Harvest time in Provence, France means a cornucopia of epicurean delights; so there’s strong reason to visit now to see its famed vineyards become a hive of colorful activity, avoid heavy summer tourist traffic and long lines at museums and restaurants. If you are heading there this fall, here are a few recommendations that will make for an extremely enjoyable trip:
Wander through Aix-En-Provence, a small, classically Provençal town with a pretty pedestrian center of elegant fountains, bell towers and narrow streets lined with interesting architecture ranging from 17th century hotels to paved plazas. Aside from fashion boutiques, two stores are of particular note, both offering local products. Jacquèmes has been a family institution for 101 years, offering a diversity of delicacies from caviar to foie gras to the most particular of Provençal liquors: pastis. Its whisky collection is also impressive, with dusty bottles dating back to the 1930s. A few streets away is the brightly-decorated La Coure Gourmande offering tantalizing calissons, the regional candied fruit with ground almonds topped with icing and multi-flavored navette biscuits (try orange blossom and anise).
Regarding accommodations, the four-star Grand Hôtel Roi René is a central choice, standing just outside the pedestrian zone. It boasts an outdoor swimming pool and terrace restaurant with lavender bushes tableside where you can dine on dishes such as mousse of razor shell clams, chanterelle mushrooms and maritime pine needle pesto or spelt risotto with ratatouille and roasted guinea fowl.
For a break away from the hubbub of town activity, have lunch at La Table du Le Pigonnet. A garden setting of chestnut and cypress trees, umbrella pines, flower-filled borders, ornate fountains and statues, the tranquil retreat rests at the rear of an elegant 18th century country-house hotel.
Marvel at the historical richness of Avignon, 50 miles from Aix, especially its towering Pope’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. A dramatic 3D animation is shown most evenings in the open courtyard.
With Provençal cosmetics and wine so renown, visits to two unique museums in the area are rewarding. Established in 1991 in the Luberon Regional Natural Park, the Lavender Museum provides insights into the cultivation, properties and usage of the 1,000-year-old aromatic plant. Re-opened this year with new interactive exhibits, the Brotte Wine Museum in nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape offers a comprehensive overview of winemaking along the entire Rhone Valley. For a vintage wine-tasting experience, try the 225-acre Château La Nerthe, one of the oldest vineyards in France with its subterranean cave dating from 1560.
End the day with dinner at La Fourchette restaurant where chefs Philippe and Daniele Hiely serve both fish and meats cooked tastefully in Provençal style. Then spend the night among 57 acres of vineyard in one of 15 rustic luxury rooms at Bastide de Marie (where you can also sample the owners’ wines).
Bathe in the visual delights of Provence with a leisurely drive through the quaint villages of Menerbes, where Picasso’s mistress Dora Mar had her home and Forcalquier, where Distilleries et Domaines de Provence sits, maker of many fine liquors including Henri Bardouin pastis and vermouth Absentroux. Head to Roussillon, with its vivid ochre-colored cliffs and Lacoste, where fashion guru Pierre Cardin has renovated the Marquis de Sade’s former chateau, placing giant esoteric sculptures out front for all to admire.
Set high in the hills amidst olive and pine trees, the 99-acre, 18th century former home of artist Bernard Buffet, now Domaine de la Baume, offers a luxurious rural retreat. With stunning views from its terrace down along the valleys, a pebble walkway to a roaring waterfall, an open-air swimming pool, a spa, an all-weather tennis court and even a private space for pétanque, there is no shortage of leisure options. Not to mention Domaine de Taurenne, an olive museum a mile away, and the hotel’s excellent restaurant serving gastronomic meals using the property’s homemade olive oil.
Enjoy a panoramic drive towards Saint-Tropez, with the road winding its way through the famed vineyards of Côtes de Provence. Stopping off for periodic tastings is inevitable, especially enjoyable at some of the boutique, family-owned ones. If sipping outdoors at a simple wooden table under a mulberry bush sounds appealing, then head Vidauban at Domaine des Rouges.
Both Mas de Chastelas and Villa Marie offer comfortable Italian villa-style accommodations in the hills, away from busy town traffic yet close enough for an easy visit to Saint-Tropez. Both offer free shuttle services. The former, a member of Relais & Châteaux, has 14 rooms and nine suites in three buildings overlooking the Bertaud Belieu vineyards. The latter, nestled amid lush umbrella palm trees and assorted greenery, has 45 rooms and suites 10 minutes from beaches and downtown.
With Brigitte Bardot as its longtime icon, Saint-Tropez remains a chic destination along the Côte d'Azur with every conceivable brand-name fashion, jewelry and perfume retailer having a presence there (Dior, Louis Vuiton, Dolce Gabbana, Armani, Bulgari, Hermes and Valentino to name but a few). It also hosts the annual Les Voiles sailing regatta with around 300 boats participating in various categories. A recent addition to the tourism circuit is the Maritime Museum housed within a 16th-century citadel located high on the Montée de la Citadelle with wonderful views over the rugged coastline below.
Drop the top and enjoy a breezy drive along the scenic coastal road from Saint-Tropez to Cannes, with blazing red cliffs on one side and golden beaches and the azure blue Mediterranean on the other. Like its neighbor to the west, Cannes too is a mecca of high-end brand name stores and fine-dining restaurants, but also hosts a lively morning market, a short five-minute walk from where the famed annual film festival takes place.
Dating from 1929, the art deco Grand Hyatt Hotel Martinez, offers the chance to savor the flavor of this city. Fronting the sea, with a private swimming pool and a private beach either side of the main Croisette Boulevard, the 409-room property has hosted a long line of celebrities over the decades, including Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, Bruce Willis and Nicole Kidman.
Mix culture with gourmet food in Mougins, a hilltop village and 15-minute drive north of Cannes. So proud is it of its chefs, a stone plaque has been dedicated to them in the town square. Here also are two eclectic museums, one on photography, the other classical art. The highlight of the former are many everyday photos taken of Picasso, who lived nearby, as well as displays of old photographic equipment. The second, Mougins Museum of Classical Art, not only houses a diverse collection of antiquities including Roman, Greek and Egyptian sculptures, vases, coins, jewelry and the world’s largest private collection of ancient armor, but the artifacts are creatively interspersed with classic works by artists such as Chagal, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Matisse, Dalí, Hirst, Warhol and many others. Local chefs have even created replicas of some of the works in chocolate. With a wide selection of restaurants, choice is a challenge but if you want to enjoy the main square, Le Mediterranee Brassserie serves a tasty fish soup.
Grasse is only eight miles from Cannes and the tantalizing allure of perfume from houses such as Galimard is hard to resist, even more so as it offers visitors the opportunity to make their own creation, with expert guidance. Interestingly, the town has re-opened its own comprehensive three-floor International Perfume Museum last year with exhibits retracing the history of cosmetics over 4,000 years. For a sensorial experience of a different kind, enjoy dinner at the Les Trois Garcons restaurant, where, among other tasty dishes, three Parisian brothers have developed their own unique versions of steak tartare and foie gras.
After being named European Capital of Culture for last year, Marseille transformed itself and now offers a wide diversity of attractions, including new museums, rejuvenated districts such as Le Panier and renovated bars, cafes and restaurants. Two hotels, located opposite each other, are among the many accommodation choices. The first is the 134-room, five-star Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port, with a premier position overlooking the city’s busy harbor, seafront and medieval forts. From deep blue carpets to floor-to-ceiling windows, some resembling portholes, it is designed to imitate a lavish cruiser cabin. Restaurant and bar terraces and an outdoor pool offer panoramic views over the hundreds of yachts moored below. New Hotel is a four-star property combining contemporary furnishings, including vibrant wall paintings, in a 19th century building with an outdoor pool and frequent art exhibitions off the lobby.
With so many tourism activities in Marseilles, the City Passes are helpful, offering free public transport as well as entry into attractions such as the impressive Museum of Marseille History and MuCEM, which celebrates European and Mediterranean civilizations. It also includes a ferry trip to Chateau d'If, the location of Alexander Dumas’s adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo. With clear views down over the old port and its modern take on the classic Provencal dish Bouillabaisse, a good lunch spot is the Les Fenetres Brasserie.
With weather still warm, the herbal scent of Provençal maquis everywhere, colorful vistas of vineyards and quaint hilltop villages and fewer tourists than in the high season, there’s reasons aplenty to visit one of France’s most picturesque regions.