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South of France: A pocket guide

There’s far more to the South of France than sweeping lavender fields, sun-baked villas, and sensational food, but that’s a good place to start. A common misconception about the south is that the separate regions, such as Provence and the Cote d’Azur, are culturally  the same. The truth is that the cultures and traditions of the south vary not just from region to region but from town to town. Take the time to explore it all and see which area is your favorite.

While in Provence, make sure to visit the Luberon Valley. Early morning hot-air balloon rides over the valley can and should be arranged. Many of the region’s most picturesque and interesting towns are within easy reach of Avignon, so if you set up a home base from your villa near Saint-Remy-de-Provence you can still easily visit Chateauneuf du Pape on one day, Menerbes and Bonnieux on another day, and Uzes the next. Clinging to an ancient limestone promontory, Les Baux de Provence is one of the most visited villages in France.

For culture, you have places such as Les Treilles—400 hectares filled with art and sculptures, created by the family behind the Rothko Chapel—and the Academie Musicale de Villecroze, where stars like Jessye Norman give master classes and recitals. Spend a lazy afternoon at Café le Progres in Eygalieres, people watching and relaxing with a newspaper. For something different, head to the Alyscamps Roman cemetery in Arles and then stop off at the sweet little Le Tambourin café.

In addition to the smaller bistrots and local restaurants, there are restaurants of exceptional quality, such as La Bastide de Moustiers near the Gorges du Verdun or the Dining Room at the recently opened Domaine de la Baume outside of Tourtour (once the home of Bernard Buffet). This area also offers some of the best outdoor and nature sports in France, with the walks and river trips being nothing short of awe-inspiring. To escape the crowds, go for a long, rambling walk in Les Alpilles park.

What would a visit to Provence be without sampling the world renowned cuisine? For the pick of the produce and a chat with the locals, head to village farmers markets early in the morning and track down some of the finest honey, oils, and food in the world. For a special treat, get a table at Mas de l’Amarine in St-Rémy de Provence.

Glitz and glamour are trademark qualities of seaside St-Tropez, where the rich, famous, and beautiful come to let their hair down. For the best people watching, head to the exclusive Senequier Bar du Portor Café de Paris, where moored super-yachts form a colorful backdrop. The place to see and be seen, famous the world over, is Pampelonne Beach. Along the length of the beach are clubs and restaurants with sun beds, parasols, and waiter service. Celebrities still tend to hang out at Le Club 55 and Morea, as they have private jetties. Both Colette at Sezz Hotel on Route de Salins and La Terrace at La Residence de la Pinede are eye-wateringly expensive but truly gastronomic in an amazing waterfront setting.

The Cote d’Azur is also perfect for more down-to-earth holidays. To absorb local life, visit Le Sporting club on Place des Lices, where you can watch the locals playing boules in the afternoon and explore the twice-weekly Provencal market. Take a boat to the Islands of Porquerolles and Port Cros for wonderful snorkeling and have lunch at Le Mas du Langoustier. The village of La Croix Valmer has a series of outdoor concerts throughout the summer. For something really French and inexpensive try La Ferme Ladoucer, a homely place set in vineyards just outside of Ramatuelle.

While options between Cap Ferrat and St-Tropez are varied and plentiful, increasingly guests are searching for those exclusive pockets which are more discreet, private, and peaceful. If being next to the sea is important, there are some fantastic places going west from St-Tropez toward Toulon and Hyeres. Some of the best are near the hamlet of Cabasson, which has been protected from over-development because of its location near the French president’s summer residence, Fort Bregancon. Farther along there are peninsulas that provide pockets of tranquillity close to the restaurants and markets that make the area so special.

The South of France is home to some of the most spectacular luxury villas in the world, and our UltraVilla experts have handpicked the very best for you to enjoy. New to the French scene are villas and châteaus of charm and authenticity, so check in with UltraVilla as we uncover more of these gems.

Classic french provincial village scene featuring blue citroen car and old buildings with shutters/iStock/

Meet the Experts for South of France