It was Samuel Johnson who first pronounced that, ‘When a man tired of London, he was tired of life’, – well I believe that the same can be said about Provence. In spite of the crowds in the height of the summer there is something very special about this vast area which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River on the west, to the Italian border on the east, and by the Mediterranean Sea on the south and the Alpes Maritime to the north. So we made it our duty to visit as many of the iconic hotels and restaurants that we could manage in one week and to add a few of our personal favourites that we believe will become ‘must visit’ places on any bon vivant’s bucket list!
My enduring love affair with Provence began when I was a young man and making my first visit with a very pretty girlfriend in 1973. We drove down in her Mini, listening to ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield, which was the very first release by Virgin Music, and was such a success that it paved the way for the future prosperity of Richard Branson and Virgin.
As we approached Provence I remember recognising various landscapes from books I had seen of Van Gogh’s paintings around Aix en Provence and Arles, but as we got closer to St Tropez, my thoughts turned to more hedonistic pleasures.
Its reputation preceded it, and the whole place seemed incredibly glamorous to me, and one evening I remember watching in disbelief as Brigitte Bardot rode into the Square in St Tropez with some friends on their motor bikes with the wind in their hair, (in the days before helmets were required), and proceeded to play petanque with some of the locals.
I had been hopelessly infatuated with Brigitte Bardot since I was a schoolboy of 14 after seeing the film which made her famous, ‘And God Created Woman’ directed by her Svengali, Roger Vadim, designed to showcase her ‘talents’ which it certainly did, but in a way that seems positively innocent by today’s standards.
I mention this because much of it was filmed on location in and around St. Tropez, and the cast and crew frequented a very modest beach bar on Pampelonne beach which subsequently became the truly iconic Club Cinquante Cinq (55), named after the year in which the film was made.
Now nearly sixty years on I discovered that Bridget Bardot had recently celebrated her eightieth birthday which I find both disturbing and depressing, for me rather than her! She still lives in a villa on the headland facing the Bay of St. Tropez and has lived a useful life protecting the rights of animals, about which she feels passionately.
Club 55 today is a very different place and in the high summer months of June, July and August it is populated by visiting billionaires, celebrities and the super rich who ‘park’ their enormous yachts in the bay opposite and are ferried into Club 55 where they make a half-hearted attempt to pretend that the advances of the paparazzi are unwelcome!
In my lifetime the super rich have progressed from the modestly wealthy playboys of the fifties and sixties who preferred to sail their own beautiful yachts, through to the oil rich Arabs in the late 70s and early 80s, to the mega rich Russians in the nineties, who now compete to have the ‘biggest’, and most extravagant mega yachts, and now, the Chinese are snapping at their heels.
Ironically, these ‘yachts’ are now so large that they cannot fit into the older ports like St.Tropez, and have to anchor offshore in the Bay of St.Tropez, and ferry their guests ashore, which slightly defeats the object if your desire is to see and be seen.
To give you an idea of these changes in the size of these craft, a classic J-Class yacht is around 90 ft long whilst the latest batch of mega yachts run from 100 to 200 metres (350-700 ft), but however big the boat, the one thing their owners all want to do is be seen eating at Club 55 normally surrounded by glamorous models and ‘wannabe’ actresses.
A corner of the restaurant at Club 55, the tables shaded with sails Relaxing ‘chill out’ area
and periodically a fine mist of refreshing water cools the clientele
in the heat of the day
Endearingly, the management of Club 55 reserve a section of the restaurant for true locals and no amount of money can ‘buy’ these tables.
Similarly, the car parking attendants have their own private code about which cars are worthy of being parked outside the entrance and I noticed on one occasion that a personalised mini-moke with leather seats trumped the latest Ferraris and Maseratis.
So despite its mega rich clientele the staff still maintain their own judgement of what is truly stylish and not just a show of excessive wealth.
Of course if you are young and trendy and don’t start eating lunch until 4.00pm and finish at midnight, then Nikki Plage is the place for you, but for us ‘oldies’ nothing compares with the extravagances and eccentricities of Club 55, and, by the way, the food is very good too!
Also, the quality of the ‘cabaret’ at Club 55 is infinitely more interesting and ‘catholic’ than Nikki Plage, so if you really want to see the power brokers of the 21st century at play then Club 55 is the place for you.
On my last visit, I bumped into Tom Bowyer, whom I know through a mutual friend, and he is a fearless author of ‘warts and all’ biographies of the rich and famous, including Robert Maxwell, Al Fayed, Bernie Ecclestone and Richard Branson and I can imagine him conducting his ‘market research’ at Club 55.
Anyway, here we were again in St. Tropez, a lot older and a little wiser, and in need of proper comfort so we made our way to Le Mas de Chastelas which had been recommended to me by an old friend who used to stay there every summer in the 1980s.
Le Mas de Chastelas is the perfect example of a French Provencal hotel only ten minutes from the centre of St. Tropez on the road to Ramatuelle and Gassin.
We approached through magnificent wrought iron gates and were greeted by the receptionist who took us through to the garden and offered us a drink whilst our luggage was being delivered to our room. This is what I call a welcome and we immediately began to relax after our rather fraught journey. We were soon joined by Olivier Valentin, the Director of Operations at this wonderful place, and he engaged us with the history of the building and the hotel.
The immediate impression even before we had seen our room was one of relaxation as we settled into the pristine white covered garden furniture by a stunning azure blue pool. We could not have wished for a more delightful start to our week in Provence, for this hotel epitomises all that is chic about the French, stylish yet at the same time understated. The owner Jerome Pujos likes to describe it as, ‘the most beautiful hotel of St. Tropez‘ and we certainly would not argue with that description.
Whilst taking in our surroundings we could easily imagine the type of clientele that would be attracted to an hotel like this and understand why over the years since the hotel was established in 1969, artists and stars like Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu have favoured this charming hotel, being assured that their privacy would be respected. Le Mas has an air of discretion about it, being attentive to its guests without fawning over them.
We were visiting Provence in the last week of September, by which time the glitterati have moved on to the next attraction, followed by the paparazzi, to continue their symbiotic relationship, but it must have been great fun being a guest around that pool in the summer months, and being able to return from the mayhem of St. Tropez in high summer to the coolness and calm of Le Mas de Chastelas.
Our room had the most stunning view overlooking the pool and gardens
There is a choice of very modern or more traditional bedrooms
Dinner was served on the terrace by the pool as even at this time of year being late September it was still warm enough to enjoy eating outside but our comfort was enhanced by the use of a discreet outside heater.
Our charming English waiter, Benjamin Davies, we soon discovered after close interrogation, was the son of a famous mountaineer. Further questions about how long he had worked there etc. revealed that he was sharing accommodation nearby with an English friend with whom he had studied at University and that his friend came from Hampshire. This gave us common ground, since we come from Hampshire, to pinpoint the exact location of his friend’s home, only to discover that this friend is the son of friends of mine and I have know him since he was very young! This only furthers my belief that if you talk to someone for long enough, and ask the right questions you will inevitably discover mutual acquaintances!
For dinner that night we chose to have a taster menu so that we could best experience the skills of the hotel’s chef, Mathieu Hericotte. We were treated to such delights as a cauliflower soup that was deliciously intense in flavour, followed by a dish which typifies the south of France with it use of tomatoes, courgettes and fennel, then more delights of foie gras then a dish of chicken served in two ways with polenta and finally the chef’s interpretation of lemon tart with meringue.
During our dinner we also were introduced to the head barman, Philippe Goujon who was born and bred in St. Tropez. Philippe knows all there is to know about the area and he was pleased to listen to my wistful musings of Bridget Bardot and St. Tropez as it was in the 70s but even he could not arrange for me to interview this legend in her 80th year!
Anyway back to my reality, I was so enjoying being back in this special place that I couldn’t wait to start the next day as early as possible.
It was a perfect September day so I took myself off for an early morning drive to Pampelonne beach, via Ramatuelle. I love this corner of Provence, with its stunning houses and wonderful vineyards, all protected by the beautiful pine trees which also provide much needed shade in the high heat of the summer. My ideal would be to have a wonderful Chateau or Villa, surrounded by its own vineyard which would produce enough top quality rosé to satisfy the appetites of family, friends and guests.
I did a complete circuit via Gassin and Ramatuelle, Pampelonne beach, and back via St Tropez in time for an exquisite breakfast at Le Mas de Chastelas which was a positive feast and I only wish I had room to sample more of the vast array of delicious food laid out for the guests.
Our Vantage Point from the Balcony of Hotel Sube Away From The Crowds Below
Later In St Tropez, we stopped off at an old haunt, Hotel Sube, where you get the best view of the harbour from the first floor balcony, and the coffee is very good too! It is the perfect place to have breakfast at about 7am, and to watch the crews waking up, and attending to their boats, but go early as it gets very busy during the morning.
We drove back down to the southern end of Pampelonne Plage, and had lunch in one of the fabulous beach restaurants which even at this time of the year the car parks were full of Porsches and Mercedes. When I say ‘car parks’, I mean parking amongst the ten feet high Pampas grass which grows so freely here, and as we entered the restaurant I felt very happy to be back in this magical place, because I cannot conceive of a more interesting and stimulating place to have lunch than in one of the many beach restaurants and bars which line the long crescent that is Pampelonne Beach.
We were at the westernmost end of the beach, and elected to lunch at L’Esquinade, mainly because it had the best swimming opposite the restaurant, but also because the menu looked good. It was such a beautiful day that I went for a swim before lunch which was wonderful in the surprisingly still warm sea even though it was late September. Invigorated by my swim I was looking forward to lunch but have to admit I had to take a second look at the prices of the wine. I can only assume that because it was the end of the season most of the ‘vin de table’ had been consumed and they only had pricier bottles left. I’m afraid I baulk at paying over thirty pounds for a bottle of wine at lunchtime in a beach bar restaurant no matter how trendy it is, so we opted for a modest lunch of a starter each and a very refreshing bottle of water!
After lunch we made our way back up the coast to Vence, a stunning hill top town overlooking Nice, which we were using as our base for the rest of our week and from where we planned to visit our choice of iconic hotels and restaurants in Provence.
Hill top towns abound across Provence and we were to visit two over the next three days. Our first was at the western end of Provence, and much further inland. This is Crillon le Brave, which is an extraordinary hotel which has colonized a hilltop town in a stunning position overlooking Mont Ventoux in the Luberon.
This was the brainchild of Peter and Carolyn Chittick, who was the Financial Director of the Hotel du Vin chain, and together with the founder and MD, Robin Hutson, and their respective wives, they have created one of the most interesting hotels in the world, mainly because it was never designed as a hotel! It comprises of thirty two rooms and seven suites created from the original village houses which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and have been sensitively converted to offer all the comforts of a modern hotel, but in infinitely nicer surroundings.
The owners of Crillon le Brave have created something unique, and in the process have revitalised a dying village, where they have renovated dozens of buildings, including some for staff accommodation, thereby creating employment for many locals. Even the district council in nearby Carpentras was inspired to restore and renovate the wonderful 16th century Church.
This is a perfect example of my favourite phenomena, a ‘Virtuous Circle’, which is a recurring cycle of events, the result of each one being to increase the beneficial effect of the next.
Amazingly Crillon le Brave is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year and year on year it improves the village. I can only say how stunning the surroundings are and the whole concept is just perfect. I would return here time and time again and can only recommend that Crillon le Brave should become one of the must visit hotels in Provence.
Sunrise at Crillon le Brave looking towards Mont Ventoux
From Crillon le Brave, we made our way back to St Tropez to watch the vintage yachts racing just offshore, known as Les Voiles de St Tropez, which is another excellent reason for being in this area in late September. It is a time to see St. Tropez at its best after all the mega plastic boats have all departed for the Caribbean leaving the old port filled with the truly elegant sailing yachts.
Classic Yacht being Prepared for Taking Part in Les Voiles de St.Tropez
The huge tourist crowds have gone to be replaced with those passionate about sailing and racing and one can feel very proud of the presence of so many yachts flying the Royal Ensign.
Royal Ensigns rule the waves!
Our intention to follow the yachts whilst racing was thwarted by the heavy swell that day so we did the next best thing and found a restaurant called ‘Les Muscardins’ situated in the ruins of the lighthouse in the old fishing port which had an almost 360 degree view from its fully glazed first floor. From here we could see some of the racing – not quite as exciting as being out there but considerably more comfortable with no danger of spilling your wine!
Racing of Classic Yachts as Viewed From Les Muscardins Restaurant in St.Tropez
Another day and another experience beckoned – we continued our exploration of hilltop towns in Provence by visiting probably the most perfect example, St. Paul de Vence.
St. Paul de Vence is literally perched in the hills above Nice and we marvelled at how such a town could have been built without the aid of modern equipment. It is also the location for one of the most iconic and famous restaurant and hotel in the south of France. It is of course La Colombe d’Or, and it is most famous for being the favoured eaterie of the likes of Picasso, Magritte, Miro, Braque and Chagall who often ‘paid in kind’ for their food or bed with their own art work, which now adorns the walls, and must be worth tens of millions. A visit here is not only a delight but a museum visit rolled into one.
La Colombe d’Or started life in 1920 as “Chez Robinson” run by Paul Roux, as a café/bar with an open air-terrace where people would dance at weekends. From the early days it attracted the characters and avant-garde of the area and over the years the artistic community drawn to the special light of Provence, all gathered at this small inn. The guest books are a record of all the artists that have come and gone over the decades.
What has evolved is a magical restaurant where you can dine outside under the vines or inside under the Picassos knowing that you are experiencing a touch of the film star lifestyle.
And if you are lucky enough to be staying in this hill top terracotta coloured, very ‘French’ hotel, you can relax in the simple pool overshadowed by a giant Calder stabile and admire the large mosaic of Braque that sits under the towering cypress trees.
La Colombe d’Or Terrace with colourful ceramic commissioned from Fernand Leger in the late 1940s
We ate under the vines on a beautiful late summer’s day surrounded by fig trees and cream parasols and we had a perfect light lunch of lobster salad accompanied by a local Provençal Rosé especially bottled for the restaurant, followed by a traditional Tarte Amandine et le Muscat de Beaume de Venise – perfect food – perfect setting.
During our meal we were fortunate enough to meet the imposing and impressive owner, Madame Roux, who continues the family tradition of this iconic establishment. She leads an international lifestyle, and enjoys her global peregrinations, including frequent visits to London, Paris, and all over Europe and the United States. She is truly a ‘Proprietor’ in the best sense of that word, and all I can say is that she and her restaurant are ‘Incroyable, Formidable, et Magnifique’, and it lived up to my expectations, which is not always the case.
From La Colombe d’Or, it was a 10 minute drive up the hill to Vence, and then up the mountain to our villa which is the highest on the mountain towering above Vence, and only 5 minutes from our first appointment the next morning, which was at Château Saint-Martin occupying a commanding position above Vence.
We arrived the next morning, looking forward to the chance to inspect this unique prestigious five star hotel and spa frequented by the very rich, and favoured by the equally famous like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Brits like the Saatchi brothers.
Complete privacy is guaranteed, you could fly in by helicopter which is only five minutes from Nice Airport, land on the helipad situated right beside the infinity pool and be sitting by the pool with glass of champagne in hand within half an hour of arrival in the Cote d’Azur.
Château Saint-Martin have very cleverly built six private villas on the hillside opposite the hotel which can be rented in their entirety by the day or week, with the guests having access and use of all the hotel facilities, such as the Bar and Restaurants, Pool and Spa. These villas are particularly popular during the Cannes Film Festival. The villas and all thirty nine junior suites and.the one even more luxurious suite with large living room, spacious bedroom and a steam bath and independent bathroom have magnificent views across the Mediterranean.
The history of Château Saint-Martin & Spa dates back many centuries to when there was a Roman fortress on the site and to later in the 12th century when it became a former Knights Templar Commanderie. To this day their message of faith still shines through the Saint-Martin Chapel. The chapel and stunning hotel with its magnificent 35 acre park with 300 olive trees and natural beauty makes this a perfect venue for a truly romantic and elegant wedding.
However whatever your reason for staying at Château Saint-Martin you will be assured of luxurious comfort, delicious cuisine in any of its three restaurants and upmost attention to your every needs and when you are in need of extra pampering, the Spa offers a complete range of beauty treatments using 100% natural, ecologically aware Bamford products.
From one treat to another; our next destination that day was the sister hotel to Château Saint-Martin and another masterpiece hotel in the Oetker Collection. The Oetker Collection have eight hotels in their stable, each property is one-of-a kind and their ambition is to own fifteen by the year 2020. To have two of their exceptional hotels within the same region is a testament to the importance of Provence as a destination for the discerning.
As spectacular as Château Saint-Martin may be, it has to be conceded that Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, at Cap d’Antibes, is the most sophisticated and beautiful hotel in the south of France, possibly even the world.
I remember vividly the first impression it made on me; I had flown down from Paris where I had attended a wedding at ‘Les Invalides’, and the most cosmopolitan reception at a La Nôtre Château just south of Paris, where the guests were from every corner of Europe, and the conversations were in a dozen languages, and I felt quite ‘provincial’.
Anyway, I remember flying south to Nice, and approaching by flying over the Bay of St Tropez, and emerging from the plane into the scorching heat of a July day, and being met at the old Airport terminal by my great friend, Frankie Cranfield who arrived barefoot to collect me, typically bohemian behaviour from my artistic friend!
It was midday, and she asked if I had eaten on the plane, although I had, I was still hungry, so she asked where I would like to go for lunch, and I replied ‘just surprise me‘, and she certainly did….. She drove me straight to Hotel du Cap, and down the hill to Eden Roc, and when I emerged on to the terrace above the swimming pool, I thought I had found the most decadent place in the world. Frankie had arranged to meet a friend there, and I had offered to take them both for lunch, which was both foolhardy and extremely generous as it turned out, but I did not care, and wanted to enjoy the whole experience. So, we found a table overlooking the pool, and after a refreshing swim in the fabulous rock pool (now replaced by an infinity pool) we had lunch, and sipped our rosé, and all was well with the world.
Eden Roc’s infinity pool which replaced the original famous seawater pool which was hollowed out of the basalt rock in 1914
On that visit I had not been into the main hotel so it was wonderful to be shown around by Geraldine Maiale, Communications Assistant for Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. We were privileged to be shown into the central suite on the first floor which must have one of the best views in the world – on throwing open the shutters there is an uninterrupted view looking down the broad avenue directly to the sea – it is breathtaking! La Grande Allee
One can understand why this setting has been a magnet for artists and writers since this Napoleon III villa was first constructed in 1870. It has had its highs and lows over the years because of the expense of keeping such a magnificent building maintained but it has always been a haven for the rich and famous. Ideas were changing, it was becoming fashionable to spend ones leisure time out and about in the sun rather than to avoid it. People were travelling to the south in the summer months rather than just in the winter. The 1920s saw Bernard Shaw and Pablo Picasso holidaying at Hotel du Cap with the aristocrats of Europe and Maharajahs; the 1930s saw Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald inspired by their surrounding and indeed it is the setting for the famous exchange between them, when Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘You know Ernest, the rich are very different to you and me’, to which Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, they have more money!‘
Marc Chagall was known to have sketched in one of the beachside cabanas
In the late 1930s, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor became such regular guests that Andre Sella, the son of the owner would greet them at the train station in person every time they visited. And so it has continued throughout the decades with Hotel du cap becoming without doubt the most glamorous destination for Hollywood stars and royalty alike.
From 1940 the Grand Hotel du Cap became a military hospital, and suffered the fate of many beautiful buildings requisitioned during the war, and it was not until 1950 that it started attracting the rich and famous again, and Picasso and his wife Olga became regular visitors, and Picasso happily designed and hand drew the new restaurant Menu. The days of having to paint for his board were very much a thing of the past!
There are hundreds of wonderful photos of this period, including an iconic photograph by Robert Capa of a 60 year old Picasso, frolicking with his new mistress and lover on the beach around the corner from Cap d’Antibes at Juan le Pins. Picasso liked this photograph of him with Francoise Gilot taken in 1951 when she was pregnant with his child, Paloma.
More recently Hotel du Cap was the setting for the highly entertaining mini-documentary filmed by Elton John’s partner David Furnish, called ‘Tantrums and Tiaras’, and it is a popular venue for the power brokers of the entertainment industry especially during the annual Cannes Film Festival.
In 1969 Hotel du Cap and Eden Roc were acquired by the Oetker Collection, who own some of the best hotels in the world. Maja and Rudolf Oetker have brilliantly preserved the traditions of the place, yet at the same time have invested heavily in the buildings and grounds making sure that the hotel continues to offer all that is best in luxury and technology proving that Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc is clearly in good hands.
The hotel has the most beautiful gardens, with wonderful clay tennis courts, a Spa boasting every conceivable treatment, and added this year, a juice and homemade ice cream bar, situated in the gardens leading down to the rocky coastline, with numerous cabanas which can be rented for the day – somewhat more sophisticated than their English equivalents.
I am delighted to report that our tour of Hotel du Cap, ended with lunch at Eden Roc. Sitting on the terrace of the Grill Eden-Roc, designed to represent an ocean going liner, one cannot believe the beauty of the setting.
I’m running out of superlatives and I think by now you might have gathered that Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc is heaven on earth – so rather than trying to describe every wonderful aspect of this place, just look at the following images:-
Bar Le Bellini – A Hollywood Style Stage to See and Be Seen
The Eden Roc Suite which is the most beautiful suite composed of a vast bedroom, lounge, two bathrooms, a dressing room and a beautiful terrace facing the sea with its own jacuzzi
Created in 2013, the Eden Roc Champagne Lounge
Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc viewed looking back down the Grande Allee, at night
An Aerial View of the Grounds and Gardens of Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc
What an incredible finale to our Week in Provence. To say that we ‘Saved the best to last’ would be unfair to the other iconic institutions we visited. Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc is certainly the most sumptuous but the other wonderful places we stayed at all have their own unique qualities and we thoroughly enjoyed and savoured their delights.
We certainly covered this vast area known as Provence and are very aware that we only scratched the surface of all that it has to offer but one week is a very limited time. So we cannot wait to revisit Provence and bring you more gems to experience.
It has to be said that the French are very fortunate to have so much natural beauty at their disposal and Provence has more than its fair share!
Robert Jarman is the Founder and Editor of The Vintage Magazine and would like to thank the following in compiling this article:-
My wife, the Assistant Editor and travelling companion, Chrissy Jarman; Olivier Valentin from Le Mas de Chastelas, Peter Chittick of Crillon le Brave; Madame Roux of La Colombe d’Or; Valerie Müller of Chateau Saint Martin and Géraldine Maiale of Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc.