Want to get a Sydneysider hot under the collar? Mention beach clubs. The proposal for a private beach club on the golden sands of Bondi Beach has tweaked a nerve, but why the fuss?
Beach clubs are private domains with an admission charge. The licensee pays an annual fee to the local authority, fences off their allocated zone, sets up beach chairs, lounges, cabanas, a bar with a food menu or whatever else local taste might require and opens up shop.
Beach clubs can be found from Mexico to Mykonos, Thailand to Tenerife, but it's on the shores of the Mediterranean that they have their spiritual heartland. Ground zero is the French Riviera, that delectable strip of coast between the Italian border and Marseilles, and despite beaches covered with galets, smooth, foot-hurting stones, they draw a loyal clientele, some of whom will spend every day of their holiday in le club.
While sunshine, sea and salt air are vital ingredients, so too is style. And there's something to be said for a beach with a restaurant, shady cabanas, waiters and day beds. One that laid down the template for the breed is Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach, a long strip of sand just south of Saint-Tropez. This is the ultimate glamour beach hangout. From its humble beginnings as a fisherman's hut from which Bernard and Genevieve De Colmont once served up bouillabaisse to beachgoers, Club 55 has morphed into a hangout for glitterati and Rolex-wristed yachties who relish its pared-back, barefoot chic.
You need to book, and a hefty charge applies for sun lounges, umbrellas and the other beach paraphernalia essential to a day out at Club 55. A pair of sunbeds with umbrellas will cost around €68 ($A110). A la carte lunch is currently €70. For a baguette with ham and cheese, a bottle of Evian and an orange juice, expect to pay about €30. You also get valet parking, showers, change rooms, a restaurant shaded by a pergola and tamarisk trees and the chance to rub shoulders with the beau monde. If the summer sun is shining and you haven't notched up several celebrity sightings by the end of the day, your sunnies need a good wipe.
The Italian job
Tourists at beach clubs in Positano, Italy. Photo: iStock
Italy excels at the throttled-back version of the beach club, and the nation that gave the world gelato and Prada knows how to infuse a beach with la dolce vita. Arienzo Beach Club occupies half of the tiny beach in a cove located just east of Positano, the most famous of the beach towns along Italy's Amalfi Coast. At a modest €12.50, access to the private part of the beach gets you a sun lounger with umbrella, change rooms, showers and a boat shuttle from Positano. At the back of the beach club, the bar/restaurant dishes out seafood dishes, pasta and caprese salads, fruity desserts and limoncello straight from the freezer.
Liberte, egalite and fraternite notwithstanding, neither the French nor the Italians have a problem with a bit of beach off-limits to all but those prepared to pay for the privilege. Why would they? Wealth buys you country villas, Michelin-star dining and plenty more good things in life, so why not a better kind of beach? As long as most beaches are open to all, and both Club 55's Pampelonne Beach and Arienzo Beach are mostly free for all, what's the issue?
That doesn't play well for us. The idea that the beach is sacrosanct, free and available to all is embedded in Australia's DNA. Despite the uncomfortable truths of our colonial history, the beach is our own sacred land. You might get there in a Tesla or a 20-year-old Mitsubishi that the kids learned to drive in; nobody cares. The beach is our great leveller. The thought of an entrepreneur hiving off a bit of beach, knocking up a fence and charging $80 to let the nobs in for a couple of hours to chink glasses with their kind, and make quids out of what belongs to you and me, is noxious, an affront to our egalitarian notions.
Australia comes to the party
But wait a minute. Australia already has a beach club. The Moseley Beach Club has been a summer fixture on the sands of Adelaide's Glenelg Beach since 2018. There's a choice of day beds, essentially a queen-sized bed for two, or individual sun lounges, and two time slots, 11am-4pm, or 5pm to a maximum of 11pm. The cost is $100 for a day bed, $50 for a sun lounge – but that total amount is redeemable for food and bevvies at the Moseley Beach Bar. Book a day bed for two and you'll only pay more if you rack up more than $100 worth of food and drinks. In a crowd-pleasing twist, more than half the Moseley Beach Club is open to the public, and it's free. Anyone can drop in for a burger and a smoothie or cocktails and pay for that alone. A beach club with social distancing, with pay-for lounges and day beds for those who want them, and open to all? Could be just the go for Bondi and St Kilda.