Toujours Provence

Toujours Provence

Marie Hennechart
Marie Hennechart
Scattered discreetly throughout the south of France, in meadows and town squares, is a clutch of intimate maisons d'hôte—delightful alternatives to the big-hotel experience. Christopher Petkanas checks in.

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?

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.

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.

As his guest, don't overdo it. Drape yourself by the pool, handsomely conceived as a plain ornamental bassin. Or pick vegetables in the potager and transform them into salads in the dedicated guest kitchen. Or quiz the cook on how she prepared the soulful lamb confit of the night before. You could spend a week at Le Mas des Songes, never once leave it, and never regret the outside world.

L'Hôtel Particulier, Arles
The opening of L'Hôtel Particulier in 2002 came not a moment too soon. Arles was in mourning. Wracked with disease, the plane trees in the Place du Forum had been cut back to nothing in the hope of saving them. With the swipe of a chain saw, the most famous square in provincial France—whose architectural fragments include the pillars and pediment of a Roman temple—had become almost unrecognizable.

L'Hôtel Particulier gave the city something to celebrate. It has the inviolable air of a place that will be around for a long time to come. Like Arles's first-century amphitheater, its allée of marble sarcophagi, and the plane trees, it is a part of the city's identity, a thread in its fabric. The miracle is that L'Hôtel Particulier acquired landmark status so quickly. Before you could say "native-son Christian Lacroix," Arles's Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus—a great, irresistibly rakish institution in its own right—was put on notice.

An eight-room maison d'hôte that would call itself a hotel if it weren't so modest, L'Hôtel Particulier may be in the heart of the old city, but once you're inside its gates the pace slows to a sexy shuffle. Shaded by ancient yews and privets, the vast courtyard is furnished with teak lounges marshaled opposite a limestone bassin you would never mistake for a swimming pool (but which does in fact double as a lap pool) and with public-park chairs pulled up to folding metal tables (set out for morning coffee or evening aperitifs). Conical bay trees fill tole planters, crusty iron urns are lifted on pedestals, and a niche in the garden wall holds a sweetly battered polychrome statue—clearly a runaway who had second thoughts about the Catholic Church. The resident Labrador shops for affection among guests stretched out in the courtyard, and nightfall is marked by the comforting, rhythmic hooting of an owl.

L'Hôtel Particulier occupies an 18th-century pavilion and the last great private town house commissioned in Arles. The more substantial wing was constructed in 1826 by Guillaume Meiffren-Laugier, Baron de Chartrouse, and is typical of residences favored by the French nobility under Napoleon, with its carved stone overdoor ornaments of griffons gorging on horns of plenty. Every Arlesien gratefully remembers the baron, an erudite mayor of the city, for razing the houses built inside the amphitheater, which then returned to its original function as an arena. Jules Meiffren-Laugier, who inherited his father's house and was also mayor, is only slightly less loved. He ordered up the quays on the Rhône, among the most beautiful promenades in Provence, and the Pont de Trinquetaille, the bridge that gave van Gogh one of his most important motifs.

It was Brigitte Pagès de Oliveira who guessed at a new life for the Meiffren-Laugiers' patrician old crib. A former audiologist who arrives for work in a white polo shirt, black-sequined flip-flops, and a pink slip of a skirt, de Oliveira longed for a careerin which she could flex her twin talents for fashioning light, guileless interiors with a touch of the baroque and for dispensing what the French call petits soins. Perhaps the best way to say this in English is that she really knows how to spoil people—with out-of-the-ordinary breakfast confitures like cherry-peach, mandarin tea-scented candles from Mariages Frères, and rolled-lip bathtubs measuring nearly three feet deep. And how about those melt-in-your-mouth madeleines at teatime?

Madame de Oliveira practices the sort of breezy, straight-from-the-hip decorating that can't be learned and that depends on a certain quantity of pretty, slightly ironic dirty-gilded furniture for its success. I had never thought of white, gray, and gold as three colors that had any particular affinity before, but after a night in the Chambre Grise the combination seemed not just right but inevitable. Draped from the crown above my bed were poplin hangings edged with the most delicate pom-pom fringe. The room itself was wrapped in one of those marvelous scenic papers by Zuber—a fictional landscape of pines, a pond, and a classical temple of the kind known in antique Arles.

Château d'Esparron, Esparron-de-Verdun
Maison d'hôte owners like Bernard and Charlotte Anne de Castellane are the last of their kind. To them, "French country" is the meadow in front of their château, not a style of gobbledygook decorating. They have no interest in contemporary design ("Qui c'est, ce Philippe Starck?"), preferring instead the look of old, inherited furniture, of foggy pier glasses, dog-eared engravings of Madame de Sévigné, and walnut armchairs with mellow flame-patterned needlework.

Bernard is to the castle born, and for as long as you are in one of his five guest rooms, you are too. Pulling up to Château d'Esparron, one hour northeast of Aix, I was welcomed by a splashing fountain, the smell of freshly turned earth, and the domain's proprietor washing his dashing marigold-colored Lotus. He reached for my bag, immediately scoring points—I have been to too many upscale maisons d'hôte in France whose owners think their jobs are beneath them. I'd assumed we would speak French, but there was little point: Monsieur's English is better than the Duke of Edinburgh's.

Charlotte Anne—pale, thin, and from a very good family in Scotland—led the way up the 82-inch-wide stone spiral staircase to room No. 3, the château's best. The bed was a pretty half tester, the writing table placed before open casement windows with handblown panes. Prints of Revolutionary officers playing boules hung above gray wainscoting. An anteroom made me think I would be comfortable not just spending the night at Esparron, but living there.

The French tend to hold on to things, but even by national standards, Esparron has been in Bernard's family for a long time. The property has belonged to the de Castellanes almost contin-uously since the 13th century, when a crenellated tower pierced with arrow slits was built. The stone façades of later wings are chiseled with grapevines (signifying posterity) and oak leaves (power). And after a recent round of work, the 18th-century addition now has shutters again—copies of an original design regulate air and light with a panel that slides in front of a diamond-shaped cutout.

If the shutters turn adults into kids (they're a lot of fun to play with), they're also calculated to enchant Esparron's worldly clientele. At breakfast I sat with Bernard and a young pediatrician who had just passed his boards and was about to open his own practice in Santa Barbara. Across the table was a former high-court judge from Hong Kong, who explained that while he'd always booked reflexively at Alain Ducasse's inn in nearby Moustiers when visiting the region, now that he'd discovered Esparron, he couldn't imagine staying anywhere else.

"What makes this place special is the owners," said the ex-judge.

"What makes this place special is the guests," said the châtelain.

Noblesse oblige.

Château de Sable, Cavalaire-sur-Mer
It's fashionable for partisans of inland Provence to run down the Côte d'Azur. Not for me the Riviera, with its thick crowds, high prices, and dress code that endorses bikinis with go-go boots—and why not a full-length Roberto Cavalli lynx coat while you're at it?

The trouble with adopting such a position, naturally, is that something can come along to force you to take it all back. This is the bittersweet situation I have found myself in since my stay at Château de Sable, nine miles south of St.-Tropez. After years of dissing the Côte d'Azur, I am now a huge fan. How huge?Before checking out of the guesthouse, I made a reservation for next year.

You liked it that much? friends ask. No, I liked it more. The six guest rooms have everything going for them: deep comfort, melting charm, and an original, easygoing style that can't be ordered from a catalog. Oh, and by the way, they're also a hundred yards from the Mediterranean and cost, on average, $223 a night. That's not a joke. There are marquee hotels on the coast for five times that amount where you wouldn't send your worst enemy.

Located in a tidy residential quarter just outside Cavalaire-sur-Mer, an unglamorous but pleasant beach town of zero interest to the hip and happening, Château de Sable is not a château at all. Until France Ladouceur rescued the white elephant, it was indistinguishable from any of a zillion houses that were crudely thrown up on the Riviera in the sixties with little money and even less imagination. The property's live-in owner, a cuddly and soft-spoken woman with five loving grandchildren and more goodwill than the Peace Corps, tamed the beast by burying it in a complete, civilizing redesign.

Today, four pairs of French doors open onto an informal garden that's planted with lavender and oleander, rigged with an adorable shower that delivers water through a bamboo stalk, and furnished with driftwood armchairs, their seats eased with cushions of patchwork ticking. Hand-hewn rafters were painstakingly limed à l'ancienne, and the façade was subdued with a new skin of sand-colored stucco. Best of all, a chunky, refreshingly un-Provençal canopy of chestnut beams was built onto the house, creating terraces with astounding sea views for the three upstairs rooms. Their names are Herminie, Stéphanie, and Constance, and they're the ones you want.

Madame Ladouceur is always around and always available. "Come sit on the couch with me and watch the evening news," she'll say, switching on TF1 and tucking her legs beneath her, or "Keep me company in the kitchen while I put on some coffee." With its mismatched vintage blue-and-white Sèvres tiles, iron cabinets edged in brass, and La Cornue range, the kitchen is a popular place. Or how about accompanying her into town to do the marketing for your picnic, picking up a chicken with a diploma around its neck here, a few fist-sized Cavaillon melons there?Back at the château, neighbors drop by to thank her for that rose cutting, or for the name of a good plumber.

Yes, Madame Ladouceur is connected. Plage politics on the Riviera can be brutal, but everything is arranged with a quick call to the beach club, two minutes away on bare feet. There, guests of Château de Sable are received like Grimaldi princesses, with front-row lounges and attendants who fight over the privilege of hoisting your umbrella. The club's gay candy-floss colors are pink and white, very Côte d'Azur in a 1958 Brigitte Bardot sort of way. Who says nostalgia isn't what it used to be?

CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.

Le Jas de l'Ange Rte. d'Eygalières, Orgon-en-Provence; 33-4/90-73-39-50;; doubles from $248.Chez Bru Chef Wout Bru lets four chambres d'amis, done in a soft, contemporary idiom, above his one-star restaurant. Rue de la République, Eygalières; 33-4/90-90-60-34;; doubles from $143.La Maison-Domaine de Bournissac Dine on a warm anchovy tart by candlelight under a linden tree, then climb to the ethereal La Blanche—of 13 guest rooms, the one to snag at a place that puts the Alpilles within easy reach. Montée d'Eyragues, Paluds de Noves; 33-4/90-90-25-25;; doubles from $161.

Le Mas des Songes 1631 Chemin du Perussier, Monteux; 33-4/90-65-49-20;; doubles from $149.La Grande Bégude For space (the five guest rooms are huge) and location (the Lubéron Valley), it doesn't get any better than this 1622 post house. Chemin Romieu, Goult; 33-4/90-72-29-43;; doubles from $205.Chambre de Séjour avec Vue Three luminous guest rooms have works of art left behind by painters and sculptors who have stayed in them. Rue de la Bourgade, Saignon; 33-4/90-04-85-01;; doubles from $93.La Treille Muscate Beat the crowds at this 12-room establishment, situated in northernmost Provence and with the atmosphere of a maison de famille. Cliousclat; 33-4/75-63-13-10;; doubles from $68.

L'Hôtel Particulier Rue de la Monnaie, Arles; 33-4/90-52-51-40;; doubles from $190.Le Mas des Comtes de Provence In the 15th century, before the region was ceded to France, King René of Provence would repair to this relais de chasse between St.-Rémy and the Camargue after a day of shooting. Today, breakfast is served in the enchanting interior courtyard, and 8 ingenuous guest rooms vie with the surrounding orchards as the best place for an afternoon sieste. Petite Rte. d'Arles, Tarascon; 33-4/90-91-00-13;; doubles from $174.Mas de Cornud The six guest rooms aren't the point in this handsome 18th-century stone farmhouse: the main draw is the cooking school, one of the most serious in the region. Cooking on and in wood-fired ovens, grills, and rotisseries is explored in the six-day Cuisine au Feu course. Petite Rte. des Baux, St.-Rémy-de-Provence; 33-4/90-92-39-32;; doubles from $161.

Château d'Esparron Esparron-de-Verdun; 33-4/92-77-12-05;; doubles from $161.Château d'Allemagne-en-Provence A short drive from Esparron, this imposing château offers three antiques-filled guest rooms steeped in history. Allemagne-en-Provence; 33-4/92-77-46-78;; doubles from $99.La Quinta des Bambous Le style provençal is very nice as far as it goes, but for something really thrilling, book into this three-room maison d'hôte with a modern Asian aesthetic just outside Aix. Chemin des Ribas, St.-Marc Jaumegarde; 33-4/42-24-91-62;; doubles from $130.La Haute Terre East of Aix, a farmhouse restored with knowledge and taste. St.-Antonin-sur-Bayon; 33-4/42-66-87-94;; doubles from $161.

Château de Sable Ave. des Anthemis, Cavalaire-sur-Mer; 33-4/94-00-45-90;; doubles from $223.Les Moulins de Ramatuelle If you like St.-Tropez, but in measured doses, consider this food-driven, stylishly groomed five-room property, set in a vineyard two miles from town. Rte. des Plages, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-97-17-22;; doubles from $242.Hôtel Le Manoir One of the three Porquerolles islands off the coast south of Château de Sable, Île de Port-Cros—where everything seems to happen in slow motion—has just this one wistful, colonial-flavored, Maughamesque place to spend the night. Île de Port-Cros; 33-4/94-05-90-52, fax 33-4/94-05-90-89; doubles from $335.La Grande Maison The long-running success of this sprawling, foursquare bastide in the countryside a half-hour from St.-Tropez rests on its table d'hôtes and five inviting guest rooms, done in a hybrid Provençal-Indonesian style. Domaine des Campaux, Rte. du Dom, Bormes-Les-Mimosas; 33-4/94-49-55-40, fax 33-4/94-49-55-23; doubles from $105.

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