This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
Early December isn’t everyone’s choice for a French sojourn, but we find it perfect. We arrive to crisp, cold days and clear skies. Dramatic snowy peaks are the delightfully cliche?d backdrop as we head towards La Bastide de Moustiers, along what has to be the most enjoyable stretch of road I’ve encountered in a long time. It’s lavender central, with row upon row of bushes patiently waiting for the spring sunshine – we can only imagine the aroma when they flower.
Still owned by legendary chef Alain Ducasse, La Bastide de Moustiers is his former home, located in the foothills of the Alps, near the Gorges du Verdon and the Luberon. During a spell on the Riviera, Ducasse set off on his motorbike to explore, and happened upon a grand stone building, the former home of a master potter. Moustiers’ green, gold and blue beauty cast a spell on him,
and he decided to buy it and turn it into a luxurious inn.
As we climb out of the car, we’re greeted warmly by Jeremy, the assistant GM and, during our stay, very much the man who makes things happen. Although Ducasse doesn’t preside over Moustiers himself, the hotel and restaurant are imbued with his spirit and passion. We immediately get that lovely ‘staying at a friend’s home’ feeling. There’s no concierge nor formally clad staff; the clobber of choice here is smart-casual, and they pull it off fantastically. A charming welcome, by people who really make you feel like a long-lost pal, is hard to top.
Coffee cravings calling, we make for the view-rich back terrace. It is hard to imagine we left a rain-drenched London just hours ago. Then, easy though it would be to sit for hours in the cool winter sun, we drag ourselves from our wicker chairs to explore the magnificent grounds, finding tunnelled pergolas, meandering paths and a swimming pool. There’s no danger of time inside playing second fiddle, though. We’ve been given the Olive Suite, surrounded by mistletoe and arbutus trees in fruit. The rooms have discreet mod cons (including a handy iPod dock, and air-con for summer) yet they are, in essence, light-filled, airy and elegant.
Local artisans restored La Bastide and supplied furnishings for its interiors, resulting in a property that has a distinctly Provenc?al flavour, with hand-embroidered linens, painted ceramic sinks, handmade crockery (Moustiers is an historic centre for earthenware fai?ence) and gleaming copper pots hanging in neat rows in the tiny original kitchen. Heavy wooden antique furniture and a wall of framed botanical prints by the main staircase add gravitas, and vases of freshly cut flowers inject the rooms with colour and scent.
By 7pm, activity in the salon beckons us to enjoy an aperitif and have a sneeky peek at the other guests – mainly overnighters from further afield in France, rather than locals from nearby. On our way to join them, we steal a gander at the small but lavishly stocked wine cellar, with wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, as well as some star bottles of Co?tes du Rho?ne.
As one would expect in a dining room belonging to the holder of the most Michelin stars in the world, eating at the Bastide is a highlight. It won Ducasse one of his stars, but don’t expect a barrage of unnecessary extras. It’s all simple, intelligent and seasonal. Even the crudite?s are mini flavour-bombs: zingy radishes, cool, crisp cucumbers, delicately steamed carrots and plump peas. Most of the produce is plucked from the sprawling gardens – planted with 30 varieties of tomatoes, along with peppers, courgettes, verveine, mint, lavender, beans and carrots – or the olive grove or herb gardens.
Like the hotel, the restaurant is a love poem to the surrounding area, with seats on the terrace so you can admire the Provenc?al hills as you eat, drink and make merry. The interior is divided into four separate rooms, each with its own allure. Le Salon des Amoureux is the choice for Mr & Mrs Smiths: a single private table – very romantic. Another has a splendid log-burning fire. We eat en famille in the library room, surrounded by Ducasse’s personal collection of cookery books. Out comes fantastic wild boar and silken potato gnocchi, accompanied by superb wine; the list is admirable, as you’d expect, but we stick with local, small, artisanal producers.
It’s hard to get out and about when you’re made to feel so at home at La Bastide, but the local attractions are not to be scoffed at: the Gorges du Verdon are a must for sheer rugged scenery. We also find a wonderful food market in Riez, where just-in clementines are a real treat. Years ago I made a pilgrimage to the marche? aux puces at Puimoisson, hoping to bring home beautiful antiques sold at knockdown prices by poor farmers clearing out the attic. The offerings couldn’t have been more flea-ridden but, determined to return with something, I bought an old child’s chair I thought the kids would love. I fought with the attendants to get it on the plane, and it now sits at home in our attic. Still, we return to peruse the 60 stalls of bric-a?-brac, and we’re rewarded with some fantastic old tin toys.
We’re happy to have a memento of our trip. La Bastide de Moustiers has much to offer families and food-lovers, romantics, weekend recluses and countryphiles. Yet what touches us most about our time here is the staff. We’re always made to feel comfortable and relaxed – nothing is ever too much trouble. They even make time to indulge me my shocking conversational French. That personal touch and natural hospitality will stay in our minds for a long time.