All That Glitters

With gorgeous beaches, a steady stream of celebrity sightings and the occasional uncorking of $15,000 champagne, St.-Tropez on the French Riviera continues to dazzle.

Cover Story

August 28, 2005|By Seth Sherwood | Seth Sherwood,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

June had barely begun, but the legendary French Riviera celebrity bastion of St.-Tropez already had its first scandale of the summer.

All across the seaside village, fresh piles of the June 10 issue of La Tribune de St.-Tropez declared the breaking news. From socialites shopping in the Rodeo Drive-like stores along Rue Francois Sibilli to the jet-setting playboys and billionaires trawling the coconut-oil-scented fleshpots along Mediterranean beaches, the summer crowd that arrives early suddenly found a disturbing front-page discovery that would once have been unthinkable.

"This just in," the article announced, accompanied by snapshots of Mary-Kate Olsen, Naomi Campbell and Bono disguised in an array of hats and sunglasses at various St.-Tropez locations. "Stars are now coming to St.-Tropez simply to vacation, and are opting to go out incognito."

For an instant, everything St.-Tropez stood for seemed to be called into question. But before the consummate see-and-be-seen party haven could fully contemplate the inconceivable dimming of its wattage, hope sprang a few days later from the sea.

As incognito as a monster truck arriving at the White House, the 160-foot power yacht Passion cruised into St.-Tropez's old port, navigated its bulk past the rustic ocher buildings lining the harbor and settled directly before the busy dockside cafes.

Tanned, jewelry-bedecked women stared from behind Chanel sunglasses while tourists snapped pictures of an American hip-hop titan and his girlfriend, an immediately recognizable R&B singer in shorts and high heels, descending the gangway. As the pair got into a waiting minivan, the man flashed the victory sign to bedazzled onlookers.

"Excuse me," said a balding middle-aged traveler with an Australian accent and Bermuda shorts as he tapped a fellow gawker. "But was that Jay-Z and Beyonce?"

This just in: Don't look for St.-Tropez in the obituaries anytime soon.

Summer after summer, year after year, the former Roman colony whose name has become a byword for sun-soaked shores and champagne-soaked revelry swells with the pleasure seekers, the rich, the superrich and the flesh-and-blood incarnations of characters usually seen on magazine covers and shareholder reports.

The ritual is as regular and irrepressible as the Cote d'Azur tides themselves: The yachts barrel in, the Ferraris roll up, the paparazzi take up position, the vacationers gape and wave.

Between the Rolex Cup sailing races in June and the Porsche parade in fall, St.-Tropez, a provincial maritime village of about 5,500, expands tenfold, becoming a traffic-choked pageant where one finds, to quote the French daily newspaper Figaro, "the greatest number of famous faces per square meter."

For VIPs, would-be VIPs and regular weekenders alike, the attractions are the same: charming old streets, a Dionysian beach scene and perhaps the most decadent nightclubs in the world.

"It's always beautiful, it's always solid, and yachts always need somewhere to go," says Lee Harrington, a New York writer who has visited the resort several times and will summer there again this month. "As people get richer, as the world turns, the place just seems to get more 'St.-Tropez.'"

"Non, non, non, non, non," says Bernard Kerob, a longtime provider of helicopter shuttle service to St.-Tropez -- whose clients have ranged from splurging families to Julia Roberts -- when asked if he has ever witnessed a decline in the popularity of his town among the high-season masses. "Never."

Sitting Buddha-like behind his desk, arms folded over his middle-age paunch, Kerob offers a nugget to explain St.-Tropez's apparently unflagging appeal to all income brackets: "It's mythic," he says, as though expressing a universally accepted axiom. "St.-Tropez is mythic."

Fittingly, that myth began with a celebrity on a ship. When in the 1880s writer Guy de Maupassant tacked his sailboat Bel-Ami into a largely isolated fishing community, he found a charming hamlet that he described in his 1888 memoir Sur l'Eau (On the Water) as looking "like a seashell wet by the salt water and nourished by fish and the sea air."

Soon, the masses followed. The neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac sailed into port in 1892 aboard his yacht Olympia and invited Henri Matisse and other painters to capture the rapturous Mediterranean color and light. The end of World War II brought Parisian writers -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Prevert -- who created a summertime Left Bank at the portside Senequier and Gorille cafes.

But it was the body of the young Brigitte Bardot -- she's still a resident of the town, though rarely seen -- rolling in the St.-Tropez surf in the 1956 film And God Created Woman that, almost by fiat, gave birth to the sultry playground of the emerging jet-set age.

By the time Mick and Bianca Jagger tied the knot at the Chapel of St.-Anne in 1971, the place's notorious indulgences had cemented its reputation as St. Trop: St. Too Much, in French.

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