A week in Provence

Living large in the south of France


It’s time for “the big reveal.” Before me stands an imposing green gate, behind which lies a villa that will be my home for the next few days in the lavender-laden French Provencal village of Opio. I wonder if the house will live up to the images of the chic, airy escape I found online … or if it will prove to be an “A Year in Provence”-style fixer-upper complete with a leaky roof, groaning pipes and temperamental toilets that refuse to flush without cursing, begging and bargaining with a higher power.

As I hold my breath, the gate slides slowly aside with glacial grace, as if deliberately building suspense. If this were a television show, the director would doubtless cut to a commercial break as the soundtrack soared to a nail-biting crescendo.

When at last the villa comes into view, I exhale in relief. The five-bedroom manse is even more impressive than the photos on the website of Scott Dunn, a British-based luxury travel operator that recently opened an office in the U.S.

Set amid a blooming landscape, white walls aglow in the sunshine, Villa Constantins promises to be an ideally Instagrammable idyll. In the open-plan living and dining room, white leather sofas cluster around a fireplace and a long farm table extends toward the gourmet kitchen. A breeze wafts in through a row of French doors, thrown open to expose views of the heated infinity pool, vine-draped terrace and bucolic countryside beyond. I’m pleased to report that the plumbing works with a flawless “whoosh” as well.

What truly sets Scott Dunn Villas above other holiday homes I’ve rented is the fact that they are manned by staff, all of whom are fluent in English, so you can roll like “Downton Abbey’s” Lord and Lady Grantham. In addition to a nanny or children’s activity specialist, guests enjoy the services of a private chef and a “host” — a sort of modern day butler who has traded Carson’s black tie and tailcoat for a polo shirt and khakis.

Our host is Harry Littlefield, a grinning, gregarious British lad who acts as both DJ and bartender. I spend many a sundrenched hour poolside, listening to his Summer Acoustics mix and gazing up at the clear blue sky through rosé-colored glasses, the cloudless canvas above interrupted only by the occasional private jet ferrying the glitterati to Nice or Cannes.

Of course, laying around by the pool lifting all those heavy glasses requires sustenance, and chef Thomas Birch provides plenty. Break“feasts” are a smorgasbord of French pastries, fruit, yogurt and eggs cooked to order, while lunches feature lighter fare, like grilled meats and salads. Evening canapes are accompanied by bottomless bottles of rosé, followed by candlelit, multi-course dinners where even the napkins are dressed to impress, folded into the shape of a tuxedo shirt one night, a rose the next.

The first and pretty much the last time I attempted to prepare a real meal (i.e. anything more challenging than toast), I set the kitchen on fire, so I’m happy to kick back and let someone else do the cooking. But guests are welcome to get stuck in if they like, accompanying the chef to the local market or pitching in in the kitchen — a particularly popular pastime for children.

“Kids love the ‘pizza factory,’” explains Maciek Gorny, another Scott Dunn Villa chef. “Give them lots of ingredients and then whack it in the oven for a few minutes. They eat much better when they have made the food themselves.”

Culinary temptation is inescapable in France, and we find ample belt-loosening indulgences in the villages nearby. In Pont-du-Loup, tucked into a dramatic river gorge, we nosh on crystallized sugar-coated violet petals and handmade chocolates on a tour of Confiserie Florian candy factory.

Just downhill from our villa, at Moulin d’Opio olive oil producers, we sample varieties infused with truffles, thyme and rosemary, garlic and basil, and lemons, all made on-site. There’s also an orange-flavored olive oil, which guide Laetitia Agnello suggests mixing into cake batter.

“We don’t use butter in cakes,” says Agnello, whose husband’s family has been in the oil business here for seven generations. “We use olive oil for everything.”

At Tourettes-sur-Loup, a huddle of centuries-old stone houses and shops perched atop a bluff overlooking the Loup Valley, chef Julien Bousseau offers a wine tasting at Le 19 du Clovis Bar and Cave à Vins. Bousseau, who runs the Michelin-starred Bistrot Gourmand Clovis next door with his wife, Leah Van Der Mije, is as passionate about life in this small village as he is about the food and wine he serves.

“This village is still authentic — more quiet, not busy,” Bousseau says, as we savor a Cotes du Provence white wine with a plate of sardines. “We have a butcher, a bakery, and we know all the neighbors. It’s like it was 50 years ago.”

Children play in the cobblestone streets, elderly ladies gossip on their front steps, and all ages gather in the square to compete in petanque, a form of lawn bowling that is sacrosanct to the French. “You cannot mess with petanque,” Bousseau insists, shaking his head. “There would be a war.”

My friends and I attempt a few rounds of petanque on our villa’s private pitch, but somehow, even scavenging for the little metal balls we’ve accidentally knocked into the underbrush doesn’t seem sufficient exercise to work off our caloric excesses. For that, we turn to Jacques Bourse of Bikool, who turns up one morning with a fleet of e-bikes.

Maybe it’s cheating to rely on a bicycle with an electric motor to help me conquer the steepest slopes as we wheel toward the shop-lined streets of Valbonne, a mere 3 miles away. But when I rev that engine up to turbo power, I reckon I know how Lance Armstrong feels, effortlessly gobbling up the asphalt.

OK, so I’ll never be a contender for the Tour de France. But my Scott Dunn Tour de Provence, fueled by fine wine and gourmet cuisine, is just my speed.



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