‘Welcome to Le Saint Paul! Would you care for some home-made peach iced tea and cakes?’ Could our arrival at out South of France hideaway be more delightful? We'd been greeted not just by a warmth in the air, but we were also met from our air-conditioned Mercedes taxi by an exceptionally smart bellman with an outstretched umbrella. This has all certainly taken a dampener off the fact it isn’t the sunny weather we’d been expecting. The doorman even greeted us by name as though distant relatives before navigating us through the cobbled gallery-sprinkled backstreets to our final destination, this very special Baglioni-owned hotel.
‘I thought you said the weather will be lovely?’ my better half adds smugly. St Paul de Vence, is a mere 16km from Nice, nestled in the hilltops of the Côte de Azur, so the usual vista south is to the Mediterranean Sea, and if you squint north you should see the snow-capped Alps. Hampered by slight drizzle today our view outside is restricted to the old-world fortifications that border this charming, petite French village. Mrs Smith is inside anyway, having regressed by now into a child-like state, as though in Hamley’s toy store, fascinated by the hotel's paintings and curios.
Ushered gently to the living room, we await teatime snacks, which are being hastily prepared with the same kindness a mother shares with her family after a long and tiring journey. Kicking back on a pristine, vintage couch, we take in the grand splendour of the open fireplace, feeing right at home. Mrs Smith is just suggesting it’s like being at our own wedding reception, when the hotel manager disturbs our daydream to ask whether we’re ready to go to our room.
Grabbing an extra cake on the way to the lift, we get into what must surely be the nicest-smelling elevator in the world – floral grapefruit notes emanate from its embroidered walls. ‘It’s like being Alice in Wonderland,’ trills Mrs Smith. Moments later the doors to our room swing open to reveal a grandiose dwelling, fit for royalty. ‘We must have the best room in the house,’ I exclaim. Except it’s not really a mere house, it’s a historic chateaux conversion.
What Le Saint Paul is exceedingly good at (as well as cakes that give Mr Kipling a run for his money), is combining fresh modernity with traditional provincial chic. Our bathroom is luxury-showroom-worthy, while the actual suite feels like we’ve inherited Charles de Gaulle’s parliamentary quarters. Through the windows, slate rooftops are like a sea of abstract art. It’s all as though time has stood still – although as we’re soon to find out, the boutiques and touristy stampede outside tell a different story. A rat-a-tat-tat at the door, and lo and behold the bellman is bringing us up yet another welcome treat. Seldom is anyone so spoilt in such a short space of time. Even at a luxury hotel.
Postcard-perfect St Paul de Vence has a population of only 3,500, yet it attracts over 2.5 million visitors a year. Celebrated for its contemporary art, as well as the rich and famous who come here to buy it, we concede that if price tags aren’t visible on the painting we’re ogling, it is probably out of our budget. Judging by the designer handbags on display in this hilltop town, its arts is beloved by a demographic akin to that seen in South Molton Street. Chihuahuas with outfits matching their owners confirms this.
Not that this makes a dent in our appreciation of this ancient town as we window-shop our way through its labyrinthine alleys. Our enthusiastic stroll soon earns us a rest on the terrace at well-known hangout, Le Tilleul – the lime tree – where we people-watch over some refreshing Clairette de Vence. Conveniently, everything in St Paul de Vence is within a stroll of our stylish stay poised in the village’s main cobbled artery.
Chef Nunzio Romano oversees the fabulous fare at Les Saint Paul, a culinary whiz, and it is advisable you book supper at the same time as you do your hotel room. Understandably, it is fully reserved in advance. On a summers’ day, the award-winning restaurant spills out into a beautiful walled garden. This leafy terrace would be a highlight if it weren’t that the food, wine and service at Le Saint Paul is also exceptional. The restaurant's interior too is special, with crypt-like stone walls and a fully functioning fountain all within the fortress walls. It makes sense that the restaurant demands you don smart attire.
An aperitif of pink champagne in hand, we order the chef’s thee-course special from a menu that promises thrills such as risotto with lobster and courgette flowers in tempura and roasted duck liver with white asparagus. What follows is in fact five courses of Modern French gastronomy. This is all helpfully washed down by tremendous hand-selected accompanying house reds. Indeed, Le Saint Paul is always full of surprises. From letting us have a late breakfast in bed the following morning to magicking us a table at fully booked world-famous La Colombe d’Or, nothing is too much trouble. For us, the only problem? That there must be an end to our romantic Alpes-Maritime escape.