After a 20-minute drive from Nice Airport through the foothills of Baou des Blancs in the Côte d’Azur, we were standing in the manicured gardens of Le Château Saint-Martin – a luxury five star hotel in France’s Southern region of Vence.
I don’t know what made me smile more, the Abercrombie-esque model looks of our airport chauffeur, or the beautiful Cypress and centuries-old olive trees that surrounded us. Or maybe it was the fact I was staying in an ancient French ‘château’. Either way, I felt like I’d landed in a fairytale storybook.
In fact, with Roman ruins and an ancient drawbridge that sit amid masses of sprawling plants, Le Château Saint-Martin still manages to echo its historic past, even after several restorations.
A former stronghold of the Knights Templar, the hotel is also home to 18th Century artwork, charming restored furniture and chandeliers. Throw in the sparkle of the Oetker Collection’s five star service and it’s no wonder it’s become the bolthole of A-list stars. As I opened a big solid door into my deluxe junior suite, I was grinning from ear to ear.
The rooms at Le Château Saint-Martin are a lovely blend of traditional French furnishings mixed in with all the modern ‘necessities’. Think giant bathtubs, a dazzling light-bulb mirror and marble surfaces, complete with herb-infused Bamford bath products. Then there’s the Apple TV, evening turndown service and copies of Tatler on hand – they all add that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ to your stay.
Pretending to be a fairytale princess in search of her shining knight, I flung open the balcony doors to a beautiful turret overhead and an awe-inspiring vista stretching to the Côte d’Azur’s coastline.
Further up the mountainside are Le Château’s hillside villas, bringing guests the more private Riviera experience.
They’re just as quaint as the hotel rooms, with the same ‘Toile de Jouey’ bed linen and antique furniture. But after a recent makeover, these split-level havens also come with brand spanking new marble kitchens where private chefs will serve up a five-star private meal. It’s no wonder the likes of NCIS star Michael Manning Weatherly Jnr have stayed here.
It’s a favourite stopover for Grand Prix goers too. Those lucky enough to have tickets to the Monaco stretch of Formula One can make use of the hotel’s own helipad. A 35km flight on board the Saint-Martin ‘copter’ and you’re at the race track. How handy.
A lunchtime reservation at the hotel’s open-kitchen ‘Rosticceria’ was soon calling. And I was not only sold by the restaurant’s panoramic views, but also by the fresh doughy ‘pizettes’ that were brought to our table. A board of delicious antipasti later and of course, the obligatory French ‘du pain’, and it was clear this was more than a spot of lunch time grazing.
But hold back I did not. The chicken in lemon sauce with spaghetti-style zucchini sounded too good to resist. The soft moist chicken and zesty flavours combined with a glass of their fragrant rose wine was delicious.
If pasta Carbonara is more your thing, Rosticceria’s is silky and perfectly al dente – hands down the most indulgent I’ve tasted. Eating on the restaurant’s terrace under the midday sun is also an option. With beautifully fresh salads, bright sunshine and tip top waiter service, (oh yes, and a glass of the signature ‘La Rossini’ cocktail in hand) this was up there in top ‘al Fresco’ dining moments.
Wine Tasting & Michelin starred Le Saint Martin
It’s no wonder Rosticceria impressed so much with head chef Yannick Franques at the helm. With a long list of culinary awards under his belt, delivering unforgettable cuisine seems to come naturally to him.
That’s why an evening reservation at Le Château Saint-Martin’s Michelin-starred ‘Le Saint-Martin’ is a must.
But if you appreciate good wine, take full advantage of some five star wine tasting sessions first.
Amble down to the famous ‘Les Canthares’ wine club and cellar and the hotel’s head sommelier will take you through some of the country’s finest wines.
With tastes from Brittany, Bordeaux and Provence, we caught glimpse of some dusty looking 1976 bottles of Château Pape Clément – a Grand Cru Classe that derives from the oldest wine estate in Bordeaux.
Shortly later we were in the bold red surrounds of ‘Le Saint Martin’ – the restaurant where in 2011 Yannick picked up two Michelin stars.
Top this with his 2004 ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France’ (a very highly esteemed French culinary award) and fine dining really doesn’t come more refined than this.
The mousse served in an artistically-painted silver eggshell complete with brioche ‘dippy soldiers’ was eye-opening enough. Then there were the spiky pieces of crisped pineapple that coated the ‘crème brulee’ inspired Fois gras and the delicate edible flowers that framed it like a pretty picture.
As immaculately presented waiting staff brought out silver domed plates, there was an element of surprise to all seven courses.
Yannick won’t reveal how he creates the ‘Mystery of the egg’ – a single egg yolk encased in a breadcrumb egg white shell, served on an exquisite parmesan cream. Nor will he do anything but smile modestly at the picture perfect chocolate and passion fruit mousse bar flaked in edible gold or the Mojito ‘pre-dessert’ which emerged ferociously hissing with a cold mist, resembling a Heston-style chemistry project. Almost everything was greeted with a harmonious ‘ooh’ from the table.
It would come as no surprise then if Yannick followed his former master, Le Bristol, Paris’ Eric Frechon, in getting that third Michelin star.
If you can bear to drag yourself away from these culinary wonders, the surrounding Medieval towns are simply magical.
In 48 hours you can easily factor in a whistlestop tour of Eze, Gourdon, Biot, and France’s perfumery region, ‘Le Grasse’.
An afternoon in nearby Vence will have you perusing quaint gift shops, market stalls and ‘boulangeries’ teaming with locals buying their fresh baguettes.
But if you do just one thing, visit St Paul de Vence – the former stomping ground of Chagall, Matisse, Picasso and other 20th Century artists.
The trip is worth it alone to peruse stores of beautifully packaged olive oils, French preserves, wines, and of course, lavender – the herb of Provence.
Go early to avoid the throngs of tourists and you’ll have the narrow cobbled lanes within the castle walls all to yourself. With quaint biscuit shops, chocolatiers and contemporary art shops around every corner, I felt like Johnny Depp was going to step out onto the set of ‘Le Chocolat’.
A short walk to the hillside edge and you’re at the incredibly tranquil cemetery where 20th Century artist Marc Chagall was laid to rest.
Return to the main square and locals are having their morning croissants and ‘café au lait’ while others play boules and rub shoulders with old French movie stars.
If you don’t have a reservation at the world famous Colombe d’Or hotel and restaurant you can still see Picasso, Chagall and Matisse’s artwork at the nearby Maeght Foundation.
This is the Modern Art Museum of Paul de Vince and its quirky design of indoor and outdoor sculptures and paintings will give you a true feel of what these influential artists were about.
Go with an open mind – Gloria Friedmann’s taxidermy displays and animal activist videos are there to shock.
But Chagall’s mosaics, Miro’s ‘Wall-E’ like sculptures and reflections on the Industrial revolution by the likes of Léger are all worth seeing.
Art-lover or not, the chapel of the Dominican sisters, ‘Le Chapelle du Rosaire’ a few miles down the road is also a must-see. Matisse wanted to help the nuns for nursing him through illness so built them this modern-art chapel. With vivid blue and yellow stained glass windows, mosaic walls and contemporary furnishings, you can see why it’s become the Matisse masterpiece.
La Prairie Spa
It would be wrong to visit Le Château Saint-Martin without experiencing their onsite spa, which offers a whole range of holistic healing and beauty treatments, fitness and yoga. So off to La Prairie I went.
Hollowed out of the cliffs of the château are mood-lit beauty rooms where I enjoyed a deep tissue massage using Bamford oils.
I sampled one of the spa’s surprisingly vigorous morning yoga sessions pre-breakfast on the lawns of the château and it’s not for the faint hearted! An indulgent afternoon dipping in and out of the sauna, steam room and hammam was right down my street, followed by a refreshing swim in the outdoor infinity pool.
Looking out at the beautifully tiered gardens and rolling Provencal hills, two things entered my mind: one, this natural beauty must have brought out the best in those contemporary artists, and two, it was going to take some inner-strength to not wail as I left this beautiful retreat.
Le Chateau St Martin, 2490 Avenue des Templiers, 06142 Vence Cedex, France, +33 4 93 58 02 02
Rates start from €360 per room per night including breakfast.
by Lucy McGuire