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Exploring Hidden French Islands

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Photo: Matthieu Salvaing

Île de Bendor

Location: 32 miles southeast of Marseilles
Distance from mainland: 656 feet
Surface: 15 acres (number of times Bendor fits into Manhattan: 981)
Year-round population: 4
High-season population (excluding tourists): 200
Hotel beds: 70

The story of Île de Bendor is the story of a man, Paul Ricard; a foggy drink without which the south of France wouldn’t recognize itself; and a 19-room hotel, the curious and rather wacky Delos. With pocket change from the fortune he amassed making and marketing “the real pastis of Marseilles” under his own name, Ricard acquired Bendor in 1950 as a plaything, as a place to schmooze clients and entertain friends like Jacques Cousteau and Dalí. In the image of his populist aperitif, Ricard also conceived the island as a holiday spot for blue-collar Provençaux who felt out of place in the worldly towns of the Côte d’Azur and who, in any case, couldn’t afford them. Even fig farmers deserve a vacation.

“If I’m passionate about [Bendor],” he wrote in his memoirs, “it’s because it was an island. I believed that in building a world in miniature, I could do anything, that the only thing I need take into account was the quantity of land, sea, and sky.”

A seven-minute boat ride delivers guests to Bendor from Bandol, an overstimulated beach town that makes Puerto Vallarta look like Newport, Rhode Island. Le Delos’s only company on Bendor is the hotel’s much less atmospheric annex, Le Palais; eight adorable maisonettes with private gardens that Le Delos manages, but brands separately; a second, defunct hotel that is a terrible eyesore; four restaurants; a diving school; an exhibit of Ricard ephemera that is one big missed opportunity (for that matter, there are no bottles of pastis in the guest rooms, which seems insane); a handful of eccentric shops, one specializing in handblown glass pacifiers; and an extraordinary museum Ricard founded as a “permanent encyclopedia” of wine and spirits. The collection includes 700 related books, 5,000 labels, 8,000 bottles with their contents (obscure Belle Époque liqueurs, a triple-anisette produced by the Vatican pharmacy) and over 1,200 menus from the 1860’s to the 1960’s (coronation dinners at London’s Dorchester hotel, pre–World War I banquets at legendary Paris restaurants). The museum reopens this month with new exhibits on anis and the historic bars of Paris.

As a hotelier and an entrepreneur peddling alcohol, Ricard knew his constituency. He was one of them. They had the same cultural references: Pagnol, Fernandel, Tino Rossi. Le Delos is just the sort of hotel you’d dream up if your grandfather was a boulanger, your father was a wine merchant, you grew up in the Ste.-Marthe suburb of Marseilles, and then you became monstrously rich. “Good taste is my taste,” the saying goes. Ricard was as entitled to it as anyone.

What is it about the Middle Ages (or is it the Renaissance Le Delos fantasizes?) that so appeals to self-made men?It’s a look you don’t have to love to find amusing. Ricard’s great soft spot was for (newly minted) Spanish Baroque furniture, from barley-twist canopy beds to leather-topped tables trimmed with fringe and giant brass nailheads. His florid enthusiasms also ran to cherubs, satyrs, vivaciously colored wall tiles in Moorish motifs, and loopy wrought-iron chandeliers incorporating schooners. Door pulls were cast in the form of sea horses. Naturally. Everything was created on site. Ricard built on the island not just ateliers for his potters, glassblowers, and metalworkers, but also lodgings.

The old man stepped down as head of his company in 1969 and died in 1997, but Bendor never left family hands. For years, relatives would take a momentary interest in the hotel, warehousing Ricard’s beloved frippery, which they didn’t really get, and hiring some designer you never heard of to keep the place “up-to-date.” In this way Le Delos became a total hash. Finally, a real professional, Carolyn Quartermaine, was hired to dig through the layers of decorative intervention and make the hotel coherent. As a Londoner who lives part-time outside Nice, Quartermaine had both the distance and the sympathies to effect something interesting. It was a long slog, but she convinced Danièle Ricard that success lay in reviving, with more affection than irony, her father’s vision.

“Lying on the beach in Bandol twenty years ago, I had no idea there was even an island here,” says Quartermaine. “When I began working on Le Delos, everything had to be beige and brown. But in the end I got Paul Ricard’s crazy colors back, plus all the furniture that had been put in storage.”

Quartermaine did not redeploy the furniture as she found it. Of course. Thronelike armchairs are a lot less oppressive covered in vintage monogrammed bedsheets dyed pink. Curtains were sewn in the scribbly fabrics she designs: cottons printed with fragments of 17th-century calligraphy—"Marie D’Orléans, Duchesse De Nemours—chosen purely for their shape, not their meaning or associations. Didier Mahieu’s drawings, sketched directly on the walls of sleeping alcoves, are a dead ringer for those of Marcel Vertés, the Hungarian artist who spiked his fashion illustration with mordant social observation.

The maisonettes are 111 steps and a world away from Le Delos. They’re the work of Herbert Hufnagel, a German decorator in nearby Cassis. Poking around the island, he found some old iron gates with seagulls worked into the design, but except for repurposing the gates as headboards, Hufnagel seems to have done all his shopping at Urban Outfitters.

Both the maisonettes and Le Delos are something less—a lot less, actually—than full-service hotels. Spend too much time, i.e., more than one night, and you begin to notice that Bendor is being relaunched on a wing, a prayer, and not a lot of sous. But people on vacation in the south of France are known for being forgiving, especially those with a weakness for stained glass, allegorical mosaics involving birds and flowers, and epic bronzes of Diana the Huntress. The hotels have finally even welcomed back the iconic yellow ashtrays carrying the logo of a certain pastis. Bottles of Ricard in every room can’t be far off.

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