Nothing beats the fresh, simple cuisine of Provence, its colourful local markets and idyllic isles of Lavant, Port-Cros and Porquerolles – not to mention superb restaurants… and one very special hotel
For the past five years, I have gone to the same hotel in the South of France because I find it absolutely perfect. It is called Le Club de Cavalière & Spa (doubles from €275; closed October to May), a boutique hotel with about 40 rooms close to the village of Le Lavandou in Provence. Cavalière is a pied en l’eau hotel right on the beach, an enchanting little stretch. I think it is the only hotel on the whole Riviera with this advantage. That is one of the strange things about France – it is hard to find that ideal hotel so close to the water.
There is a lovely little story behind it, actually. In 1979, when I was a very young chef, I had just won my first star Michelin and I decided to give myself a break. I hadn’t been on holiday for three years, so I decided to go with my family to the South of France – and I drove past Le Club de Cavalière. At that time, there were African-style straw parasols on the beach. I stopped and stared. It just looked so incredibly idyllic, and it became my dream hotel – but, I was 29, and I simply couldn’t afford it. I did not have that kind of money. For 20 years I kept returning; I looked up and down for that hotel but I just couldn’t find it. Then, six years ago, I spotted it in the Relais & Châteaux brochure.
In those two decades, I stayed at all kinds of places. I went to Cap Ferrat, I went to Antibes, to some of the best hotels, until I found that perfect spot again – and I found them incredibly stressful. It was all about socialising, all about who is wearing the most expensive jewellery. Cavalière is elegant but casual. If you want to have breakfast or lunch in your shorts, then that is fine; if you want to have dinner in smart shorts, that is absolutely fine as well.
Six years ago, I stayed at a hotel in St Tropez and it was a nightmare: you had to dress up for lunch, dress up for dinner, it was like a dressing up competition. Cavalière has retained its quiet elegance, but it is casual. I can go straight from my room down to the Terrace Restaurant, which is by the beach, then walk to the beach. I take four or five great books, I swim a bit, but mostly I just read, relax and catch up on conversation with my partner.
The rooms are also very elegant, there is a very good mini spa and the staff are really welcoming. I guess the hotel is quite expensive, but Le Lavandou is a less expensive part of the Riviera. It is less glamorous, less posh. This is the Riviera of President Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, whose official summer residence is the Fort de Brégançon, 14km from Cavalière. Their private residence is in Cap Négre, 27km from St Tropez and 28km from the airport at Hyères – but it’s best to fly to Toulon, 30 minutes away. Two hours’ drive and you are in the mountains with the gorges and the rapids. I’ve done some fantastic kayaking at the Gorges du Verdon, and you can do paragliding as well.
What I also love at Cavalière is the food. It does the best tarte aux figues [fig tart] and an amazing buffet at lunch and breakfast – with fresh produce, all local produce. Every peach is the best peach, every apricot is delicious. The chef, Marc Dach, does a simple apricot tart that has some home cooking values but haute-cuisine flair as well. It is simple food nicely done, with a strong Provençal accent, true to its own value, true to its region.
My favourite restaurant is a Relais & Châteaux, two-star Michelin place called L’Oasis, in La Napoule. It is right on the port, with a beautiful terrace and some of the best food you can eat in the South of France. You must also, while you are in Provence, take time to visit some of its colourful local markets, the last link between the small producer, harvesting from the sea and the earth, and the customer. What a joy, those colours, those smells…
You can drive to typical Provençal villages such as Bormes-les-Mimosas, with its floral displays, Grimaud and Gassin – and all have a fabulous restaurant or two, serving perfectly presented but simple grilled fish, a lovely bouillabaise [fish stew] or a salade niçoise that is really true to itself.
The hotel has a lot of partygoers, and we all sail (I like Hoby cats and Sunfish, not those 35-footer yachts) so we all go to different islands – to the Ile du Lavant, to Port-Cros and to Porquerolles. They have some amazing restaurants as well, and Cavalière is very well placed for those. I have stayed in some lovely hotels in France – but I have not loved any quite like this.
Prices quoted are per person, for three courses without wine.
L’Oasis (+33 4 93 49 95 52, www.oasis-raimbault.com), 6 rue Jean-Honoré-Carle, La Napoule. Asian flavours (lime, cinnamon, tamarind) and traditional ingredients (oysters, sea urchins, sea bass, scorpion fish). From €70.
Les Santons (+33 4 944 32102), Route Departementale 558, Grimaud. Authentic but sophisticated Provençal cuisine. Refuge for the well-heeled escaping St Tropez. Try roast saddle of lamb with wild thyme. From €51.
La Rastègue (+33 4 94 15 19 41, www.larastegue.com), 48 Boulevard du Levant, Bormes-les-Mimosas. Risotto of purple artichokes; fillet of sea bass cooked in its skin with pistou sauce (garlic, fresh basil and olive oil). €45.
Auberge la Verdoyante (+33 4 94 56 16 23), 866 Chemin Vicinal de la Coste-Brigade, Gassin. Set among the vineyards of Château Minuty with views of the Bay of St Tropez. Famous for its fish soup. From €27 .
Le Manoir (+33 4 94 05 90 52), Ile de Port-Cros. Fish soup; warm salad of squid; john dory with caramelised artichokes; roast scallops in a saffron ratatouille jus served on a citrus salad. €54.
Le Mas du Langoustier (+33 4 94 58 34 83, www.langoustier.com), Ile de Porquerolles. Warm salad of octopus in a thyme pastry crust; roast sea bream with frîtes de bourride (a zesty Mediterranean seafood soup). From €58.
Les Tamaris “Chez Raymond” (+33 4 94 71 07 22), Plage de Saint Clair, Le Lavandou. Named after chef proprietor Raymond Viale (not Blanc). Bouillabaise, bourride, sardine fritters, spaghetti with spider crab. From €45.