Discover: Provence with family

Find unique experiences and travel tips for a memorable 4-day family trip to one of France’s most beautiful regions. Discover lavender field photo shoots, violet hot chocolate, 18th century farmhouse-turned-hotel stays, award-winning cheese, chocolate and olive oil tastings, charming local markets, unforgettable sunsets and more.

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Provence is a dream. A beautiful dream, from which you may never want to awaken. Picturesque towns shimmer in golden light, while fields of lavender give way to roads lined with colourful wildflowers, gorgeous vineyards and ancient trees. Days filled with scenic drives, aimless walks and lazy lunches ease into sunsets and starry nights that continue to inspire generations of artists.

Places appear as if conjured from romantic novels: borie (stone)-filled Gordes, view-endowed Bonnieux, ochre-sheathed Roussillon, pretty Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, historic Avignon, artistic Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, rocky Les Baux, wild Camargue, vineyard-rich Bandol, green Gorges du Verdon or glitzy Nice, Cannes and St. Tropez. Yet, it is not merely the beauty of places that differentiates Provence; it is the sheer unpretentious charm that surrounds them.

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To do or not to do, that is the question

When in Provence, the biggest mistake is to try and do it all. The second biggest mistake, is to not do it all. The scenes, flavours and experiences change as the locale changes. To truly experience all that Provence has to offer, it is most important to slow down.

Getting on that tour bus to try and see it in a day will let you do just that: “see” it. Not, experience it. The difference between the two is very simple: drive past a lavender field to admire its beauty, but walk amidst the plants and you will hear the bees buzz as well as inhale the fragrance.

Dream the dream….

Pick the dream you want to live. While the entire region is incredible, we chose to opt for a more simple, country experience with family. Considering there was an infant and two toddlers, we managed to cover quite a bit.

Here are 10 of our favourite experiences:

1. Drive from Gordes to Sault (one of the lavender routes): Scattered lavender fields, wildflowers, vineyards and orchards dot the gorgeous road. Even if you have time only to reach halfway, the scenic views are worth the detour.

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Pretty surprise – wildflowers along the drive from Gordes to Sault

2. Explore local markets: Each market is as unique as its locale. We opted to explore the relatively smaller and more eclectic markets, but for a more complete experience, mix it up with visits to markets in Avignon or Aix. A book by Marjorie Williams, The Markets of Provence, provides detailed coverage for each of the markets. Based on the day(s) of your visit and interest, select the appropriate venue. Do keep in mind though that parking can be problematic in many of the places and plan ahead for painful traffic.

For example:

  • Gordes is a bit touristy, yet musical with a lot of fresh food, fruits, juices, produce, cheese and more free-flowing clothing.
  • St. Remy is more artistic, with paintings and budding artists scattered among artisanal foods and funky apparel/accessories.
  • Lourmarin is very relaxed, with a lot of homemade food and casual clothing. Visit the stall Les arômes méditerraneens for a range of delicious dips such as artichoke white truffle and pimento mustard. Or, walk around and pick up some freshly baked lavender or raspberry cookies.
Travel tip: Halt for fabulous vegetarian bruschetta and refreshments at Le Comptoir after you have browsed to your heart’s content.

3. Pause to pose: Provence, especially its stunning lavender fields, provides the perfect backdrop for a memorable photo shoot. Trust Rosemary Jackson, a very talented local photographer, to find the perfect setting for a beautiful photo shoot. She also provides invaluable tips and suggestions to enhance your trip.

Photo shoot in the lavender field near Joucas, Provence

4. Walk into paintings: St. Remy is like a living painting. Van Gogh’s living painting. As the eccentric genius lived in the monastery there for several years, a large majority of his paintings are inspired by the surrounding scenery. The Van Gogh Art Walk pairs his paintings with the exact location that inspired them – use the map provided for a self-guided tour of the different scenes he painted. Viewing the town from the eyes of one of the world’s greatest artists adds a unique perspective and way to experience the town. Suddenly, you might take a closer look and notice the play of sunlight on olive tree leaves.

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Tip: This is a child-friendly experience as it is outdoors and allows for learning with play amidst nature.

5. Discover culinary treasures: A trip to France is incomplete without some gluttony. Eat away or take back some delicious souvenirs:

  • Chocolate: If there’s only one chocolatier you can visit, make it chocolatier Joël Durand’s creations. With a flavour for every letter of the alphabet, you will be spoilt for choice. Expect perfectly balanced, yet intense, flavours with an element of surprise.
Tip: Try the violet chocolate. The intense and velvety chocolate with the aromatic and flavourful violet is a taste that is not soon forgotten.
  • Cheese: Though fresh cheese abounds in the region and especially at the markets, serious cheese lovers should visit La cave au fromage in St. Remy for award-winning fresh cheese paired with delicious local wines and fresh bread. Pick up some fresh fruits and dessert from the market for a complete meal. Note: Communication in English is a challenge, but manageable.
  • Olive oil: No better way to strengthen your relationship with this cooking essential than by engaging in some olive oil tasting at a plantation or mill. The taste of fresh cold-pressed olive oil will forever change how you see this staple. Truffle lovers should use the opportunity to stock up on some delicious truffle oil. Visit Moulin du Calanquet in St. Remy, a mill that has been with Brun family for five generations. Or, head to Les Baux for a taste of award-winning oils at Les Castelas.
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Offer an olive branch…or a bunch of olives!

6. Visit a lavender field, distillery or museum: The Musée du Lavande in Coustellet provides an overview of lavender and lavandin as well as the entire distillation process, along with a selection of products from Le Château du Dubois. Skip the lavender tea that has a rather soapy aftertaste, but snag the gel refrâichent, which is a God-send for aches or pains of all kinds.

 

7. Go town or city-hopping: Provence lures the explorer with its postcard-perfect villages, towns and cities. Be it the villages of the Luberon, the sights and cities of the Alpilles, the magic of the Camargue or the glamour of the French Riviera. Each, unique. Each, incredible. If you want to build in some rest and relaxation however, prioritise and know that you simply cannot do it all at once.

Travel tip: Most of the large cities have tourist train rides that are perfect to get a quick lay of the land and some brief local history. However, do note that these close by 6pm, so plan ahead to reach on time.

8. Stay in a classic French countryside retreat: One of the highlights of our trip to Provence was a stay at Le Mas de Fauchon, a member of the Château Hôtels Collection. A quintessential Provençal experience, the property is an 18th century farmhouse that has been converted into a quaint hotel. Surrounded by scores of pine trees, yet within a 30-min drive of Aix-en-Provence, the hotel is a lovely country getaway.

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A piece of Provençal countryside – Mas de Fauchon

9. Catch a sunset: Look around or simply ask around and you will find some lovely spots to enjoy gorgeous sunset views:

  • Taste one of the best artisanal ice creams of the region at Les Glaces du Tinel in Bonnieux. One mouthful of their Pistachio ice cream and it is clear why. Grab a seat outside or take it to go and seat yourself near the wall opposite to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets of the region.

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  • While in Bonnieux, head for dinner to La Flambée for some delicious pizza and soup pistou (minestrone with pesto). Book a table on their terrace for one of the best views of the Luberon.
  • Visit the Ochre Trail, Sentiers des ochres, in Roussillon and enjoy a multi-hued sunset. However, do note that the trail closes at 6pm. During summertime, catch the sunset from the viewpoint just before the trail starts.

10. Dine at a Provençal table: The quintessential image of Provence is one of eating elaborate meals at a beautiful table overlooking fields or farms. To make the vision a reality, dine at Mas de Fauchon in Saint-Cannat (near Aix-en-Provence).

If planned ahead, they rustle up some fabulous vegetarian regional specialties such as Ratatouille and Provençal potatoes along with delicious fresh pasta or mushroom risotto. The dessert is delightful and wines wonderful, but the view is fabulous. The tables overlook the family’s stud farm, so at any given time, there are a number of horses in the coral below. Surrounded by trees all around and atop a slight hill, the hotel reflects the image that appears when Provence comes to mind.

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Dinner amidst the Provençal countryside

Beyond the Yellow Brick Road…

Some journeys go beyond a destination, to a place within. Long after the trip ends, thoughts collide and emotions flow: flashes of beautiful scenes, memories of slow days, joy over places seen, regret over experiences missed and nostalgia over a fun family trip. Sometimes, travel is not as much about the place as what the place becomes because of the people with whom you experience it.

The missing piece…

Provence is special not just because it is beautiful or because it has fabulous food, but because it touches the heart…a feeling of finding something that has been missing. Maybe a reminder of times when life was simple. Or maybe, finding that life still can be. Much like the beautiful traditional carousels that are at the heart of virtually every large town.

…The beauty of travel is that sometimes it helps you find something that you never knew you were seeking…

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Travel tips:
  1. Those traveling with kids may want to visit Parc zoologique de la Barben, a wonderful zoo in the area near Saint-Cannat. However, do note that there is a lot of walking involved.
  2. Those travelling in the month of June should note that summer solstice is celebrated with several musical fêtes. Think: Live bands, dancing, drinks and fresh food.

 

10 Unforgettable Dining Experiences

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure. A bucket list for those that love food, dream about it, salivate over it and are inspired by it.

Why do we celebrate special moments with our palates and bellies? When does a meal become memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable?

It may seem obvious, but not all dining experiences are created equal. Case in point: The husband and I once went to a highly recommended restaurant in Hue, Vietnam for a special 7-course vegetarian Vietnamese meal. Course #1 was a vegetable sculpture of a peacock, with tofu and veggie spring rolls poking out of the body instead of feathers. I should probably mention that I hate tofu. Onto course #2: meat-like tofu sans vegetables. Though the husband loves tofu, the meaty resemblance was a turn-off. As were courses 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Starving by then, we hoped dessert would revive us. Just then, the waiter left a mysterious potted chili plant on our table. After awhile, I requested the waiter to bring our dessert. He pointed to the “plant” and said “That’s it.” Taken aback, I asked him how it had to be eaten. He pointed at two hanging chilies and asked us to pluck them. The chilies were made of marzipan. Bland, tasteless, marzipan. Delirious with hunger, we quickly wrapped up, but by this time all nearby restaurants were shut and our food luck ran out on us. Once the hunger pangs subsided, we shared – and continue to share – a good laugh over the unsavory experience. Just like that, the shared experience became a cherished memory.

Fabulous gastronomical experiences are those that make you sit up and pay attention to the details; truly unique experiences wrapped up in the joy felt when fantasy meets reality at a party in the mouth. Fabulous dining experiences are different in that they are sometimes greater than the meal itself. While great dining experiences may involve gastronomical ecstasy, other elements play a large role e.g. uniqueness, ambiance, occasion (especially life-changing events) and multi-sensory engagement. Here are some incredible dining experiences that do live up to their promise:

Dinner with a View: Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, Lake Como, Italy
Dinner with a View: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, Lake Como

1. On a secluded island: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina is a restaurant on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Como, Italy. A truly unusual evening spent surrounded by the beautiful blue-green waters of Como and the verdant hills at its edge. The island can only be approached by boat from the nearest town and is so tiny that the restaurant practically covers all of it.

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The meal begins with 8 different types of vegetarian appetisers, followed by fresh pasta and an amazing cheese course. The staff comes with a large wheel of fabulous parmigiano reggiano, which is carved at the table. The final touch – and highlight – is the post-dinner coffee. Lights switch off as the owner regales guests with a dramatic story about the island while creating a caffeine concoction complete with blazing brandy.

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Suspended Dining: Faber Peak, Singapore

2. In a cable car: A unique experience for couples as well as families, the husband and I did it with our baby. When dining with a baby, creativity is the name of the game. Faber Peak, Singapore, lends itself beautifully to the occasion. A private cable car can be booked and each time the car completes a run, a new course is served, starting with a complimentary bubbly toast. The food is nice, but the views of the city and surrounding water are truly fantastic. As the evening wears on, the blues and greens make way for oranges and pinks, and finally twinkling lights in the inky black sky. The view kept the baby entertained and gentle sway of the car eventually lulled him to sleep so we had a peaceful and uninterrupted anniversary dinner (except for a quick, mid-air, diaper change!)

3. In a treehouse: A fabulous addition to any honeymoon itinerary, the Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina, St. Lucia’s intimate Treehouse is set with only one table. The steps up to the Treehouse are lit by lanterns, while flickering candles and fresh flowers adorn the beautifully set table. A dedicated butler ensures uninterrupted flow of delicious island cuisine and cocktails.

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Dining over the City of Light (Image Source: http://www.lejulesverne-paris.com

4. Atop a tower: For fine dining with one of the best views in Paris, head to restaurant Le Jules Verne located on the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower. Helmed by Alain Ducasse, the kitchen focuses on contemporary French cuisine (Vegetarians, beware!). Classic interiors, subtle lighting highlight the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the City of light. The views of the lit up iconic sites across the city, are enchanting and mesmerizing. Ask for a table by the window and be specific about dietary preferences as fish may be considered ‘vegetarian’.

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Fairytale Dining: Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India)

5. Like royalty: What better way to script your own foodie fairytale than to feast atop a beautiful and authentic palace? Take a boat to a magical love nest: the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India). Emerging as an ethereal vision amidst dreamy Lake Pichola, this floating palace is royaly romantic. From the elegant jetty, to the lovely lily pond and beautiful marble flooring, the hotel is a treat for the eyes. Dine at the terrace that overlooks the gorgeously lit Jag Mandir Palace and listen to the music of gently lapping waves. The menu, placed as paper scrolls on plates, is curated especially for the occasion by prior consultation with the chef. The repertoire of dishes ranges from oriental and continental to local cuisine. Fun fact: James Bond’s Octopussy was shot here.

6. At one (or all) of “World’s 50 best restaurants“: All the restaurants in San Pellegrino’s list are worthy of pilgrimages by gastronomes. One of the most incredible experiences can be had at The Tasting Room in Le Quartier Française, Franschhoek (South Africa). Molecular gastronomy blends seamlessly with simple traditional cooking to deliver an amalgamation of flavours ranging from fresh and subtle to Umame and intense, with unexpected surprises. For vegetarians, Chef Margo Janse puts together an amazing 9-course meal that is a delight for all senses. Think amuse-bouche of opposing tastes, freshly baked corn bread in a miniature tin, Butter roasted cauliflower, amasi, hazelnuts & currants and an imploding dessert. The menu is a surprise by the chef, so be sure to let them know of any dietary preferences in advance.

It’s not just about the taste, but the complete experience…especially the service. The servers introduce each course, highlighting the ingredients as well as the chef’s thoughts, emotions and memories that are encapsulated in the dish. As a result, the diner feels a connection to food that goes beyond taste.

7. By the water: Life is a beach. Live it up with sundowners that turn to candle-lit dinners under a canopy of stars that overlook sparkling waters. Feast your eyes and feed your hunger with stunning views, bottomless drinks and endless food – perfect for when you want time to stand still.

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui, Koh Samui, Thailand
Dining with the horizon: Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui (Image source: http://www.sixsenses.com/resorts/samui/dining)

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses, Koh Samui (Thailand) for 270-degree views that give the feeling of being suspended over water. Have a pre-dinner drink at the bar and watch the incredible sunset. While the vegetarian food is strictly okay, the unparalleled views more than offset the taste.

Ku de Ta, Bali (Indonesia) for dining on lounge chairs overlooking the beach, while enjoying an electric vibe. The relaxed buzz is perfect for a night out on the island, while the wonderful vistas are a scene to remember.

A Touch of Greece In India: Thalassa, Goa
Sublime Sundowners at Thalassa

Thalassa, Goa (India) for a taste of Greece in India. Located atop a clift overlooking the Arabian Sea, the restaurant sport gorgeous views all around. Fluttering white sheers, white cushion-covered chairs and crisp white tablecloths are a striking contrast to the brilliant sky and sparkling waves.  Come before sunset and stay for the traditional plate-breaking jig by the waiters.

 

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Weaving gourmet magic with vales and vineyards: La Petite Ferme (Image source: http://www.lapetiteferme.co.za)

8. Overlooking vales or vineyards: While there are some fabulous restaurants around Napa Valley and other vino-centric locales, one of the most charming ones has to be La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek (South Africa). Recognized as one of the top 15 ‘Best Value’ establishments in the world by Condé Nast Traveller,  the food is fresh, simple and tasty and served with stunning views of the boutique winery and Franschhoek valley. Straight out of a storybook, the restaurant is framed with ivy-covered white trellis and surrounded by pretty lawns with benches that compel you to sit and enjoy the panoramic views. Better yet, stay awhile at one of their 5 luxurious suites, complete with plunge pools overlooking the finest vistas around.

9. By the riverside: The Oberoi Hotels’ Wildflower Hall does a fabulous picnic by the river. Start with some whitewater rafting in the mountains and counter the adrenaline rush with food-induced coma. Fresh pastas, salads, and yummy desserts are nicely packaged and set on a bench along the river. Complete with a white tablecloth, silverware and dinnerware. Set a scene for your own storybook with the some sun, gurgling river, chirping birds and gorgeous blue skies.

Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj - Holiday Village, Goa
Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa. (Image Source: http://www.vivantabytaj.com/holiday-village-goa/dining/chef-profiles.html)

10. At a Chef’s Table: Guests of Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa (India) are in for a treat when they sign up for a private dining experience with Chef Rego. Having a chef cook live is a special experience in itself. When the chef concerned is a 30-yr veteran specialising in authentic Goan cuisine, that experience is divine. The mango curry (seasonal) is made from mangoes freshly plucked from on-site trees just before the meal. A thorough gentleman, the chef is more than happy to talk about each dish he prepares. Fairy lights around a make-shift tent, crashing waves and a gentle sea breeze complete the experience.

On my wish list: Too many, but a list-topper has to be “Dinner in the sky” 

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Dinner in the sky: Brussels (Image source: dinnerinthesky.com)

The last byte…

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure.

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Walls no bar: Dining at Ladera, St. Lucia

Where there’s a mood, there’s a mode. Find unique dining experiences around your location or destination. Whether it is a food festival, food tour or fine dining, there are options for all purses and personalities.

Or, cook up your own delicious experience – explore an exotic locale, taste a mind-blowing concoction or discover an unusual experience. Meals do not need to be expensive to be memorable. Sometimes, the simplest and spontaneous ones are the best. Find a gourmet food store or local market, pick up fresh bread, cheese, fruit, dessert and a bottle of wine. Walk or drive around and set your picnic at a spot that makes you happy.

Great dining experiences have the power to transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary sensory and emotional experience.

That, I suppose is how a meal becomes memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable.