The French Riviera town is back in fashion, and at the center of the current renaissance is the fight to save its infamous beach clubs. Supporters claim they're a monument to France—and to erotic freedom.

Cedric Angeles

It is 6 p.m. on the first Monday in July. You've been in St.-Tropez only a week, but when you pull up to Le Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach for a last swim on your last afternoon, Christophe, the parking valet, welcomes you back.

Sure, you were there for lunch earlier (you've been there for lunch three times this week; 55 is one of the two most branché beach clubs on this renowned crescent of sand, six miles from the center of town). But next to the nabobs who come daily by yacht or helicopter or Bentley, you are a nobody. You've been given neither the best tables nor the best spots on the beach. You haven't cared a whit: you've been surrounded by folks so amusing, so distracting, so diabolically attractive that it's been hard to read your Herald Tribune.

Apparently, you have made a good impression. Christophe has decided to approve of you. He ignores another American—this one pleading, "Can't I find my own car?"—to direct your rental into a prestige spot near the door, normally occupied by a Ferrari or one of those Bentleys.

You step onto a boardwalk where 10-foot bamboo stalks form a canopy over your head. It leads to 55's outdoor dining room, on a terra-cotta terrace enclosed by tamarisk trees and shaded with woven reeds and white canvas. Misting pipes give the place a diaphanous veil, through which you spy Patrice de Colmont, 55's owner, sipping a coffee, dressed in white linen, his brown hair a wild mop. He's talking to a visitor about how St.-Tropez falls in and out of favor—and why it endures nonetheless.

"It's in fashion, it's not in fashion, it's in fashion," Colmont says, wryly pointing out that it's not new to claim that St.-Tropez is finished. "Colette already wrote it in 1932." He dashes into the single-story bungalow that holds 55's kitchen and office, returns with Colette's Prisons et Paradis, and reads a snatch of dialogue between two people talking about St.-Tropez: "Two hundred luxury cars driving toward the port at five in the afternoon. Cocktails, champagne on the yachts in the harbor, you know." "No, I don't know," is the rejoinder. "I really don't. I know the other Saint-Tropez, which still exists—and will always exist for those who wake up at dawn."

And for those who choose to swim in the sea at 6 p.m.

In the beginning there was Chez Camille, a bouillabaisse restaurant that since 1912 has sat on the water at one end of Pampelonne. Patrice de Colmont's father camped on the beach nearby in 1948, then bought a fisherman's house on the sand. When travelers passed, he and his wife would offer them hospitality. In 1955, Brigitte Bardot and her husband, director Roger Vadim, were shooting . . . And God Created Woman on the beach, and mistook the Colmonts' cabana for a bistro. The crew boss asked Madame Colmont if she would cook for the troupe. When filming ended, Bardot and Vadim stayed—and Club 55 was born, as an invitation-only restaurant for "the people we like," says Patrice, who was eight at the time. Over the years, more beach clubs opened: Moorea, Bora-Bora, Aqua, La Voile Rouge. Of course, St.-Tropez was already popular at the beginning of the 20th century, when it attracted Colette, Matisse, and the Prince of Wales, but it is the beach clubs that bring today's equivalent of royalty: P. Diddy, Claudia Schiffer, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell.

To enjoy St.-Tropez you have to make some simple choices. Do you stay in town or in the country?Where will you eat dinner tonight?Which beach club will you choose today?And is it too early for a glass of rosé?As the millennium arrived, these well-worn rituals seemed threatened. La Voile Rouge, where topless sunbathing took off, was under siege. The raucous party there—where disco pumps into the afternoon, and almost as much champagne is poured over half-naked women as is swilled by them—had gone on too loudly for too long. A segment of the local population used these excesses to argue that all of Pampelonne's 31 beach clubs should be closed, calling them an insult to what was officially a "remarkable natural preserve."

You can't entirely blame them. In high season, 60,000 visitors a day clog the beaches, cafés, and 15th-century alleys of this old fishing village. In recent years the throngs, along with then-polluted seas and run-down hotels, had driven out the fashionable. By 1989, Bardot, the town's reigning celebrity, was heard to sneer that St.-Tropez had been "taken over by yobs."

Olivier Le Quellec, a real estate agent and president of the tourist board, compares St.-Tropez to a theater. "There are two kinds of people here—those at the podium and those in the chairs," he says. In 1998, he sold the house of Elton John's manager for $7 million, the highest price ever paid for a residence at that time. Real estate values promptly doubled. "When you have money people, you get fashion people and more hotels and restaurants," Le Quellec says. "And the quality goes up." So, too, does the level of backlash.

In March 2000, the mayor and council of the town of Ramatuelle, which controls Pampelonne Beach, refused to renew the license of Paul Tomaselli, owner of La Voile Rouge, and ordered the club razed. Then a government official leaped into the fray, demanding that all the clubs be shut down. (Club 55 and Tahiti, another of the first beach clubs, were exempt because they are on private property.)

A hue and cry arose, with supporters calling La Voile Rouge a monument to erotic freedom and Pampelonne a monument to France. That summer, Tomaselli opened his club in defiance of the town and was taken to court. After it was pointed out how many millions of dollars and how many jobs the beach clubs mean for Ramatuelle, he won a reprieve: La Voile Rouge would not be demolished.

Club 55 and La Voile Rouge aren't the only institutions holding their own against the changing tides. "The classics stay the classics," Le Quellec says. So, just like the beach clubs, the best portside cafés of 15 years ago—Sénéquier and Le Gorille—are still the most popular today. And while designer labels come and go, K. Jacques, the quintessential sandal shop, remains an eye of style at the center of the town's fashion storm.

St.-Tropez strikes its bargain with novelty in its hotels and restaurants. New ones have sprung up, and older ones have been refreshed and refined. Hotel Byblos, for example. With its hillside location and monied clientele, it remains the hostelry of choice for the fabulous set, as it has been since 1967. It got a stem-to-stern spruce-up a year ago (rather like some of the enhanced denizens of St.-Tropez) that included a redesigned lobby, bigger suites, and a restaurant from Alain Ducasse. His Spoon Byblos is a Mediterranean version of the Paris original.

Those who prefer the action of St.-Tropez on their doorsteps can choose between the Starckish chic of the new Maison Blanche, the quiet charm of Le Yaca, or the old-school style of La Ponche, which began as a fishermen's pub and whose regulars—Charlotte Rampling, Bianca Jagger, Hubert de Givenchy—return year after year. The allure of the in-town hotels is their access to the real village hiding within the tourist town. Sitting over a morning pastry at Sénéquier, you can watch Tropezians heading for the open fish market; ships' stewards rushing to the Librairie du Port to buy newspapers for the passengers on the yachts; elegant shopgirls in rubber gloves washing down windows; and scooters, piled high with crates of produce, swerving to avoid the last disco stragglers ending their night and the parents and kids starting their day. Sénéquier is a short walk from the market in the Place des Lices. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, food, antiques, and everything in between is sold in the square; in the evening, the traditional bowling game pétanque is played here amid pigeons that scatter at the clack of the metal balls.

Just outside the town center are the hotels La Bastide Rouge, a design statement favored by the fashion set; Château de la Messardière, a fantasyland of extravagant gardens and poolside Persian rugs in a 19th-century castle; and Villa Belrose, a hillside Florentine-style palace. Farther afield there are country inns like the Ferme d'Hermès, whose proprietor, Madame Verrier, has spent years perfecting her farmhouse haven in the midst of vineyards. Because Ferme d'Hermès is on the far side of Pampelonne, guests can get to the sand in moments. In season, at least, the drive from town to the beach is often hot and long.

Paul Tomaselli is no longer baring almost all in the G-string that he wore in the eighties. Today, he's fully dressed and eating lunch with Shu-Lin, his girlfriend of two years, as he angrily, wearily, defends La Voile Rouge against enemies he deems "jealous." His club is a place "for fantasy, for sex, for girls, for life," he says. "I propose a culture. The others just propose that you eat."

Like Tomaselli's outfit, lunch at La Voile Rouge is toned down from the days when even the waitresses doffed their tops. But there's still lots of flesh in evidence. The crowd is younger and considerably flashier than at 55. Some days La Voile Rouge has more yachts anchored offshore; some days 55 does. But whereas 55 is a place that's suitable for families, La Voile Rouge lives to party.

Its white-on-white décor, its huge sculpture of handcuffs, its much-coveted menus with photos of nude girls, its strolling models in flashy bathing suits and diamond watches, its loungers facing the restaurant scream "Versace," whereas 55 whispers "Ralph Lauren." Its food—Mediterranean and expensive—is as good as 55's. So, too, its celebrity count (Dick Clark, himself an ageless symbol of youth, is here today). On the beach, a mom reads Emotionally Intelligent Parenting next to her teenage daughter, who is fidgeting with an itsy-bitsy red bikini. On the deck is a man dressed in a black shirt, exotic leather cowboy boots, and way too much jewelry. Everyone knows him. At a nearby table, boys drink magnums of rosé and eat with their hands. A disc jockey behind the bar plays a record on which a voice says flatly, "You are not as fat as you imagine . . . don't worry about the future . . . do one thing every day that scares you . . . floss . . . do not read beauty magazines." To which, add a few more things: It's okay to stare. Make reser-vations early. And bring lots and lots of cash (La Voile Rouge does not take credit cards).

Dinner starts late in St.-Tropez—which is appropriate in a place where lunch can end at six. "St.-Tropez was never so crazy like now," says the fabled disco owner and longtime resident Regine. "It's like the dream of a child." The hottest spot in town is La Villa Romana, a local landmark. Once a simple Italian restaurant, it has been revamped as a multicultural culinary amusement park behind a velvet rope. It's decorated with Egyptian reliefs and Persian carpets, a fish tank, and a trompe l'oeil ceiling of clouds and sky, and has a boutique selling rhinestone cowgirl hats. It's the Saturday-night equivalent of Sunday lunch at La Voile Rouge.

Almost as zany is the VIP Room Supper Club, with décor worthy of a Dolce & Gabbana diva. The club serves a hilariously disreputable show along with dinner. One night last summer, a grizzled American jazz saxophonist wandered the floor, while a statuesque woman in bondage gear put a dog collar and leash on a willing diner and led him through the restaurant.

Just another night in St.-Tropez.

Things are calmer in Ramatuelle. Kai Largo, part of the Nioulargo beach club complex, is an Indochinese pavilion with delectable Asian food; it's one of the few restaurants serving dinner just steps from the water. On a lane nearby, there's the Auberge de l'Oumede, with a romantic view over rolling fields. And for beauty, there's Les Moulins de Ramatuelle, an old farmhouse on the Route des Plages with landscaped lawns, a mimosa grove, and a vine-covered courtyard dining area that clearly hopes to become one of St.-Tropez's abiding favorites. Those hallowed fixtures include the dining room at La Ponche, famous for its soupe de poisson, Chez Fuchs, a Provençal bistro, and Maison Lei Mouscardins, a gourmand's paradise in an old port tower.

After-dinner entertainment is as accessible as a walk along the port, where you might find a Ferrari 550 Barchetta Pininfarina—one of only 448 in the world—parked illegally next to a Mercedes carrying the Ferrari's bodyguards. Ferrari types like nightclubs. The town's oldest established disco, Les Caves du Roy, beneath the Byblos, has retro-seventies Oriental décor (so out it's in), $21 drinks, and $18,000 Methuselahs of Cristal champagne.

Just as amusing is the intricate ballet of the yachts as they maneuver into slips in the village harbor that are even harder to come by than Sunday lunch reservations at 55. Crowds gather at all hours to watch The Queen M do a three-point turn, ready to replace the Aviva, with its helicopter on the deck, or the Infatuation out of London, a $10 million computerized sailboat, or the Griff, out of Bermuda, with a rope across its gangplank and a sign that reads PRIVATE YACHT—NO BOARDING.

"It's a very special cohabitation," observes Gerald Hardy, manager of Château de la Messardière. "People on the boats are eating caviar, and two meters away are people eating ice cream, looking at them like they're in a circus cage."

Hervé Le Fauconnier, the director of the Port de St.-Tropez, says that in summer about 600 of the world's 4,000 super-yachts (boats longer than 79 feet) can be found on the Côte d'Azur. There are officially 31 berths on the old port, facing the famous harbor cafés. Because St.-Tropez's harbor is in the center of the village and faces north, passengers have the world's best view of the town's exquisite sunset colors, the soft glowing oranges, yellows, and ochers that illuminate the pastel portside buildings. "I manage rarity," Fauconnier says. "Our customers are fishermen with boats of twenty-six feet, as well as millionaires. That's the magic of St.-Tropez." Then there are the numbered, 18-karat white-gold, diamond-studded VIP cards that supposedly give holders priority status in the harbor. But anyone can buy one for $1,750 a year. That, too, is the magic of St.-Tropez.

Rich and not-so, they all mix together on the beach and in the beach clubs that bring people back here year after year, fashionable after unfashionable season. A new mayor has made conciliatory gestures toward the clubs, but environmentalists are appealing the ruling that kept La Voile Rouge open, so the clubs are not entirely secure. "These beaches are part of the soul of St.-Tropez," Hardy says. "If we don't have these beaches . . ." He can't bring himself to finish the thought.

With an eclectic mix of frolicking children, cigar-chomping moguls, designer-clad women, topless girls, and tattooed boys, the beach clubs seem intent on proving that you can never be too rich, too chic, too tan, too lifted, too bejeweled, or too old a man with too young a girl. It's all a bit too-too.

If it's too much for you, there are public beaches just near the swells, where you don't have to lay out $30 to go in and rent a mattress and an umbrella. You should splurge at least once, for the complete St.-Tropez experience, but plan ahead. Even at these prices, it's impossible to get one of 55's paillotes (a straw-topped sunshade) or even a matelas—a sun-bleached foam mattress—without a reservation. Unless, of course, the beachboys decide you are sympathique, in which case one may become available after all.

Then you might be lucky enough to be told you have to lunch on the late side, when Tropezians like Eddie Barclay, a former record company owner and legendary rascal, tend to dine. If you see an octogenarian at Club 55, at a table with two or three beauties whose ages combined do not equal his, it may be Barclay. At last count eight times married, he is a symbol of St.-Tropez. For its story is one of persistence that outlives excess, and endurance that trumps the inevitability of obsolescence.

The Facts: St.-Tropez

St.-Tropez is at its best in May, June, and September. But July and August, when the crowds descend, can be an enjoyable spectacle—especially at the beach clubs on Pampelonne, where anyone who's anyone has lunch. If you rent a car, it's easier to get to the famed stretch of sand, six miles outside town.

Hotel Byblos Ave. Paul-Signac; 33-4/94-65-68-00, fax 33-4/94-56-68-01;; doubles from $405. A legend—and justifiably so—this 95-room village-within-a-village (with a health club, pool, two restaurants, and Les Caves du Roy disco) is the finest and most expensive place to stay in town.
Hôtel La Maison Blanche Place des Lices; 33-4/94-97-52-66, fax 33-4/94-97-89-23;; doubles from $245. A new, high-style nine-room hostelry.
Hôtel La Ponche 3 Rue des Remparts; 33-4/94-97-02-53, fax 33-4/94-97-78-61;; doubles from $180. Charming and historic (playboy Gunther Sachs used to rent the whole place every year). Book the Romy Schneider room, a rooftop aerie named for the actress, though the other 17 rooms are equally appealing.
Hôtel Le Yaca 1 Blvd. d'Aumale; 33-4/94-55-81-00, fax 33-4/94-97-58-50;; doubles from $275. Wonderful service and a pretty pool, but some of the 27 rooms are cramped.

La Bastide de St.-Tropez Rte. des Carles; 33-4/94-55-82-55, fax 33-4/94-97-21-71;; doubles from $340. Twenty-six country-style rooms surrounding a pool.
Château de la Messardière Rte. de Tahiti; 33-4/94-56-76-00, fax 33-4/94-56-76-01;; doubles from $348. Amusingly opulent or over-the-top?You decide. Some of the 88 sun-filled rooms have views of the valley.
Ferme d'Hermès Rte. de L'Escalet, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-79-27-80, fax 33-4/94-79-26-86; doubles from $110. A 10-room inn set amid vineyards.
La Bastide Rouge Rte. du Pinet; 33-4/94-97-41-24 fax 33-4/94-97-73-40;; doubles from $172. A modern 23-room inn on sprawling landscaped grounds.
Hôtel Villa Belrose Blvd. de Crêtes, Gassin; 33-4/94-55-97-97, fax 33-4/94-55-97-98;; doubles from $475. Thirty-eight rooms with Beverly Hills luxury, a view to die for, and prices to match.

From $6,000-a-week villas to $26,500 beachfront estates, International Chapters (44-207/722-0722; has it all—including the estate of Johnny Halliday (France's Elvis).

La Voile Rouge Plage de Pampelonne; 33-4/94-79-84-34; lunch for two $200. Bikini tops optional.
Club 55 43 Blvd. Patch, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-79-80-14; lunch for two $75. Refined simplicity.
Nioulargo 17 Blvd. Patch, Ramatuelle; 33-4/98-12-63-12; lunch for two $72 at Nioulargo, $108 at Kai Largo. The Nioulargo complex is actually composed of two clubs: Kai Largo, which serves Asian food, and Nioulargo, for Italian dishes.
Tahiti Quartier du Pinet, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-97-18-02; lunch for two $92. A sprawling complex favored by British and German tourists.

Auberge de l'Oumede Chemin de l'Oumede, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-79-81-24; dinner for two $82. Prix fixe dining near the beaches. Drive carefully down the treacherous approach road.
Chez Fuchs 7 Rue des Commerçants; 33-4/94-97-01-25; dinner for two $74. Family recipes from sisters Martine and Renée Fuchs.
Chez Palmyre 2 Rue du Petit Bal; 33-4/94-97-43-22; dinner for two $72. A pretty terrace beneath the Citadel.
Le Gorille Quai Suffren; 33-4/94-97-03-93; dinner for two $36. Round-the-clock drinking and light dining (croque-monsieur, poulet frites).
Maison Lei Mouscardins Tour du Portalet; 33-4/94-97-29-00; dinner for two $146. Haute cuisine in a tower on the harbor.
Les Moulins de Ramatuelle Rte. des Plages, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-97-17-22; dinner for two $92. Stuffed zucchini, onion tart, and other country specialties. Also has five rooms to rent at the inn.
Sénéquier Quai Jean-Jaurès; 33-4/94-97-00-90; breakfast for two $20. Watch the fashion parade from this waterfront café, a St.-Tropez institution.
La Villa Romana Chemin des Conquettes; 33-4/94-97-15-50; dinner for two $110. The food isn't bad, but you're really here for the leopard skin—clad crowd. Reserve a table in the garden.
VIP Room Supper Club Résidence du Nouveau Port; 33-4/94-97-14-70; dinner for two $92. Theatrical dining, with DJ's providing the background beat.

Though the stores in the harbor itself are mostly low-end, the streets leading uphill from the port to the Place des Lices and the Citadel are lined with world-class labels (Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Tod's, Cartier). There's also great shopping just off the harbor in the Passage du Port, home of the jeweler Julian Joailliers (Passage du Port; 33-4/94-97-20-27). On the Grand Passage, Jil Sander and Burberry rub shoulders with the superb watch boutique Kronometry (3 Rue Allard; 33-4/98-12-62-50 ). Everyone buys sandals at K. Jacques (25 Rue Allard; 33-4/94-97-41-50).