France’s Côte d’Azur means many things to those who love this stretch of Mediterranean coastline. It’s a playground for the rich and famous, a region of sophisticated restaurants and outstanding wines, and a land where history meets scenic beauty. Its Riviera is home to walled medieval villages, the great city of Nice, the unique principality of Monaco, the casino at Monte Carlo and the renowned Cannes Film Festival.
More than anything, it means beaches — spectacular beaches where the costume of choice is often next to nothing.
From dawn to dusk, sun worshippers recline on towels and dedicated beach chairs, beneath umbrellas or cabanas, coating their skins with coconut oil and occasionally taking a dip in the refreshing water. ”Le Côte d’Azur,” after all, means “The Azure Coast.” Here, the Mediterranean Sea is indeed turquoise, sapphire, teal, ultramarine and every other shade of blue one might name.
Between Toulon and Menton, at the Italian border, there may be no better town to enjoy the beach culture than Le Lavandou. This quiet village of 600 people, located about 25 miles southwest of Saint-Tropez, made a wonderful mid-cruise stop for the Wind Surf on our week-long “Hidden Harbors of the Côte d’Azur” voyage with Windstar Cruises from Nice to Barcelona.
When the Wind Surf anchored offshore, we boarded the ship’s tender and disembarked on a dock at the town’s “new” port. Here, the brasseries and boutique shops of the Place de l’Étoile are nestled beside the Capitainerie (Harbormaster).
Across a breakwater, a variety of colorful craft moored in the historical port. Some were local fishing boats whose morning catch was already being prepared for lunch (the aromas were seductive!) at the cafes along Quai Gabriel Péri. Others offered to take tourists fishing for tuna or hake. Still offered short, scenic cruises to the Le Levant and Port-Cros islands, marine national parks only 10 miles offshore.
Pétanque (bocce ball) was already underway on the hard, sandy playfield opposite the old harbor, beneath the Grande Roue du Lavandou — the 108-foot Ferris wheel. The shouts of competitors echoed to the town’s main beach, the Grande Plage du Lavandou.
But we reversed course and followed the 3-kilometer Sentier du Littoral (Coastal Path) along rocky corniches to La Plage du St-Clair, a discreet and decidedly local strand with a backdrop of pine forests, and the even more inconspicuous Plage de la Fossette.
Here, sunbathers may welcome solar rays either on rocky shelves or the beautiful sands. An unusual aspect of Le Lavandou’s beaches is that each of them — a dozen in all, spread across 12 km of coastline between Cap Nègre and Cap Blanc — has a different complexion. Tourism officials tout not only the different colors of the sand (white, yellow gray, and shades thereof), but the different grain sizes.
Back in the village, its tiny and charming Vieille Ville (Old Town) center beckoned. A wedding was underway in the Eglise St-Louis, a church built in 1855; witnesses were quite a spectacle as they entered and departed in their formal weir.
I sat and relaxed — and wrote — beneath a large plane tree outside of La Pignato de Camille on Rue Abbé Hélin. Trained in Paris and New York, chef Camille Cimbault offers what she calls “a refined, hearty, feminine” cuisine. It may well have been the best place to dine on this stretch of coastline — had not the Wind Surf’s own guest chef, Maxime Bilet, beckoned us back to the ship for a demonstration of his water-exchange style of sous vide cooking, and an ensuing dinner.
Before returning to sea, however, we took time to explore two of Le Lavandou’s other memorable attractions. Fourteen historic fountains, one of them where I sat at the corner of Plâce Argaud, may be seen along the cobblestone lanes of the Old Town.
There’s also a 2.5-km Painter’s Trail that introduces several neoimpressionist artists and writers who settled here between the 1890s and 1920s. Among them was Théo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), who lived in neighboring Saint-Clair beginning in 1910. His home has been renovated as an art center, with temporary and permanent collections.
Also in the Saint-Clair district are a series of centuries-old terraces, framed by stone walls that still frame prolific flower and vegetable gardens. Every Thursday morning, villagers flock to the Provencal Market to find this produce, along with local fruits, farmhouse goat cheeses, wines and olive oils.