Dispatch, Provence: The crafted image of Saint-Tropez


Nadine Godwin joined other journalists and travel agents in early June on XL Airways’ inaugural flight from New York to Marseille, France. They journeyed to Avignon and Saint-Tropez, as well. Nadine's second of four dispatches follows. Click to read her first dispatch. 

SAINT-TROPEZ, France — I came here wondering what’s so special about this village (population 5,000) that it attracts the uber-rich and uber-famous. The answer is, not much.

Don’t get me wrong, it is an enchanting place. My point is that a lot of the French Riviera is enchanting.

Saint-Tropez stands out, however, because Brigitte Bardot came to town and stayed, bringing many of the world’s jet-setters in her wake.

It had already attracted artists and others, but the big-time parade started in the 1950s. It carries on today but with different faces diverting the paparazzi.

(Brigitte is still here. Her house is visible, just barely but without binoculars, from the village.)

Saint-Tropez draws 5 million visitors annually, a thousand for each resident.

The way I figure it, after my way-too-short visit this month, Saint-Tropez maintains its disproportionate claim on visitors by following two rules:

1. Change nothing on the exterior, maintaining the look of an unmolested fishing village from some imagined idyllic past. The town fathers even dictate the paint colors, based on a Genoa-inspired palate, for each building.

2. Change anything or everything inside to keep “top-level” clientele coming back for more.

Take the interiors of big-brand, upscale stores as an example. Claude Maniscalco, general manager of Saint-Tropez Tourisme, explained that such retailers have to move every two years because landlords won’t offer longer leases. If they did, the law would keep them from raising rents when the real estate market is hot.

At the same time, Maniscalco said, the retailers must constantly introduce new merchandising “concepts” to hold the customer’s attention.

And so, shoppers can get a meal at Dior, walk through gardens at Louis Vuitton and at least look at the swimming pool in the house Chanel now occupies. The Chanel site would have been someone’s fine home, but the other shop exteriors belie their interiors.

St Tropez - Chanel

We had dinner at Hotel Byblos, a Leading Hotels property that opens only for the season, roughly mid-April through October. This hotel hosts Les Caves du Roy, one of the village’s hottest clubs.

Its patrons have to be paying enough for drinks to buy the furniture. Christophe Chauvin, general manager, explained that customers do so much damage (like standing on furnishings in high heels) that the club is renovated once a month in season.

In the spa, Chauvin showed our group the Les Caves du Roy shower. As water poured forth, the wild lighting and sounds of a club had all of us in stitches.

Our dinner spot, the Rivea at Byblos, described as an Alain Ducasse signature restaurant, is new this season.

One may wonder why the village even needs a tourist office, given the crowds it already attracts. Overnighters among its 5 million annual visitors vie in peak season for space in 2,000 hotel rooms and 32,000 villas and apartments.

Or, if arriving by boat, they vie for 800 moorings (at $1,600 a day on average), and at peak times there can be a thousand yachts anchored outside the harbor.

Maniscalco, answering my unasked question, described himself as “concierge of the village.”

“Visitors can get anything they want,” he said. His office makes arrangements, cooperating with hotels and other providers.

“I don’t sell, I offer Saint-Tropez,” Maniscalco said. “We want good clients, and we don’t need more [numbers].”

So, over out-of-this-world lamb chops, I asked Maniscalco what he meant by “top-level” clients. Essentially, he said, they are prominent, at the top of their fields, whether entertainment or business. “It helps to have money,” he said.

By extension, such clients are magnets for any who can afford to go where the big shots go.

Maniscalco said 65% of visitors are non-French, but that number is 85% in summer. They represent 85 countries, with the U.S. generally third to fifth in the ranking.

At this point, I also wondered why Saint-Tropez bothered hosting journalists, but Maniscalco’s emphasis on maintaining a diversity of markets was suggestive. Americans are an important part of that mix, and some of our countrymen spend a lot.

Saint-Tropez is a distorted reality, but I liked it.

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