La Manche to La Med
Grand-luxe touring is about enjoying the journey as much as the destination. The luxe-trotter's modus operandi is to travel first class, avoiding airports, staying at hand-picked hotels while leisurely homing-in on a desirable destination. Along the way, lunch and other diversions become memorable events that enrich the hard-earned luxury of time away with someone special. I was with my husband, the destination was St Tropez, and the method of propulsion; the World's fastest (and probably most intelligent) 4 door motor car - a 190mph Bentley Continental Flying Spur.
Day 1 - London to Epernay
London to Calais was a breeze. With Eurotunnel FlexiPlus there were no queues and in a few blinks, Calais was bathed in brilliant sunshine. A combination of Guide Michelin and SatNav guides us to our first menu degustation at Château de Beaulieu. It needs several decades of weathering but the €55 Menu Surprise, inspired by Blumenthal's molecular gastronomy, was indeed inspiré. After lunch, we glide on to Epernay with me reclining in the Bentley's soft, creamy leather, setting the cosseting seat to 'long warm massage'.
The Royal Champagne has gone from good to fantastique and will soon be the finest hotel in the region. It was patronised by Napoleon and has always had the advantage of beautiful views of the World's most effervescent valley, Epernay, but it is now intent on becoming supremely petit-luxe, with a Baglioni-boudoir-Florentine warmth throughout. The service was impeccable and dinner racked up our third Michelin star of the day.
Day 2 - Epernay to Beaujolais
We fire up the Flying Spur and let its high IQ guide us towards Bourgogne. Lunch was off-piste at one-starred Auberge du Charme near Marsannay; charming it wasn't, though the food was skilled and beautifully presented with the influence of Blumenthal's philosophy looming over even rural Burgundy: luxe-lollipops are everywhere. With cumulus bubbling on the horizon, the sun battles it out for glory in the vast interior and we savour Bentleying on down to Château de Bagnols to embrace the grand dame of deluxe historique hotels.
Arrive at dusk, after the showers have cleared, with the sun setting over the southern Beaujolais hills, turrets reflecting the evening glow; this always takes our breath away. Unlike most battle-worn castles, Bagnols has been masterfully maintained, and today, thanks to the keen eye of Lady Hamlyn, this Château exists, quite simply, as the most perfect monument to preservation and restoration. There is not a single room or suite that would disappoint: each one is so individual and personal, reflecting its past with restored sandstone walls, exquisite antiques, original frescos, grand four posters in rich velvet and bathrooms fitted to blend so perfectly with the building it is hard to believe they are a modern phenomenon.
The food has gone from good to spectacular, dining in splendour in the magnificent Salle des Gardes, featuring the largest Gothic fireplace in France. Being here you feel extremely privileged, almost stupefied by the fact that, for a night or two, you can experience your own glorious citadel.
Day 3 - Beaujolais to Aix-en-Provence
Villa Gallici in Aix-en-Provence. The Bentley was as well rested as were we, and all 6 litres and 552 bhp were at our disposal for another day. A dawdle through Côte Rotie and Condrieu, followed by a blast down to Hermitage, and another memorable lunch (and yet more lollipops) at Les Cèdres. Digestif is a flying ascent of snow-capped Mont Ventoux. We marvel at the Continental Flying Spur's combination of continent-crossing cosseting luxury, and awesome performance. How could a car this big handle like a sports car? Very clever. Very clever, indeed.
After more motorway miles are consumed by our autoroute gourmet, its charme, charme, and charmant. Boudoir, boudoir de plus en plus, petit salon, Chelsea chic, Nobilis, Provençal-Florentine-style. Beautiful gardens enclose a magical private universe in Aix-en-Provence at Villa Gallici. Warm and wonderful, staff have no airs and graces. It's discreet, cosseting, homely and almost decadent in its appeal; but it's also lemon fresh and contrasts diametrically, but sweetly, with the night before. The food's starred and excellent, too.
Day 4 - Aix to St Tropez and decamp for days
The sexiness of Provence has well and truly kicked-in and off we luxe-trot to our final destination, the bastion of celebrity glamour, St. Tropez.
We Bentley over the Massif des Maures with surprising ease and the promise of a late lunch at Club 55 is rattling our digestive cages. We arrive and FS is placed in pole position alongside a very rare Porsche Carrera GT. Leaving Flying Spur in good company, we sit in spring sunshine at the pastel blue and white beach eatery with the Mediterranean now only yards away. Bliss. Bandol rosé and Sunday's regular plat du jour of paella set the scene for a relaxing afternoon. This, the haunt of the R&F, could not be more laid back, though monumental wealth does not go unnoticed through the haze of Havana-smoke-trail over coffee. Photographer Pumfrey comments on battle of signature eyewear while I skillfully cover the diamante D&G monogram with hair.
Villa Marie is the greatest addition to St. Tropez-luxe accommodation for a very long time. Half a mile outside town and overlooking the famous Pampelone beaches, this petit-luxe gem exuberates all the x-factors of St Tropez without being in the thick of it. Its design is modern Moorish with high-Provencal elegance and Florentine finishes. The gardens are lush and lively and the surrounding vines and pine forests make a very picturesque setting. The dining terrace overlooking the pines and the stunning, mint-green pool, with mega-yacht-dotted sea beyond is unsurpassed.
Shopping in St Tropez never ceases to excite and delight. Not only do they feel seasons ahead; they have a way of combining designer with 'out there' in a truly intoxicating fashion. Even if you are a saint to shopping abstinence, this is where you will be de-robed.
Silly hour overlooking the harbour of this notorious town is eventful and colourful. We pick our favourite bar, upstairs at Hotel Sube, sitting on the terrace, yacht and star gazing. Restaurants are hit and miss here, but one that will always come up trumps is Lei Mouscardins. This, remember, is a town for beautiful people where crudités are king. La Pinede is also extremely good, but you will not experience any better than at Villa Marie itself.
St. Tropez has an addictive quality because it seduces your fiscal control with sublime boutique Babylon, and it still oozes the raunchy Bardoesque fifties in its maritime mélange.
The journey has been rich and memorable, the experience one to cherish forever, and as an alternative to terminals and conveyer belts, Bentleying feels quite inspiriting.
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Château de Bagnols
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Also read our Mini-luxe Tour - A Mini-luxe Tour of the Côte d'Azur
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