Review by Fiona Duncan, published 12th July 2006.
Two types head for South of France: those who do (want to be seen) and those who don’t. Those who do crowd together on the coast, prancing about in their thongs on the beaches, jangling their jewels in the Negresco and the Eden Roc, and enduring nose-to-tail traffic jams as they crawl along the Corniche. Most have no idea what lies behind the urban sprawl; ask them if they’ve been to Coaraze, and they’ll think you mean a hip hotel they haven’t heard of, not an enchanting, little changed village perché high above Nice near the dramatic Gorges de la Vésubie.
Those who don’t (want to be seen) love the region as much for its broom-covered hills as for its raffish, scintillating seaside; for the dry heat, clear light and scent of pine – with hints of wild thyme and lavender in the air; and for the heady fusion of art and landscape, wine and sunshine, ancient history and modern sophistication that gives Provence and the Côte d’Azur its unique, dazzling variety.
The hotels described here are not for the do’s but for the don’ts. Catering for all budgets, they are chic but not showy, individual not anonymous, understated, not obvious; self-assured hideaways on the coast and in the countryside, resort hotels as well as village ones, where you can feel part of the scene, but at the same time relax, get away from it all and be yourself.
Prices, unless specified, are for a standard double room, including breakfast, in high season.
Auberge de l’Aiguebrun, Bonnieux
Take the conspicuously wealthy away from the coast, ask them to choose where they’d prefer – if they must – to be inland, and they’ll tell you the Lubéron. Not long ago it was dirt poor, but now it’s scrubbed villages are brimful of boutiques, its swanky hotels and restaurants ringed by security fences. Not for you? Leave Bonnieux and take a steep track down to the river Aiguebrun, the only natural water in this barren though beautiful region. Standing alone in a green oasis by a waterfall is this secret delight, an old house that could not have fallen into better hands. Sylvie Buzier, warm, pretty and talented (she paints as well as cooks and decorates) has transformed it into a dreamy place, with luminous rooms. The dining room, with its fresh green leaf curtains, is surrounded by windows overlooking the river, while in the sunny yellow sitting room there’s a well-stocked drinks tray, inviting sofas, and a minah bird in an antique cage. Bedrooms are similarly colourful; one is a charming wooden chalet by the river.
Sylvie’s staff, easy-going and unobtrusively hip, include chef Francis Motta who produces a set menu using wild fish, organic meat and vegetables, and herbs and salads from the potager. On some days lunch is served as a picnic by the river. There is a swimming pool; and birdsong.
(0033 4 9004 4700; www.aubergedelaiguebrun.com; £112).
Bastide St Mathieu, Grasse
Talk about private. In an area close to Grasse known – thanks to its terraced hillsides and cypress trees – as Little Tuscany, Le Bastide is a fortress of privileged pampering, an instant Côte Sud dream conjured three years ago by its owners from an old ruin and a stony field.
Arie and Inge van Osch owned a luxury hotel in Malawi before deciding to change gear and create this somewhat snooty, almost-too-perfect epitome of Provençal chic, surrounded by high walls and a large and lovely garden, complete with century-old specially transplanted olive trees (200 of them), orchard and poppy field – and expansive swimming pool. They offer their guests (maximum ten) an interesting mix between traditional guesthouse (owners on hand at all times, kitchen open) and luxury country house hotel (Ralph Lauren sheets, breakfast tables on the terrace laid with Belgian linen and silver cutlery). Bedrooms are appropriately sophisticated and stylish. Breakfast, including home-made jams, is a treat, and though no there’s no dinner, Inge makes up for it by offering tailor-made advice on restaurants, making bookings and providing directions from the gate.
Talking of the gate, it’s high and wide and kept firmly locked at all times (guests are given a remote control). Privacy is paramount at Le Bastide.
(0033 4 9701 1009; www.bastidestmathieu.com; £206).
Le Manoir, Port-Cros
Cut off from the crowds on the Côte d’Azur? Alone in a protected wilderness filled with verdant groves of shrubs and trees? It hardly sounds possible, and it certainly sorts out those who are hoping for at least a soupçon of glamour in the South of France from those who are there purely for its natural pleasures. And yet there’s no lack of chic at Le Manoir, albeit of the shabby, slightly bohemian variety, and there’s plenty of atmosphere: that of a cultured house party, lulled by an air of romantic nostalgia amongst a profusion of palm, eucalyptus and oleander.
Port-Cros is the loveliest and most mysterious of the three Iles d’Hyères, a 20-minute ferry ride from the Giens peninsular. Now owned by the State as a nature reserve, the island was once the property of Pierre Buffet’s family, and their home was the graceful 18th century manor house that M. Buffet has been running as a low-key hotel (no signs, no reception desk) since the 1960s. The airy, white-walled bedrooms are simply but elegantly furnished with 19th century pieces; some have little terraces. The grounds are lush and lovely, with a beautifully sited swimming pool beside which you can have lunch; or you can take a picnic and a ride in the hotel’s motor launch to a nearby bay or cove. The tiny port consists of a mere smattering of houses and cafés and Le Manoir is the island’s only hotel, so when the day-trippers have disappeared, you have the place to yourselves.
(0033 4 9405 9052; monsite.wanadoo.fr/hotelmanoirportcros; £117 per person including dinner).
Les Deux Frères, Roquebrune-Cap Martin
The brothers in question are the two large rocks that loom over this small hotel-restaurant. It stands on a little square in the unspoilt hilltop village of Roquebrune, which has some of the Riviera’s most impressive views. The terrace of Les Deux Frères looks down over a tumble of villas and exotic gardens to the sea far below, and along the coast as far as the ghastliness of Monte Carlo in the distance.
The whitewashed building used to be a schoolhouse until 1965, and its owner, Willem Bonestroo, has kept things admirably simple. The rustic-sophisticated restaurant spills on to the terrace, with those mesmerizing views, especially on a moonlit night. Willem whips round the tables at dinner, speaking fluent English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, as well as his native Dutch, to his multi-national guests. He is a self-confessed workaholic, but his ready wit and infectious enthusiasm has paid dividends: Les Deux Frères is wildly popular. The quirky bedrooms are simple and a bit scuffed, but full of tongue-in-cheek humour. Two tiny rooms at the front have wonderfully romantic views from their windows; one is the Bridal Room, with canopied bed.
(0033 4 9328 9900; www.lesdeuxfreres.com; £80).
Auberge du Presbytère, Saignon
Overlooking the pretty village square, the hotel occupies four houses, one almost completely submerged by an unstoppable creeper. They have been knocked together to produce a quirky series of interconnecting sitting and dining rooms downstairs, and bedrooms upstairs on different levels, connected by separate staircases and corridors. They are very good value. All have great charm, with tiled or wood floors, low vaulted or beamed ceilings, rustic furniture, Provençal fabrics. The charming French-American owner, Jean-Pierre de Lutz, who has evolved the hotel over the past 18 years, has recently opened four new rooms in the last house to be converted.
At the heart of the enterprise, the restaurant is split between a cosy, wood-panelled room and an airier one that opens on to a little gravelled terrace. Traditional Provençal dishes are prominent on the daily-changing menu (displayed on the excellent website after 11am). After dinner you can sink into one of the cream sofas beside the fireplace or have a nightcap in the small, atmospheric bar, a popular gathering place for the village.
(0033 4 9074 1150; www.auberge-presbytere.com; £70).
Brise Marine, St Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Okay, it’s not chic. How can it be, a little breakfast-only hotel that’s remained in the same local family for 60 years, and has been run with hands-on commitment by delightful M. Maîtrehenri for many of them? It’s old fashioned in the best sense, with provincial bedrooms that are neat and clean and constantly being refreshed to keep them up to the mark. Anyone who doesn’t see the appeal needs their heads examining, for it occupies the prettiest of Italianate villas, with the most sensational of views from the most beautiful and flower-filled of terraces in one of the most prized and sought-after locations in Europe. Ca suffit.
(0033 4 9376 0436; www.hotel-brisemarine.com; £109).
Le Beauvallon, Ste Maxime
Does half of you yearn for St Tropez while the other half wants nothing to do with the place? Stay at Le Beauvallon, directly opposite across the Golfe de St-Tropez, and both cravings will be satisfied.
The 70-room hotel, a monolith built in the early 20th century for the jet set of the day, stands in 10 acres of park above the shore, with glorious views. Shrugging off a chequered past, it has entered the millennium with new owners, a stunning makeover, and a shuttle boat to transport its guests to and from la-la land. It manages to be imposing and spacious, yet coolly understated, with a refreshingly different decorative theme that could be described as contemporary oriental (its owners are Asian). Mood music plays ever so quietly in the background and a zen-like calm pervades. Sea-facing bedrooms (over 50 of them) are filled with the clearest of southern light, enhancing the clean, uncluttered lines of the furniture. Staff are eager to answer your every whim.
Le Beauvallon is a great choice for children, with everything from a luxury Wendy house, cartoon characters on the sheets and special menus (even a baby menu) to billiard room, Wurlitzer and cinema to keep them, and therefore their parents, happy. There’s also golf, tennis and a spa, but when you first arrive, the hotel’s key attraction seems to be missing: its much-vaunted Beach Club turns out to be separated from its expansive grounds by the maddening, furiously busy coast road that you have just crawled along to get there. How to reach it? “You will see,” says a flunky with a sly smile, leading you down pristine, gently sloping lawns, past a fountain and into a private tunnel under the road. Emerging on the other side, you find luxurious loungers on manicured sand, a huge swimming pool surrounded by intimate tented cabanas, and a beach bar and restaurant with heavenly pied dans l’eau terrace over the water. There’s more of a buzz down here than in the muted hotel, and San Tropez sparkles invitingly in the sunshine across the water. You begin to feel ready for the fray, and the navette is there to take you. And, when you have had enough, to bring you back again.
(0033 4 9455 7888; www.lebeauvallon.com; £406).
Mas de Peint, Le Sambuc
This is Camargue chic, achieved with great flair and no little expense by Jacques and Lucille Bon, who have transformed an 18th century stable attached to M. Bon’s ancestral farmhouse into an exquisite little hotel. Amidst 1,250 acres of wild and secret marshland, Mme Bon has created a haven: lovely, spacious rooms with wooden beamed ceilings, sandstone floors, paintwork the colour of sugared almonds, and country antiques. It feels like a private guest wing, which is just how it’s meant to be. Dinner – very good – is served in the old-fashioned kitchen, which emanates inviting smells. A harness hangs in the hall, shelves are filled with books and there’s a quiet little reading room. In the pared-down bedrooms, with brass beds and cast-iron baths, M. Bon’s cattle-branding mark is embroidered on the crisp white linen sheets and pillowcases.
Staying at Mas de Peint makes the perfect way to explore the Camargue – on horseback or by 4x4 – with its black bulls, white horses and gorgeous flocks of pink flamingos. Jacques Bon – white moustaches, black cowboy hat – cuts an impressive figure and is steeped in knowledge about his homeland. When you’ve finished chasing bulls, you can relax by the pool, discreetly hidden from the house.
(0033 4 9097 2062; www.masdepeint.com; £167).
Château du Domaine St Martin, Vence
If you want to dip in and out of the Côte d’Azur, cherry-picking the best bits (the shopping, the clubs, the glamour) and avoiding the worst (the traffic; too many people) consider basing yourselves at this Relais & Châteaux hotel 500 metres above the sea, yet minutes from Nice and Cannes. Wind up the hill above Vence, and you’ll find a calm, discreet bastion of good taste where you can peer disdainfully at the crust of seething, aspirational humanity that you have left behind.
The Domain St Martin reveals its pleasures in a serene, dignified manner. Wrought-iron gates open slowly as you approach, and in your cool white bedroom, with a wall of windows and a balcony or terrace, boldly patterned curtains are swept aside to reveal a view that will surely make you gasp. Dinner – excellent, and again with that view – is presented by maître d’hotel Pierre, who tells us he has worked here for 27 years and that others on the staff have remained even longer. It doesn’t surprise me: this is a gracious sanctuary (with lovely gardens, beautifully sited pool and open air restaurant, all overlooked by a towering crag, the Baou des Pénitants Blancs) that knows its job and does it close to perfection. Discretion is all. As we were leaving, the hotel was preparing, in strict secrecy, for a very lavish but very private wedding – that of Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira.
(0033 4 9358 0202; www.chateau-st-martin.com; £420).
Hôtel de l’Atelier, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon
Step through the stone gateway into the ‘secret garden’ of this 16th century cardinal’s house, a riot of oleander, geraniums and climbing roses, and you’ll find it hard to believe that Avignon is just a ten-minute drive across the Rhône. Inside, there are impressive original features – a stone staircase, bathed in light, and a huge hearth, as well as stout battered wooden doors and beamed ceilings – but the decoration is fresh and pretty (this is a simple, inexpensive guesthouse) with a mixture of wooden and painted furniture, and modern art on the walls (the work of three local artists). The 23 bedrooms are simple but elegant; the best have their own terraces overflowing with greenery. Breakfast is served in a lovely courtyard, in the shade of fig trees and vines.
(0033 4 9025 0184; www.hoteldelatelier.com; £64).