ST. TROPEZ, France -- The sexy, sunny siren of the Cote d’Azur, St. Tropez has been luring men to the French Riviera long before Brigitte Bardot made it a jet-set touchstone with the 1956 film “And God Created Woman.” People have been drawn since prehistoric times to this once-simple fishing village on the Mediterranean. Today, just the name conjures images of cafe society sybarites and celebrities, which is part of the mystique that attracts 6 million visitors a year.
The summer months are the most active, with super yachts docked in the marina and private chateau parties for the bling-bling crowd. Hotels are booked well in advance of the onslaught, so many just make it a day trip, taking ferries from Nice and Cannes (pronounced “can” not “con”).
In a day, you can only scratch the surface of the St. Tropez (pronounced tro-PAY) experience. Ms. Bardot, who used to summer here as a girl, knows better than anyone that it requires a leisurely pace to fully appreciate its pleasures. She will celebrate her 80th birthday Thursday at her wisteria-covered property, La Madrague. An animal rights activist, she gave up her film career in the 1970s and founded The Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals. She does much of her work from her home in St. Tropez.
Narrow streets wind uphill from the harbor to the Citadel, a popular tourist destination with great views of the Gulf of St. Tropez and a museum that offers a comprehensive history lesson of the town from its days as a shipping port, fishing village and Allied landing site in 1944.
Artists, writers and designers were among the first of the famous to discover the town’s saturated colors and golden light. Among them were Henri Matisse, Paul Signac and Coco Chanel. They undoubtedly sipped rose and indulged in the decadent pastries and people watching at Senequier.
Established in 1887, the cafe looks out on the harbor and the parade of natives and visitors who stroll the promenade. You can’t miss it with its red awning, chairs and tables. It’s best to sit inside by the cozy original bar when the Mistral is blowing, whipping the sea to a froth and turning the sky a deep, September blue. If you do nothing else in St. Tropez, order its tarte Tropezienne, a cream-filled slice of heaven.
La Tarte Tropezienne, established in 1955 by pastry chef Alexandre Micka, is the original home of the dessert that Ms. Bardot and the “Woman” film crew enjoyed. There are several La Tarte Tropezienne shops around town, but eating is only one of the sensory experiences that put St. Tropez on travelers’ itineraries. Swimming, sailing or sunning on the beaches are the others.
It costs about 30 euros for a mattress or lounge chair at one of the private beach clubs and another 60 euros or so for lunch. Plage de Pampelonne is home to some of the more well-known, including Club 55, which began as the canteen for “And God Created Woman.” Today, it is the favorite of Hollywood elite and newly wealthy Russians.
Tahiti Beach is older and less expensive. There are public beaches as well, but the true “drunken lunch” -- with techno music and ample amounts of chilled rose -- is best experienced at the beach clubs.
Le Ponche is one of the smaller town beaches near the old fishing port. Above it is Hotel Restaurant Bar de la Ponch, a fishermen’s watering hole that began to attract patrons with panache such as Pablo Picasso and actress Jeanne Moreau. Today, it’s a five-star hotel that retains a very authentic ambiance. To the owner, Madame Simone Duckstein, it is home. She inherited it from her father and has lived in St. Tropez her entire life. She remembers Picasso spending afternoons in the restaurant and Ms. Bardot and crew playing at the beach below. Now 70, she continues to greet and seat customers. “Now you know who I am,” she said after introducing herself. Her 18-room hotel is the epitome of charm.
A less-expensive but wonderfully homey and inviting option is the three-star Hotel des Lices. It’s just a short walk from the Place des Lices (pronounced “lease”), where people congregate under rows of mature London plane trees to play a game of boules (much like bocce) or sip a drink at Le Cafe.
Every Tuesday and Saturday, lanes between the trees are packed with tents for a festive market where all manner of food, flowers and goods are on offer. Cheese, breads, linen tunics, art, silver, baskets, pottery, hats, handbags and salami are sold, but unlike most markets, there is no haggling. You only have from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. to see it, touch it, buy it. When you’re done, head across the street to the brasserie Le Sporting, a great place to eat with the locals and those who wish they were.
Make sure to be in St. Tropez on at least one of the market days, but if you miss it there’s still plenty of shopping on its cobbled, medieval streets. Chanel, Hermes and hundreds of unique boutiques beckon alongside butcher shops, bakeries and a morning fish market that helps to keep year-round inhabitants connected to their roots. You would need an entire summer to explore all of the shops. Thankfully, a shopping map is available. It can help you find gems like Bla Bla, an original St. Tropez boutique with a Bohemian, gypsy vibe.
If you need a break from all that shopping, get a little culture at the town’s many art galleries and Le musée de l'Annonciade. It was built in the early 1500s as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Annunciation as a sanctuary for repentant sailors, and was converted to a pleasant, little museum in 1922. Updated in the 1950s, it overlooks the harbor and contains works by Signac, Matisse and Bonnard, among others.
At the height of the tourist season, it’s hard to hear the soothing sounds of birds, cicadas and waves that are the natural soundtrack of St. Tropez. But you can find them by hiking uphill along the country roads. Above the town are the chateaus built in the early part of the last century. One, Chateau de la Messardiere, was built as a private residence in the 19th century but was turned into lodging to help support the family after the patriarch died. It passed through a series of owners until 1989, when it was expanded into a five-star luxury resort with 24/7 shuttle service into town. If you prefer to move freely and not rely on a shuttle, stay in town and visit the chateau for lunch or dinner on the terrace overlooking the famous beaches of the Bay of Pampelonne.
From Sept. 27 to Oct. 5, St. Tropez will host Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. Sailors will replace jet-setters in the cafes and restaurants as 300 sailboats, some classic and some modern, will arrive from around the world to race.
Stay more than a day whatever time of year you go. The longer you stay the longer you will want to. It is hard to resist the song of the siren that is St. Tropez.