Some might say an uncredited star of the French New Wave, iconic hideaway Hôtel La Ponche played a significant role in making St Tropez the elite hotspot it is today. From the 1950s onwards it went from serving coming-ashore fishermen to starring as a backdrop in And God Created Woman and La Piscine and became the hangout for France's A-list. It hosted the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Roger Vadim, Romy Schnieder and other French literati – some of whom stayed ‘faithful only to their room number’ (the walls might whisper) – and sometimes writer Boris Vian would jump behind the bar to serve his friends (Sartre, Picasso – NBD). Now designer Fabrizio Casiraghi has readied it for the starriest to stay after an elegant makeover, revealing a slice of Riviera life that felt lost, and once again setting this legend's name alight.
12 noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 4pm.
Double rooms from £272.05 (€316), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €3.30 per person per night on check-out.
Rates don’t usually include the Continental breakfast (€30 a person) or à la carte picks – gluten-free and vegan options are available too – served on the terrace overlooking the sea in summertime. And guests get free access to the Annonciade Museum.
Take advantage of the sun-kissed privacy of your suite with an in-room massage.
Dates change by year, but the hotel’s season usually runs from April to the end of the festive season.
At the hotel
Sea-facing terrace, pontoon, laundry service, beach bags and towels to borrow. In rooms: 43-inch flatscreen TV, gourmet minibar, Nespresso machine, tea-making kit, terry-cloth bathrobes and slippers, Hermès bath products, air-conditioning, free high-speed WiFi.
Our favourite rooms
If you follow in the footsteps of celebrities of old, there’s a chance you’ll move between suites… But we’ll play it safe and go with the Junior Suite Sea View, for which we’ll defer descriptive duties to Bonjour Tristesse writer Françoise Sagan who stayed there for extended periods: ‘I got up from my bed, I opened the shutters, and the sea and the sky threw the same blue, the same pink, the same happiness in my face.’ Alternatively, Bardot’s boudoir (a Tropezian Prestige Suite with Sea View) is suitably charming, with a terrace overlooking the sea and citadel and a balcony. Suites are spread across a series of peachy terracotta-tiled villas – many set up for long stays, because who could resist? – and the style is Provençal in creamy hues.
The hotel doesn’t have a pool, but from the pontoon you can enjoy La Ponche's cove like a private swimming pool.
There’s something magically meditative about the stay, which makes it unsurprising that France’s famous ingenues, literati and rabble-rousers came here seeking respite from the chaos of their celebrity. The spa may be small and is more like a wellness space, but you can get a pan-global range of massages (Balinese, Ayurvedic, Swedish, Lomi-Lomi, Thai, Californian…) in the one treatment room, and morning yoga sessions, courtesy of Le Tigre Yoga Club, are held on the pontoon facing the Med (from 8am to 9am, €20 a guest). Or, go one-on-one with private lessons in vinyasa flow or Yin yoga and Pilates. Personal trainers can be hired and the small fitness room (open 7.30am till 10pm) has elliptical bikes, resistance bands, kettle bells and dumb bells.
Throw all your vintage threads in your suitcase: off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, dirndl skirts, flirty capris, high-waisted bikinis, tailored shorts and tasteful tiki shirts. And something more smouldering for after dark.
Clock the hotel walls: Picasso donated lithographs to owner Simone Duckstein, which accompany paintings by her acclaimed-artist husband Jacques Cordier.
Children may slightly cramp your ‘beaching it like Bardot’ style, but there is a dedicated Family Suite, the concierge can help with childcare and they can play on the beach (with supervision).
The local fishermen haul in their catches just outside the door, so you can be sure the seafood is sustainably sourced – the hotel can pick and choose from Provence’s culinary bounty too. They’re working to reduce plastics and water use and implementing energy efficient methods, plus they use ecologically sound cleaning products.
From dazzling to dishevelled in the space of an evening.
When the ingredients taste this good, you need little culinary embellishment; chef Thomas Danigo has his pick of Provence in crafting a menu that hops and skips about the Med. Gazpacho with fresh mint, basil and countryside goat’s cheese; entrecôte with market-garden vegetables; bluefin tuna with watermelon: its southern cuisine at its simple best. Even the crockery it’s served on – painted with dainty flowers – nods to a meal that comes from the hearth. Since this is France, the desserts are assuredly seductive: roasted apricots with pine-nut crumble and lavender ice-cream, chocolate and hazelnut mousses and berries in a marigold syrup with fennel meringue.
La Ponche’s drinking den also rose from humble beginnings, when writer Boris Vian secured a neighbouring barn to set up the Saint-Germain-des-Prés-la Ponche piano bar. Years later, Brigitte Bardot’s orphaned Juliette would dance with abandon across the checkerboard floor in And God Created Woman, and a who’s who that includes Picasso, Jack Nicholson, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and more leading lights would prop up the burnished counter – so you never know who’ll you’ll find yourself drinking by today. The ivories are still deftly tinkled and there are deep armchairs for guests to sit in and backgammon sets to play, set by a fireplace. Classic cocktails are shaken and stirred as standard, but the star turns are the signature cocktails named after the former guests. Say, La Piscine de Romy Schneider with champagne, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lime juice and cucumber syrup; or the Tu Veux ou Tu Veux Pas de Brigitte Bardot, with tequila and Cointreau, watermelon and lime juices and a fiery twist of hot red pepper.
Breakfast is from 7.30am to 10am, lunch from 12 noon to 2pm, and dinner from 7.30pm to 10.30pm. The bar pours till midnight.
No need to re-coif those bed-heads or don more than a robe to dine – room service (croques, club sandwiches, chocolate fondant with orange-blossom custard) is served 24 hours a day, with a limited menu at night.
Hôtel La Ponche started off life as a humble fishermans’ bar, and it grew with St Tropez’s glamour, occupying the surrounding sherbet-hued villas, a 10-minute walk from the port, and five-minute stroll from the Citadel.
Will monsieur et madame be taking the helicopter or private jet? If so, charter some landing space at La Môle airport, a 30-minute drive from the hotel. Otherwise, touchdown at Toulon Hyères, an hour’s drive away, or Nice, a 90-minute drive away. Transfers are possible in a car or van; prices vary depending on the pick-up point.
High-speed TGV trains stop at both gares Toulon and Saint-Raphaël Valescure, a four- and five-hour ride direct from Paris respectively. Staff can arrange transfers from both for around €200 one-way.
Yes, get a car that looks the part, something top-down and dating back to the Riviera’s Fifties or Sixties heyday – going the clifftop routes by hatchback does dampen some of the romance, after all. La Ponche is centrally placed in Saint-Tropez, but beyond the Provençal vine and lavender vistas are untroubled by public transport. The hotel has a garage 50 metres away (€30 a vehicle, each day), from which a member of staff on a Piaggio scooter will whisk off your luggage.
Ferries run along the Riviera from Cannes and Nice or from Sainte Maxime across the Gulf.
Worth getting out of bed for
If you were inspired by Brigitte Bardot’s breathless free-wheeling in And God Created Woman, you can recreate her unbridled dance scene in the hotel bar where it was originally filmed, and follow in her barefoot steps on La Ponche beach, a sandy-pebbly spot better suited to sunbathing than swimming (although there is a section dedicated to laps by the hotel). Take note though, you might come unstuck recreating the scandalous nude sunbathing from the opening sequence – you’ll have better luck letting it all hang out on Plage de Tahiti, part of the famous Pampelonne Beach, where nudists are welcome. La Ponche is also the start of five-kilometre coastal hike Sentier Littoral, which rounds the Cap d’Antibes. And it wasn’t just the leading lights of France’s film industry who were drawn to St Tropez’s warm, sunny disposition. At the beginning of the 20th century, pointillist painter George Signac sailed into St Tropez, fell in love and built a studio where his friends could come to paint in picturesque peace. Those just so happened to be some of the greats: Seurat, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque… The Annonciade Museum collects together works from this era in a 16th-century chapel, and guests at the hotel get free entry. The heft of the 17th-century Citadelle is practically next door to the hotel, it’s now a maritime museum, but it’s also worth wandering around to see the gardens and take in the sea views from a loftier perch. And you can see the saffron-and-sienna-hued bell tower of the Baroque Église Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption from most of the hotel’s rooms, while Cap Camarat is more worshipful of nature, with its secret bays of many colours, tree-encrusted cliffs and not-a-soul-around beaches – explore it by boat to truly appreciate its gulf-cleaving majesty. Both Cannes and Toulon are ripe for day tripping – on your way to the former, stop off to see Pierre Cardin’s fascinating Bubble Palace, and take the cable-car up Mount Faron in the latter. St Tropez is also a great jumping-off point for exploring Provence’s vineyards and lavender fields.
Often, immensely popular hangouts trading on their legendary status are at risk of the mighty falling, but St Tropez’s enduring hotspots seem to have swerved this by maintaining their foundational charms – take Le Club 55, which has been welcoming customers as old friends since, you guessed it, 1955. Perhaps it’s the unpretentious nature of its open-air dining space that spills onto Pampelonne Beach; the menu of grilled fish, steak and salads that doesn’t overcomplicate things; or the finely honed hospitality, but it still draws in a jet-set crowd and a number of high-ranking celebs. Auberges des Maures was a favourite of Chaplin, Garbo and other Silver Screen idols. It’s menu skews Italian with stuffed courgette flowers and osso bucco, and they serve up on an immensely romantic terrace. Just north of Cap Camarat is Chez Camille, which has a few years on Club 55, serving wood-fired fish and lobster and bouillabaisse since 1913, its Tropezian catches are delivered fresh each morning and its terrace has sigh-worthy blue views. While La Vague d’Or is a little more frou-frou with three Michelin stars under its belt. It’s not spoilt by too many cooks (even though chef Arnaud’s kitchen has 33 in the team), and is very well-connected with Provence’s paysans; expect refined rustic dishes such as rabbit with absinthe, country bacon and star-anise-spiked candied tomatoes; seared John Dory cooked in seawater with clam jus and Meyer lemons; and a lemon tart spritzed with vanilla and served under a citrus veil with a passionfruit caramel.
Place des Lices, St Tropez’s main square is ringed with bijou cafés where you can stake your space on a terrace and stay awhile watching pétanque players (ask your waiter for a spare set if you want a go). The simply named Le Café is yet another culinary icon around these parts (est 1789), serving up elegant lunchables: sea bass with crushed tomatoes and fennel, beetroot and comté carpaccio or black-truffle macaroni. And, Café Sénéquier, with its rouge-accented decor, has sweet treats (Tropezian tarts, crêpes Suzette, chantilly-topped meringues) and a spirited cocktail list – try the St Tropez spritz with prosecco, grapefruit cream and raspberry purée, or St Tropez Iced Tea: a triple threat with vodka, rum and gin.
Start the night in style, by popping some corks at White 1921’s champagne bar; its leafy terrace, laid out around a centuries-old fountain, is just right for effervescent evenings. Go full St tropez and sample the decades old vintages they’ve kept in store – and as a side note: Pharell Williams conceived the coffee bar here.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this just say yé-yé hotel in St Tropez and unpacked their sunglasses big enough to hide behind and shown off their newly sun-gilded limbs, a full account of their relax and rewind break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Hôtel La Ponche on the French Riviera…
Before St Tropez was St Tropez – A-list bastion of the rich and beautiful – the harbour full of ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ yachts bobbed with fishing boats, the sunlit serenity drew in pointilists and impressionists, and this pocket of Provençal paradise was enjoyed by locals. And, when it was built in 1948, Hôtel La Ponche was a small caboulot (restaurant with rooms) that fed and watered hungry fisherman coming into port after their shifts. Life on the Riviera was simple, full of beach-y beauty and, we’re sure, a fair bit cheaper; and then Roger Vadim chose the La Ponche neighbourhood as the setting for his lusty tale of ménage à trois (or quatre, at times), dangerous passions and wanton women, And God Created Women, and set one of its louchest scenes in the hotel’s piano bar, where Brigitte Bardot dances the men into a frenzy. Naturally, renown followed and the hip young things of the ensuing New Wave and a famous French creative crowd occupied the suites and propped up the bar, sometimes not leaving for weeks, or at all, choosing to settle in one of the villas nearby. Former owner and now ambassador Simone Duckstein witnessed all the bed-hopping between starlets, directors, artists and writers; lock-ins with the likes of Picasso and Sartre; and the real-life love triangle of Bardot, director Roger Vadim and leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant (the ultimate victor) – and she could have plenty of stories to share over a pastis, plus lithographs bestowed by Picasso. But, it’s no museum; Milanese designer Fabrizio Casiraghi has refined the suites, bar and restaurant in a fittingly retro style that doesn’t give too much due to St Tropez’s flash, and so Hôtel La Ponche is once again ready to play.