The Luxe Life



August 15, 2002 -- "A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch," wrote Aldous Huxley, "and an optimistic believer in the will's freedom after it." Case in point: me, in France, in June, between leaving the farmhouse we'd rented northeast of Avignon at 10 a.m. and our arrival at Marseille Airport at 3:30 p.m.

It was the end of two sun-shot weeks in the Vaucluse, the region east of Avignon that takes in much of classic Provence--the antiques town of l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and hill towns such as Bonnieux and Menerbes, both made famous by Peter Mayle. Backing out of the driveway, I thought my destiny lay in killing time before the flight. Checking in at the airport, I'd felt I'd cheated fate. Because in between I'd had a divine lunch at the Abbaye de Sainte Croix, on what could be the most beautiful outdoor dining terrace in Provence.

The Abbaye, a 25-room hotel that crowns a 1,000-foot-high hill just outside Salon-de-Provence, has a Michelin one-star restaurant. We stopped for lunch just after noon on impulse because we were ahead of schedule and the Abbaye is not far off the highway to Marseille--but, as it turned out, not easy to find. (Have directions faxed or e-mailed; those on the Website aren't detailed enough to get you there.)

The hotel, a complex of terra-cotta-roofed buildings, was created from the ruins of a 12th-century Romanesque abbey. The terrace occupies 3,000 square feet in front of the hotel, right on the brow of the hill. From our table we could see the Plain of Salon rolling away toward the misty coast, and the Autoroute du Soleil glinting in the sun as it snaked down toward Marseille airport, 45 miles south. Closer in, the hills were dabbed with the fresh silver-green of new olive groves.

It wasn't just the setting though, it was also the table settings--a symphony of green, yellow, red, and gold linens from Pierre Frey and Olivier Journe--that were so memorable. They made the space vividly appetizing.

At this point, just an okay lunch would have been tres bien, but we hit the trifecta. Chef Pascal Morel hails from Burgundy, but, says Sainte Croix general manager Catherine Bossard, "Provence introduced him to fish." And inspired him, apparently. All three dishes we had--grilled St. Pierre with tomato and sweet red pepper puree, sea bass with artichoke puree and fennel bouillon, and timbale of sole with shellfish and wild mushrooms--were perfectly done and full of subtle flavors. Add the slight breeze and the sun shadowboxing puffy cumulus clouds and we couldn't have asked for more.

The rooms in the Abbaye were created from the monks' cells and most of them are small. Go for one of the deluxe rooms ($310 a night in the high season), which face south to the Plain of Salon, the best view, or for a superior ($270). For the most space and the best view, request St.-Michel, a suite with two south-facing terraces. The hotel has tennis courts and a good size pool (22 by 52 feet). If I were arriving in Marseille after an overnight flight from the United States, I might check in here for a day or two to shake off the jet lag. Reservations: 011-33-490-56 24 55. A three-course lunch costs $71 and an à la carte menu is available.

Here is a shortlist of other discoveries I made during my two weeks in the Vaucluse.

Restaurants    Le Moulin a Huile, a Michelin one-star perched above the River Ouveze in Vaison-la-Romaine, is the domain of chef Robert Bardot, who had two stars at Le Flambard in Lille. He and his wife Sabine did what many of us dream of doing--packed up and moved to Provence. Bardot has a deft hand with fish and spices and the dining terrace offers a fine view across the river to the old town. Perfect on a breezy summer evening. (Price: $125 for two for dinner; Location: Quai du Marechal Foch, Route du Malaucene; Reservations: 011-33-490-36-20-67.) St. Hubert, in the tiny village of Entrechaux, south of Vaison-la-Romaine, tempted us with its "aquatique menu" of fresh fish (not that common among smaller inland restaurants in the Vaucluse) and a come-hither dining terrace roofed with vines. Both proved delightful. (Price: $75; Location: Entrechaux exit off the D938; Reservations: 011-33-490-46-00-05.) Au Fils du Temps, also a Michelin one star, is a charming six-table, storefront restaurant on a small square in Pernes-les-Fontaines, a village located east of Avignon and north of l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Chef Frederic Robert's forte is straightforward but flavorful dishes using market ingredients. Pernes, by the way, gets short shrift in the Michelin Green Guide, but it is a delightful town for a pre-dinner stroll. (Price: $125; Location: Place Louis Giraud; Reservations: 011-33-490-66-48-61.)

Wine Route    The Cote du Ventoux appellation, northeast of Carpentras, is coming on strong in quality, but that's not yet reflected in prices. One great value: Domaine de Fondreche, which makes a bona fide rose from Grenache ($12), as opposed to making it by draining off part of its red wine production. It also produces a trio (two reds and a white) of first-rate special cuvees ($19 each). They can be purchased at the chateau (4 to 6 p.m. weekdays), located off the D974 outside Carpentras (direction Bedoin). They are also available in the United States. Contact Robert Kacher Selections (202-832-9083) for a retail store near you.

Handcrafted    Venasque, which the Vaucluse tourist office claims is "one of the most beautiful villages in France," lives up to the billing. It stands on a robust bluff overlooking the Nesque River valley and has been restored to a fare-thee-well. At the top of the main street, look for Atelier de Faience, which specializes in hand-painted ceramics, both decorative and utilitarian, in crisp blue-and-white designs. Our favorites: the "two-cats" bowl and the donkey display plate. The shop (011-33-490-66-07-92) is located at Place de la Fontaine at the top of the main street and is closed Sunday and Monday. Ceramics are dishwasher-safe and can be shipped to the United States. By the way: Don't leave town without seeing the 13th-century Church of Notre Dame, particularly the harrowing Crucifixion scene in the first bay opposite the entrance.

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