Deauville: If you go
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Discover Parisian hotels whose opulence would make Louis XIV blush, and mature cheeses that will make your head swim.
On the Normandy coast, chic Parisians find their Hamptons
By William Echikson
On a crisp spring day, the boardwalk of Deauville looks like a scene straight out of the Belle Epoque. Diners relax on the red velvet banquettes in the fish restaurant Ciro's, while a tuxedoed maître d' debones a delicate turbot fillet. Holidaymakers pack beachfront cafés, watching well-dressed women who strut like peacocks, and seagulls that flap over the waves. The low skyline features two imposing turn-of-the-century luxury hotels, both with decorative half-timbered facades.
As the afternoon fades, the action fast-forwards to the fashionable present. Teenagers speed along the wide Normandy beach on windsurfers with wheels. Window-shoppers ogle sparkling Herms or Chanel boutiques. Famished jet-setters pack into Chez Miocque, ploughing into hearty steak frites and a rich version of tripes a la mode de Caen, marinated innards stewed with onions and tomatoes. "Let's finish the day off with a Calvados," suggests owner Jacques Aviegne. He pours the apple brandy for a customer, a Paris-based television producer, and shows off autographed pictures of himself with movie stars such as Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood.
This historic French resort has managed to spice its original Old World elegance with down-home charm and contemporary showbiz pizzazz. It's quite a comeback story. Like other chilly channel getaway towns, Deauville went through a period of post-war decline. But this northern pearl has experienced a renaissance that allows it to rival the much warmer Cote d'Azur. Located just a few miles from the D-Day beaches and only an hour and a half by car from the Champs Elysées, Deauville is once again a favorite destination for well-heeled Parisians. "We're to Paris what the Hamptons are to New York," brags Deauville's mayor, Philippe Augier.
"We are Old World French," insists Laurent Roussin, a manager at the Normandy Barrière. That old-fashioned touch is present in everything from the rococo decoration to the top-flight concierge service. "Mr. Barrière knew each of his concierges personally," says Gérard Feuillie, the Normandy's chief concierge, who has worked at the hotel for 27 years.
Deauville's ambitious urban renewal program has respected this proud tradition. Although many rundown 19th-century villas have been replaced with modern apartment blocks, no ugly concrete high-rises mar the waterfront. Strict planning rules limit new buildings to five stories and require wood facades and balconies. Neon signs are banned and flowers line handsome public squares.
To pay off these investments, the short summer season had to be extended. An indoor pool and modern spa were added to the beachfront, for use in the cooler months. The horse racing and polo seasons were lengthened. And the town began sponsoring cultural events, starting with the Deauville Film Festival, which premiered in 1975 and continues to attract Hollywood stars and film lovers every September. It includes American films, and as of this March, a special segment featuring Asian films. "We have very few slow weeks left in the year," says the delighted mayor, Augier.
A less-exalted pastime also helps explain Deauville's continued popularity -- gambling. Although the opulent casino continues to house a formal, James Bond-style blackjack room, slot machines, which were introduced a decade ago, after much debate, have proven quite popular. "There was a great fear of letting in riff raff, but the move saved us economically," says Geneviève Vuillemin, the Barrière group's spokesperson. These days, the casino also features a Las Vegas-style showgirl routine in its stately theater.
All these changes have combined to replace Deauville's former leisurely, aristocratic elegance -- or staidness, depending on your opinion -- with the buzz of new money. But the summer crowds horrify the Rothschilds, for example, who own an estate here. "I won'y even go into town anymore," Baron Guy de Rothschild told me shortly before his death. "There's just no class anymore."
Though Deauville is no gastronomic paradise (there's not a single Michelin-starred restaurant in town), good meals can be had in fun bistros such as Chez Miocque, on rue Eugene Colas, or Les Quatres Chats in the neighboring town of Trouville-sur-Mer. Both specialize in hearty, traditional Norman cooking, with its emphasis on butter, cream, and organ meats such as tripe. "People go out more to be seen than to eat haute cuisine," says Aviegne, La Miocque's boisterous patron.
The Barrière Group dominates Deauville's more refined dining, with decidedly mixed results. It runs Ciro's, a fish restaurant, which is right on the boardwalk. Appetizers include smoked and marinated salmon and trout, and entrées include grilled turbot or classic sole in butter sauce. L'Etrier, in the hotel Royal Barrière, is the flagship gastronomic showcase, with impeccable service and intimate and warm decor. Chef Eric Provost is a talented graduate of Alain Ducasse's three-star restaurants.
Unfortunately, the hoteliers centralize their liquor purchases, and don't seem to think much about wine. Ciro's concentrates on red Bordeaux, and white wines appear almost as an afterthought -- an embarrassment considering it is a fish restaurant. Although L'Etrier does have eight pages of Bordeaux, including Margaux and Lafite Rothschild, many choices are run-of-the-mill.
For more exciting dining opportunities, head to the lush countryside. Five Michelin one-star restaurants are within 40 minutes' drive of Deauville's boardwalk. This is cider and Calvados country. A particularly pretty restored village to visit on the official "cider route" is Beuvron-en-Auge, which the French government has designated as a village historique. Beuvron boasts an appealing one-star restaurant called Le Pavé d'Auge. It is housed in a rebuilt, half-timbered covered market and offers cooking that is at once traditional and inventive.
Beuvron is also home to Maison David, one of the region's best addresses for both cider and Calvados. Dynamic Philippe David has transformed an old family farm into an attractive bed-and-breakfast. He distills Calvados the old-fashioned way, over a slow-burning wood fire. This summer, he plans to open a combined gourmet shop and café in the village, across the street from Le Pavé d'Auge. It promises to be a fitting place to sip David's powerful digestif and escape the moneyed, bustling crowds in town.
That's the beauty of a vacation in Deauville. It's city and it's country, all in one gulp. For a visitor in search of sea and sand, glitz and glamour, and plenty of authentic rural French charm, there are few better choices.
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