Originally a harbour for working fishing boats, busy and beautiful St Tropez is backed by mountains and vineyards. The village and its beaches were colonised by holidaying bohemians in the 1880s and again in 1930.
In WWII, the same gorgeous beaches were taken over as landing grounds for the allied invasion of Southern France.
St Tropez’s rediscovery by film makers in the 50s and 60s has now led to celebrity resort status. Watersports enthusiasts and the rich and famous are attracted to beaches like the 5km shore of Bai de Pampelonne. Tahiti-Plage in particular is the haunt of celebrity photographers.
Strict planning laws ensure construction sites don’t engulf the town and whilst there are plenty of designer boutiques and luxury hotels, there are still narrow streets in Provencal style, an open air market in shady place des Lices on Tuesdays and Saturdays and fresh fish for sale in Place aux Herbes.
Avoid the crowds and traffic jams of high summer and choose spring or autumn to view the latest fashions and spot the famous on their yachts whilst sipping a cocktail around the old harbour. Worth a visit are the fine art collection in Musee de l’Annonciade and sixteenth century hilltop citadel with sea views and a maritime museum.
The historic Roman trading port of Frejus (Forum Julii) founded by Julius Caesar has so much of both classical and medieval interest, it’s well worth buying a Frejus Pass. The harbour silted up long ago but vestiges of the port’s defences remain. A tour of the Roman town should include; the amphitheatre able to seat 10,000, Porte des Gaules aqueduct, third century Porte d’Oree bath colonnades and Roman theatre which is still holds productions.
Focus of the medieval town is the Gothic and Renaissance Cathedral of Cite Episcopale with one of France’s oldest baptisteries and beautiful cloisters housing an archeological museum.
Although no longer on the sea, modern Frejus is a popular holiday resort linked to the sea by Frejus-Plage and neighbouring St-Raphael. Set on the fertile plain between the Massif de l’Esterel and the Massif des Maures, the town is known for its wonderful fruit - particularly peaches.
In the nearby hills, a mosque and Buddhist shrine were built by French colonial soldiers in the early nineteenth century and Notre-Dame-de-Jerusalem chapel was designed by Jean Cocteau and completed after his death in 1963.
Fashionable St-Raphael suffered a great deal of damage during WWII and many of its Belle Epoque seafront villas have in fact been rebuilt.
The town is said to be one of the richest on the Cote d’Azur and the Casino on Square de Gand is happy to welcome those with money to spend. Parts of the same Roman aquaduct found in Frejus can be seen in the courtyard of the church of St-Pierre and there’s also a museum of underwater archaeology.
Those tired of sunbathing on St-Raphael’s sandy beaches can exercise with watersports, including diving. Five separate harbours make St Raphael a favourite with yachtsmen who enjoy sailing the blue waters around creeks and sandy beaches.
From the old port, take a boat trip to Iles d’Hyeres, Iles de Lerins or around the calanques for wonderful views of the distinctive red porphyry cliffs of the Esterel Mountains. Drive the winding corniche road through pine forests.
The historic natural harbour of Toulon is home to France’s Mediterranean fleet, a cargo port and busy dockyard, its waters alive with ferry traffic plying between Corsica, Sardinia and the offshore islands.
One of Toulon’s several maritime museums, Musee de la Marine on place Monsenergue has fascinating records of Toulon’s naval history including details of galleys powered by slaves and convicts and the scuttling of the French fleet in 1942 to avoid German control.
Much of the town was destroyed during WWII and the harbourside cafes and shops have all been rebuilt. There are still original buildings such as Cathedrale Ste-Marie-Majeure in the old town north of the harbour. Enjoy a coffee in place Pouget near the ivy-covered dolphin fountain.
Mount Faron rises vertically to 584m immediately behind the town, protecting the port from the strong Mistral wind and historically providing an excellent look-out from its many forts for enemy ships.
Climb by car or preferably take the cable car (telepherique) to the summit to enjoy wonderful views of the town and bay from its parks. Exotic Frederic Mistral Gardens are a favourite photo location for wedding couples. Take a picnic to Alexander I Gardens with plenty for children to do and concerts on Sundays, or visit Mont-Faron Zoo.
This modern Venice,built in 1968 out of marshes and gravel pits, was an experiment by architect Francois Spoerry to create an environment for the elite sailing community.
Modelled on a Provencal fishing village and built entirely of stone, Port Grimaud, across the bay from St Tropez, has mooring rights for each resident and cars are banned. Canals replace roads and shops and restaurants are reached by bridges and waterbuses.
The counts of Provence built their summer palace at Brignoles on the River Caramy, the capital of central Var. The thirteenth century palace is now a museum containing a thirteenth century sarcophagus and fourteenth and fifteenth century Christian altars. Many of the ancient buildings in this medieval village have been part of history.
Louis XIV and his mother are reputed to have stayed in the seventeenth century house next to the town hall and a stone on another house proclaims ‘on August 28, 1563, the Huguenots were here’. Tour the old city ramparts, visit Eglise Saint Sauveur, ancient towers and charming squares.
Don’t miss the market on Saturday morning, and explore the surrounding vineyards.
The small town of Aups in the Verdon Regional Natural Park makes an ideal centre for touring the villages of the Haut-Var in the foothills of the Alps. Visit Draguignan with its shady squares and museum of traditional industries, and the huge waterfall of Sillans-La-Cascade.
You do need to have your own transport to travel around this area set half-way between the ski slopes and the sea. Aups itself has the third largest black truffle market in France, held on Thursdays from November to February. There’s a Provencal market for produce and handicrafts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The town received the Croix de Guerre avec Palmes for its work as part of the French Resistance during WWII. The Simon Segal Museum is dedicated to modern art and there’s a sculpture park close by.
Family holidays in Les Lecques centre around its beautiful Mediterranean bay and long sandy beach. The port is linked to the old town of St-Cyr-sur-Mer, between Marseilles and Toulon.
The replica of the Statue of Liberty in the town square of St-Cyr was a donation from sculptor Frederic Bartholdi who created the original. Enjoy markets selling local fruit and vegetables and follow the 10km coastal path at the east end of Les Lecques’s beach along quiet beaches and creeks to Bandol.
French theatrical names and writers, including Provencal playwright and film maker Marcel Pagnol, took holidays in modest Bandol in the early twentieth century before St Topez became famous. The resort has fine sandy beaches, a harbour for up to 1,500 boats and great waters off-shore for scuba divers. Vineyards in the surrounding limestone hills between La Ciotat and Toulon produce some of the finest wines on the Cote d’Azur.
The modest resort of Le Lavendou at the foot of the Massif des Maures is blessed with fine sandy beaches. The town has an international marina and is a favourite port for deep sea sport fishing. Diving is popular in the clear waters off the coast. Boats depart daily for the beautiful island of Port-Cros, in the Iles d’Hyeres (also known as Iles d’Or) and several times a week for Porquerolles.
Take a ride east along the corniche to the famous silver sands of Cavaliere, Pramousquier, Le Canadel and Le Rayol, where beaches glitter in the sunlight with tiny specs of mica crystal.
Visit pretty Bourmes-les-Mimosas close by. Set on a hillside, it blossoms with mimosas in spring and oleander and bougainvillea in summer.
One the the Cote’s oldest resorts, Hyeres, has its centre set back from the sea and retains much of the nineteenth century charm lost by some of the more beach-focused coastal towns. In its heyday, Hyeres was a wintering place for English aristocracy; now the Moorish architecture and boulevards with their date palms are sought after as film locations.
Pass through medieval gateways to climb the narrow streets of the old town set on the slopes of Casteau hill and topped by castle ruins. Here the parks of Ste-Claire and St-Bernard blossom with Mediterranean flowers and offer stunning views of the coast and inland. Enjoy fascinating little shops, cafes and daily market in place Massillon, historic buildings, churches and museum.
The harbour has been used as the home port of the French sailing team and world windsurfing championships are held off the beach at l’Almanarre. Family-friendly beaches (which can be busy in high season) are monitored by lifeguards and there’s plenty for children at the local fun park and zoo at Jardin Olbius-Riquier.
Situated across the turquoise waters of the Gulf of St Tropez, Ste-Maxime is less flamboyant than its neighbour opposite.
Beautiful white sandy beaches face south, backed by the protecting hills of the Maures. There’s everything here you’d expect of a resort on the Cote d’Azur; palm-fringed promenade, fishing and pleasure boats in the harbour and beach activities ranging from sunbathing to water-skiing.
Be pampered at a price on Barco Beach or visit plage des Elephants named in homage to storybook character Babar the elephant. There’s also a gay beach near the casino. Visit Ste-Maxime’s folklore museum and take a trip out of town to the Musee du Phonographe et de la Musique in parc St-Donat to marvel at an eclectic mix of automata, musical boxes and ancient audio equipment.