Tick off all your Gallic reveries at 18th-century home turned luxury hotel Château de la Gaude. It has everything the French hold dear: house-bottled wine and an encyclopedic cellar, gastronomy as an art form, art in some extremely outré forms (courtesy of Philippe Pasqua, Jeff Koons and more) and acres of Aix-en-Provence greenery. And a few surprises still, not least a spa and pool opening at the end of summer.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 4pm.
Double rooms from £419.13 (€490), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €3.30 per person per night on check-out.
Rates don't usually include breakfast – there's a supplement of €25 a person for the continental buffet.
Fans of French prestige cinema may recognise la Gaude from period drama Le Château de ma Mère.
At the hotel
Landscaped grounds with a butterfly walk, spa, hammam and sauna, fitness room, vineyard and wine cellar, art collection, boutique, concierge, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: satellite TV, minibar, Bose radio, iPod dock, Nespresso coffee machine, tea-making kit, bottled water, air-conditioning and Guerlain bath products. iPads are available on request.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms are situated in a few buildings over the estate, so it feels more like a little village. Styling on the inside is uniformly chic and contemporary, so pick your space by size and view. The Suite Château Prestige rooms stand out for their peaceful leafy views, huge marble bathrooms and Philippe Pasqua paintings.
The unheated alfresco pool is large enough for laps with plenty of elbow room; swimming here and sunning yourself on the white poolside loungers is a privilege for guests only. It's open seasonally, from 1 May to 30 September, from 10am to 7pm each day.
The Valmont Spa (open 10am to 8pm daily) has four stylish treatment rooms for facial rituals that hydrate, energise, purify and more; body treatments to leave you smooth and glowing; and a lengthy list of massages, some inspired by international practices. Mani-pedis and make-up services provide the finishing touches. There's also a hammam and sauna and a fitness room (work-out sessions must be booked in advance). And even little ones can get their nails done or indulge in a mini massage (between 10am and 3pm, a parent must be present during the treatment).
You’ll need floaty French country wear (summer tailoring for Mr Smith), flats for romantic bike rides and romping-round-the-garden gear.
The hotel has one specially adapted room on the ground floor; however, the grounds and public areas are tricky to navigate by wheelchair.
All ages are welcome. Baby cots can be added free to all rooms except the Double Room Classic. Babysitting is available for €35 a night (for a minimum of three hours; one day’s notice needed).
All ages are welcome, but it’s best for babes-in-arms and juniors.
The Family Suite handily has two bedrooms and two bathrooms to comfortably accommodate four and offer a little privacy. No extra beds or baby cots can be added to the Double Room Classic.
While there are few tot-tailored activities, there are plenty of opportunities for play in the grounds. Little ones will love running around the maze-like parterre, spotting butterflies and exploring the woods.
The pool isn't supervised, so keep an eye on wandering wee ones.
The kitchen team will happily tone down their high-concept cuisine to appeal to kids’ tastes. Baby food and highchairs are available on request, there are changing facilities and staff are happy to heat milk.
Babysitting is available for €30 an hour (for a minimum of two hours; one day’s notice needed).
No need to pack
There’s baby bedlinen, toiletries and towels.
Rocky paths aren’t ideal for prams, so pack your sling for outings.
Dining is responsibly local, much of the produce is grown on-site and the kitchen supports the region’s farmers and fishermen. And, they use Earth-kind cleaning products and recycle waste water.
Tables with a view of the garden are the most swoonsome.
Chef Matthieu Dupuis Baumal heads up the team at Le Art, a name that well prepares you for the edible madness that awaits. Baumal’s pitch is Provençal cuisine that’s picked up a few tricks on its travels east. So, you get tantalising menus of carrier pigeon with peanut, ginger and spicy mango, Brittany abalone with plankton, pickles and wasabi, fruit-laden rum babas drizzled in pepper juice and more. If you want to see the whole show, order the tasting menu. Open daily for lunch and dinner, La Source is a more casual bistro-style affair serving upmarket snacks: elegant charcuterie and cheese boards, caviar- and smoked-salmon-topped blinis, lobster dim-sum; and a selection of Asian-inflected dishes, such as Korean-style pork belly and black cod with yuzu. A third restaurant, Kaiseki, offers daring Japanese cuisine inspired by Japan's Kyoto district; choose from a gourmet selection of dishes in the elegant restaurant setting or opt for something casual in Kaiseki's lounge area with a Japanese street food menu serving up all the classics. Le Art and Kaiseki serve lunch and dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. Le art is also open for Sunday Lunch and Kaiseki for Tuesday dinners.
With vines as far as the eye can see, you’re unlikely to go thirsty here. Tastings can be arranged. The hotel is justly proud of its whites, rosés and reds (La Treille, Mademoiselle and La Chapelle de Gabrielle, respectively) – and there are 900 more bottles in the cellar once you’ve polished those off. Château barkeeps also have an extensive cocktail repertoire.
Breakfast is from 7.30am to 10:30am, lunch from 12.30pm to 1.30pm and dinner from 7.30pm to 9.30pm. The bar serves from noon to midnight and the cellar opens from 10am to 7pm.
Have food delivered to your room round-the-clock. The menu goes way beyond burgers and sandwiches, with salmon-topped blinis and sour cream, truffle and Comté quesadillas, sea-urchin taramasalata and the like.
Château de la Gaude is in a leafy stretch of Aix-en-Provence, just outside the charming city where Cézanne lived and painted the glorious panoramas.
Marseille Provence Airport is the closest, around a half-hour drive from the château. The hotel can arrange private transfers for €110 each way.
High-speed TGV trains run from Paris and other major French cities, and various European capitals, to Aix-en-Provence. From there, it’s a half-hour drive to the hotel, or have the hotel chauffeur you there and back for €80 each way.
Public transport will only get you so far here, and doesn’t really lend itself to the whole driving through lavender fields and vineyards thing. There are car-hire booths at the airport in Marseille. To reach the hotel from Marseille, follow Route des Pinchinats.
You could always take the chopper, if you have one – the hotel has its own private helipad.
Worth getting out of bed for
At the hotel you can wander the gardens, working your way through the maze-like parterre, chasing butterflies or exploring the woods. Taste the house wines, then pick up a few bottles in the boutique or try and spy all the modern artworks. The spa has a wide choice of revitalising treatments (including ones for kids), plus a hammam and sauna for pampering sessions. In the distance you’ll see Sainte-Victoire Mountain, which can be hiked if you’re in an active mood or you’ve had one too many truffle and Comté quesadillas. Paul Cézanne famously painted it – Aix-en-Provence was the artist’s hometown and you can see his studio exactly as it was. There have been soothing hot springs in the area since Roman times (the ‘Aix’ in the town’s name derives from Aquae Sextiae), and today you can wallow in minerals in a more modern style at Thermes Sextius spa. Or, indulge your inner gourmand: there are cornucopia food markets every day in Aix-en-Provence. Those with a sweet tooth can raid the Puyricard chocolatier. Or – if you’ve arrived between November and March – go truffle-seeking in Riez Market each Wednesday (around an hour’s drive away). Another seasonal treat is April’s music-led Easter Festival. The exceedingly genteel Hôtel de Caumont has an impressive collection of art and antiques, while the Musée Granet has some serious sculptures. It’s also well worth your time village hopping through the Luberon. Lively city Marseille is close by for port-side wanders and the Calanques National Park, a spot of soaring massifs and aquamarine coves.
You should try the hotel restaurant’s wildly unique cuisine at least once; however, Provence isn’t short of places to grab a bite if you want to mix things up. Smith stablemate Villa la Coste is also something of an art aficionado and it’s only a 30-minute drive away for a tour of the Emins, Hirsts, Louise Bourgeois’s spiders and such, before an elegant lakeside lunch. Restaurant Côté Cour puts a modern spin on classic French cuisine with a smart contemporary space and decadent dishes: bouillabaisse with courgette flowers, foie gras with apricot, hot-chocolate mousse. Its chef Ronan Kernen has a second eatery, La Petite Ferme, well worth trying for its truffle pizzettas, aubergine caviar and coal-grilled octopus. Chef Dan Bessoudo’s self-titled eatery Restaurant Dan B has menus that centre on one seasonal vegetable or four- to eight-course tasting menus showcasing the best of local produce.
Le Môme’s Corsican-Provençal husband-wife team always have tempting dishes of the day chalked up on the menu board – inspired by their respective culinary heritages. It’s an excellent lunching spot, with some very generous portions.
You’re unlikely to run out of wine at the hotel, but if you want somewhere with high spirits and a knack for blending flavours, try Céleste, a stylish bar in town.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this aged-like-a-fine-wine hotel in the South of France and unpacked their lavender sprigs and parfums, a full account of their French countryside break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Château de la Gaude in Aix-en-Provence…
Not all hotels give us butterflies, but Château de la Gaude does quite literally that: among the neat rows of cypress trees, flourishing rose bushes, woods of oak and parterre maze that make up the hotel’s grounds, is an alley for the colourful creatures. And that’s not all that inspires a sense of wonder here: artist Phillippe Pasqua’s surreal follies and abstracted portraits are displayed throughout (a 17-metre shark will be joining them soon); and chef Matthieu Dupuis Baumal’s French-Japanese tasting menus have enigmatic dishes named ‘Ode to a Fish’ and ‘Passing Through a Meadow’, and translate to perfectly plated tableaux. To accompany those delicacies? Why, a glass of the house red, white or rosé. Those vines you’ll see from the window of your oh-so-chicly styled room aren’t just set dressing – there are tastings aplenty, a cellar brimming with bottles and shop selling serious-looking wine gadgetry. Yes, this stately 18th-century home has us all aflutter.