From Le Lavandou to St Tropez
The coastal road between Le Lavandou and St Tropez, has some of the most beautiful bays, surrounded by high hills and mountains offering shelter, and stunning scenery, which have also restricted any mass development.
The bays of St Clair, Aiguebelle, and Cavaliere, are all wonderful, but my favourite place is the wonderfully named Rayol de Canadel, where I suggest two options.
Either have lunch on the terrace of the impressive Hotel Bailli de Suffren, overlooking its own private beach, or try the very old-fashioned, but delightful ‘Tropicana’ beach restaurant on Canadel Plage, which is like the rest of this coastline used to be fifty years ago.
After leaving Rayol de Canadel, you should follow the coast road through a protected area, which runs for maybe ten miles until you reach the crowded and busy Port of Cavalaire sur Mer, with its large marina, but this is not for me, so push on towards St. Tropez, following the D559, but when you get to La Croix Valmer, turn right onto the D93 which will take you over up into the mountains, and then down towards La Ramatuelle.
This is a beautiful road which winds its way through hundreds of hairpin bends until you reach the summit and see the sea in the distance, and the bay of Pampelonne, which is home to some of the most outrageous beach restaurants in the world, but none as stylish as Club 55.
Follow the D93 towards St Tropez, but half way along the road which runs parallel with the beach, is a road on the right called Boulevard Patch, after you have passed Avenue Des Girelles, and this will lead down to the most amusing restaurant on the planet.
Club 55 is nothing less than a legend in St Tropez; it is an iconic part of folklore of the place, along with Brigitte Bardot and Gunther Sachs.
It is situated in the middle of the famous Pampelonne Beach, whose other beach restaurants, do not compare with its style or sense of theatre.
Set in the dunes of the white sands of Pampelonne Plage, it is definitely one of the world’s most exclusive and eccentric restaurants.
It all began in 1955, when Madame de Colmont used her little ‘Cabana’ wood hut to attend to the culinary desires of Brigitte Bardot and the crew during the filming of Roger Vadim’s, “And God Created Woman”.
Her son and now owner, Patrice de Colmont has lived here since his childhood, and combines his love of the place with an iron hand when dealing with the whims, and demands of the impossibly spoilt, super rich guests.
Everyone is treated in the same manner, and the right to a table is a privilege which needs to be earned, and so it is a real treat to go as the guest of a true local, whose right to sit in the hallowed section of the restaurant is enshrined in the unwritten etiquette known only to the waiters who have been there for years, and seen it all before.
In the seventies when I was first there it was still largely a European clientele, but by the 1980’s the oil rich Arabs had arrived with their huge entourages, and thirty years later it is the newly enriched Russian Oligarchs.
Every year there is an invasion of the super rich from around the world, demanding the best tables, and ordering the most expensive wines on the menu, and yet the real connoisseur will begin with the opulent crudités, select a bottle of Chateau de Pampelonne Rosé, and then sit back and relax, and watch the show.
On my last visit we were sitting at the bar enjoying a glass of Minuty when we met Tom Bower, the investigative journalist and author of several ground-breaking books about tycoons including Mohammed Fayed, Richard Branson and the ‘bouncing Czech’, Robert Maxwell. I first met Tom whilst shooting with a mutual friend in Wiltshire and have followed his career with interest as he has become the scourge of the rich and powerful, being completely fearless about exposing the seedier side of their rise to fame and fortune.
Club 55 is exactly the place one would expect to find Tom Bower, it being a valuable source of information and gossip. So whilst the waiters serve delectable Mediterranean cuisine, the guests provide the endless Cabaret.
Impossibly beautiful, leggy girls, hang around the thick brown necks of perma-tanned plump businessmen and the seriously rich bring their yachts around from the harbour at St Tropez. The sea opposite is littered with some of the biggest yachts in the world, whose tenders buzz back and forth to the club’s pontoon, desperately trying not to disturb their immaculately coiffeured cargo.
In order to keep the customers cool, there is a ‘sprinkler’ system of small bore pipes which expel a fine spray every so often to prevent the diners from expiring from the heat of the place. It is like a massive Arabian camp set in the dessert of Pampelonne.
Those who wish to enjoy the wonderful scenery, should avoid July and August at all costs, and yet that is when the cabaret is at its best with gigolos seeking their prey, and young girls seeking their millionaires, and everyone in between.
At any sitting for lunch or dinner there must be twenty or more languages being spoken, and rampant children, impatient with waiting for lunch at 4pm, play on the beach outside, where the Paparazzi hang around in packs, like wolves, seeking their prey.
Club 55 is possibly the most expensive restaurant in the world, for the simple reason that to arrive in style can cost the yacht owner, £10,000 just to motor around from St.Tropez. He will arrive at his booked table, fashionably late, with his guests in his wake and entertain them royally. This is not a place for people on a budget! Meanwhile braver spirits will walk along the silicon sand, studiously avoiding the eyes, and appendages of the Health & Efficiency crew on the nudist beach.
The other great social leveller is the Car Parking regime! It’s no good just turning up in an Aston Martin, or a Porsche 911, because they are two a penny. The ‘car parking mafia’ will select the sexiest cars to line up outside the main entrance to the restaurant, and we are talking ‘special’. For instance, when I was driven there by a well known ‘local’ a few years ago, we arrived in his cream-coloured, white leather upholstered, ‘special edition’ Mini-Moke’, puffing away at two large Cohiba cigars, and when we returned five hours later the Mini-Moke was in pride of place, nestling between a brace of vintage Ferraris!
So, by 6pm, the sun is lengthening over the beach, and the billionaires have headed back to St Tropez or Juan Les Pins or Cap D ‘Antibes, or Cap Ferret, or Cannes, and the wonderful beach looks its very, mellow yellow best; That is the time to sit in the weakening sun, and sip a glass of Chateau Minuty Rose, and share the moment with those closest to you. For despite all the Posers, Pimps, and Princesses, it is still a beautiful place, unspoilt by the endless efforts of the glitterati to diminish its charms.
It is only a short drive into St Tropez, and you enter the town from the beach side which means that you miss the appalling summer traffic. In fact, the best way to get to St Tropez is by boat, but there is stiff competition for the prime spots along the quay in the centre of town, and some of the richest people in the world, like to be seen aboard their yachts, and will stay on their allocated mooring for six weeks without moving or as long as the Capitainerie will allow them. Sometimes the only time they move is to cruise around to Pampelonne Plage.
The irony is that most of the mega yachts are too big to get into St Tropez harbour, and are forced to moor offshore in the Bay of St Tropez, and only come ashore in their tenders.
Such regulars include the British born billionaire, Joe Lewis, who made his fortune as a currency dealer, and uses his Yacht Aviva as his home away from home, which is the Bahamas, where he has built a luxury golf resort where other residents include Sean Connery, and Tiger Woods.
The strange thing is that the super-rich seem to crave each others company, and there is a regular little ‘club’ of them who summer in St. Tropez, including Lily Saffra, who rents a boat for six weeks each season, but it seldom moves! However her guests include the Chairman of Sotheby’s International, Robin Woodhead, Former President Chirac and Elton John and David Furnish, proudly accompanied by their son.
Moving on from St Tropez, there are few places which impress me less than Cannes, and it is not until you get to Cap d’Antibes that you find the ultimate Hotel du Cap, and the restaurant with the best views in the Mediterranean, at Eden Roc.
The luxury Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc graces the southern tip of the Cap d’Antibes, nestled between Nice and Cannes on the magnificent Côte d’Azur. An exclusive haven of perfection and privacy, it is set amongst twenty-two acres of gardens and pine forest with a pristine coastline and unsurpassed views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Lérins Islands.
Even without buildings, the site of Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc was always a place of beauty and inspiration. It captured the attention of Auguste de Villemessant, the talented founder of Le Figaro, who realised its potential and in 1870 built the elegant Villa Soleil, a writers’ retreat nestled in the heart of paradise.
For years and years the Villa Soleil remained obscured, abandoned and forgotten, until one day a visionary young hotelier from Piedmont fell under its spell. It took Antoine Sella two years to restore the jewel he found, in January 1889 Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc opened its doors for the first time.
Under Antoine Sella’s passionate management, the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc began to attract a loyal clientele. He had an imaginative vision of what a luxury hotel should be, but not the capital until a departing guest, impressed by what he had already created, financed his dream. The trendsetting luxury upgrade included central heating, private baths and an elevator!
For many years Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc remained a winter destination only. Fashion at the time considered the Mediterranean Coast unhealthy and ill-suited during the summer! Battling scepticism, Antoine Sella prepared for the summer season and used dynamite to carve the now iconic seawater swimming pool out of natural basalt rock.
Pablo Picasso was a frequent guest at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, casually arriving for a drink or two, simply attired and at ease. One warm summer day in 1955, Picasso readily agreed to design and hand-draw the restaurant’s new menu, asking for nothing more than ink, paper and a quiet table.
I first discovered Hotel du Cap and Eden Roc in the summer of 1976 when I was introduced to it by my then American partner, Harold Brooks-Baker, better known as Brookie to his friends, who were many, because he used to entertain in great style by renting a house within the grounds of Hotel du Cap for two months in the summer and had a habit of inviting all the customers of whatever restaurant he happened to be in back to Eden Roc after the restaurant closed and this frequently included the jazz band or musicians. These midnight sessions became extremely popular, indeed legendary, because they included some of the finest jazz musicians in the world who entertained Brookie’s guests for nothing. I was fortunate enough to enjoy the last few seasons of Brookie’s largesse before economic reality set in and his delightfully extravagant entertaining was sadly brought to an end, in the late 1970s, by the men in grey suits.
More stories of other iconic institutions along the Cote d’Azur will be covered in future articles.