After driving more than two hours it did not seem likely that Garrigues—a village that looked as if it had been evacuated—was going to produce the raffiné inn that a friend of a friend had promised, using words like oasis, haven, and you've never seen anything like it.
Le Mas Parasol finally revealed itself on the other side of a scarred plank door, which was set in a towering stone arch and painted, a long time ago, an unbeatable olive green. Everywhere my glance settled—on box shrubs clipped into topiary globes, on patinated vintage park chairs—assured me Le Mas Parasol had not been oversold. It was built in 1793 as a farmhouse in a style typical of agricultural dwellings in and around the not-too-distant Cévennes mountains. A two-story structure in luminous beige limestone, the inn has an exterior staircase leading to a loggia that wraps around three sides. Looking at the surrounding plain from here is like watching a fire: you can't take your eyes off it.
Six guest rooms, some with exposed stone walls and arched ceilings, face a central courtyard. Decorative elements run to stenciled friezes, tailored upholstered headboards, the odd antique Provençal rush-bottomed armchair, richly worn surfaces, salvaged doors, and quantities of Designers Guild's signature color-zapped textiles from London. Parked outside in the garden is Parasol's newest accommodation: a self-sufficient, smartly rehabilitated gypsy caravan with its own salon.
Several nights a week owner Geoffroy Vieljeux dons an apron to tempt his charges with lamb shoulder confit, potatoes prepared in the manner of a tarte Tatin, and turnovers filled with salt cod. Vieljeux's deep knowledge of the Languedoc's finest restaurants ensures that, the rest of the time, no one goes hungry.
Rue Damon, Garrigues; 33-4/66-81-90-47, fax 33-4/66-81-93-30; doubles from $70.
There were as many Tintin coloring books littering the communal breakfast table as copies of Côte Sud. Two-fisted coffee bowls were filled and emptied, filled and emptied. Children gave their complete attention to dissolving Poulain powdered chocolate in milk—the national breakfast of the pre-caffeinated. The assembled four young families gave off a confident, all's-right-with-the-world air of preppiness. And they all seemed to know one another.
They did—but they'd met only 72 hours before. Each had come to Domaine des Clos, a sprawling 18th-century farmhouse on a wild windswept plain 82 miles southwest of Avignon, to say good-bye to summer. Having checked in as strangers, they checked out as friends, numbers exchanged, rendezvous promised.
It was just this affectionate atmosphere that Sandrine and David Ausset dared to hope might result from their warmhearted renovation of the Domaine. Five sunny, color-washed guest rooms and four apartments are winsomely and intelligently appointed with brass and iron beds, muslin hangings, vintage marble-topped dressing tables, and terrazzo floors. The crunchy, snowy coverlets are sewn by the maîtresse de maison herself, and light fixtures are cleverly designed using old agricultural implements, including sconces fashioned from rusty hoe blades. Sparkling white bathrooms are edged in Tunisian tiles painted with a charming pinwheel motif.
Though the guest rooms share one well-equipped kitchen, don't worry about pileups—the laid-back people drawn to the Domaine are no more interested in traffic jams than you are. While breakfast is prepared by Sandrine, who makes her own luscious fruit-packed confitures, the kitchen is heaven for travelers who tire of eating in restaurants day after day—even when the restaurants are great. Who hasn't dreamed of making pistou with basil they buy themselves at a southern French market?
One morning I skipped across the Rhône to Tarascon and the Musée Souleiado Charles Demery, the Provençal folk museum run by the Souleiado fabric family. Lunch in Arles at the Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus was an excuse to revisit the hotel's rakish vest-pocket bar, where a mounted bull's head hangs above a vitrine displaying a sequined matador's jacket.
In the afternoon I stopped for a beer in trendier-than-thou St.-Rémy-de-Provence and spied a Monaco princess. But thoughts of the following morning at the Domaine occupied me more than my brush with royalty.
Would I make a friend at breakfast?
Rte. de Bellegarde, Beaucaire; 33-4/66-01-14-61, fax 33-4/66-01-00-47; doubles from $46.