Across the gulf from St.-Tropez are two communities – Ste.-Maxime and Grimaud – that are not only worth a visit on their own merits, but good places to stay while spending time on the western end of Cote d’Azur. After spending three days there a dozen years ago my wife and I found Ste.-Maxime such a delight that we bought a waterside condo there. Not only was it a great place to live, but it also provided all the pluses of St.-Tropez without the traffic jams. There is a year round water shuttle that makes the 15 minute trip between Ste.-Maxime and St.-Tropez, and in high season the boat runs every 20 minutes, and the local beaches are excellent.
Ste.-Maxime and Grimaud, though, get little attention from Americans, most of whom just drive by on their way to St.-Tropez. In my eight years living there, I only met a handful of fellow Americans who were not visiting us, but the area is popular with northern Europeans, particularly from England and the Scandinavian countries. In fact, the king of Sweden has a villa about 300 yards from our condo. Thus, stores and restaurants speak English if they want to do much business.
Mention in Nice that you have a home in Ste.-Maxime, the response will often be how expensive it is to live there, presumably because of the demand from northern Europeans, but that applies to buying not renting or staying at one of the many excellent hotels. In Ste.-Maxime, if one is looking for a view and is not concerned about cost, La Belle Aurore with its picturesque location on the water is a great choice and was our introduction to the area. Having spent six months a year there for eight years, though, I would strongly advise staying a block or two from the shore where the prices are much more reasonable with Le Petite Prince, Hotellerie de la Poste and Best Western Hotel Montfleurie being good choices.
Another option, and one with a feel of the past located just west of Ste.-Maxime near Grimaud is the Hotel Le Beauvallon, which dates back to the Belle Epoque era. It comes with a golf course, and it is said that Scott Fitzgerald wrote portions of his novel, The Great Gatsby, while staying there in the 1920s, albeit that can be said about many places on the coast. A more certain local literary star was Jean de Brunhoff, who wrote his Babar the Elephant stories in Ste.-Maxime, which gave its name to Elephant Beach on the town’s east side.
While Ste.-Maxime’s beaches and the shuttle to St.-Tropez are major attractions, the area has a long and interesting history that can be seen best in the restored, charming medieval village of Grimaud. It is a popular place for second homes for those who like the convenience of living in a village center that has the charms of olden days and is a wonderful place to just stroll around.
One of Grimaud’s charms are the castle ruins on a hill behind the village that still have a castle-like appearance and is available for climbing up and looking down on the the Golfe de Ste.-Tropez. The Grimaud castle was built by an early member of Genoa’s Grimaldi family that still rule in the principality of Monaco. It was not much more than a fortification on a hilltop in the relatively peaceful 12th and 13th centuries, but when times became less secure toward the end of the 13th century, the fortifications were upgraded. Much of what can be seen today came from improvements made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A bit more modern is the fascinating Port Grimaud that was built in 1990s as a Venice-like boat city. It is a collection of inter-connecting lagoons with every condo having a dock for a boat. It is a boat-owner’s dream place to live, but also a popular tourist spot.
Ste.-Maxime is a rapidly growing town, but it has its bits of history kept in good repair. The Tour Carre that houses the tourist office was built across the gulf from the St.-Tropez citadel in the 16th century to help protect in the area from seafaring invaders and the church next door was built in 1755. On a hill behind the town, it has its own imitation castle now a hotel, Les Tourelles, that was built in the 1890s by an early motion picture inventor. It also has a modest version of a Grand Hotel built in the 1890s and a waterfront casino.
Not all Cote d’Azur history, though, is about olden times, and Ste.-Maxime is proof of that. The World War II Allied invasion of Europe included troops also landing in the south of France to provide a second front to complicate the German defense in what was called Operation Dragoon. These landings in August 1944 were on the beaches near St.-Tropez; Ste.-Maxime; and in the vicinity of Frejus and St.-Raphael. Paratroopers were dropped near the inland towns of Le Muy, Le Motte and Draguignan with Resistance forces helping them get to their assigned destinations. Ste.-Maxime was the mid-point of the landings and the logical place to move inland across the Massif-des-Maures hills to meet up with the paratroopers and move on to take the naval base at Toulon and then Marseille.
Operation Dragoon was a success, but it had its hard moments, particularly for the paratroopers. The beautiful summer days that are the Cote d’Azur norm in August did not apply to the early morning of August 15, 1944. Cloudy conditions and darkness complicated targeting the paratroop drops, and 600 paratroopers with their equipment were dropped outside of St.-Tropez on the opposite side of the Gulf of St.-Tropez and 15 to 20 miles from the intended landing area. Sixteen of these paratroopers disappeared into the water. Those dropped on the far side of the Massif-des-Maures were spread over a much broader area than intended.
The beach landings went better than the paratroop drop, and within two days, the coast was secure and troops moved through Ste.-Maxime to positions north of the Massif-des-Maures. From there they moved west to take the naval base at Toulon and Marseille.
There are monuments commemorating the landings in Ste.-Maxime and elsewhere and a well-maintained Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in Draguignan about 20 miles inland from Ste.-Maxime. The latter is well maintained and well worth a visit. Draguignan, itself, is a good-sized town and home to one of France’s largest military bases, which is not necessarily a tourist plus.
About 20 miles north as well is L’Abbaye-le-Thoronet that moved to its present site near Draguignan in 1157. The church was constructed in the late 12th century and the monastery in the early 13th century. It was at one time a prosperous monastery and a major area landowner. Today, the abbey is a well-preserved museum and easily accessible historic landmark.
The Chartreuse-de-la-Verne is not nearly as accessible, but a majestic hillside location in a remote wooded part of the Massif-des-Maures adds to its aura. It can be seen in the distance from the narrow and winding road between Grimaud and Collobrieres, and a similar road a few miles to the east of the latter winds its way up the hill to the site. It has been abandoned and reoccupied many times since its 12th century opening, but since 1983, it has been occupied by a Carthusian congregation called the Order of Bethlehem.
When you get back from swimming or touring, Ste.-Maxime has lots of good places to eat. Its old town is almost wall-to-wall restaurants most of which are only open in the high season, but the best ones are on the fringes of the old town and open year-round. My personal favorites are Le Gruppi and La Badiane at the high-end and among the more reasonably priced, Le Reserve and a place simply called Fred’s. TripAdvisor does not totally agree with me, but as some of the reviews suggest, places open year-round tend to favor the regulars, which my wife and I certainly were when living there.
Note: This includes excerpts from my book, A Traveler’s History of Cote d’Azur.