Far from the madding crowd

There is a quieter side to life in St Tropez, away from the jewelled hordes says Sally Ann Lasson
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The Independent Travel

My first memory of St Tropez is of Joan Collins ambling up one of the cobbled side-streets in her white flared trousers, sandals, jewellery, large hat and even larger sunglasses. It was 1974. It is always 1974 in St Tropez. Where else can you look in a shop window and see leopard-print bikinis, silver cowboy boots, ra-ra skirts and denim jackets with leather appliqué? Where else could you possibly wear this sort of stuff? It is no coincidence that there are not one but two Roberto Cavalli boutiques in this tiny fishing village. St Trop and Cavalli were made for each other.

My first memory of St Tropez is of Joan Collins ambling up one of the cobbled side-streets in her white flared trousers, sandals, jewellery, large hat and even larger sunglasses. It was 1974. It is always 1974 in St Tropez. Where else can you look in a shop window and see leopard-print bikinis, silver cowboy boots, ra-ra skirts and denim jackets with leather appliqué? Where else could you possibly wear this sort of stuff? It is no coincidence that there are not one but two Roberto Cavalli boutiques in this tiny fishing village. St Trop and Cavalli were made for each other.

The yachts that vie for space along the main harbour have got bigger over the past 30 years and now threaten to dwarf the buildings. A prime mooring costs £60,000 a week in high season. You might have thought that one of the pleasures of having a boat would be to keep it somewhere quiet and lovely, but no - the only point here is to see and be seen. For those of us stranded shore-side, an enduring pleasure is to walk along the waterfront on a warm summer's night and watch the action. Old men with pot bellies sit on deck, attended by servants while sipping the obligatory champagne. Young women walk up and down the quay. Occasionally, the men point to one of the girls and the servant is sent to escort her up the gang plank. She joins the men, is given a drink, and then promptly ignored. Let us draw a veil over what happens next, except to say that they all seem to understand each other perfectly.

But there is another St Tropez; there always has been. I have an old magazine from 1962 in which there is an article bemoaning how the once quaint Provençal village had been ruined by Brigitte Bardot and her gang in the Fifties. Actually, the sniping began as long ago as 1932. Colette wrote then that the place was overrun with "fancy cars from 5 o'clock onwards driving through the port. Cocktails and champagne on the quayside yachts." Plus ça change. If you want to see the older, quieter side of St Tropez you must choose your location and time of year carefully. If you prefer strolling around the daily market, reading your book and being peaceful, then spring is gorgeous. (The season is long now, from April to October.)

For the best of both worlds, rent a villa. Early this summer we stayed in a house organised by The Kestrel Travel Consultancy which specialises in luxury houses along the Côte d'Azur. Our villa was on one floor, with white walls and sofas, French windows, stone floors, marble bathrooms and crisp white sheets. The garden was full of palm trees and bougainvilleas, and the Mediterranean twinkled in the distance. The town was 10 minutes' walk away - almost certainly the perfect distance.

We were provided with a representative who was on call at all times - perfect for the time we had a power cut and couldn't restart some of the appliances. The sky's the limit - literally, as it turned out - on what services they can organise. At the silly end of the scale, a single trip to Nice in a helicopter is €750 (£535), a Bentley costs €3,849 (£2,750) per day and a large boat (with crew) will set you back from €28,000 (£20,000) per day. But for the rest of us they also offer babysitting, chefs, maids, security and massages.

Nobody ever came to the South of France for a budget holiday, but one night we went out in search of mid-range sustenance. We walked to our nearest restaurant: an ordinary looking, semi-outdoor establishment (it was under canvas, like a ritzy bedouin tent). It seemed reasonable - after all there was pizza on the menu. But we began to feel faintly alarmed when teams of waiters and sommeliers descended on us. We looked at the wine list. I'm sure £3,000 is perfectly reasonable for a bottle of 1986 Petrus, it's but hardly in our league. When I asked the sommelier what the local Cave St Tropez was like, he said he had never tried it and made such a terrible face that I was convinced it would be 30 quid very well spent. The pizza, by the way, was delicious, but still cost £20 for something roughly the size of a CD.

Joan Collins wasn't in evidence this year, but I spotted something altogether rarer. When you think of St Tropez you think of hedonistic excess, sexual liberation, and Brigitte Bardot. The actress moved here in 1956 and bought a house called La Madrague. She lives with nine dogs, 40 cats, and a husband who associates with Jean Marie Le Pen. I was walking down the hill into town on drizzly afternoon and saw a woman in a raincoat with strikingly long, blonde hair. I thought, "Oh, that's BB". But then I thought, "No, it can't be, she's not wearing an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, polka dot bikini and she's old." And then I realised, we're none of us as young as we were. Even if, in St Trop, it's always 1974.

Sally Ann Lasson stayed in Villa 327, which is available from €17,850 per week from Kestrel Travel/Riviera Retreats, who have over 250 rental villas between Monaco and Saint Tropez ranging in price from €5,000 to €80,000 per week. For a colour brochure see their website www.kestreltravel.com, call 01672 520651 or email info@kestreltravel.com

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