The perfect trip: Provence and the Côte d’Azur
Where to eat
La Bastide de Capelongue. This double-Michelinstarred restaurant outside Bonnieux offers a weekday lunch menu (£50) or multi-course tasting menus (from £100 per person). The restaurant also runs cookery courses (full-day courses from £100, including wine tasting).
Where to stay
La Bouquière. This old farm has been converted into a delightful four-room guesthouse in a quiet part of the countryside surrounded by vines and oak trees, 10 minutes’ drive from Bonnieux. There is also a small pool in the garden (from £65).
Var: Best for the coast
In the history of seaside pursuits in the French département of Var, two women stand out. To the west, Queen Victoria came to Hyères in the 1890s for its warm climate. And to the east, with a very different attitude to dress, Brigitte Bardot brought fame to the fishing port of Saint- Tropez in her 1956 film And God Created Woman. The beaches of the region have never looked back.
Sand and seaside fashion are only part of the story. The most beautiful spots along this coast are also the greenest ones. Eleven miles to the southwest of Saint-Tropez, the Domaine du Rayol is a garden overlooking the sea, which brings together the best of Mediterranean and Mediterranean-style landscapes, from Provence to Australia. Its denizens include Aleppo pines, prickly pear and strawberry trees. Keeping this garden in shape is just one of the tasks that falls to Stanislas Alaguillaume, although more often the job is about not doing things, and letting nature set the pace. ‘Gardeners should always be open to surprises,’ he says, sitting in the garden’s outside café. ‘If a passion flower seeds itself here, I’ll move the table.’ The mats of Posidonia – a kind of seagrass – on the garden’s pocket-sized beach are a sign of a healthy coastal ecosystem.
The most pristine shores of all are a half-hour ferry ride away, on the island of Port-Cros, the smallest of France’s national parks. Under a sun that stills everything around, boats dock in a small bay that shelters two dozen houses. ‘This is a wonderful natural harbour,’ says Jean- Claude Ferri, tying up his fishing boat Champion II at the neighbouring jetty. Born on Port-Cros and 25 years in the business, he is one of the few fishermen allowed to work the protected waters here, and the last one who still lives on the island. ‘I only fish a little bit,’ he admits. ‘It interests me to go out each day. I do three or four hours of fishing, and by the afternoon, that’s enough.’
With the sun at its height, the lazy option would be to follow the fisherman’s example and take a siesta. Yet the glory of the island lies outside the modest settlement, where the land is abandoned entirely to a wilder version of the Mediterranean greenery seen at the Domaine du Rayol. A handful of walking trails lead around Port-Cros to its three beaches and its highest point. For all the glamorous spots along this, the original sunshine coast, it’s a deeper joy to stand under the twisting pines at the clifftops, looking out at the lone wake of a passing boat as it fades back into the miraculously blue sea.
Where to eat
Maurin des Maures. A summery bistro overlooking the sea close to the gardens at the Domaine du Rayol, this was apparently a favourite of former French president Jacques Chirac (mains from £14).
Where to stay
Le Grand Hotel. The stately hilltop location and sea views are the main draw at this hotel built in 1903 in the attractive town of Bormesles-Mimosas. The rooms, while not in the turn-of-the-century style of the exterior, are good value for this part of the Riviera (from £50).