The French Riviera: Places to Explore

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The Western Côte d'Azur

The Western Côte d'Azur can supply you with everything your heart desires—and your purse can stand. Home to St-Tropez ("Saint Too Much," as the French call it), the region beckons to both backpackers and billionaires. The former camp out on the stunning Estérel coast, the latter indulge in the mecca of hedonism, splashing out €1,000 a night for a room in the summer. Let's not forget the area is also home to remote hill villages colonized by artists, striking red-rock coves, and scenery gorgeous enough to steal center stage from Deborah Kerr in Hollywood's 1958 Riviera homage, Bonjour Tristesse.

For natural beauty the region can't be topped, although the series of picture-book gulfs that scoop into this part of the French Mediterranean coastline remains less famous than its counterparts to the east. Above the coastline of the Var département (region), the horizon in all directions is dominated by the rugged red-rock heights of the Massif de l'Estérel and the green-black bulk of the Massif des Maures. Lovely blue-green waters lap at the foot of thriving resort towns—St-Tropez, of course, but also Fréjus, St-Raphaël, and Mandelieu-La-Napoule.

But the biggest pull remains St-Tropez. Like France's perennially popular rock star Johnny Hallyday, St-Trop never fades—it just gets another face-lift and keeps going, brasher than ever. The difficulty reaching its portion of the coast—the train only goes as far as Ste-Maxime—naturally separates the wheat (who swan in by helicopter) from the chaff (who crawl along in midsummer traffic jams, sweaty and miserable). You need to be a little masochistic to visit St-Tropez in August, but the town does have a fair number of budget hotels and sheds most of its pretension in the off-season, becoming simply a small fishing port with very big yachts.

Neighboring resorts can't help but feel lower-key, providing stretches of sandy beach and guaranteed balmy temperatures to sun-starved northerners. In high summer, masses flood the beaches, feast on the fish, fill up the marinas, luxuriate in the spa treatments, and crowd the hotels and cafés. Bored, sunburned, or regarding each other in mutual snobbisme, they then take to the hills—the glorious vineyard-lined, village-crowned hills that back the coast as the continent climbs gently toward the Alps and are home to some beautiful villages perchés (perched villages) and historic towns.

These destinations make great day trips from the coast, though they're often dominated in high season by busloads of excursion-takers out of Cannes or St-Raphaël. But if you have a car and the time to explore, you can plunge even deeper into the backcountry, past the coastal plateau into the Haut Var. Here the harsh and beautiful countryside—raw rock, pine, and scrub oak—is lightly peppered with little hill villages that are almost boutique-free. You can hear the pétanque (lawn bowling) balls thunk, the fountains trickle, and the bells toll within their wrought-iron campaniles. If you like what you see and press on, you'll be rewarded with one of France's most spectacular natural wonders: the Gorges du Verdon, a Grand Canyon–style chasm roaring with milky-green water and edged by one of Europe's most hair-raising drives. Backpacks, hiking boots, and picnics are de rigueur around the Gorges, until you reach lovely Moustiers-Ste-Marie, an atmospheric center for faience, where you can treat yourself to a leisurely meal and take in breathtaking views.

You can visit any spot between St-Tropez and Cannes in an easy day trip, and the hilltop villages and towns on the coastal plateau are just as accessible. Thanks to the efficient A8 highway, you can whisk at high speeds to the exit nearest your destination up or down the coast; thus, even if you like leisurely exploration, you can zoom back to your home base at day's end. Above the autoroute things slow down considerably, and you'll find the winding roads and overlooks between villages an experience in themselves. Venturing farther north, say by the 314-km (195-mile) Route Napoléon, is a bigger commitment and, to be fully enjoyed, should include at least one overnight stop.

The Western Côte d'Azur at a Glance

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