Everyone knows that if you want to lay your head some-where stylish and luxurious in Provence, you check into a full-service hotel, right?
Well, not anymore. A new wave of guesthouses, or maisons d'hôte, is biting the heels of traditional hotels in the Midi, offering great design, terrific value, and often—dare we say it?—a higher level of comfort.
Behind these little-known properties are generous people with their own loving ideas about hospitality (fresh rose petals scattered on your breakfast table, anyone?). And unlike past generations of guesthouse owners, who were sometimes too bumptious for their own good, the current breed has learned the art of discretion, appearing at just the right moment to clear your teacup.
Maisons d'hôte in the south of France today are folded into farmhouses, châteaux, town houses—even, believe it or not, spectacular new seven-figure builds. Inside, the atmosphere swings from vibrantly modern to ancien régime.
Where else would anyone want to stay?
ON THE ROUTE D'OLIVE
Le Jas de l'Ange, Orgon-en-Provence
People who think that the Provence real estate explosion is over need a reality check. With an open checkbook, Eric Hannoun and his wife, Laurence, sought an old farmhouse for three years before they were shown a vast tract of magnificently untamed land smothered with broom, pines, and a tangled carpet of wild herbs.
The Hannouns had never considered building. But reliquishing their dream of rescuing an existing structure, they finally acceded. If the couple couldn't have an authentically old house, they would construct one with old materials and fool the world, including the lucky travelers they would lodge in four cottages and guest rooms.
Using architectural salvage to create a feeling of age is nothing new, of course, but Jas de l'Ange takes the idea where it has never gone before, in terms of quantity and the dazzling way the components have been jigsawed together. You don't have to be a math major to figure out that the Hannouns are hardly in the maison d'hôte business for the money. They run Ange for their amusement. Before settling in Provence, Eric sold his company, Franprix, a chain of French supermarkets. Anybody else might have spent the rest of his days counting his euros in the sun; he created a luxury maison d'hôte.
Commanding the courtyard, and reflecting Eric's nostalgia for his native North Africa, is a Mauritanian tent pitched over a patchwork of kilims. They're just two of a catalogue of ethnic elements that keep Ange from slipping into Pierre Deux clichéland. The shelter serves as a public salon for sipping Moroccan mint tea and perfecting the art of doing nothing. The free-form swimming pool was conceived as a tide pool, with a pier and a sand-and-resin finish that reminds me of my favorite beach on Anguilla. Sound over the top?It is. Laurence operates a spa in a rustic hut set amid 1,600 olive trees.
The trees' silvery branches are stuffed into child-sized oil jars in the guest rooms, which strike an interesting balance between the sentimental (organdy bed hangings draped from tole crowns) and utilitarian (beefy laundry sinks set in workbench-style vanities). With a potager for a front garden, the dreamiest room is the freestanding École des Étoiles. If your relationship needs jump-starting and it doesn't happen here, it won't happen anywhere. The cottage D'Amour et d'Eau Fraîche may be a little tight and twee, but it does have a lovely terrace and is nicely secluded. Songes d'Une Nuit d'Été is attached to the main house but still offers plenty of privacy.
A crumbling outbuilding on the property lent the stone for the façades, with local dealers supplying the patinated roof tiles, staircases, fireplaces, doors, hardware—you name it. Another chapter in Ange's history was written with artfully ragged garden walls, and window frames installed with a charming suggestion of crookedness. When the maison d'hôte opened for business in the Alpilles Mountains, everyone took for granted that it had been there for centuries. The trompe l'oeil effect was complete, and the Hannouns looked like cats who'd just swallowed the canary.
LA PROVENCE SECRÈTE
Le Mas des Songes, Monteux
The French lifestyle magazines are full of breathlessly romantic stories about converted sudistes, which rhymes with nudistes and translates as "southerners." The profile fits Isabelle and Vincent Stas de Richelle as snugly as the luxurious knitted accessories they produce for Chanel while also running the five-room Mas des Songes. Minutes from Carpentras, the mid-19th-century "Farmhouse of Dreams" is divinely lost at the end of a long allée of truffle oaks and parasol pines on a low rise with uncorrupted, jaw-dropping views of the Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains. And God created Provence.
Songes has a bohemian house-party ambience that makes it impossible to tell who is a paying guest and who has simply popped by for a drink. My confusion was total when I was waved over to join a vocal crowd at a long table under an ancient fig tree and handed a glass of Muscat. With only names offered, I pretended to know how everyone fit in and gave one of my better performances. The starched Germans in their fifties turned out to be first-time guests. The couple of sparklingly groomed men, friends of the owners. The woman who wore her hair pinned up with paintbrushes: Elisabeth, the Stas de Richelles' laugh-a-minute nanny.
The maison d'hôte also plays the contemporary-design card. Glazed exterior doors, broken into grids by iron mullions, are 10 times bigger than is considered vernacularly correct. Round windows don't read as oeil-de-boeuf openings but as portholes. Decorated by Vincent, the interiors disdain color and champion minimalism, with bare wood floors, boxy seating, Artemide lighting, and Man Ray photographs. Old furniture is used so discreetly, you are hardly aware of it. Softening the beds are the slinky cashmere throws Isabelle makes under her own label. The response to Songes' unforgiving aesthetic has been so positive, Vincent wants a third career as an interior designer.