First of all, let me apologize for the title of this post, but I couldn’t resist no matter how corny it may be. The fact is though that my visit to one of France’s swankiest coastal communities, Saint-Tropez, was anything but corny. No, it was one of many highlights while sailing the Mediterranean with Viking Ocean Cruises but I’m willing to bet that my experience in this small town was far different than most visitors. Traveling to the south of France in December is not like visiting in the summer months, and not just because of the weather. Sailing just a week before Christmas, we found a sleepy seaside village completely devoid of the hoards of tourists who descend on the Côte d’Azur in July and August. As a result though, we experienced the true nature of Saint-Tropez and surrounding communities, understanding in a better way I think why this part of France is so very well loved by millions of people around the world.
Out and About
One feature I have always loved about Viking River Cruises is that at each stop there’s an included tour. That’s a huge bonus that few other companies provide and it’s especially exciting that they extend this perk to their ocean sailings as well. Sometimes I joined them and other times I did my own thing, but I was especially happy I decided to take one when visiting Saint-Tropez. Bundled up against the chilly wind coming off of the water, even in December it was easy to see why Saint-Tropez has attracted the rich and famous for decades. So what is there to do exactly in Saint-Tropez? Well, the easy answer is enjoying the nearby beaches and boating, neither of which sounded great while wearing a hat, mittens and scarf. While beautiful, I also understood why the city essentially closes down in the winter, making me doubly grateful for the Viking excursion that morning. Led around by a local resident, we learned about the town’s impressive, and incredibly long, history, as well as some of the most notable sights in town. I also enjoyed the opportunity to pepper the guide with questions, preparing for some individual wanderings later in the day. Viking is great for many reasons, but their included tours are notable because of how robust they are. These are not throwaway excursions; they are just as well rounded as any paid activity that, in Saint-Tropez, also included a trip to the nearby town of Port Grimaud, another bastion for the well heeled.
Walking into Port Grimaud, it’s easy to fall under the spell of the brightly colored buildings and channels that instantly reminded me of Venice. The seaside town is a popular place for boat owners thanks to the easy access to the water, but it has one quirk that surprised me. It’s a planned community that was built in the 1960s. Made to look like a much older town, those Venetian influences were intentional, but even if Port Grimaud doesn’t have the weathering of age, it is a fun place to visit, even on a quiet morning. Thinking back to that day and this free excursion, it honestly does amaze me that visits to both towns were included for all passengers, a great way to get out and explore more of the French Riviera. But it was ultimately only the start of my day and I was eager to get out and see what has attracted visitors to Saint-Tropez for so very long.
When I think of Saint-Tropez, I think of warm breezy summers, painters sketching out scenes by the water, amused French authors twirling their moustaches and glamorous people in dark sunglasses shuttling from one place to the next, anxious to avoid the flashbulbs of the paparazzi. And it may be like that in the summer, I’m not sure, but one thing I was sure of is that I wasn’t going to run into Brigitte Bardot while strolling the city’s streets in the middle of December. Like most towns and cities, the weeks before Christmas are more for locals than tourists, which in reality provided me with the best opportunity to learn more about the real city. That’s one of the many things I love about visiting Europe in December, I feel like I’m observing a somewhat more honest version of certain destinations, particularly touristy hotspots, and Saint-Tropez was no exception. It was early in the morning though, I was cold and coffee wasn’t just a want, it was a requirement. Luckily, I could combine that sightseeing with a chocolate croissant at one of France’s most legendary cafes, the Café Sénéquier.
First opening its doors along the port in the 1880s, the café has always been a busy place thanks mostly to its pastries and famous nougat dessert. Before World War II, the café attracted a fashionable clientele and after the war the entire port was rebuilt to its former glory. It was during these years when the Sénéquier once again began to welcome the world to its brightly colored café. Soon Hollywood stars and the wealthy hangers-on all took morning coffees and late evening drinks at Sénéquier, truly making it one of the most photographed and well-known cafes in France and probably the world. Still family owned, tradition is key at Sénéquier, and I was excited for my own experience dining with the stars. While it may not have been as glamorous as I had hoped, their pastries are indeed amazing and the flaky chocolate croissant was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed; and I’ve had a few in my life. It was the perfect start to an afternoon of walking, exploring and, of course, eating yet more food.
I’m happy to have visited in the winter for another reason; I’m not glamorous enough to hang out with the summer crowd. While I always try to look nice, the truth is I can’t match anything and I usually don’t buy anything expensive and certainly not fashionable. It’s just not in my DNA, so bundled up in a coat and hat was the perfect way for me to explore the town without worrying about fitting in. It’s silly, it’s definitely not mature, but it’s who I am. With that happy anonymity in place, I started to veer away from the colorful port into the city itself. Most shops and businesses were closed; signs in French all read the same thing “Closed for the season.” No bother though, most were high-end boutiques and I didn’t need a new pair of heels. Fashion clearly rules the day in Saint-Tropez, and even a fashion-resistant troglodyte such as myself couldn’t help but be amazed by the beauty of some of the more notable houses, including the stunning Dior flagship building located in the middle of town. Exuding pure elegance, apparently in the summer months it also features a fine-dining restaurant, no doubt a popular venue for the Real Housewives of Saint-Tropez. Meandering even further into the center, I finally found what I was looking for, the main square. All towns have them, and it’s from this public space where I usually like to explore new places. Owing to the morning hours though, it too was nearly empty. The many trees dotting the park were bare in the cold December wind, and even the Christmas market was shuttered, awaiting nightfall before welcoming children of all ages for some holiday fun.
Reading through this post I’m starting to worry that I’m not painting a great picture of what truly is a beautiful little town. I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Saint-Tropez, learning about its history, walking its streets and consuming its delicious food. In spite of my fashion-backward style, I would like to also visit in the summer though, to compare and contrast the differences if nothing else. But I’m very thankful to have visited for the first time in the winter, when I had the town to myself and I could explore every nook and cranny without the scrum of tourists getting in the way. I ended my day at a local bistro, happy to enjoy some French food and pass the time as the locals do, slowly eating, chatting and just enjoying life. France is one of my true travel loves and always will be. It was the first country outside the US I ever visited, French was my first foreign language learned and the people and culture are very dear to me. To have that day there, to enjoy life the way I know Tropéziens do, that was priceless. That’s also one of the great aspects of cruising that I love, the ability to swoop in and enjoy local life easily, comfortably and enjoyably.