The silky murmur came through the train window that day, along with the scent of honey, of pine, of varnished buds, of lilac about to bloom, that bitter smell of lilac before it flowers, a blend of turpentine and almond. The cherry trees cast violet shadows on the reddish earth, already parched with thirst. —Colette
From the beginning, the idea was a "different" Provence. "We wanted to do the spirit of Provence, the ease, the quality, the sun, but not what you see everywhere else," says Jocelyne Sibuet, a charming but no-nonsense dynamo, with a dismissive wave of her hand. While husband Jean-Louis addressed the restoration and construction, she spent a year selecting furniture, scouring the antiques markets in Paris and the South of France, and accenting her finds with fabrics from Pierre Frey, Canovas, Designers Guild, and local artisan Edith Mézard. And she selected colors—a muted, complex group drawn from the shades of the surrounding countryside. The common rooms would be white or a soft gold; the bedrooms, painted and named for their inspiration, such as Gris de Sauge (sage gray), Mauve d'Aster (aster purple), Miel d'Oranger (the color of orange-blossom honey). And so it went.
La Bastide de Marie is a whitewashed stone farmhouse set deeply in the vineyards of Provence's Lubéron Valley. Its location on the road between Bonnieux and Ménerbes, key players in Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, is practically a secret, announced only by a tiny red- and green-grape-colored sign beside a gravel driveway leading to locked electronic gates.
Surrounded by 20 acres of vineyards, it couldn't be quieter or more secluded. And unlike so many other hotels in the area, there isn't an inch of the Provençal look in sight—the ubiquitous small-patterned Souleiado and Les Olivades fabrics or the glazed royal-blue, gold, or green urns on view in gift shops from Lourmarin to Arles. Instead, the tone here is subdued, sophisticated, and totally eclectic. "If I had a house in Provence," said a Parisian guest lying by the pool, a bi-level stone construction with waterfalls streaming, "this is exactly how I'd want it to look."
That La Bastide transcends cliché is due, of course, to the exquisite taste of the owners and to their status as enlightened outsiders. These are not locals giving visitors what they think they want to see. After all, Jocelyne and Jean-Louis Sibuet are second-generation hoteliers. They started out in Megève in Haute-Savoie, where they created the ravishingly rustic retreat Les Fermes de Marie and later bought and restored the town's most famous historic hotel, the Mont Blanc. For their first foray outside the mountains, they picked the Lubéron (which they had grown to love on past vacations) and this 18th-century farmhouse, formerly a private estate. And they selected it quickly: Three days after they began their search, it was theirs.
A graceful blend of tones and styles that only someone with confidence and an acute sense of design could create, La Bastide is magical. The main salon, for instance, dominated by a deep-blue gilded Baroque couch and surrounded by a weathered white urn from Crete, a rooster-topped weather vane, and formal marble and gilded tables, is part Provence, part Loire château. Bedrooms are designed around romantic wrought-iron fourposters or crown canopies or favorite finds, such as a painted Italian bedframe. The bathrooms might feature sleek, modern Philippe Starck sinks carved of Ménerbes stone and be more in the style of a boutique hotel in New York than a French country inn, but therein lies the charm. Into this mix come local crafts—the painted, slightly distressed dressers, a long zinc-topped table in the Breakfast Room, a whimsical iron birdcage (sans bird), the forged-iron chairs on the stone terrace.
As high-styled as the surroundings are, they are also supremely relaxed—what is brand-new feels as if it has been here forever. And with just 12 rooms (plus two suites to be completed in May), La Bastide still feels like a private house, something the staff very much encourages in its low-key way. Tisanes are brewed from garden herbs while you sprawl on the couch in the main salon after dinner, and coffee is served on the terrace after you've helped yourself to crusty loaves of bread slathered with preserves of local fruits in the morning. The crew is always around if you need them, but they're not too much of a presence: subtle but perfect, just like the rest of the house.
Guests have to pull themselves away to explore Bonnieux (about five miles away) and Lourmarin or Gordes (each no more than 15 miles away). But they always come home for dinner. First, there is the nightly cocktail party with a buffet featuring a massive slab of jabugo ham, hunks of saucisson (dry sausage), bowls of olives, and baked rounds of rustic breads, accompanied by the current vintage of Domaine de Marie, the Sibuets' other project: the red, white, and rosé Côtes du Lubéron made from the surrounding vines (and named, as are La Bastide and Les Fermes, after their 13-year-old daughter, Marie).
Afterwards, there is a sumptuous dinner on the terrace with lavender-scented breezes, flickering candles, and cuisine-of-the-sun menus created by executive chef Nicolas Le Bec: pumpkin soup with summer truffles, roast pigeon with herbs, rouget (red mullet) stuffed with fennel. But even the simplest dishes—mozzarella with sun-ripened tomatoes and mashed potatoes whipped with olive oil—are so luscious that one savors every last bite. Here is the true taste of Provence.
La Bastide de Marie opens for the season March 15. Room rates range from $350 to $530, and they include lunch or dinner and the house wine. Route de Bonnieux, Quartier de la Verrerie, 84560 Ménerbes, France; 33-4-90-72-30-20; fax 33-4-90-72-54-20; www.labastidedemarie.com.
Laurie Werner is a contributing editor and wrote the Caribbean Travel Guide for the November/December 2000 issue.