The new Riviera. France's C^ote Varoise has everything but crowds

WHEN it's snowing and blowing outside, people start dreaming of places that are sunny and warm. A place of eternal spring is the ``new'' French Riviera, the C^ote Varoise. That's the Mediterranean coast between Marseille to the south and the D'epartement des Alpes Maritimes -- the ``old'' French Riviera -- to the north.

Everything that attracted people to the old French Riviera (Menton, Monte Carlo, Beaulieu, Nice, Antibes, Juan les Pins, Cannes) is also found on the C^ote Varoise -- warm, sunny climate all year, blue skies, blue sea, white beaches, cliffs, rolling hills, palms, flowering shrubs, picturesque villages, easygoing people. But the old French Riviera attracted too many people: To accommodate mass tourism more roads, more shops, more casinos, more pensions (guest houses), more condominiums, many

more and much bigger hotels were built; it got very crowded.

Fortunately, the new C^ote Varoise is built to the human scale. While Nice has 275 hotels and pensions, the largest resort in the ``new'' south, St. Raphael, has only 51. Loew's Monte Carlo has 680 rooms, the biggest hotel in the D'epartement du Var has only 230, and most hotels on the C^ote Varoise are small -- 20 to 55 rooms. You can easily imagine the difference in atmosphere and in life style that comes with the difference in scale. The small resorts form a surviving corner of la douce France `ou il

fait bon vivre (gentle France where the living is easy).

You can get up early in the morning, when it's misty and quiet, and watch the fishermen bring in the catch; you can take walks in the lovely green countryside; you can amble from stall to stall in a small market square that looks like a stage set for 19th-century opera; you can sit in a sidewalk caf'e, surrounded by animated games of belote (the French national card game), watch some earnest players of p'etanque -- a French version of bowls, played outside, in which you try to hit the cochonnet (jack); or you can just watch the world go by.

There's history and art here -- but not of the kind that wears you out sightseeing. You can go for the day to Marseille, France's second city and the oldest in Western Europe (settled 800 BC). Fr'ejus has Roman ruins. For people who love ships, there is Toulon, the famous home port of the French Mediterranean fleet. There's large St. Raphael (near the ``old'' Riviera), where French and American troops landed on Aug. 15, 1944. Hy`eres was a port in the Middle Ages; tucked into the ramparts of its f eudal castle is a more recent ch^ateau, the Castel St. Claire, where paying guests live a feudal life enriched with park and swimming pool. There's a museum in St. Tropez, and there are art galleries and workshops of artists and craftsmen (glass, ceramics, weaving) that you can visit.

For the sedentary there are concerts, bridge clubs, and libraries. Sporty types go in for golf, tennis, squash, Ping-Pong, horseback riding, martial arts, auto racing on the nearby Circuit Ricard. And, of course, there is swimming, sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, and the C^ote Varoise is well known for its underwater activities.

The small resort town of Bandol is the cradle of sport diving. Here in 1945 the diving pioneer Jacques Yves Cousteau and his engineer-collaborator, Emile Gagnan, presented their invention to the world: the regulator, the breathing apparatus that made scuba diving possible. Sport diving is now very important in the area. Because land development has not gone too far, the sea is not as polluted here as it is in more built-up areas, so there is much to see underwater around several small islands. And there are good diving facilities: the Centre international de plong'ee, a highly regarded diving school (with an American instructor) on the island of Bendor, only seven minutes by boat from Bandol. The Fondation oc'eanographique Ricard (on the nearby island of Les Embiez), which is a marine research station that does interesting experiments, monitors pollution and gives diving and marine biology courses. Your guide through its aquariums showing all the creatures of the Mediterrane an may well be Alain Bombard, the d'el'egu'e g'en'eral, a genial bearded man who has crossed the Atlantic alone -- 113 days, Monte Carlo to Barbados -- in an inflatable dinghy.

Then there is the diving base at Le Lavandou, a pretty beach resort. From there you can go on an inexpensive cruise along the coast and to the nearby islands du Levant, de Port Cros (beautiful underwater nature reserve) de Porquerolles, and to Corsica. If you charter a boat for a small group of divers and/or cruise guests (price of fuel and service of crew/cook included in charter fee), a one- or two-week cruise may cost less than a hotel vacation. Other beach and diving resorts are Hy`eres (relatively large) and Les Issembres.

When I was last in the area, in October, air and water were warm, the sun shone every day, the countryside was full of greenery and blossoms. I stayed on the island of Bendor in blissful peace and quiet -- no cars on the island. You don't need cars here -- everything is within walking distance.

There are only four hotels, all different and attractive, and some storybook houses at the tiny harbor. I stayed at the Hotel Delos, on a rocky point of the coast where the tall windows of the dining room looked out to the sea on three sides. Each of the guest rooms was furnished in a different historic style, mine was French Empire, the style of Napoleon's short years of glory, 1804-1814.

Other pleasant resorts are Port Grimaud, with a particularly pretty port de plaisance (yacht harbor), Sanary and St. Maxime, where quite a few Parisians have their r'esidences secondaires (vacation homes), and St. Tropez.

The name St. Tropez will probably ring a bell. The French movie actress -- and great defender of baby seals -- Brigitte Bardot bought property there and was followed by caf'e society and by thousands who hoped to catch a glimpse of the famous and the glamorous. But lately it has become chic to live in your own place in the country, rather than in a huge hotel, so St. Tropez -- formerly a sleepy fishing port -- is a very popular resort but not too big. What may strike the foreign visitor is the many topl ess sunbathers on the beach (seen in many European resorts these days), and the number of dogs frolicking in the sand and in the water.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.