure about what they've done with the land between the villas and the beach. Where the sea once lapped there is now a jumble of facilities: the spa, pool and inevitable conference centre, and an assortment of afterthoughts, including mini-golf, pony riding and trampolining. Do the emirs in those villas really not mind having this raggedy strip obscuring the view?

I also need a bit of convincing about the gloomy casino. Where there should be smooth guys in tuxedos and bejewelled femme fatales, there are vacant-eyed senior citizens pulling at the one-arm bandits. And the grand old hotel, the Royal Barrière, has the air of a place that hasn't so much rested on, as pressed its laurels – a modern feather duster is needed to clear away this old cobweb of interiors.

More inspiring lodgings can be found a short drive out of town at the newly opened Les Manoirs de Tourgéville. Again, all is not what it seems. The timbered manor was created in the late 1970s by the film director Claude Lelouch, who famously set his film Un homme et une femme in the seaside resort. Groupe Floirat, also behind Byblos, the French Riviera's premier hotel, has transformed it into a five-star property, adding five circular houses in similar architectural style within the grounds.

Book a room during the film festival in September and you're likely to rub shoulders with a Hollywood star or two. I'll settle for the thrill of feeling the sands of Normandy between my toes just an hour and a half after boarding a plane in London.

Compact Facts

How to get there

CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) has fares from London City to Deauville from £59 each way. Manoirs de Tourgéville (lesmanoirs destourgeville.com) offers double rooms from €160 (£133) per night.

Further information

Normandy Tourism Board (normandy-tourism.org); Deauville Tourist Office (deauville.org).