Why You Need to Stay at Saint-Tropez’s Hotel Byblos
A cool white bed sheet is strung across a washing line. Across its surface, the sun-projected shadow of a man, still, waiting. In front of it, laid out across the bottom of the cinema frame, a lithe, tanned, nubile young woman, sunbathing – naked.
In 1956, this was how Brigitte Bardot was introduced to the rest of the world in ‘And God Created Women.’ And there, gleaming rich colours in sumptuous colour CinemaScope, stretched across the 2.35:1 ratio widescreen, was the setting – St. Tropez. Nothing would ever be the same again. The film is a shallow affair, in some respects. Rudimentarily a proto-Eurotrash thriller, it became a blueprint for the collision of innocence, carnality and patriarchy that defined much popular culture in 60’s France (the famous and distinctive theme music of French TV Show ‘Eurotrash’ is a Ye ye tune that Bardot recorded, called – you guessed it – ‘St. Tropez’).
In the film, Curt Jurgens uses the wanton appeal of Bardot’s 18 year-old wild child orphan to secure a piece of land, but it’s really director Roger Vadim’s personal love letter to the bronze curves and untamed, golden tresses of his fecund wife and his favourite picturesque little fishing village. Both were to be changed by the experience. From a fishing village retreat for artists – Paul Signac, Greco, Matisse and Picasso all chillaxed and worked here – to the 100,000 tourists who now annually cram the tiny streets leading to the narrow dock, Bardot’s sleepy playground has evolved only subtly. The lady herself, more so. She’s the town’s own Garbo.
That perfect dermis and the shimmering hair have, alongside the casual disposition, denatured under the Mediterranean sun. As is on record, hardened ideas and questionable politics may now be more associated with La Bardot. St. Tropez itself, however, continues to shine elegantly on its special little peninsula. Where once the sardines and bass came shimmering up from little fishing boats, now the perfectly-tanned, perfectly content do the same from their battle cruiser-sized super yachts, moored here for €16,000 a day.
Inevitable change is brought home to me, as the Algandra swerves across a breaking wave, hugging this cherished coastline. The slick and nimble twelve berth yacht is the seaborne extension of one of the town’s most famous properties, the Hôtel Byblos. Look up St. Trop on Wikipedia and there it is, alongside its on-site nightclub, Les Caves du Roy – the place’s sole entries in the section marked ‘Economy’, alongside a mention of its opening night in 1967 – hosted by Brigitte, naturellement, and described as ‘an international event’. A genuine landmark, then. As is Bardot’s little seafront house, which our host, the Byblos’ hilarious and accommodating general manager, Christophe Chauvin, points out to us from the deck of the skipping boat.
Back on solid ground, the hotel itself is a wonderful series of small connecting structures around a beautiful pool to form a quadrangle, that, alongside the different rustic colours each is painted, creates the feel of being ensconced in a perfect, tiny village, cut off from the rest of less than perfect humanity. A Provençale Portmeirion, if you will, where one wouldn’t mind being kept ‘Prisoner’. It’s been at the epicentre of the mythology of St. Tropez ever since that fateful night in ‘67. Mick Jagger, then the biggest rock star in the world, proposed to Bianca there. Bardot later called the place “jet set base camp”.
Today, its casual luxury continues to seduce a demanding international clientele by offering exclusive services and festivities in its swinging locale all summer long. The place has undergone recent renovation, under the watchful design eye of the Byblos’ Matriarch (and Chairwoman), Mireille Chevanne. She personally oversaw the refit of each of the 41 rooms and 50 suites of the hotel and the personal touch goes some way to creating what her son, Antoine, now the CEO of owners Group Floriat, describes as “the Byblos family spirit”. It’s one that is found amongst employees such as Jean-Christophe, the head concierge who opened the Byblos in 1967, and whose son Richard today does the same job.
Antoine grew up in the hotel, his family having owned it his whole life. Now a very young and debonair 40, he has become friends with clients and guests who knew him as a boy. Even his childhood friend Junior is now executive manager of Les Caves du Roy. Peruse any magazine article that focuses on the high life of St. Tropez and there, in the glossy photos, is my immaculately dressed host, soft dark features smiling alongside a veritable A-list Who’s Who. This man is genuinely comfortable around anyone, from Will.I.Am, to Quincy Jones to, er…me.
A tour of the property reveals that all the rooms have a unique look and feel. I stay in a duplex that is the essence of Mediterranean simplicity and taste. Bright, simple and clean – white artex walls, terracotta floor tiles in both of bathrooms and warm red carpets and fittings. Cool and inviting and a great place to entertain. However, I’m too busy to do anything ‘in room’. We are gathered here mainly to witness and sample the opening of the hotel’s latest facility, Rivea, a brand new restaurant concept from another of Antoine’s old chums, multiple-Michelin scalper, Alain Ducasse. The masterchef has maintained a relationship with the Chevannes for many years and previously ran an outpost of his Spoon concept dining rooms at Byblos. However, there seemed a more pressing need for something more unique, more appropriate for the locale and food that returned to Duccase’s early training under Roger Vergé at the legendary Moulin de Mougins, outside of Cannes. This is where he developed his skill and love of genuine Provençale cooking, or as Vergé called it, ‘Cuisine de Soleil’.
Discussing this return to a purer approach with me, Chef Ducasse explains (alternating between his translator and very serviceable English) that what he wanted was:
…”a return to simplicity. For various reasons. From an ethical and environmental perspective, we must start to source locally – to support local economies and to minimise pollution. But just as importantly, from a health perspective, we should try to maximise the flavour of our produce without the need to adulterate it with excess fats and salt. And maybe spiritually, lighter food makes for lighter minds.” He smiles. I may have mistranslated.
Opening night at Rivea, where the beautiful and the bold have assembled as guests and family of Antoines and Co, bears out this bold plan for a more stream-lined approach to food. The room itself is stunning. Wholly refitted after Spoon was retired, it is enhanced by a stunning terrace that could be out of a Sisley or Van Gogh. Inside, a sober and comfortable decor conceived by Antonio Citterio, the brilliant eye behind the Hotel Bulgari in London, features floor to ceiling windows around two sides lets the Mediterranean light pour in and mirrors the same transparency into the kitchen. Terracotta notes ping against white and taupe in the elegant furnishings. A lighting piece by Ingo Maurer literally floats over the bar.
My own eyes are drawn to the really notable piece of kinetic sculpture in the place – the brand new, bright red Italian meat slicer. This is placed in front a walk-in chiller room – also glass fronted – that shows off, like a tank in an aquarium, the magnificent menagerie of various high end charcuterie that compose the first course. Alongside this are glistening sardines in oil, salads, pizzetta, small cold cuts of tête de veau, dressed with parmesan shavings and a caper sauce and the best mini ham sandwich I’ve ever eaten. Following this is a fillet of just-caught-outside-the-room sea bass, so fresh it should swim away. Just gently pan-fried and dressed with courgette puree and flowers, it is as light and spiritually-fulfilling as Ducasse could have hoped for. I feel 30% less venal. The main is just wonderous. Medallions of veal, again, just simply pan fried, along with three big morels, in a little butter and dressed with small, new season asparagus. Looks like very little of nothing. However, this dish is the culinary manifestation of your father’s sound advice to ‘always keep an eye on the quiet ones’. The mushrooms have absorbed nearly all of the butter and upon being cut, release a glutamate-rich, instant sauce that dresses and harmonises the whole dish. Bloody hell.
Dessert is no more than fresh local rhubarb and strawberries on a little dollop of crème Chiboust. Beatifically good. All washed down with a cheeky local rosé, repeatedly poured from a glistening and generous Jeroboam, that redefines the adjective ‘zingy’. Yeah, I’m sold. Because the meal is so balanced and easy to digest, I’m perfectly good for the next day’s lunch at the hotel’s B restaurant, on the terrace by the pool.
Here, we enjoy Burgundian Vincent Maillard’s signature Squid tempura served with a delicious assistance of caviar-dusted squid cubes, in the tin. This is followed by two levianthine whole roasted sea bream, their massive front teeth making these bisque sauce-drenched stars look like piscine Freddie Mercurys. They taste as charismatic as they look.
Exhausted by being treated in such a manner, I feel the need to relax. Time for an A-List rub down at the Sisley signature spa, which delivers as expected.
Freshly revived, I am good to boogie. Which is good, since Les Caves du Roy is as much fun as one can have with one’s clothes on in a club (fans of London’s faux-debauchery pit, the Box, look away now). The definition of Euro, this is the epicentre of the jet set and Rivera living. Glitzy, shiny, subterranean, sweaty, pumping, fantastical, improbable, this is where the prettiest collection of people, dance to the catchiest arm-waving club tunes EVER. It’s like Daft Punk wrote Get Lucky for this room. If you can’t find it within yourself to cut loose in this place, you’re probably dead inside. At one point, I discover one of our party – previously a well-rounded and sober individual, a man who studied for a DPhil at Oxford concerning early 19th century liturgical sermons – rictus grinning and fist pumping and generally going, as Mr Dizee Rascal of Lewisham would have it, ‘bonkers’. And as a guest of the Byblos, there’s no cab, night bus or hit and run kebab for him to worry about.
At 2am, I look over from my booth to see a 56-year old Alain Ducasse in the neighbouring one, beaming widely and enjoying all the sights. I eventually surrender at 3am, walking the approximate 100 steps to my loving bed and rise at 11. Apparently a subdued Chef left for Paris at 7am, not in a state to deliver his usual vivacious goodbyes to the hotel staff. Now that’s a good night, though this place guarantees a good time, night or day. Alas, at no point on my fabulous trip do I bump into BB. However, I suspect that the image of her against that white sheet in ‘56 should be the fantasy I keep of her. Meanwhile, the Hôtel Byblos is delivering a reality every bit as good as the myth.
For more info on the Byblos Hotel St Tropez, visit: www.byblos.com.