Flash, brash St. Tropez, Nice, Cannes, Monte-Carlo; the stretch of the French Riviera that runs from St Trop, as it’s locally known, to the Italian border is studded with towns which the international jet set has loved for decades. But even along this coast, which fills to bursting point in July and August, there are small beaches which you have to search out and can then make your own. Little villages like Villefranche-sur-Mer cling to the coastline; others have gently sloping sandy beaches running into the gorgeous azure blue of the Mediterranean, and the French Riviera finishes at conservative, delightful Menton.
Saint-Tropez conjures up beautiful bodies sunbathing on blue-and-white striped sunloungers, mega yachts and very rich and famous people. The resort town, once a small seaside village, may have lost some of its luster since the heady days of Brigitte Bardot, but Saint-Tropez is still a magnet on this part of the French Riviera. The Plage de Pampelonne is the beach to be seen on, but in high summer it’s wall-to-wall bodies. Public stretches of sand nestle between the 27 private beach clubs; if you want to use one of those (Le Club 55 is the place to go for), you’ll need a healthy credit card.
Alternatively take the 7-mile walk round the headlands, le Sentier du Littoral, to see the wonderful scenery and coastal flora. And you can take in the little beaches that are not packed out like Plage Graviers and Plage des Salins. It's a hidden part of the landscape around St. Tropez that few people see.
Just a few minutes away from glam St, Tropez, Sainte-Maxime is much more relaxed than its neighbor. Sainte-Maxime stretches for 11 km (6.8 miles) along the Mediterranean coast and has 5 km (3.1 miles) of sandy beaches. It’s a delightful resort town and easy to get to from Nice at the heart of the French Riviera, as well as Cannes and the newly revitalised city of Marseille.
If you tire of the beaches here, take a trip to the islands of Porquerolles or the secret islands just off Cannes, the Islands of Lerins, famous for housing the Man in the Iron Mask. Or get yourself a yacht and sail off to find your own spot.
Plage de l'Estagnol, Bormes-les-Mimosas
Just 3 miles south of Bormes-les-Mimosas, between Toulon and Le Lavandou, you’ll come across this sandy beach, hidden from site but glorious as it curves around the bay. It’s one of the French President's favorite haunts (they have use of the nearby Fort de Brégançon). You probably won't see them, but it does add that touch of glamour.
Plage de la Garoupe, Cap d'Antibes
Just outside the delightful town of Antibes, the sandy plage de la Garoupe fills up in the summer with locals as well as holidaymakers. The sea is warm; the views are wonderful and there’s a very good beach stand called Chez Jozy for a pan bagnat and a container of excellent pommes frites for lunch (just opposite the Hotel Josse). Just around the bay and climbing up the hillside are the villas of the rich – Roman Abramovich has one of his many houses here and his extraordinary yacht is often seen anchored off the coastline.
More about Antibes
Just a few minutes away from Nice, this is a quiet alternative to its more popular neighbor. Ignore the main sandy beach in Villefranche itself, and make your way to the pebble beach called plage de Passable. You can hire sunloungers from the Passable Restaurant. It’s pretty posh around here and is surrounded by villas like Nelcotte (Keith Richards’ old mansion) and the Villa des Cedres, where King Leopold II of Belgium used to spend his summers. You can also walk onto Cap Ferrat and follow its public footpath around the bay.
Paloma Plage, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Cap Ferrat is one of Europe’s richest areas, where villas like the fabulous Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild overlooks the sea. It’s a beautiful headland and worth seeking out. In Saint-Jean, the locals gather at the Paloma Beach club, but there is a public stretch so you can lay out your towel on the shingle shoreline of the cove. If you want protection from the knobbly stones, you can get a matelas or sunbed for 16 euros from the Paloma Beach restaurant. There’s also a public footpath (Sentier Edmund Davis) around the rocks of Paloma Point where you can dive off the rocks into the crystal clear waters.
Menton, Cote d'Azur
Menton, the last French city before the Italian border, is a lovely town, famous for its gardens and lemon groves. There’s a pretty harbor and a pebbled beach which is a real sun trap. If you come here in February, make sure you arrive for the Lemon Festival.