From polo to film festivals, Deauville is the French destination to see and be seen in

The seaside resort, known as Paris by the Sea, is a home away from home for Europe's rich and famous

The popular Le Normandy is the choice of discrete French actors when they are in town. Photo: Groupe Barriere
Powered by automated translation

I arrive in the fashionable Normandy seaside resort of Deauville for what locals dub The Golden Weekend. This annual occurrence marks the end of the summer season, and, as every year before, France’s chic high society members have travelled down to this picturesque location for the opportunity to mix with glamorous cosmopolitan jet setters and celebrate a packed schedule of polo matches, Grand Prix horse races, and of course, a masked ball.

While summer is a popular time to visit, Deauville is very much a year-round destination, with an ongoing calendar of events ranging from a prestigious Lacoste golf tournament to international yachting regattas, creative music and book festivals, and art and photo exhibitions.

A week before the Golden Weekend is the world-renowned annual horse auction of thoroughbred yearlings that can fetch millions of dollars. This precedes the opening of the glitzy Deauville American Film Festival in early September, where celebrity-spotters head for the storied Les Planches, a 1920s boardwalk along the beach, with art deco bathing cabins honouring everyone in the movie business from Johnny Depp to Nicole Kidman.

When selecting accommodation in Deauville, there are many impressive properties to choose from. Two wonderfully plush Belle Epoque palace hotels, Le Normandy and Le Royal stand on each side of Deauville’s grandiose neo-classical casino. I check in at the old-world Normandy, after an insider tells me that during the film festival, this is where the discrete French actors prefer to stay, while the Hollywood stars head for the rather bling-bling Royal.

My room looks out over the beach, where at sunset, horses training for the races canter through the waves. And horses are a recurring theme for Deauville. The bucolic Normandy countryside is France’s prime breeding area with numerous thoroughbred stud farms, and the town is still abuzz from the summer’s yearling sales. One of those included Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, adding to his Godolphin stable and a Bahraini representative raising the roof with a bid of €2.4 million ($2.6 million).

Other movers and shakers attending the auctions included entrepreneur Kia Joorabchian and industrialist Laurent Dassault, ex-NBA star Tony Parker and French film director Claude Lelouch, whose 1960s art house masterpiece, A Man and a Woman, starring Anouk Aimeee and Jean-Louis Trintignant, is set in Deauville.

The first stop on my trip is the Hippodrome de Deauville-La Touques. Dating back to 1862, this historical location represents the founding of modern-day Deauville and continues to host elite races throughout the year. But my appointment is for the final of the August polo tournament, taking place in the middle of the oval horse racing track. Watching live polo chukkas is quite thrilling, with dashing Argentine riders breathtakingly manoeuvring their Sandrine galloping steeds.

In the front row is Juan Rojas from Buenos Aires, director of the sports streaming channel, Borderline. He enthuses that “nowhere compares to the chic French ambience here. Somehow, the organisers manage to create a tournament that is wonderfully glamorous, but impeccably organised, a unique horse track location that welcomes everybody, both the international players and privileged VIP guests.”

The next day, the Hippodrome’s grandstand is filled again for the season’s top race, the €200,000 Grand Prix de Deauville, first run in 1871. Over a buffet of exotic fruits, patisseries and macarons in the exclusive Trainer’s Salon, I chat with Franck Le Mestre, director general of Deauville’s Pole International du Cheval.

“This is one of the global horse capitals,” he declares proudly...“with a genuine equine synergy that encompasses racing, show jumping, dressage and polo, breeding and training.”

He describes a strong natural bond between Deauville and the horse world of the Middle East, “whose owners have their own stud farms and horses trained here, and soon I believe there will be a Middle East team joining the Polo tournament too”.

Just before the start of the Grand Prix, dapper Libyan businessmen Elbashir Elhari and Mahmoud Mouni, here to watch their highly-fancied runner, Al Nayyir, tell me how they “love entering our horses in Deauville, one of the best racecourses in France, or the whole of Europe in fact. Just look around and see how friendly all the people are.”

The pair even refuse to get downhearted when their ride is just pipped at the post by an outsider.

Wandering through Deauville’s charming town centre, I can see that very little has changed since the railway arrived here in the late 19th century, providing a historic link with the French capital. The streets are lined with grand Anglo-Norman half- timbered villas, perfectly preserved as luxurious second homes or transformed into fashion boutiques and chic restaurants.

All roads seem to lead to the opulent Belle Epoque casino, where there is plenty to discover – international musicians, magicians and comedians perform at the bijou Italianate theatre, a plush red velvet bar decorated with flamboyant murals that extends to an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea, as well as Le Cercle restaurant, where I spent a captivating evening.

With a central location, Le Cercle’s menu offers delicious foie gras and smoked salmon, grilled steaks and roasted sea bass. However, it is difficult to take my eyes off the nearby croupier as he goes about his work. Not surprisingly, the waiter tells me this kind of scene inspired Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Though today, I don’t expect to see anyone dressed in dinner jackets and evening robes. A chic French seaside resort without cutting-edge culture, stylish fashion and gourmet food seems unthinkable, and Deauville easily stands alongside the likes of Cannes and Saint-Tropez.

Every summer a masked ball is held in the splendid Franciscaines, a 150-year-old convent recently converted into a stunning avant-garde media and arts centre with exhibition and performance spaces, a multimedia library and a garden cafe.

While I’ve been told that the place to reserve for dinner is the elegant Michelin-starred L’Essentiel, whose kitchen is overseen by Charles and Mi-Ra Thuillant, a Franco-Korean couple who creatively combine local ingredients with Asian fusion influences, my most memorable meal is lunch at the affordable Bouillon Morny.

This bustling, brasserie-style diner is dedicated to classic French fare, and I cannot resist favourites such as herrings with onions and boiled potatoes or egg mayonnaise, followed by poached haddock and creamy braised leeks, beef bourguignon with carrots or the perfect steak frites.

Not surprisingly, in this sophisticated resort where Coco Chanel opened her first clothing store in 1913, present-day fashionistas are spoilt for choice. Strolling the streets, you will see dedicated boutiques from the likes of Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Mauboussin, while even stalls in the quaint outdoor market showcase clothing, accessories and jewellery by local designers.

But the hottest address in town is the newly restored Printemps. This landmark 1912 building resembles Liberty London and is now a striking concept emporium rather than a formal department store like its sister location in Paris. Clients wander through a maze of cosy salons that mix clothing, shoes and accessories with exclusive perfumes and jewellery, original artworks and interiors. VIP customers are greeted in a private salon, where they are offered concierge services and the chance to be guided through the store by a personal shopper.

After a long day of shopping, what better way to relax than with a treatment at the Printemps’s discrete FaceKult studio? Choose from a selection of rejuvenating face massages and holistic beauty treatments, the ideal preparation for another night out in this glamorous town.

Updated: October 17, 2023, 7:54 AM