Dining a highlight on serene tour of Provence

The Couvent des Minimes Hotel & L’Occitane Spa in Mane retains the charm of its roots as a 17th-century cloister.
The Couvent des Minimes Hotel & L’Occitane Spa in Mane retains the charm of its roots as a 17th-century cloister. Photo Credit: Felicity Long

Should fears of overtourism keep your clients away from Provence? After all, this area in southern France is one of the destination's best-known regions, thanks to its sunny climate, picturesque lavender fields and robust art scene.

But on a recent Flavors of Provence fam trip with a group of international travel advisors and tour operators, one of several pretours offered to attendees at the 2019 Rendez-vous en France trade show in Marseille, I enjoyed a surprisingly serene visitor's experience that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to would-be travelers. key ingredient in our exploration of the area was the choice of hotels, all of which offered a distinctly French atmosphere at various price points. Our tour began with an overnight stay at the Couvent des Minimes Hotel & L'Occitane Spa in Mane, a five-star Virtuoso Relais & Chateau property that opened with much fanfare in 2008.

The 46-room hotel began life as an early-17th-century cloister, and the facade and terraced, aromatic gardens retain their medieval character, while the interior offers a modern design aesthetic. 

Highlights include the two restaurants (Le Cloitre for fine dining and Le Pesquier bistro for more relaxed fare), an atrium bar and the spa, which uses products by the internationally known Provencal brand L'Occitane.

We followed up with a stay at La Bonne Etape Relais & Chateaux, an 18-room, four-star property in Chateau-Arnoux-Saint-Auban located in a former 18th-century inn and stables. Guestrooms boast a vintage look in keeping with the property's history, and the grounds offer flowering trees and an outdoor swimming pool.

The highlight is the eponymous restaurant, helmed by Michelin-star chef Jany Gleize. Our visit coincided with black truffle season, and Gleize prepared the truffles for us in a half-dozen ways, using ingredients from his vegetable garden. 

The three-star Hotel Le Pre Saint Michel in Manosque offers a simple decor without losing the charm of the Provencal location. Features of the 24-room property include an outdoor pool, flat-screen TVs and complimentary WiFi.

Meanwhile, each of the 25 guestrooms at the four-star Hotel Abbaye de Sainte Croix in Salon-de-Provence offers scenic views of the countryside or the gardens, a heated outdoor pool and a fine dining restaurant. A former 12th-century monastery, the property's suites can accommodate two to five guests. 

Because this is France, after all, we spent a fair amount of time dining, including long lunches at a variety of venues across the region. For example, at the Domaine des Sources in Niozelles, a 16-room golf hotel, we sampled local produce overlooking the outdoor swimming pool. At the Cote Bistrot at the three-star La Magnanerie Hotel in Aubignosc, guests and nonguests can have lunch indoors or alfresco.

A highlight even among the parade of great restaurants was a catered alfresco lunch at Domaine des Garidelles, where the cuisine was supplied by the Michelin-starred Dominique Bucaille restaurant in Manosque. The showpiece of the meal was the abundance of Villedieu black truffles, which we not only sampled in various forms but also hunted for with members of the Barbe family, who own the estate. 

Other noteworthy meals included dinner at Chez Eric in Montfuron for traditional fare like foie gras and rack of lamb; lunch at Galerie Argilla, a pottery gallery in Aubagne; and dinner at the 17th-century Chateau de Richebois in Salon-de-Provence, which also hosts jazz nights and olive oil tastings.

No exploration of this region would be complete without sampling the products Provence is most famous for: olive oil, wine, aromatic soaps and essential oils.

At the Cordeliers Convent, home to the European University of Scents and Flavors, we learned about the use of local plants in fragrance, cosmetics and food and participated in a workshop where we made our own pastis, a traditional French aperitif. 

At the Institut des Huiles Essentielles in Mane, founded in 2014 by Florame, a producer and exporter of essential oils, we learned about the distillation of aromatic oils and how to distinguish subtle aromas, while at the Moulin Fortune Arizzi in Les Mees, we sampled award-winning extra-virgin olive oil produced exclusively on its estate in the Durance Valley. 

We tried more olive oil at the Ecomusee de l'Olivier in Volx, which showcases the olive products from the Luberon Regional Nature Park, and learned to make our own olive oil soap at savonnerie Marius Fabre in Salon-de-Provence.

At Lothantique in Peyruis we shopped for toiletries and home fragrances and spent a few hours in Manosque touring L'Occitane en Provence, part museum, part factory and producer of the region's most internationally famous scented oils and soaps. 

No tour of Provence would be complete without wine tasting, and our itinerary included a visit to La Blaque winery in Pierrevert, where we explored the cellar and sampled the award-winning wines of the region. 

Finally, our tour included a museum tour of the Santons Maryse Di Landro workshop in Aubagne, where we discovered the art of santons, a very specific traditional statue collected by locals, especially during the winter holidays, and embarked on a museum tour of Calissons le Roy Rene factory in Aix-en-Provence.

Visit www.dignelesbains-tourisme.com, www.tourism-alps-provence.com and www.myprovence.fr/en for more information.

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