London-based chef, writer and director of NINA Food Antonina Parker is a regular visitor to the beautiful sunshine-filled South of France. Here, in the latest in our With Love From postcard series, she shares her tips for having a relaxing and sustainable getaway to Saint-Tropez.
I have been coming to the South of France since I was born and I have even written a cookbook (NINA St Tropez) on my favourite regional dishes. There is something special about this coastline with its Brigitte Bardot style, golden hour sunsets and holiday life centred around the water. My parents have a house in Port Grimaud, which is about a 25 minute cycle ride from the little fishing town of St Tropez. The area is set within the mountain backdrop of les Maures, which is an ecological triumph as it is protected and therefore cannot be developed on. I come for a few weeks every August and I treat this holiday as a time to rebalance myself, switch off from my London life and to lead a relatively simple life of exercise, eating good food and hanging out with my family. Here are my top holiday activities to do on a visit to this part of the world with the bonus of also being environmentally-friendly:
Where to stay
I am biased as I love where our house is! I think staying in the little fishing port of Port Grimaud is an amazing experience and you can find some deals on Airbnb. It is a manageable distance on a bike to get to St Tropez and other nearby towns. The port itself is built like Venice and is completely on water, with canals and every house looking out onto water. The architect, François Spoerry, made each home unique, painted in pastel colours with French shutters and cute balconies. Depending on where you stay, you can walk to one of two beaches, making a daily morning swim a must. PG also has a great recycling system, which can sometimes be difficult when renting a flat or house abroad. In St Tropez there are a few flats to rent but they get snapped up quickly for the season. If you prefer a hotel, then I love the Ermitage for its retro style, boule court and cocktail bar terrace. There are various bed and breakfasts in the neighbouring villages of Ramatuelle, Gassin and Cogolin with reasonable prices.
There is no better way to see the neighbouring villages and countryside than with a trusty bike. The routes are vast and hilly with wild boar roaming around. The sound of the crickets up and down the rustic campagne makes you feel as though you are in Claude Berri’s film Manon des Sources, with shepherdess Emmanuelle Béart appearing at anytime. There are hundreds of fun cycle rides in the area, and one of my favourite routes is up a steep hill to Ramatuelle. This is not for the faint hearted, as it’s mainly up hill, but you will be rewarded with the ultimate breakfast in old school Café de l’Ormeau. This café hasn’t changed since the 50s and offers a simple petit déjeuner complete with fresh fruit, croissants and coffee for €12. The café is packed with locals and has a wonderful village feel. This is real Provence!
There are many other memorable routes to cycle in the Var but my second choice would be to head to St Tropez. There is a good cycle track running along the coast and Port Grimaud to St Tropez is an easy trip. Grab a take away crêpe at the Grand Marnier Crêperie or buy the iconic Tarte Tropezienne from the Sénéquier bakery (all in plastic-free packaging). You can hit the famous market with your tote bag on Tuesday and Saturday and find some incredible local produce, from basil plants to goat’s cheese to tomate Provençal tarts. Some stalls offer their own homemade tapenades and you can ask them to weigh foods in your reusable plastic container. They are also famous for selling organic lavender soaps that make amazing presents to bring home. I love to have a coffee in either Sénéquier or the Hotel Sube’s balcony. Don’t bother to bring your takeaway cup, as sitting and watching the world go by in one of these cafés is a true St Tropez experience. They also offer plant-based milks.
Look out for Provençal food
I always try to eat like a local and to enjoy the classic dishes from the region. I like to be as plant-based or as vegetarian as possible, and it’s easy when delicious produce is in abundance. Many of the restaurants buy in from a few miles radius and some have their own bio (organic) vegetable farms, including the well-known Club 55 and chef Arnaud Donckele’s restaurant, la Vague d’Or.
Look out for specialities of aubergine à la tomate, ratatouille, socca (chickpea pancakes), caviar d’aubergine, tapenades, artichokes with vinaigrette and desserts with apricots, peaches and nectarines. If you are looking for fish dishes then bouillabaisse, anchoiade dip with crudités, salad Niçoise, moules marinière and grilled sardines are strong contenders. The drink of the area has to be rosé and it has to be a delicate pastel pink colour. I love Chateau Minuty and Chateau de Pampelonne, but the list is endless. This might be obvious, but when eating out, I always ask for water in a glass bottle and if they don’t have them, then tap water is usually fine. If you are looking to do some home cooking then Le Grand Frais supermarket has an amazing fruit and vegetable selection and you must bring your own bags. There is also is a food market in Port Grimaud every Thursday and Sunday.
Images: (L) Artichokes a la barigole; (R) home cooking with fresh produce
Tennis on the dreamiest court
I’m going to put tennis before walking because I love the game that much! Whether you are with a family, travelling in a couple, or solo, this court up in the hills of Cogolin is picturesque. The courts are surrounded by wilderness, familiar sounds of the crickets and there is a small club house. I either go to have a knock up or get a lesson with the ultimate coach, Steve. There is something so serene about this surrounding and if you love playing, this is laidback chic to the max.
Coastal walks and l’Escalet
There is a coastal walk from l’Escalet all the way to Nice. You have to look out for the yellow paint marks on the rocks to guide the way and these make for some of the best seaside walks. The beauty is that you can join the route at many entrances along the coast and make the trek as long or short as you want. It’s cooler at Easter and in the summer you can go early and pack sandwiches along with your reusable water bottle. The ocean views around this rugged coast are stunning and it’s a chance to discover secret beaches, coves and spy some beautiful beach houses. I recommend packing a picnic and heading down to the rocky beaches in l’Escalet. I talked about this area in my St Tropez cookbook, and I am forever enamoured by its beauty. It’s mostly rocky with only a few little patches of sand. There is even an ice cream boat coming up to boats and people on the rocks. The swimming in this area is also excellent with crystal clear waters and the colours changing from turquoise to navy blue. When I think back over the summer, one of my favourite images is of l’Escalet.
On the water
The bay of St Tropez should also be explored, and you can catch the bus boat (les Bateaux Verts) from Port Grimaud over to St Tropez several times a day until around 10 in the evening. These boats have many routes to other nearby ports, such as Sainte Maxime and Saint Raphael. Paddle boarding is also very popular and can be another fun way to explore the beaches. You must make time to spend a day chilling on the Pampelonne beach and get a walk-in table at the Club 55 beach shack. Here you can get some chunky vegetable salads set in a driftwood interior setting. I also recommend hitting Salins beach for some golden hour swimming.
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