The dolphins were an added bonus. They emerged suddenly, swooshing along as if deliberately racing with the boat, three or four of them arching out of the water simultaneously like synchronised swimmers. It seemed as though they were literally jumping for joy, and from our vantage point up on deck their sense of sheer fun was infectious. Then, abruptly, they were gone, leaving us in party mood and with an enhanced appreciation of the shimmering blue sea and, beyond it, the striking, pink rock formations of the mainland that glistened in the sunlight.
Top of any must-have list on a trip to the French Riviera should be a boat. With or without attendant dolphins, it will present the fabled "Azure Coast" in splendid perspective. Aaah, you realise as you gaze across a sparkling stretch of aquamarine to a shoreline dotted with sharp white yachts and gracious villas, this is what all the fuss is about.
I simply didn't get it before. On previous summer visits, inland Provence had been idyllic, the coast insufferable. Sweltering in the obdurately motionless traffic around Cap d'Antibes, turning back from St Tropez unwilling (unable, even) to continue queuing for a parking space in order to join the throng, I had found the Côte d'Azur a test of endurance. The beaches, once you reached them, were small; the glitz was tawdry. The French Riviera, I had thought, was overblown, over-crowded and thoroughly over-rated.
But what a difference if you take to the water. You escape the traffic; you see the harbours, sandy shores and old ochre and white towns from their best side; you feel cool - in every sense of the word.
Of course it helps if your boat is a 228ft motor yacht with enormous decks, Jacuzzi, sauna, library and huge saloon complete with harp and baby grand piano (white) in one corner. We were guests for the day on board Sherakhan, a Dutch vessel built in 1965 and fabulously refitted last year. She had picked us up from Cap St Jean Ferrat, a short drive from the airport at Nice, and was taking us down to St Tropez, giving us an opportunity to sample the millionaire lifestyle on the way. Big on bling? Well not too overwhelmingly so, but you must expect some show of ritziness, it's part of the fun of being on board such a boat.
Exploring the yacht was a shamelessly voyeuristic activity. Most of Sherakhan's 13 cabins have walk-in closets, bathtubs in the bathrooms, his and hers basins even. There are huge flat-screen TVs in the saloon, more TVs and DVDs in the cabins, chandeliers, cream carpets, and a host of boys' toys kept on the top deck: from jet skis to a sleek, classic runner-boat which is winched into the water from the small crane on board. Inside the yacht, the air was suffused with the scent of lilies, yet the stabilisers of the vessel are so efficient that the water in the vases of the chic flower displays barely stirred as we motored along. Up to 26 guests are served by a staff of 20 - all dressed in gleaming white. I failed to establish if any of them could entertain on the resident harp or piano but I did learn of their polyglot capabilities: they speak English, Dutch, German, French, Russian and more. Canadian/Dutch chef Arend Nieboer, who has worked under three-star Michelin restaurateur and gourmet legend Paul Bocuse, serves the likes of mashed potato with vanilla and pan-fried foie gras, and tomato and basil ice cream with watercress and garlic - as well as less challenging fare. We had just come to the end of one such very long, very leisurely lunch when St Tropez came into view. It seemed an almost absurdly apposite way to reach one of the world's most famous glamour-spots.
You begin to understand how St Tropez managed to achieve this status if you arrive by boat. Gliding into the harbour you see ancient fortifications, a ring of pastel-coloured houses with white and blue shutters, artists at work in front of easels. Narrow alleyways radiate from the port, leading to the old town hall, the 16th-century citadel, the 17th-century Chapelle de la Misericorde. Look beyond the people, the big hair and big Chanel sunglasses and this place is pretty and charming in equal measure. Certainly the writer Guy de Maupassant was entranced when he sailed his yacht, Bel Ami, into this old fishing port in the 1880s. St Tropez was barely accessible by road then so boat was the only real means of transport. The artist Paul Signac arrived a short time later - in his yacht, Olympia - and bought a house here. Matisse, Dufy and others visited, revelling in the colours and the light of the area. Colette came, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, too. St Tropez became a Bohemian hang-out, yet quietly, gently so.
But all that changed in 1956 when Roger Vadim shot And God Created Woman here. Starring a frolicking Brigitte Bardot, the film projected St Tropez into the realms of the jet set. It rapidly became the haunt of celebrities and the see-and-be-seen crowd. And so, during the "season" from May to October, it remains. The A-list summer crowd includes the likes of Paris Hilton, Sting, Bruce Willis, Bono, Naomi Campbell. The paparazzi inevitably descends. The three-mile sandy stretch of the Bay of Pampelonne to the south of town buzzes with beach clubs: Nikki Beach, I was told, gets the younger, hip crowd, Club 55 the more established glitterati, La Voile Rouge the really flashy hedonists. Not for nothing is the place known as St Trop, the town of too much, in the summer.
Of course it all makes compulsive viewing - in short bursts. Between which you want to beat a hasty retreat, preferably by water so that your exit is both swift and elegant. You need a suitably peaceful and stylish haven to escape to. But where? Those without the odd £64,000 it costs to charter Sherakhan for the day can breathe again. You will find a wonderful combination of cool seclusion and watery access to St Tropez just across the bay.
Le Beauvallon hotel sits on a slight hill above the coastline and between the small towns of Sainte Maxime and Port Grimaud. It is a calm and gracious antidote to the summer frenzy at the former fishing village it faces on the opposite shores. A classic example of Belle Epoque architecture, the hotel is set in 15-acre grounds where rolling lawns are studded with eucalyptus, palms, parasol pines and mimosas. Its handsome front looks directly on to the Bay of St Tropez, the bedrooms offering jaw-dropping views over to the South of France's most fabulously flashy summer hotspot. This appears to be no mean distance away but from the shores of Le Beauvallon's Beach Club it takes just seven or eight minutes to reach St Tropez by speedboat - and regular services are offered.
The hotel first opened in 1914 and apart from fairly grim interludes during the two world wars when it acted as a convalescent home for the wounded, it has always been a discrete hideaway. This was where Colette stayed, the playwright Henri Bernstein too. And it is said to have been where F Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night in the late 1920s - or at least parts of it. Since 1997, Le Beauvallon has been owned by the Wong family of Hong Kong, whose worldwide business interests include Battersea Power Station. Acquisition of the hotel was, I was told, "un coup de coeur" rather than part of a corporate strategy. And, under the Wongs, Le Beauvallon has been beautifully refurbished: the 70 bedrooms decorated in pastel shades, the elegant lobby dressed in swathes of cream. The décor also offers hints of the Orient - pots of orchids, splashes of celadon-green on the walls. It all exudes glamour, but generously so: you feel part of the classiness rather than intimidated by it, which is so often the downside of staying in swish establishments. It's a place where you can genuinely relax, indeed many regular guests book in for weeks at a time.
Some rarely leave the premises. Les Colonnades restaurant serves serious gourmet cuisine (the asparagus tempura with shredded truffles, the reindeer with ceps, and the parmesan ice-cream were sensational). The Beach Club, a short walk away through the hotel gardens, offers less formal food as well as a dreamy, 82ft pool and a, frankly, disappointingly small and not-quite-golden stretch of beach. Other facilities include a spa, newly refitted * *this year, and a private cinema stocked with 900 movies, so you can have your own matinée show on bakingly hot or rainy afternoons. Venturing beyond Le Beauvallon, there's an 18-hole golf course with tennis courts immediately behind the main building, while excursions to the charming vineyard of Château Sainte-Roseline can be arranged - as well as wine tasting and cellar tours. There is also access to an adjacent 14th-century chapel decorated with a Chagall mosaic, a Giacometti bronze and more.
But the big draw is, of course, St Tropez across the water. We felt James-Bond chic setting off by speedboat from the Beach Club one bright morning. Ambling past the galleries and boutiques with eye-watering price tags we reached the Tuesday market, as previously recommended by the hotel staff. It was a slight shock suddenly to find a slice of real France. For all the playboy image of St Tropez, here was a genuine market, awash with colour and filled with people browsing, chatting, parading their dogs. What's more, the prices were fairly down to earth: large woven baskets for €16 (£11); linen trousers for €20 (£13). Provençale specialities ranged from herbes de Provence in small hessian bags to lavender soaps and even freshly cooked rabbit, with a warm "lapin aux herbes" costing €14.50 (£10).
And there was more local flavour to come. By chance, our visit coincided with the annual "Bravades" celebrations marking the founding of the town. That afternoon the air was thick with the smoke of musket fire as the men of St Tropez, clad in 17th-century military dress, fired shots into the air from ancient-looking weapons. They had gathered in front of the town hall, where, in the best tradition of festivals, there was a flamboyant, somewhat mad atmosphere. Bands with drums, trombones, tooting flutes and more paraded the streets. Borne aloft behind them was the bust of a moustachioed man. That, said a lady in the crowd, was a figure of St Tropez himself. So there really was a saint who came here? "Mais, bien sûr" was the response.
The saint was a courtier called Torpes, I was told, who lived in Pisa back in the first century AD. He was one of the chief attendants of the Emperor Nero but much to the wrath of the ruler he converted to Christianity. He was subsequently tortured and killed. Then he was thrown unceremoniously into the Arno. Secretly rescued, his corpse was placed in a boat beside a cockerel and a dog (quite why, I failed to grasp). The vessel sailed out to sea and later washed up at the Roman town that was to become known as St Tropez. The starving animals had not touched the body, and Torpes was declared a saint. The cockerel flew off, so the story goes, and the dog? Well, the legend seemed uncertain as to its fate. But did I care? I was lost in admiration as to how, foreshadowing those in the know today, the sensible saint had arrived here by boat.
'Queen Emma and the Vikings - The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066' by Harriet O'Brien, is out now in paperback (Bloomsbury, £8.99)
Harriet O'Brien travelled with Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk)which offers seven nights, room only, at Le Beauvallon from £1,240, including flights and transfers.
Nice is served by BMI (0870 6070 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Birmingham (BA Connect), Heathrow and Gatwick, Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com) from Heathrow and Birmingham, Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com) from Edinburgh and Glasgow and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford and Manchester; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from a range of UK airports. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) also flies to Toulon-St Tropez.
Rail Europe (08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk) offers routes to Fréjus (40km from St Tropez) from London Waterloo or Ashford via Paris.
St Tropez Tourist Office: 00 33 4 94 97 45 21; www.ot-saint-tropez.com
Maison de la France: 09068 244123, 60p/min; www.franceguide.comReuse content