Saint Raphaël sits between the red lava peaks of the Massif de l’Estérel and the densely forested hills of the Massif des Maures. It became popular during Roman times, when rich families came to vacation here, bequeathing the rambling ruins at the neighboring town of Fréjus today. Barring a brief barbaric interlude of 1.500 years, it’s still a place of rest and recreation. That’s right, the Saracen invaders that terrorized the coast during the Middle Ages didn’t come here to sip rosé. Not until 1799, when a proud Napoleon landed at the small harbor beach on his return from Egypt, did the city once again draw attention of a positive kind.
In 1864, Alphonse Karr, journalist and ex-editor of Le Figaro, helped to reintroduce Saint Raphaël as a resort. Dumas, Maupassant and Berlioz came here from Paris on his recommendation. Gounod also arrived; he composed Romeo et Juliet here in 1866. Belle Époque–era villas and grand hotels were built for holidaying English gentlemen decades later. Most were requisitioned by American soldiers during World War II when Saint Raphaël served as a key invasion point for Allied forces. The city still offers the wide beaches and coastal ambience of other Côte d’Azur resorts at a fraction of the price.
Saint Raphaël is sliced into two halves by its railway line. The historical Vieille Ville (Old Town) lies inland from the tracks. Here you’ll find Saint Raphaël’s only intact ancient structure, the Église San Rafèu (also known as Eglise des Templiers). The 12th-century church is the third to stand on this site; two Carolingian churches underneath the current structure have been revealed during digs. A watchtower sits atop one of the chapels and at one time, watchers were posted to look out over the sea for ships that might pose a threat. The church would then serve as a fortress and refuge in case of pirate attack. Climb up the 129 steps yourself for a 360-degree panoramic view over town. In the courtyard are fragments of a Roman aqueduct that once brought water from Fréjus.
Near the Église des Templiers, the Musée d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (Museum of Underwater Archaeology), displays amphorae, ships’ anchors, ancient diving equipment, and other interesting items recovered from the ocean’s depths. You’ll find flower and fruit markets in the Old Town. Every morning, there’s a fish market that takes place in the Vieux Port. Foodies are also advised to check out the Marché Alimentaire de Saint Raphaël, where carloads of produce, fish, meat, wines, and cheeses are sold Tuesday to Sunday.
Of course, most visitors come to Saint Raphaël for its beaches. The best ones are located between the Vieux Port and Santa Lucia. Here you’ll find plenty of stands that rent watersports equipment on each beach. The closest beach to the town center is the Plage du Veillat, a long stretch of sand that’s crowded and family friendly. Further east in Agay, you’ll find the sandy beaches of Plage d’Agay and Plage de la Baumette; these are partly private beaches where you can rent recliners and umbrellas for a fee. Within a 5-minute walk east of the town center is Plage Beau Rivage, whose name is misleading because it’s covered with a smooth and even coating of light-gray pebbles that might be uncomfortable to lie on without a towel. History buffs will enjoy a 7 km excursion east of town to the Plage du Dramont, a public pebble stretch with watersports and a restaurant that was hurled into world headlines on August 15, 1944, as one of the main sites of the Allied Forces’ Provence Landings. Today expect relatively uncrowded conditions, except during the midsummer crush.
Opposite Dramont beach is the private island of Ile d’Or. Its history is as enigmatic as its ominous look, as the island glows gold then blood red against the setting sun. After being sold for a song by the French government, it was allegedly won in a game of cards by physician Augustus Lutaud a century ago. Lutaud organized wild parties then declared himself king of the island in 1913, purportedly issuing his own currency in the process. The story is said to have inspired the Tintin story, The Black Island, in which Hergé’s hero chases a mad doctor. The surrounding snorkeling and diving is among the best in coastal Provence.