February 26 2011
On paper, it seemed a reasonable quest: a villa within a three-hour flight of London during the August school holidays, a safe beach, two weeks of guaranteed sunshine, three families with eight children under five. We started to pin a map of coastal Europe, the red spots ranging from Croatia to Portugal with most of Italy in between. But as is inevitable when a large group gets together to find common ground, somebody among us had suffered a vacation in each of these regions in constant rain. And so the pins began to retreat like Hitler’s armies until we were left with the most obvious place: the Côte d’Azur. The problem, though, was cost. In the South of France, any decent villa in August within striking distance of the sea tops €25,000 a week for a house sleeping more than 10. There was no option left: we had to go inland. “Five miles only,” declared one of the other families. “The beach was all we ever wanted,” announced the wife.
Then, just at the moment I thought we would scatter across Europe in the nuclear family units of old, I noticed something afoot in my inbox. As summer approached, my e-mails carried news of more and more beach clubs opening up across the Mediterranean. I have experienced a few before now – in Sardinia, Miami and St Tropez. Such places are of a type: they attract a glitzy crowd who spend most of the time eating oysters, drinking rosé and admiring the person on the next door table. The uniform is key: boys in Vilebrequin shorts, girls in Heidi Klein bikinis, Melissa Odabash kaftans, a smattering of white Chanel and lots of swirling Etro silks and gossamer-thin Cavalli prints. The bags are giant Balenciagas, the sunglasses outsize Pradas paired with YSL-branded flip-flops or even a pair of ankle-breaking wedgies to tread the wooden boards positioned strategically on the sand between the expansive loungers.
Scene-y? Absolutely. Overpriced platters of fruits de mer? Of course. But if you get it right, the beach club can be a highly functioning addition to a summer holiday. And now the trend is in full gear, there is choice beyond the obvious, with new beach clubs opening from Formentera to Puglia and beyond. The trick is to pair the beach club with an inland villa and then make regular trips to your lounger beside the sea.
It is a strategy that works. The combination delivers the best of both worlds without paying those high premiums of sleeping with the Mediterranean within your view. At the inland villa, there is a pool and gardens for long lunches, siestas and private afternoons with family. Then, for a day on the sand, you can turn the daunting experience of packing up a car with beach gear, sun umbrellas and more into the far more manageable prospect of one beach bag (even with children in tow) and a credit card tucked into your shorts. At the club, you might pay daily for basic access, but there are loungers, parasols, towels, showers, waiters and usually a good place for lunch. You can come in from the midday heat and rest; at some clubs, you can even get a massage while the kids doze in hammocks in the shade. Best of all (especially somewhere like the Côte d’Azur in August), the beach club usually provides a place to park, which is one more hassle removed when every other tourist is nudging for the last remaining inch with their Mini Mokes and Smart cars.
So where do the perfect combinations lie? From recent experience I would be quick to recommend La Forestière des Maures, a house I found through A&K Villas. La Forestière is tucked within a private 20-acre wine estate. Even with the two-mile track to the house, it is only a 10-minute ride to the pretty villages of Grimaud and La Garde-Freinet. There are three separate stone houses – ideal for three families. The feel is rustic without being rough: cream sofas, lots of bougainvillea-draped terracing, an ancient olive grove, a boules court and large pool fashioned after a traditional stone water basin and flanked with soft, close-kept lawn. The villa comes with all the necessary mod-cons, from Wi-Fi to very good staff (daily maid service is included, though you can up the offering to include a chef).
As for the beach-club combo, we used Beauvallon Sur Mer in Port Grimaud, which took 25 minutes to get to, even in the thick of August. This was in 2009, the last season the beach club was open before its dramatic refit to be unveiled later this spring, when it will likely become a keen competitor for Le Club 55, yet a whole lot more avant-garde. Beauvallon’s beach club will still be associated with the belle époque hotel of the same name – positioned just behind and by Christmas reopening as the Riviera’s largest rental villa – so will retain something of its classic Côte d’Azur glamour; but the remodelled beach club will be injected with a conspicuous shot of the new. It will comprise The Mireío restaurant and bar as well as a pool, private beach with loungers, towel service, drinks and outdoor rose-head showers. The scene-stealer will be an extraordinary steel-and-glass pavilion designed by architect Toyo Ito and engineer Cecil Balmond. As part of the beach club, this 275sq m space will be used for private parties, gallery shows and cultural events, with its dramatic structure on the water’s edge already visible from across the bay in St Tropez.
None of this is to say Le Club 55 is over. Sure, there is much that is not to like about the crowd that gathers here each summer – the orange tans of yesteryear, the young girls who totter to find their balance on old, Rolex-heavy arms. But for all the naysayers, Le Club 55 is still very good fun. And while the new villas at somewhere such as La Réserve Ramatuelle are very expensive (a four-bedroom villa starts at €37,500 a week in August), it is still worth hunting around for something in striking distance of Le Club 55, even if you are not quite in the super-villa realm. Mas de Lulu is one such example. At £21,560 a week in high season, it is hardly cheap, but then the house sleeps 10 adults and four children in five bedrooms. Agented by The Villa Book, it is set in the Parc de l’Oumède, an unspoilt area in the hills behind Pampelonne. The villa has just been renovated, with a tennis court, a big pool and new pool house. Even if the garden is small, there are sea views over the countryside and pines. The house is about a two-mile drive to the beach, and 10 minutes to Le Club 55 (although you can still expect to sit in jams around the lunch hour). Stay at Mas de Lulu and you are also within 10 minutes’ striking distance of Les Palmiers, a new pretender to Le Club 55’s crown: trendy, young, upmarket and predictably highly priced.
Formidable expense goes with Europe’s obvious territory, Forte dei Marmi on the Tuscan coast being another example. But there is good reason to like this stretch of Italian sand, especially when top-notch beaches in Italy are in relatively short supply. La Limonaia (sleeping up to 16) and Madonnina (sleeping six), both A&K Villas, are within a 45-minute drive of two Forte dei Marmi beach clubs worth considering – Marechiaro Beach Club and Twiga. To get a villa any closer to the water you’d need to have much deeper pockets and some effective private contacts to beat the system: Forte dei Marmi’s seaside properties are often let privately, while the smartest beach clubs here and in places such as Capri are riddled with “access” politics. Indeed, when asked for his favourite European beach clubs, Anthony Lassman, founder of luxury travel intelligence service Nota Bene, recommends La Fontelina on Capri and La Réserve de la Mala at Cap d’Ail on the French Riviera (“very popular with the Monaco crowd”).
But to get the best treatment at such places is “most certainly about knowing the owners. For example, La Fontelina may be open to the public but the ‘club’ bit comes into play when you automatically get your sun loungers confirmed as well as your lunch table. For Nota Bene platinum members, we will secure a certain slab of seafront concrete (it is all rock bathing here) and ensure clients are positioned on certain rocks; to those in the know this denotes status. We will also ask for a specific frontline table number.”
For an easier, more accessible beach-club scene in an area rich with villa choice, then Greece is a safe bet. This is where John Ayton, co-founder and chairman of Annoushka jewellery, now decamps. Having visited Le Club 55 as a child, he rediscovered Mykonos in 2007 on selling the jeweller Links of London to a Greek. “Nammos on Psarou beach is very cool, with black double sunbeds, great music and model-like staff,” he says. “It’s more about style than cash, serving calamari and crisp Greek white wine.” Mallorca is another good location. This Balearic island is where Swedish-born hotelier Mats Wahlström has his flagship beach club, Purobeach, with a pool and restaurant set on a peninsula overlooking the bay of Palma. A second Purobeach Club pops up close to Estepona in Spain each summer, and a third on Vilamoura beach, Portugal. And in Formentera there is the Gecko Beach Club, which charges from €15 a day for a sunbed (including a Bellini) – a good-value option for people renting villas inland.
But my favourite has to be Puglia, in Italy’s boot, which has a series of perfect villa/beach-club combos. Masseria Cacatosto, owned by a US-based writer, is a 17th-century house on an olive-oil farm. It has been converted into a chic, upscale villa sleeping eight in four doubles. Sitting high up in the hills overlooking Puglia’s south-east coast, where the sea spreads out around the fishing village of Savelletri di Fasano, it is just a 10-minute road descent to Coccaro, which is one of the nicest beach clubs I have come across.
The villa is very elegant indeed: fires and portable air-con units in the cave-style bedrooms, a pizza oven (with ready-made dough available from nearby Spiga Dora bakery), and a huge sunken bath in the main master bedroom. There is an infinity pool overlooking the Adriatic, and plenty of space for lounging amid the myrtle, olive trees and lavender. At Coccaro Beach Club, on the other hand, you have a Miami-esque feel in the billowing white cottons and planked walkways. The restaurant serves exceptional fritto misto, there are hammocks for kids, candlelit lanterns at night, Indian daybeds, private gazebos and, best of all, attitude-free staff.
Another Puglian option lies on the opposite coast, using Villa Elia as your base. This ravishingly romantic 18th-century house sleeps 17 and is a 10-minute drive from the town of Gallipoli on the Ionian Sea. It feels deep in the Puglian countryside, yet of another world, too. Owned by the son of a Milanese fashion designer, the interiors are a mix of antique and midcentury furniture, collectable art and market finds, the entire look put together in an eclectic, knowing way – posh hippie, if you will, except this hippie life comes with staff (including Roberta, the villa’s memorable cook), a cinema room and a large pool amid the orange, fig and mulberry trees with Elia’s olive groves stretching for some 17 acres beyond. Balelido is the beach club I would pair this with. About 30 minutes away by car, even in the busiest months it is entirely worth the drive. The sand is gloriously clean and golden, the sea warm and calm, and the club scene chic enough for somewhere that hasn’t yet hit the big time with the Russians or Milanese. A sun umbrella costs from €15 a day, a bed from €8.50; in August, it’s €45 for the combination – all very reasonable when the booking includes a glass of prosecco and fresh fruit. Most comforting of all, you are unlikely to spot a single other guest in this year’s Vilebrequins.