Why Haven't You Heard Of...Sanary, France?
The French Riviera sans all that fabulousness.
On the Cote d'Azur, visitors lingering over a glass of rosé generally gasp for two reasons: They've just spotted P. Diddy, or they've just been handed the check. Neither makes for real relaxation.
But 50 miles southwest of St.-Tropez, and about an hour from Marseille by train, the tiny fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer has all the beauty of the Mediterranean coast--steep cliffs, sapphire sea--with less pretension and sticker shock. Sanary is the kind of French Riviera destination that the French choose to vacation at.
As in St.-Tropez, Sanary's port is the hub of all the action--yet in place of sparkling white yachts, there are red, blue, and green fishing boats gathered at the wharf.
A handful of patisseries selling napoleons and opera cakes line the cobblestoned streets. Outside, older men engage in rousing games of pétanque. Throughout, it seems the only rush is that of people trying to get home while their recently baked baguette is still warm.
Sanary truly comes alive at dusk. Young couples park their scooters and settle in over aperitifs at the portside cafés--Coquillages Philippe, a shellfish bar with terrific oysters, mussels, and sea urchins, or L'En K Fé, a restaurant known for its Moroccan tagine of chicken and dates. Whatever the food, it pairs beautifully with rosés from nearby Bandol. Arguably the most famous wine region of southern France, Bandol is a 10-minute bus ride away. Most of the vineyards are about three miles from the town center, up the surrounding hills. Rent a scooter in town, or stay put and taste at Maison des Vins du Bandol, which has bottles from 29 of the region's producers.
Wednesday mornings, Sanary shakes off its sleepiness with a grand market. More than 300 stands overflow with foie gras, baby artichokes, and strawberries. Fishermen empty their nets of loup de mer, sea bass, and blowfish--so fresh they still flop around.
The market also draws purveyors of the South of France's famed products: scented soaps, sachets of herbes de Provence, olive oil, and of course, string bikinis. Not that you'll want to spend too much time on the beach. True to Mediterranean form, the beaches are rocky, and they don't cover them with sand like the ones in Cannes.
It's better to take in the view from the Hotel de la Tour, run by the Mercier family. Many of the large, simple 24 rooms have windows onto the harbor. After a lazy dinner, you'll realize that sometimes, spending a day watching the light shift on the water can be as subtly thrilling as a celebrity sighting.