When I was asked to review spa resort `Jardins de Saint Benoit` I couldn`t believe my luck.
The invitation came courtesy of Garrigae, a property and holiday company based in Languedoc in Southern France, only a two hour flight from London. I have no idea why I hadn`t looked into this area before now as the region offers glorious sunshine, breathtaking scenery and some of the finest vineyards in the world.
Bordering both the Pyrenees on the east and the Mediterranean sea on the West it enjoys a wonderful climate and boasts a spectacular coastline with a stunning mountainous backdrop.
Apparently it`s relatively unknown to us Brits who prefer to holiday in Provence, and yet is just as easy and inexpensive to get to. Indeed a truly authentic experience awaits visitors; it`s a chance for us to find out where the French spend their long weekends and what they do to relax. Parisians hoping to escape the rat race have increased demand in sophisticated yet nostalgic holiday homes and Garrigae have developed a number of exceptional properties, each with their own character and Gallic charm, designed with a specific purpose in mind.
Jardin de Saint Benoit could be described as the most `family friendly ` of the portfolio with it`s extensive kids activity roster (including mini yoga!) although having stayed there sans children I can vouch that its is also perfect couple territory- there`s not a Butlin holiday rep in sight and I saw no sparky teenager shouting at kids to get in the pool and perform a Mexican wave. In fact I actually thought I`d stumbled across a honeymoon destination but perhaps this is typical French – even the kids are coolly nonchalant.
It`s easy to see why le Jardin has had no problem renting out apartments; the venue is a picture perfect example of southern elegance. Driving into the Benoit estate you`ll first come across a rather grand looking farmhouse lined with olive trees and van Gogh purple irises. This mansion is in the heart of le Jardin, and hosts their bar, restaurant, roman spa and beautiful outdoor pool.
Every morning before breakfast I dipped in for an invigorating swim and took in the view (which is spectacular) a valley of vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees, lavender fields and sunflowers all stretching for miles around without a single office building or traffic jam in sight. It`s enough to make you reach for your watercolors…. Of course if swimming sounds far too much like hard work you could follow in the footsteps of my traveling companions and book in for a massage. The spa centre is equipped with treatment rooms, sauna, steam and Jacuzzi and designed to be a stress and hassle free zone with plenty of quiet corners to hang out, sip some fruity tea and catch up with a good book.
One past-time we all agreed upon was eating and drinking. If you love your food and wine you`ll love this place. Not only does it have its own vineyard but it also provides wine tasting and cookery lessons – which of course we felt obliged to try out.
Somehow I, keeper of the microwave and queen of the fish finger sandwich, found myself chopping olives, grinding anchovies and pummeling the plumpest beef tomatoes onto chunks of the freshest French bread. I`m not sure how wise arming me with a sharp knife was after a few glasses during the cookery session- but can let you know it was a hugely enjoyable process.
Of course there is nothing like some sea air to clear a foggy head so the next day we headed out to view their coastal property, Port Rive Gauche in Marseilles.
Perched on the waterfront this boutique bolthole occupies a former wine warehouse that has now been divided into 11 luxury suites and a spa centre. It`s decorated in French marine style – so super trendy, all white washed walls, driftwood and bleached out decking which are entirely in keeping with the property`s view: a crystal clear deep blue sea.
Having experienced what it`s like to lie out on the apartments decking long enough to start turning pink we all cruised along the harbour to a nearby fish restaurant where oysters are present on every table and top quality seafood is an everyday occurrence. Over a long lunch fishy lunch and couple of bottles of wine we learnt the aim behind the company`s vision from their chic representative Eurydice. She explained how the Garrigae is passionate about ensuring an authentic French experience without sacrificing on modern creature comforts. The renovations keep the history of the region ever present but aren`t ignorant to the needs and demands of their visitors.
Ever the perfect hostess she took us on a little tour of the seaside village and into its famous Noilly Prat vermoutherie where we learnt the history of this famous brand and sampled some of it`s various guises. According to our guide Rick Stein is a huge Noilly fan and on his visit enjoyed more than one glass of it`s local amber variety; sweeter and less dense than the version we are used to, and the best bit- you can only get it here!
Not wanting to outstay our welcome we said goodbyes to our guide and fitted in a stroll along the harbour, stopping to buy an ice cream to help stay cool in the sun, by now high in the sky, bleaching out all the cobbled pavements and whitewashed fishing boats around us.
Had we enough energy left we could have marched into the rugged countryside and tackled some of that famous hillside walking where nature trails and medieval ruins can be discovered at every turn. The region is a historians dream; it was once an epi-centre of medieval wealth and intelligence and had some of the most forward thinking leaders of its time. It even had its own language, `Occitan`, which was widely spoken until the city was annexed and amazingly it is still taught in local schools, proof that patriotic pride is still very much alive in the neighbouring towns.
The mountain fortresses known as the Cathar Castles are widely famous and I vowed next time I`d do a bit of homework and ask Garrigae to sort me out with a tour guide to take me into the Languedoc heartland. This is one of the best things about staying with them, they sort all your Mariah Carey type demands so even English speaking idiots like me can get around and enjoy the experience without worrying about their complete lack of local knowledge or failure to speak the lingo.
Having been on the go all day it was sheer bliss to get back to our private villas where I sat out on my very own terrace and looked up at the starriest sky I have seen in a long time. It was perfectly quiet and still and not long before I was tucked up dreaming of ice creams and sailing boats.
For more information on visiting any of the Garrigae properties please see garrigae-resorts.com.
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