A Riviera reverie

The French Riviera town of St. Tropez is the perfect spot for a post-Covid treat

If you’re contemplating a post-Covid treat, a few delicious days in a place whose very name conjures up lotus eating and glamour set against a backdrop of exquisite beauty, let me suggest St. Tropez. The French Riviera town, about midway between Nice and Marseilles, became a magnet for the so-called jet set in the 1960s, but these days the former fishing village turned beau-monde resort, while retaining its essential Mediterranean character and charm, is far less exclusive and a great deal more welcoming to all.

That, of course, is a good thing, but it does mean that this jewel of the Riviera can sometimes feel it is bursting at the seams. Which is why last year I was thrilled to discover, in the hills just above the town, Château de la Messardière, part of the uppercrust Airelles collection. Far from the masses who throng St. Tropez not only in summer but for a good eight months of the year, Messardière is a hotel resort of great charm, complete with swimming pools, tennis courts and fabulous restaurants, “class” oozing out of every pore.

White-jacketed staff with bright white smiles greet you at the hotel entrance and whisk you inside, where everything is white and pale cream, a vision of ethereal airiness. It is sheer heaven. Of course, you don’t need to have lived the purest life to gain entry but merely possess a robust credit card on check-in at the elegant front desk.

My suite is an exercise in luminosity. It has its own terrace, too, with a little gate leading to one of the resort’s three pools, this one quiet and relaxed, with chaise longues on the surrounding lawn. Recovering your mental (as well, perhaps, as your physical) health post-Covid, you could sit around this pool for a week with a couple of good books, swimming the occasional laps and discreetly checking out your fellow guests through your Ray-Bans and never get bored for a moment.

Or, if the lower pool is a little quiet for your liking, you can join the beautiful people around the larger “upper” pool, which is livelier and more geared toward families. Messardière loves kids, just as it loves animals. (I had a snuffling Pekingese on one side of my room and a plaintive Cavalier King Charles Spaniel on the other, two pampered pooches for sure.) The hotel’s third pool – located at the Airelles Summer Camp, or Kids Club – is a new addition to the property.

For true indulgence and also well-being, there is a luxurious Valmont Spa for donkey-milk treatments with lavender, rosemary and pine – all the scents of Provence – or a Japanese sauna with its healing infrared light. You can even do a total detox, with four tons of salt used in the levitation bath, which is the closest thing you will ever experience to a return to the womb.

And then there are the bars and restaurants, nearly a dozen all told, including Matsuhisa, chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Riviera outpost. One not to miss is Auberge des Maures. Ninety years old, the Auberge was already the oldest restaurant in St. Tropez, before it recently relocated to Messardière. Set on the hotel’s divine main terrace, this is the place for exceptional Provençal cuisine, prepared and served by an all-female kitchen and front-of-house team.

When I pay the bill, my server asks how long I am staying. Just one night, I tell her, adding that a night is certainly not long enough to experience paradise. “Oh monsieur,” she says, in her lilting French accent, “You are very – I don’t know how you say this in English – very cute” before bursting into a fit of the giggles. I’m flattered and blush like a teenager.

Next day, I move to Messardière’s sister property, Pan Deï Palais, a gorgeous honey-colored hotel particulier (grand private house) with Indian decorations, eau-de-nil (blue-green) shutters and a limpid swimming pool with diamond motifs, right in the middle of town. With just 12 rooms, the hotel was built in 1835 as a home for Bannu Pan Deï, an Indian princess, and although once inside the front door all is quiet and calm, in terms of position it is in complete contrast to the Messardière – namely, in the heart of the action. The palais’ top-floor Ashanti suite has a view of the entire village, and the recent renovations, by sought-after Parisian designer Christophe Tollemer, are the last word in restrained good taste.

The swimming pool, more Eastern in appearance than “Hockney-esque,” is beautifully lit at night, and a splashing fountain and lanterns spilling over with Brazilian jasmine heighten the ambiance. At dinner there is also wonderful jazz, so that you just want to get up and dance between the vitello tonnato appetizer and saddle of lamb with eggplant entrée (served on the most exquisite Benardaud gold-rimmed Limoges plates.)

Lunch? That’s when you head for the Jardin Tropézina, of course, the extremely chic private beach club that Pan Deï Palais shares with Château de la Messardière, a few minutes’ drive from both. They do tangy ceviches, a terrific truffle pizza and spaghetti alle vongole, served on the terrace overlooking the beach.  It’s a scene all right, a wonderful one, and it’s partly what you come to St. Tropez for.

At the end of the afternoon, I call for the shuttle to take me back to town and a Rolls-Royce arrives to pick me up. I take a selfie of myself in the back, for the kids really, because for myself I prefer Pan Deï’s hop-in, no seat-belt, open-air Moke.

In town meanwhile, everyone says St. Tropez has changed. But if you’ve never known it before, that cannot possibly bother you. It’s still a town of contrasts. Chanel has a long-established, summertime pop-up store near the port, in baroque mansion La Mistralée, which in turn is next door to Monoprix, an unpretentious grocery store. Even St. Tropeziens have to eat.

At a table in Sénéquier’s bar on the port, a suave, tanned Frenchman is barking orders at some underling on his phone, trying to close a deal. On my other side, two inked and pierced youths are scratching away at scratchcards as if their lives depended on winning a few euros. Perversely, I desperately want Monsieur Smoothie to lose his deal and the inked boys to scratch off their lucky number.

Visiting St. Tropez and staying at these two wonderful hotels, I know I scratched off mine.

For more, airelles.com.

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