The first time I sunbathed topless was in St Tropez in 1970, and a picture taken by a passing beach photographer was to cause major embarrassment when I returned to my job on a London evening newspaper, tanned and rested. The record of my wonderful trip to the South of France ended up stuck on the wall of a grotty office off Fleet Street, slathered over by a line of middle-aged male sub-editors.
Unknown to me, the picture taken on Pampelonne beach had been published in the French edition of Elle, covering a whole page. They must have liked my home-made cotton bikini covered with little Mickey Mouses that I'd run up on the sewing machine back in Chelsea, teamed with a cheap white plastic 1950s necklace found in a flea market in Paris. I'd scraped my hair up to form a sprouting palm tree and added chunky sunglasses - at six foot tall, I must have look a bit like a weird ostrich. Luckily, I was standing behind my friend Fanny Ward, a curvaceous model, but enough of my 32B assets were on display to cause maximum embarrassment back home in the UK. Over my head a wit had scrawled: "We know what you got up to on hols JSP!!!"
It's hard to explain now just how exotic and daring the South of France seemed back in those days. Before that trip I'd read Cyril Connolly's book The Rock Pool, which chronicled the bitchy world of a group of expats living in the sun in the South of France in the 1930s. But nothing really prepared me for the extraordinarily exotic mix of pink wine, searing sun, oiled shining naked flesh, the smell of lavender, the heat of the beach and the hours spent sitting in cafés just watching people walk past in amazing outfits.
I had never seen so many bare breasts in so many different shapes and sizes, all happily flopping about unencumbered by anything as dreary as a bikini top.
I was a pretty lowly paid fashion writer and columnist, married to an architectural photographer. Our friend Christopher Ward was a writer on the Daily Mirror and his wife Fanny, a top model. They had rented a flat for August in the small hill town of Ramatuelle, in the countryside behind St Tropez, and my husband Tim and I decided to drive down and visit them in our old Porsche.
In spite of regularly visiting Paris to scour the markets for Art Deco (we had amassed a huge collection of china and glass for very little by then), as well as covering all the couture and ready-to-wear fashion shows, I had never been to the south. The first thing that hit me was the amazing light, shimmering off the water. Then, the smell of lavender.
After leaving the autoroute, heading south on the convoluted drive to St Tropez itself, down smaller and smaller roads, which even in those days were packed with cars, bumper to bumper, all seeking the holy grail of an outing to the chicest beach resort in the world. Every trendy marina built over the past 50 years, from Puerto Banus in Spain to Port Grimaud just down the road from St Tropez, has modelled itself on the original charming little fishing village, which in the Thirties and Forties had been the holiday home of artists and writers.
St Tropez was really made famous by Brigitte Bardot - the number one French sex goddess from the moment she appeared in a Roger Vadim movie in 1956 - who owned a house on the edge of town, right on the sea. The water seemed to surround this former fishing village set on a promontory, and whenever I walked up the hill at the back of town, I got tantalising glimpses of turquoise sea through narrow gaps in the buildings in every direction.
Even in those days, the fishing boats were totally outnumbered by swanky yachts and we would spend most evenings walking around the port sneering at the tasteless floral displays of thrusting orange gladioli placed on the dining tables on the back decks of these lavish gin palaces. Years later, I actually visited St Tropez by boat at the height of the season - a horrible experience. It was like being on permanent display, and at night my cabin window seemed to be about two feet from my neighbours. The noise all night from bars and clubs and passers-by was incredible.
On that first visit we would drive every morning down to the long, sandy Plage Pampelonne around the Gulf from the town and set up camp. A bit of light reading, a lot of systematic oiling of the body, a splash about in the clear turquoise sea - our routine never varied. From 2pm till 3.30pm we'd shuffle across the baking sand to the back of the beach and the shade of the pine trees to one of the many beach restaurants (Tahiti or Le Club 55) for lunch. Sometimes lunch seemed to morph into drinks and then we'd have to have a major snooze before going out to dinner in one of the small unpretentious places in town. The evening would end drinking espressos and nightcaps in the café by the port, marvelling at women with very little on, teetering along on high heels clutching tiny dogs, clamped to the arms of bronzed older men who were obviously their summer meal ticket.
After one St Tropez drunken dinner, I remember the photographer Helmut Newton taking a snap of Christopher holding a naked Fanny in his arms, a bit like King Kong. Another time, Alexander Weymouth (now the Marquess of Bath, a wonderfully eccentric man with many "wifelets") decided to take me for a spin before supper in his brand new red Jaguar E-type. After belting through the narrow dusty lanes at approximately 100mph I was shaking so much on our arrival I more or less had to be lifted out of the vehicle. Happy days!
Fanny and Christopher had a bright green pet parrot which they'd brought on holiday and it would sit on our shoulders during supper - no one batted an eyelid. In St Tropez that kind of behaviour is just considered normal. Another day at Pampelonne, after a long lunch, I was invited aboard Brave Goose, the massive yacht owned by Sir Donald Gosling, moored off shore. I swam out to it and took tea with the former vicar Roger Royle, who used to present Songs of Praise on the telly! There's no guessing who you'll run into here.
Fashion was another major reason to visit St Tropez. Long before all the luxury brands opened shops in the place, there were interesting small boutiques selling embroidered espadrilles, studded and shredded denim skirts and jackets, chunky jewellery made with amber, turquoise and silver. Early in each summer season, photographers and fashion writers would scour the quayside, looking for the "next big look", which would be copied all around the Mediterranean. One year it was blue-and-white-striped matelot shirts, another ripped dungarees, then dogs in handbags, then Ethiopian Coptic crosses in heavy silver.
For the rich and famous, St Tropez was (and still is) the place to be seen - and Hôtel Byblos, set high above the bustling narrow streets at the back of town, was where they stayed. This family-owned establishment, cleverly designed so that it seems like a hamlet of terraced pastel houses clustered around a leafy courtyard with a bar and luxurious swimming pool, has always been where the jet-setters hang out, and at night, the nightclub Les Caves du Roy, is where they party.
When Mick Jagger married Bianca in 1971, it (naturally) took place in St Tropez. The bride wore a white trouser suit (and was topless underneath) designed by Yves St Laurent and the wild party was (of course) at the Byblos.
Returning to St Tropez after all these years, not too much has changed. The roads are marginally better, but the traffic jam is still exactly the same. The port is bigger, boasting even more lavish floating palaces, and the berthing charges (thousands of euros for a night in August) are phenomenal. The food at the Tahiti on Pampelonne is still excellent and the rosé wine divine. The sand is just as raked and perfect and the bodies just as scantily clad.
Best of all, the Saturday market in the main square, the Place des Lices, is still well worth spending an hour or so exploring before it gets too hot and crowded. This time I bought a Chanel-inspired little evening bag made from coconut shells for €30. You can avoid the overpriced designer shops and pick up fun T-shirts from the cheaper gaffs right on the port. It's impossible not to come back with a shopping bag full of trophies.
Shopping completed, I returned to the Byblos to get ready for lunch at Pampelonne. My room was decorated in warm Provençal colours, the bathroom featuring some rather impressive mosaics. Several hours (and bottles of rosé) later, I took my post-lunch siesta well away from public view, stretched out like a beached whale on my personal shady terrace.
The Byblos is a haven of tranquillity in a resort that can get very noisy and very crowded in high season. The day had started with coffee and home-made muesli, tiny wild strawberries and delicious figs, sitting at a table by the pool, listening to the birds sing as they darted in and out of the pink bougainvillea. That evening I ate at one of its two restaurants, a branch of Alain Ducasse's famous Spoon.
Understanding the menu is a feat in itself - you seem to be able to eat anything in any order! I ate spider crab, red mullet, and stir-fried vegetables, followed by a desert featuring rhubarb presented in three ways. Delicious. Spoon has a futuristic Philippe Starck interior, and a really buzzy atmosphere.
After a couple of glasses of wine in Les Caves du Roy nightclub - along with a lot of immaculately turned out women in super-tight jeans, whom I would not be joining on the dance floor - I made my excuses. I dozed off to the thought that whether your bikini top stays on or comes off, this is still the best resort in Europe.
Janet Street-Porter travelled as a guest of bmi and Hôtel Byblos. bmi (0870 60 70 555 ; flybmi.com) offers returns from Heathrow to Nice from around £75. Double rooms at Hôtel Byblos (00 33 4 94 56 68 00; byblos.com) start at €370 (£265) per night without breakfast
The best time to go
St Tropez is very expensive and crowded in high season. Hotels are much cheaper, and the weather is just as good, in May and June, after mid September, and in October. Avoid the weeks either side of Cannes film festival. There are plenty of cheap flights to the South of France these days, but getting to St Tropez from Nice is a costly taxi (or helicopter) ride. You could take the train and enjoy the views of the Med, picking up a taxi for the final leg.
The best bargains
None to be had in designer shops in the town, but the market on Saturday morning (it starts around 8am and finishes at 1pm) is worth the trip alone. Soap and bath oils, using local lavender and olive oils, can be stockpiled and given as Christmas presents - no one will know they cost only a few euros. Ditto the linen shirts and cashmere sweaters. Avoid anything gold and glitzy. It might look amusingly camp in the sunshine, but back in England it's just going to seem tacky. And only buy hats that roll up in your luggage.
The best way to eat
Eating out can be expensive unless you stick to set menus that are really great value. And always drink the house wine. Coffees around the port can work out at £4 each, so watch out. You can always buy bread, tomatoes, wines, peaches and cheese and take your own picnic to the beach each day. The basic ingredients are so good. But you must remember to pack a corkscrew, plastic cups, paper plates, cutlery and a small cooler bag along with your beach clothes.