On gloomy winter days in London, when the slate-grey buildings mirror the colour of the sky, it’s easy to dream of starting afresh somewhere sun-drenched. The prospect of fleeing to a farmhouse in Tuscany or living like the Durrells on a sun-dappled Greek island seems incredibly inviting, as does the idea of a slower pace of life in Provence, with its pink wine and bursts of lavender.
Named after one of Henri IV’s most fearless soldiers, Crillon-le-Brave, a chic boutique hotel nestled within a medieval hilltop hamlet of the same name northeast of Avignon, is so postcard perfect it feels like a rose-tinted version of how life in Provence should be, rather than the real thing. Everything is so quaint and idyllic, from the cobbled streets and pale blue shutters to the vivid turquoise of the pool and the inviting smell of freshly baked croissants wafting through the breakfast room, that the hotel feels like a film set.
Time stands still here. The only noise puncturing the silence is the church bell ringing in the hours. Giant white butterflies float through the air like paper and the sky is a particular shade of cornflower blue that is so pretty it looks painted. The quality of light in Provence is special, and has drawn everyone from Picasso to Seurat to the Côte d’Azur. The late afternoon light before sunset is so soft, it gives the sandstone houses a honeyed glow and makes everything appear heavenly.
On the day of my arrival at Crillon-le-Brave the tempestuous Mistral was in a particularly spiteful mood, howling like a mad dog through the fireplaces and rattling the windows. I sought solace in my roll-top bath, slathering myself in lavender and peppermint lotion in a huge bathroom prettified with Moroccan tiles that glinted with the milky iridescence of mother of pearl. Sebastian, the hotel’s debonair general manager (who arrived at Crillon by way of Alain Ducasse’s nearby La Bastide de Moustiers), had left a bottle of local rosé on ice for me in my room to drink while I drunk in the views. My tardis of a wardrobe was cleverly concealed behind a door, while vintage suitcases, paintings of peaches and pears, and giant bars of olive-scented soap added to the farmhouse feel.
Brits abroad Peter Chittick and Carolyn Fairbairn made like Peter Mayle and opened Crillon-le-Brave in 1989. Back then it had just 11 rooms, but has since expanded to take over almost the entire hamlet with its 36 rooms, three restaurants and spa. The hotel’s tasteful interiors are the work of Judy Hutson, who has also worked her magic at The Pig and Lime Wood in the New Forest. Duck egg blue abounds, and the rooms are so cosy, they feel like a home from home. The view from my window is heart-stoppingly beautiful. The sleeping giant of Mont Ventoux hugs the horizon, and row upon row of immaculate vines paint the landscape with explosions of ruby red, burnt orange and amber. Lithe cypress trees add a Tuscan touch, their pointed spears like asparagus tips.
Early Autumn is a particularly beautiful time to stay at Crillon, as the summer crowds are a distant memory but the mercury still climes to the mid-twenties during the day. One of the best ways to lap up the autumn sun is by meandering through the vineyards on a bike. The undulating landscape allows for some thrilling wind in the hair moments, but you’ll need thighs of steel to tackle the steep inclines. Mercifully, our ride was brief. We wound up at a quarry filled with pink rock that wouldn’t look out of place in the Nevada desert – the sand from the quarry used to be used for Perrier’s famous green glass bottles. After a strenuous morning of peddling, we rewarded ourselves with ice-cold rosé and rosemary-flecked goat’s cheese on peasant bread as the sun warmed our backs.
After a tricky uphill cycle back to the hotel, the prospect of a full body massage was most welcome. On entering the spa my masseuse, Adele, offered me a selection of oils to choose from. I went for soothing lavender. She then presented me with three essential oils and asked me to pick one without looking. “Your body will choose the one you need,” she said. I selected a vivifying blend of basil, ginger and rosemary designed to aid concentration. Over the next hour Adele’s nimble fingers got to work on my weary flesh, untying all manor of knots and leaving my skin like cashmere.
Taking a local, seasonal approach to cooking, at the hotel’s Bistro 40K all of the ingredients are sourced within 40 kilometres of the hotel, though many hail from much closer by – mint, rosemary and thyme are grown in the hotel’s herb garden. Every November head chef Jêrome Blanchet runs truffle hunting weekends for guests that include cookery classes and decadent dinners where truffle features in every course. Before dinner, we indulged in a pastis-fuelled game of petanque as the sun set over the vines, nibbling on teardrop-shaped olives plucked from nearby trees. Having worked up an appetite, when we arrived at the bistro, a giant bowl of farmhouse paté was waiting for us on the table with a knife plunged into its middle like a Hitchcock murder victim. My smoked trout starter with cucumber and mint was wonderfully fresh, while a spelt risotto acted as a showcase for the region’s abundance of autumn veg.
For sun bunnies, lunch can be enjoyed al fresco on the terrace. Dishes are healthy but packed with flavour, from beef carpaccio with salty Parmesan and peppery rocket, to swan-white skate wing in a lemon-scented sauce that glides off the bone. The hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Jêrome Blanchet, stays true to Blanchet’s seasonal ethos, but adds flamboyant flourishes. My meal began with a tiny bowl of gnocchi and black truffle in a cep foam, which set the tone for the feast that followed. The foie gras starter was the size of a brick and came garnished with glistening purple cherries.
The highlight of the night was a trio of sweet, juicy langoustines swimming in a creamy foam among cubes of salty pork belly. Wines are looked after by irreverent young sommelier Benoît Lebus, who is fiercely passionate about local drops from nearby vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. His cellar is largely stocked with Rhône Valley wines, from silky Syrahs and juicy Grenaches to textured white blends, but he also lists wines from all over France and a handful of bottles from Italy and Spain.
The cheese trolley is an event in itself. Heaving with local delicacies, among the most magnificent are an ash-coated goat’s cheese and a gooey Calvados-soaked Camembert. The restaurant is housed in the oldest part of the hotel, which dates back to the 16th century. I half expected a pair of knights in shining armour to walk through the door and demand to be fed. Instead we dined among honeymooners and newlyweds, including a young couple who brought their wheezing bulldog to dinner. The hotel is a popular spot to tie the knot. One of its more colourful weddings involved a Scottish couple who brought their own Protestant priest and four bagpipers with them.
Stuffed as a Christmas goose after dessert, I sank into my ludicrously comfortable double bed, but soon became plagued by a pillow problem I often encounter at top hotels. They’re like Martinis – one is not enough but two is too many. While waiting for my taxi to the airport the next morning, I heard gunshots going off in the distance. “They’re hunting for wild boar,” the sprightly receptionist informed me. Asking whether he’d ever feasted on the beast, he told me he was a vegetarian but makes an exception for foie gras. “It melts in your mouth and doesn’t really feel like meat,” he reasoned. God bless the French.
Rooms at Crillon-le-Brave start at £119 per person based on two people sharing in low season. For more information, visit www.crillonlebrave.com.