“I was expecting something a bit like Margate,” said the man in front of me as we boarded the 50-seater CityJet from Deauville back to London on Sunday evening. “Actually, it’s more like Bond Street.”
Deauville, a chi-chi French seaside resort on the Normandy coast, is considerably smarter than anything the British south coast can offer. For a start, there are Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Eric Bompard boutiques, and the restaurants are more sole meunière than fish and chips. Paris is just two hours away by train, making Deauville an ideal playground for Parisians and international travellers alike, and the town’s even been described as “the new St Tropez”. While it might not boast quite the same level of bling – the sailing boats are smaller – for unintimidating sophistication Deauville is hard to beat.
Built 150 years ago on reclaimed marshland, Deauville is the richer, better-turned-out twin of Trouville next door. In 1858 Auguste de Morny – Napoleon III’s half-brother – came up with the idea of building Deauville while staying in Trouville. His aim was to create a “kingdom of elegance”. World leaders will this month add to the rarefied air when they descend on the town of just 4,000 residents for a G8 summit, to discuss such topics as the Middle East, Afghanistan and transatlantic cocaine smuggling.
Although about 80 per cent of visitors are Parisian – it’s like Long Island to New Yorkers – a new route from London’s City airport now makes it an easy weekend spot for Londoners too. On a Friday lunchtime I made the 45-minute hop over the Channel to the tiny private jet-laden runway a few kilometres outside Deauville. On the short drive to Les Manoirs de Tourgéville I was swiftly seduced by the Normandy countryside. Fields of lush green grass, grazed by racehorses and cows, are interspersed with orchards of apple trees full of balls of mistletoe and covered with thick blossom.
Amid this rustic idyll is Les Manoirs, a new boutique hotel complete with indoor pool in a building previously owned by French film director Claude Lelouch. His most famous film, Un homme et une femme (1966), shot in Deauville, is available to watch in the small basement cinema once used for his private screenings, and in keeping with the film theme each room bears the name of a film star who was a friend of Lelouch. We were in the Buster Keaton suite, next door is C Lelouch and down the hall Elizabeth Taylor and Errol Flynn.
The hotel sits in seven acres and is based around a cloistered quad of half-timbered Norman-style buildings, with four new round accommodation blocks. It is owned by Groupe Floirat, the high-end hotelier whose flagship, the Byblos, is in St Tropez. Its 57 rooms are spacious, service is attentive without being stuffy or bothersome and the restaurant, “1899”, under chef Emmanuel Andrieu who used to work alongside Vincent Maillard at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon in the Byblos, turns out locally inspired dishes in which fish, butter, apples, calvados (the regional tipple) and cream are sure to feature.
The same can be said for Le Ciro’s, a small restaurant on Deauville’s Les Planches – the boardwalk along the seafront – which serves spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) fish dishes. As I left, the manager pulled out a photograph of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel posing on the steps of the nearby Hotel Royal last year. Along with every other restaurateur in town, he is hoping to host the G8 bigwigs. “To have Obama here would be a great thing for Le Ciro’s and for Deauville,” he said.
Along the boardwalk from the restaurant stands a row of little art deco cabins bearing the names of the great and good of the film industry who, since 1975, have visited the town for the annual American Film Festival held here in September. Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Curtis along with the directors James Ivory, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg were among the names I spotted.
Deauville has long been a favoured haunt of the international glitterati. It was here in 1913 that Coco Chanel set up shop and took the step from hat to dress design. In 1977 Yves Saint Laurent helped renovate the church around which the town grew (there’s a square named for him).
In the early 1950s, the writer Colette was a regular guest at the magnificent Hotel Royal on the front and Ian Fleming, who had an eye for a good time, gambled at the casinos in both Trouville and Deauville. When he came to write Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, published in 1953, he even had Bond motor down in his Bentley coupé to the Casino in Royale-les-Eaux, a loosely fictionalised elision of Deauville and Trouville. The casino today is rather different: there’s a Peugeot sporting a giant gold bow in the foyer waiting to be won, a pumping soundtrack and the guiding aesthetic appears to be neoclassical meets rococo with a heavy dash of Euro vulgarity thrown in. Nonetheless, it’s a fun place, filled with the rattle of slot machines and the fizz of indoor fireworks strapped to champagne bottles carried by waiters.
Stretching beyond Les Planches is a vast expanse of sand (the Normandy beaches on which the Allied forces landed in June 1944 are a little further west). The beach is spiked with red and blue umbrellas – a symbol of the town now – and the waves lap against the legs of shrimp fishermen pushing nets along the seabed.
The town centre around Place Morny hums with shoppers in sunglasses and the uniform of the French middle-classes: quilted jackets, coloured jeans, pastel sweaters. Here, beyond the Hermès and Louis Vuitton outlets, are little cafés and restaurants, beautifully manicured flowerbeds and rows of trees that have been painstakingly pollarded over the years. It is hard not to read the character of the town in these trees: conservative, well-maintained, just-so.
On Saturday morning I made for the market, where connoisseurs of the good life weigh €17 jars of apple and blackberry blossom honey with a critical eye, examine trestles stacked with foie gras, and sniff vast pyramids and balls and lozenges and rolls of goats cheese. Elsewhere, stacks of perfect, glossy veg lie in wait. In the fish market displays of wriggling langoustine and lobster await the nod. It’s scenes like these that have Francophiles gazing wistfully in the windows of local estate agents.
I borrowed a hotel bicycle on Sunday and cycled through the country lanes near the town, spying families playing pétanque on their gravel drives. Beyond racehorses tottered up to the fence to say hello as I passed. Idyllic doesn’t quite cover it. Spend enough time here and you’d wonder what the fuss was about with economic meltdown and fractious international relations – which, perhaps, doesn’t bode well for Sarkozy’s G8 summit. In Deauville, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all is well with the world.
Doubles at Les Manoirs de Tourgéville (www.lesmanoirstourgeville.com) cost from €240 including breakfast.
CityJet (www.cityjet.com) flies from London City to Deauville three times a week; returns from £138.
Avis (www.avis.co.uk) has cars for rent in Deauville from £27 per day.
For more information see www.deauville.org/en