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Toujours Provence

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.


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