An Alain Ducasse-owned inn with 10 rooms in rural Provence, Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle is as Provençal as petanque and pastis. Here, the grapes grow fatly and the sun shines ripely. Gallic generals and nocturnal nuns have bedded down here – without the turquoise pool and Wine Conservatory, poor things…
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 10am.
Double rooms from £159.10 (€180), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates don't usually include the Continental breakfast (€25 a person, each day).
Perfect your aioli, roux or tarte aux pommes in the hotel’s kitchens: guests can spend a day helping the chef prepare lunch, starting with a trip to the vegetable gardens to pick ingredients. You’re likely to be sharing kitchen space with the next big thing: Ducasse dispatches fledgling chefs to the hotel on work placements.
The hotel is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between February and Mid-April, and from October to December.
At the hotel
Vineyards, vegetable gardens, bicycles (on request), boutique selling local groceries and ingredients, free WiFi. In rooms: flatscreen TV, minibar, bergamot-scented bath products (made specially for the hotel by the Different Company).
Our favourite rooms
For historic gravitas, opt for the Lucrèce de Barras Suite (where the General de Gaulle often rested his hoary head – though his handsome handmade bed, replete with wooden cherubs and flowers, resides in the Angelique de Champigny Superior Room). Garcende de Sabran is a Suite that counts a set of old-fashioned wooden scales among its charms (avoid this if you’ve just indulged in the tasting menu). Honeymooners tend to gravitate towards Superior Room Etiennette de Sault for its privacy and Provence views. Occupying an entire floor (with an annexe), this room has a secluded garden and twin sun beds.
Built on Roman ruins, the tranquil outdoor pool overlooks the 12th-century abbey and its bell tower and has a clutch of elegant wooden loungers with ruby-red covers. Thick white towels and parasols are provided and there’s a service cabin with toilets and changing rooms, an honesty bar and a telephone so guests can ring for a cooling <i>citron pressé</i> or plate of tuna Nicoise.
Leave suitcase space for bottles of fruity Côteaux Varois wine, sold in the village wine shop next door. Bring arm bands for water babies and the current favourite toy or teddy – the hotel doesn’t provide much for Smith Junior (beyond a few board games).
If you love the hotel’s bergamot bath products, stock up on them in the little boutique in the former chapel. The lady who runs the shop doubles up as the resident masseuse: let staff know in advance if you’d like a treatment.
Children are welcome, but they’ll have to amuse themselves (the gardens, pool and vineyards should help). Babysitting is available for €25 an hour (minimum three hours; give at least an hour’s notice).
Children aged eight and above, who you’d be happy to let loose in the gardens and vineyards unsupervised.
Perpétue de la Celle is a really spacious suite, with room for up to two children to sleep in its downstairs living area. Upstairs, there’s a bedroom with an exotic feel – thanks to the Moroccan bed-head – and a bathroom with olive-green tiles.
Kids will love running wild in the gardens and vineyards; water babies will want to spend most of their time in the pool. The chefs are sociable sorts: let them know if you and your brood would like an instructional tour of the vegetable garden, or a cookery class aimed at young ’uns.
Bring your own arm bands and floats for the pool – the hotel doesn’t have any spares. It’s an unsupervised area, so parents need to be on hand to keep an eye on children (and keep in line with French pool laws).
For €25, children can enjoy any course on the menu with a drink and ice-cream. Items can also be adapted to junior palates, with sauces removed or chips added in. Highchairs are available and picnic baskets can be provided.
Babysitting is available for €25 an hour (minimum three hours; give at least an hour’s notice).
No need to pack
The hotel can provide bicycles – just let staff know you need them in advance.
There are baby-changing facilities in the toilet by the restaurant.
Out on the terrace when it’s warm, so you can eat in sight of the cypress trees and craggy Candelon mountain. The trees and parasols provide shade during the day; at night, little lanterns light up the tables, trees and abbey.
Relaxed rustic: summer frock and sandals for the Mrs; soft shirt and tailored trousers for the Mr.
Ducasse wouldn’t just leave any old Tom, Dick or Jean-Claude in charge of his kitchen: head chef Nicolas Pierantoni has already enjoyed a glittering culinary career. Pierantoni's food philosophy focusses on real ingredients, simple cooking and authentic tastes. Most of the restaurant’s produce comes from its gardens; everything else hails from a 30km radius. Choose from a variety of menus: seasonal; six-course tasting; and the weekend lobster menu. Porcelain vegetables by local French artist Jean-Paul Gourdon decorate the white-linen-topped tables; the crockery comes from Atelier Soleil, one of the oldest pottery producers in Provence.
There’s no formal bar area, just a small area in the lovely, light-filled conservatory (decorated with 18th-century antiques and flea-market finds picked out by Mr Ducasse) where drinks can be served. All the usual libations can be provided, but you’re in wine country – make the most of it.
Breakfast is served between 7.30am and 10.30am, lunch from noon until 2pm and dinner between 7.30pm and 9.30pm.
Between 7am and 2am, guests can choose from three options: the signature Abbeye salad, a plate of cheeses and cold cuts or home-made cakes with fruit. It’s a simple selection – the restaurant is the main event.
The hotel is in La Celle, a little rural village in the heart of Provence. Neighbouring villages include Camps-la-Source, Forcalqueiret and Tourves; Marseille is around an hour’s drive away, as is the coast.
The closest airports are Marseille 90km away (www.marseille-airport.com) and Nice 119km away; Marseille offers the most choice. Fly to Marseille from London Gatwick with Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways. You could also fly to Avignon (www.avignon.aeroport.fr), 130km, or Nîmes (www.nimesairport.com), 150km away. There are also direct flights from further afield, including New York and Québec.
The nearest train stations are Aix-en-Provence (hop on the TGV to/from Paris in season, or catch the Eurostar from London and change at Lilles or Paris), or Marseille-Saint-Charles, which connects to Lyon, Nantes, Aubagne, Franjfurt and other destinations (www.voyages-sncf.com; www.eurostar.com).
Bring a car, so you can explore picturesque Provence. It takes an hour and a half to drive here from Nice on the A8 and an hour from Marseille. Take exit 35 for Brignoles and turn right at the first roundabout (towards Toulon). At the second roundabout, go straight on (towards Abbaye de la Celle and Toulon). Take the A57 from Toulon and stay on for 40 minutes. Follow the motorway in the direction of Draguignan, Fréjus, Nice and Hyères. Take exit 10 for Brignoles and carry straight on for 21km. At the roundabout, take the D405, Route de Brignoles, towards Celle.
Worth getting out of bed for
This pretty patch of Provence boasts a wealth of local markets selling fruit, vegetables, hats, espadrilles, clothes, antiques and so on: you could easily go to one every day of the week, if you were so inclined. Cotignac is one of the most picturesque villages and has a rustic Tuesday morning market; St Maximan is larger and has a popular Wednesday market. Saint-Maximan also has some tempting restaurants and cafés. Pick up gifts and furnishings from Le Java du Juju (+33 (0)4 94 59 32 16), at 27 rue Général de Gaulle, Saint-Maximan. There’s plenty to do in the hotel itself: have a cookery class with the chef and explore the Abbey, which dates back to the 12th century and now doubles up as the hotel’s wine cellar.
Café du Midi (+33 (0)4 94 69 49 93), just opposite the hotel at 3 place de la Mairie, is the village’s only other eating option. Come here for a café au lait and croissant, if you fancy a change of scene at breakfast, or perhaps a pre-dinner aperitif: sit at one of the tables on the street and just watch village life go by. (The café also serves a well-priced daily special.) Côté Jardin (+33 (0)4 94 78 00 14) at 3-5 avenue Albert Albert 1er in Saint-Maximan, 20km away, serves tasty local dishes in its pretty garden: listen to the tinkling of the water fountains while you eat. La Crémaillière (+33 (0)4 94 86 40 00) at 23 rue National in Le Val (8km away) is a tiny, characterful restaurant run by a French couple. If you want a table on the terrace, book early – there are only four spots outside.
I was nervous as we approached the beautiful old monastery that is Hostellerie de L’Abbaye de la Celle. Would such a grand country hotel be too formal and dull for our daughters? Just as worryingly, would our boisterous young family destroy the romance and tranquillity of this Provençal retreat for the other guests? Within seconds, all worries washed away. Yes, the surroundings are extremely luxurious, but with a confident formality that is in fact incredibly relaxed. Staff are so welcoming and delightful that it feels as though you are at the weekend house of a very rich friend’s parents rather than a hotel. As much attention was given to the needs of the kids as our own. I’m not quite sure what bought the affection of our daughters most, the hot chocolate they were given while we checked in, or the lovely handwritten note waiting for them in their room, wishing ‘The Children Granger’ a pleasant stay.
In no time, Inès was Instagramming pictures of herself draped over our antique bed, while Edie and Bunny ‘WOWed’ their way around the two adjoining rooms. I can see why they were so excited. Our quarters were so vast that once we opened up the adjoining doors and could see through, it was like being in a really pretty apartment that we could happily live in. Soft grey walls, grand proportions, and diffused light streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling French shutters. And to add to the feeling that we were being looked after by friends in their country house, each room had a lovely vase of fresh white roses. I appreciated this rare touch almost as much as the homemade gifts from the pastry chef brought to our rooms every night. And with those little bags of marshmallows or shortbreads would be another handwritten note.
I’m almost glad that we went in winter. Don’t get me wrong, I want to go back to L’Abbaye in summer to check out the vegetable garden when it’s more abundant. Lazing in the beautiful terrace while the girls enjoy the pool would have been magical, of course. But it gave us the perfect excuse to spend quality time as a family doing nothing much in our spectacular rooms with no guilt. It wasn’t quite a sit-in, but it was so charming, that we just didn’t want to leave. Take breakfast: we’d originally organised to have it in our rooms, thinking Mrs Smith and I would enjoy it in bed while the kids were in the adjoining room. The reality was something different.
On the first morning (and on all the remaining days!) the girls climbed in to share the feast with us. It could have been a nightmare, but the fresh light was coming in through the shutters, the home-made pastries, omelettes and fruit, freshly pressed juices, pots of hot chocolate, coffee and tea, an array of house-made cereals in individual glass jars, as well as home-made preserves, spectacular French butter, all served in the most elegant china and silverware, with piles of enormous linen napkins. Each breakfast was one of those moments you treasure. It also helped knowing that we weren’t the ones who’d have to get the crumbs off the bed.
When we finally made it out, we strolled around the beautiful gardens, then past the gates to a cute little village. There’s nothing much to do but to enjoy the picturesque surroundings – ideal for us, as we were recovering from a hectic couple of weeks. Back at the hotel we lounged with our novels, the girls played in the swings, and we blissfully just switched off.
Being a foodie family, the main draw was a restaurant headed by chef, Benoit Witz. I like things casual, so it was a relief to see that despite the Alain Ducasse connection, there is no pretension or stuffiness where it comes to food; just elegance, finesse and impeccable technique just as the French are famous for. Ducasse’s influence isn’t rammed down your throats, but it is clear that this is no ordinary country-hotel restaurant. No 16-year-old locals attempting silver service: the staff is probably the sleekest and most passionate I’ve ever come across – and the warmest.
The menu is confident and beautifully simple – just how I like it. Our five courses included a spectacular classic fish soup with rouille, a succulent baby shoulder of lamb with asparagus, and an incredible array of goats and sheep’s cheeses. The wine list is extensive and loaded with local specialities; not knowing much about this region I was happy to put myself in the expert hands of the manager. During our stay, we drank several stunning wines from the area, including two different vintages of the same wine, each with a different hand-drawn illustration on its label. The manager’s explanations about the wines’ backgrounds had the children as intrigued and fascinated as us.
I know I’ve said a bit about how great the staff were, but they were so impressive. If I could transfer them all into my restaurants I’d be a happy man. Nothing was a problem. And although this isn’t a place that caters specifically to children, it was their attention to our needs as a family that made the holiday. So that the kids wouldn’t have to sit through a long formal dinner, the girls were offered a simple plate of gnocchi and fish, which they happily devoured before going back to the room to watch French game shows. (In keeping with the Hollywood celebrity trend to only let your kids watch TV in a foreign language, Mrs Smith and I pretended this would have some cultural benefit, with the added bonus of giving us the chance to enjoy time alone.)
As we were leaving L’Abbaye de la Celle, we were all ushered into the pastry kitchen. The girls were offered house-made hard caramels in an array of flavours from salted to mango, and each left with a bag of bonbons. Delicious of course, and the way to our girls’ hearts – but the real treat was for me. We got to walk through the entire kitchen to collect them – a beautifully spacious series of rooms, with gleaming copper pans everywhere. Exactly the kitchen I want to have when I grow up.
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