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St. Tropez -- A jewel of the French Riviera

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A visit to the French Riviera would not be complete without a stop in St. Tropez. Renowned for its miles of glistening white beaches, exotic food and as a playground for the rich and famous ' it is THE place to see and be seen.

A true jewel of the Riviera, St. Tropez is an animated seaside resort where the azure water and cerulean skies are backlit by brilliant sunsets of ripe apricot, ruby red and gold.

The late afternoon breeze from the Med causes the jewel-colored awnings of the sidewalk cafes to snap and wave merrily, and brings a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Here, the air is fragrant with jasmine and mimosa, and the occasional whiff of a gourmet meal being prepared makes your mouth water.

The nightlife in St. Tropez is fast, energetic and frenetic. You can always find something going on -- there are numerous clubs where you can eat, drink and dance the night away.

'St. Trop' as it is known by those in the film industry, means "Saint Too Much." It was 'discovered' in 1956 when Roger Vadim's 'And God Created Women' was filmed here, launching a young Brigitte Bardot into instant super stardom. St. Tropez became a Mecca to artists, writers and, of course, movie stars in the 60s.

St. Tropez is the favored vacation site of chic Parisians and most of Europe. International stars still flock here in the spring and summer, and you never know whom you'll run into at the open-air market in the Place des Lices, or while sipping an aperitif at one of the many outdoor cafes. In fact, people watching is a favorite pastime in the summer, when the sidewalks are crowded with tourists and sun worshippers.

At the heart of St. Tropez is the harbor. Take a walk along the pier, and you'll feel as if you've stepped into a picture postcard or a painting by Signac or Matisse. Picturesquely painted villas with red tiled roofs sit along the dock, indulgently watching over the wooden fishing boats that bob gently next to large, expensive yachts. 12th century churches, the famous parasol pines and narrow cobblestone streets among picture-perfect houses complete the feeling that it's too beautiful to be real.

Much has been made of the very special quality of light that is only found in St. Tropez. Maybe it's because of its unique and paradoxical location, or perhaps the spectacular, almost tropical climate has something to do with it. Whatever the reason, when you see the way the luminescent light plays across the wooden sailboats, or highlights one of the beautiful fountains, you'll feel the stirrings of your inner artist, and long to pick up a paintbrush and palette.

St. Tropez is also known for its beaches. The most famous is the Plage de Pampelonne, with its five km of almost blinding white sand, exotic boutiques, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, including the renowned 'Club 55.' At the north end you'll find the Plage de Tahiti, which is a well-known haunt of famous celebrities. Other beaches you can visit include Bouillabaisse, Caneliers, and Salins. To the south of Plage de Pampelonne is Cap Camarat, and just beyond that ' a little less accessible and therefore much less crowded ' are Plage de l'Escalet and Plage de la Briande. If you go a little farther south, you'll find a wonderful beach ' Gigaro, and the town of La Croix Valmer.

In all, you'll find over 40 beaches in the area, so it's easy to enjoy soaking up the sun every day, if that's your pleasure. If you prefer something a little more strenuous than lying on the beach, St. Tropez offers something for everyone in way of activities. You can find: Hiking, Biking, Golf, Tennis, Racquetball, Fitness Center, Miniature Golf, Amusement Parks, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Shopping, Restaurants (from the very expensive to the inexpensive), Cinemas, Swimming, Snorkeling/Scuba Diving, Boating, Sailing, Water-skiing, Surfing, Windsurfing, Parasailing, and Jet skiing.

When you're finished soaking up the sun, you can move indoors, and soak up a little culture instead. There are plenty of wonderful museums, art galleries and other events scheduled throughout the year.

Some "must-sees" include:

Musee de l'Annonciade. (Place Georges Grammont, near the harbor). The museum is housed in the former chapel of the Annonciade. It was opened in 1995 and contains one of the best modern art collections in the Riviera. Many of the paintings show St. Tropez itself, but there are also paintings by artists such as Seurat and Matisse that make it worth visiting. Other artists showcased are Bonnard, Braque, Dufy, Utrillo, Derain and Maillol.

Musee Naval (Rue de la Citadelle) is a memorial to the days when St. Tropez meant more to sea captains and admirals than to the sun worshippers of today. You'll find models of cannons and ships, old pictures of the town, and interesting little oddities. The museum is a part of the Citadelle, a structure dating back to the 1500s. (The Citadelle is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch as well!)

La Maison de Papillons (Rue Etienne Berry) Papillons means butterflies. The 'House of Butterflies' is one of the most amazing places to visit in St. Tropez. Located in an antique house, it has over 4,500 different butterfly species, some of which are almost extinct.

The Open Air Market (Place des Lices) Open on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, the market is a fun way to spend a few hours. Check out the amazing variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, haggle with the street vendors and pick up a souvenir or two. Don't forget to keep an eye out for celebrities!

Quartier de la Ponche is the old part of the city. It's easy to get lost wandering around the narrow twisted streets and back alleys. Still, it's worth spending the time exploring the shops and houses that are resolute reminders of the days before St. Tropez became 'hip.'

When you're exploring St. Tropez, don't forget to look up. Nestled on top of the rocky hills, you'll find many small medieval villages that are worth exploring, like Grimaud and Cogolin, now favored for their marinas.

No matter how long you choose to stay, you'll find it difficult to tear yourself away from the beauty and excitement of St. Tropez. Even before you leave, you may find yourself thinking about your next trip to the jewel of the French Riviera.

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