She sits at a table well away from the harsh glare of the morning sun, but not concealed from the surreptitious gazes of other patrons at the Blue Beach Club on the promenade at Nice. They notice her hair first; a shock of blonde curls tinged with a peach hue not seen in nature, carefully coiffed to frame her face and definitely not of her own arranging. The over-sized glasses hide her eyes which are rimmed in spidery black; her plumped lips and pert nose also speak to someone else’s work.
Lunch over, she stands and slowly makes her way to her designated beach chair, as a dozen pairs of eyes chart her halting progress in a crocheted mini caftan that barely hides a tiny bikini. A Louis Vuitton bag graces one arm; a black striped carryall weighs down the other. Even her gladiator sandals are dripping in pearls. It’s only when she passes that you notice the leathery legs that must have made myriad similar journeys across the sand or perilous pebbles on countless beaches. They wouldn’t be out of place on an outback farmer.
The sun goddess must be in her late seventies, but she still makes heads turn. Perhaps she was a Bluebell Girl, hot footing it at the Lido in her heyday. Or maybe she’s just filthy rich and loves the sun. Either way, she doesn’t give a damn who watches her tottering by. And after a few minutes, the show is over and everyone goes back to enjoying the bigger picture.
Beach clubs have for decades been an integral part of the French Riviera experience – and indeed, anywhere throughout Europe not blessed with the blinding miles of free white sand that Australia takes for granted. You might wonder why people would willingly pay upwards of $40 for the privilege of plonking down on a beach chair under an umbrella, when they can park their towels a few yards away on the public section. But I’ve watched those who take their chances on the non-regimented rocky shores. The smart and seasoned ones come armed with their own umbrellas, foldout chairs and plastic slip on shoes to negotiate the unforgiving few metres to the inviting clear water. The sharp stones fall away like quicksand, and suddenly that quick dip becomes a battle to find your footing and preserve your modesty, as the suck and pull of the tide leaves you sprawled in the shallows. Not much fun if your bikini isn’t made of strong stuff.
No, better to seek refuge at a beach club, where tanned young men will put up your umbrella and bring you a cocktail or a bottle of Badoit in an ice bag to your table. At the Blue Beach, cocoa mats and wooden boardwalks guide your passage to a pontoon that almost stretches across the pebbles to the water. Note ‘almost’ – that last step into the sea is treacherous. I made the mistake of jumping in instead of diving, and immediately a small child washed into me in the churning waves and we tumbled like laundry onto those blasted pebbles again.
Never mind, replacement bikinis or sarongs are available to buy from the young woman who strolls through the rows of well-oiled sun seekers, sporting a new outfit after each lap. You can enjoy a cool breeze from the misting stations in the restaurant, eat fresh salmon and prawns and try not to choke on the bill. If you’re after a sunset experience, several clubs closer to the centre of town roll up the towels and transform into cocktail bars and discos in the evening.
The exercise is repeated up and down the Côte d’Azur during the long hot summer, with prices either making you swallow slightly and smile, or burst into tears at the audacity of it all, especially as you get closer to Monaco. Check out how many luxury yachts you can see as a rough gauge for your wallet. A good guide to some of the better experiences is seeantibes.com.
Budget be blowed, beach clubs are the perfect spot to people watch, sip rose and gaze at the mesmerising Mediterranean…even if you never step foot in the water.