Luxury villa rentals and bespoke experiences.
A new journey
Le Collectionist was born out of a desire to travel differently; far from stagnant trips filled with standardized places and played out experiences. We want to go off the beaten path and discover destinations in a new light, immersing ourselves in local customs and cadences. Traveling, to us, means taking the time to experience every moment fully, surrounded by our loved ones.
We envision your trip with you by picking from our collection of destinations, private homes, and experiences. We design a different, free and authentic form of traveling that is tailored to your needs.
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In the field
We’re opening local offices in each of our top destinations and we’re building our collection on-site with our local experts. They search high and low for unique locations, extraordinary backdrops, and fresh experiences. They know, inspect, and prepare each house. With the help of our concierge team, they build your entire experience. They welcome you and introduce you to your destination as an old friend would.
Discover our destinations
An iguana, lying on a rock baked white-hot by the sun, watches indifferently as you pass, not moving an inch. Taking in the heady fragrance of the flowering hibiscus, you spot the turquoise waters of Anse Colombier stretching below. Stairs lead down the rock where the path then turns into a passage shaded by dense vegetation, between cacti and succulents. In an instant, you’re at the beach. The narrow strip of golden sand is almost deserted and the sea takes on a full palette of blue. On this tiny 25 km² island lost in the Caribbean, you live with your feet in the sand. On the miniature beaches, you can feel like the only person on Earth, or you can lounge around in a beach club, part hippie, part chic. Shell Beach is covered with shells and Marigot coconut palms. You can go to Corossol to lie on its brown sand and to Grand Cul de Sac to ride the waves. Governor and Grand Saline are empty and wild. The sea changes from aquamarine to turquoise. The Anse Grand Fond is more daunting, with its natural pools carved out from the swell-battered rocks of Morne Rouge. Slip inside with the Atlantic waves splashing all round. Saint-Barthelemy is a quiet island with a festive village feel to it, everyone greeting and calling out to each other. Its untamed terrain inundates the sole road that crosses the island. Time passes, marked by tranquility and lightness. Here you don’t make plans, you just let yourself be carried away by the sweetness of island life. The tiny capital Gustavia, a rectangular port with a few pink-roofed houses hidden in the lush hills, is set to the rhythm of sailboats. You can spend time wandering among the small shops, flame trees and palms that fill the few streets. There are dozens of restaurants, with all types of atmosphere and cuisine. In the port as well as in the panoramic heights, you can enjoy the catch of the day exquisitely prepared. In the early evening, the bars fill up and pulsate with Creole music. As the beautiful wooden houses decorated in bright colors gradually come alive, you know it’s time for some infused rum and a Caribbean beer. The beach clubs light up and resonate with the sound of the turntables. Here you dress up to go out, in a nonchalant but chic style, nothing ostentatious, an art that is acquired quickly and which is here, more than anywhere else, totally natural.
Lisbon’s nickname may be the City of Seven Hills, but we think of it as the city of light. It’s the light that first enraptures us. It’s not only because it’s sunny some 2,800 hours each year; it’s the vibrancy of the saturated blue sky, the evocative shadows on the narrow streets of the old quarter of Alfama, and the gleam of sunbeams reflecting on the colorful azulejos (tiles) that adorn so many of the homes. The light seduced us in the same way as the city. Lisbon has its historic soul, all dignity and moodiness, and its contemporary creative culture. It is somber and exuberant all at once. We cry at a traditional fado show one night, then dance until dawn the next. One day we feast on shellfish—heavy on the bulhão pato sauce of garlic, lemon, and olive oil, of course—and beer at a decades-old cervejaria like Ramiro, and the next we sample the trendy new restaurant such as the pan-Asian Boa Bao or superstar chef Kiko Martins’ clean-eating O Watt. The City of Seven Hills has never been more fascinating—or more fun—than it is right now. Thanks to an influx of international and homegrown innovators and entrepreneurs, the historic city, on the banks of the wide Tagus Estuary, is growing more cosmopolitan by the day. Yet rickety antique trams still rattle along their tracks, and the traditional quietly beautiful architectural styles are being preserved. Museums celebrate not just fine art but also the history of textiles and tiles, carriages and currency, and of course the 15th-century Portuguese Discoveries, an era in which Lisbon was the world’s most prosperous trading center, thanks to its skilled seafarers and colonies around the world. Lisbon is also where we jump off for day trips. One day we go to the monuments and monasteries (and delicious, beloved custard tarts known as pasteis de Natal) of Belém, and the next to the stunning, colorful European Romantic palaces and mountainous countryside of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whenever possible, we go to the long, sandy Atlantic beaches of tony towns like Estoril and Cascais—the small crescent of Praia do Guincho is our favorite—and the seemingly endless stretch of the Costa da Caparica. Here, we lounge in the sun and lunch on the simplest, most delicious grilled fresh fish and glasses of cool, crisp Vino Verde, watching surfers ride some of the best waves in Europe. When the sunset inevitably comes and tints the sky with shades of salmon pink and soft lavender, we swoon for the light of Lisbon once more.
Megève awakens our inner nomadic desires. It is afternoon and the light is already fading. The dazzling morning snowfall glimmers with new colors as it covers the pines and houses in a powdery layer. We line up under a stalactite-decorated chalet roof, waiting for instructions from our mountain guide. He arrives and sets about unpacking his ski poles and snowshoes. Bundled in thick layers of wool, we are ready to explore the surrounding woods. On the trail we learn to recognize the traces animals have left in the snow, what they eat, and the places they frequent or seek out for shelter. Our journey ends with the comfort and warmth of a fireplace in a Savoyard chalet. On the church square, harnessed horses await their first outing. Every day, a horse-drawn carriage rides through the cobbled streets to the jerky rhythm of a cheerful trot. Walking near a stream that passes through the historical center of Megève, we head towards a narrow alley that leads us to the egg-shaped ski lifts. First dizziness, then a breathtaking panorama. It only takes a few minutes to be perched at 1800 meters above sea level. To awaken the adventurer in us, Megève decks itself out in its finest attire with its snow-clad mountains, reliefs, peaks and lakes. The most courageous will opt for a ski tour through the heart of the Mont Blanc massif; others will revel in the discovery of the Mer de Glace or the Col d'Entrèves. Fans of Jack London won’t want to pass up a visit to Bruno Cornali, a passionate musher, settled in the heights of Mont Villard. Bruno shows us these surroundings by day and night, alongside his half-wolf, half-cuddle-loving sled dogs. Whichever path you end up taking, you’re bound to return from your expedition with flushed cheeks, sore legs and an empty belly. That’s nothing to worry about when you know that the best restaurants in the region are here, ranging from star-awarded gourmet cuisine to Savoyarde specialties whose reputation speaks for itself. Raclette and tartiflette on one side, nems with Reblochon, mountain cheese risotto and porcini mushrooms on the other. The real connoisseurs know what awaits them. Megève’s inhabitants have let us in on many of its secrets. They know that only the mountains are able to bring out the explorer within us, eager to embark on a discovery of Megève’s snow covered landscapes.
Paros & Antiparos
White houses string their blue windows along the narrow alleys of the old port of Parikia. The tiny doors and windows are left open. You peek inside: you see people sitting and listening to bouzouki on the radio or clanking pans. The bougainvillea climb the walls, coloring the roofs pink. The sweet scent of fig trees fills the air. Entering the deep shade of a stone archway, you find a hidden garden with cats lazing about beneath laundry swaying in the wind. It’s a pleasure to lose yourself in the labyrinth of silent streets, cooled by the soft shade of olive trees. This maze of narrow streets is only one of Paros’s many secrets. You’d think you could lap the whole island in some thirty minutes and in a way, it's true. But Paros always finds a way to lure you into new fascinating discoveries. Following an off-road path you find a cove you’ve never seen before, occupied by goats. Drawn by the smell of grilled fish, you end up stumbling upon a hidden restaurant, its roof weighed down by bougainvillea. When you adventure along the coast between the monastery and the lighthouse of Cape Korakas, the island starts to look like the end of the world, everything but the air seemingly swept away. But in the small port of Naoussa, Paros shows its vibrant side. On the promenade resembling the Croisette, freshly caught octopuses hang by the dozens on linen threads. You’ll find the pier decked with chairs and tables, the port’s restaurants offering grilled fish fresh off the colored boats. In the evening, this is the place to drink an ouzo or a cocktail as the lanterns light up and the atmosphere becomes festive. Whether fine sand or large gnarled white rocks, bristling beaches or secluded coves, the seaside has as many faces as the rest of the island. On the beaches, the legs of the café chairs stand in shallow water. The dolce vita invites you to the bars of the trendy beaches and to the traditional taverns nestled against the rocks alike. The wind blows on the west coast, the stronghold of sailing enthusiasts. Take a daytrip to Antiparos: sister island to Paros, its miniature, more sophisticated and wild. In the castle of the pirate Barbarossa, there are remains of small houses built into the walls. You can best get to know Antiparos if you go there by boat, easing between the small coves all the way to the clear waters of Agios Giorgios bay. Paros, like many Cyclades, owes its beauty to its barren vistas, its ochre hills dotted with olive trees contrasting with the cyan of the Aegean Sea. Walking the heather-lined paths, numerous villages add white to the relief. Lefkes, at the very peak, is perhaps the most charming of all. From a high perch at the café in the tiny square, you can spend hours watching people exiting the church while cats slink and prowl through the pines and cypresses. In the coppery light of the late afternoon, yellows, blues and greens splash across the little white houses adorned with flowers. Further on, the Byzantine path winds up the hill, like a balcony suspended above Paros. In Lefkes, as everywhere on the island, time stretches gently over its terraces, its tiny squares, its beaches, its cobbled streets. Paros’s great beauty lies in its charming way of life, embodied in the simple and warm reception of its inhabitants.
Bonifacio - At the very top of the slopes of Saint-Roch, a sudden wind catches us and doesn’t abate. The limestone cliffs gleam in the sun. Junipers creep on the ground and, a hundred metres beneath our feet, the turquoise waters are tempting. We feel like we are reeling, perched precariously on these cliffs, a bit like the town of Bonifacio, with its houses and ramparts which stand out against the clear blue sky. Mother nature is in command of any holiday in Corsica. She is sometimes wise, often wild. Any walk through the citadel’s cool and dark back alleys will take you back to the sea. In the distance, boats pass the lighthouse of Madonnetta. They are setting off to conquer the Strait of Bonifacio. In this immense marine natural park, the quiet, white, sandy beaches nestle between a gigantic chaos of rocks. For swimming and nature at its kindest, Porto-Vecchio and its beaches are the place to go. Each has its own character. There is Rondinara, a near-perfect bay with its maquis descending towards a huge beach and clear water. Then Santa-Giulia, a slice of the Seychelles with blocks of granite rising out of the sea. It is Palombaggia that is the most dazzling at the end of the day, as the setting sun sets its red rocks aflame. In Southern Corsica, however, the untamed mountains are never far away. From Porto-Vecchio, a winding road weaves its way towards the peaks of Bavella. After two hours of ascent, the col: a magical place, exceptional… The mountains, battered and broken by the rain, ice and wind, are a snarl of heaped rocks. From this mineral exuberance spring forth peaks of red granite. Two thousand metres high, the summit of Punta di u Furnellu indifferently keeps watch. At the feet of the mountains, walking paths wind through twisted Corsican pines. It is at these heights that Corsican identity was forged. Traces of the past can be found on the road to Sartène, in the prehistoric sites of Palaggiu, Stantari and Cauria. The anthropomorphic monoliths and dolmens are nestled under trees, sometimes even under brambles. The trail takes us towards the hilltop villages of the Alta Rocca. Here, the origins of Corsican mountain cooking can be found. A cuisine of cold meats and chestnut flour, a world away from a sea that was too often synonymous with invasion.
Saint-Tropez & surroundings
In the past, Saint-Tropez was a quiet hamlet - a small fishing village, as portrayed in the 1956 Roger Vadim film "…And God Created Woman". There are vast expanses of land covered by pines, oaks and cypresses that loom over the sea. There are fields of gnarled olive trees, and old wooden boats, whose paint has been eaten away by salt and erosion. Indeed, it was the ascent to world fame of the film’s heroine Brigitte Bardot that helped this humble village turn into such a popular destination. Since then, Saint-Tropez has metamorphosed, all the while keeping its Provence village charm. There is Senequier, the most celebrated café in the region, where you drink ice coffees while leafing through Var-Matin; a myriad of beach bars where you find the crème de la crème of the international jet-set, and sublime landscapes bathed in sunshine. Then there’s the Mediterranean climate and the secret beaches, not to mention the smells of maquis, myrtle and rosemary. The neighboring villages of Ramatuelle and Gassin have retained their old-time charm, with small flower-covered streets, ancient houses with stone walls, and hidden places where nature is still untamed. You discover them by chance, following the rocky paths strewn with pine needles. The walk is punctuated by the squawks of seagulls observing your unsteady gait through the rocky obstacles, as you try to reach the sea. The coastline is a succession of coves and fine sand beaches where you hear nothing but the slow sound of the waves. In the port, the fishermen untangle their nets and throw the small fish into a bucket: these will serve to prepare the bouillabaisse. On the beach of l'Escalet, the table is set up in the shade of the trees. The meal, of course, is served with olive oil, and a regional rosé to be savored while listening to the incessant song of the cicadas. The afternoon is reserved for swimming in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and games of petanque, one of many Provence traditions that make this region a foremost destination.
Deauville - Trouville
At the water’s edge, ocean sprays blow in across the sand. Seagulls squawk, of course, but for better or for worse, it is Claude Lelouche’s famous song Un homme et une femme that provides the soundtrack for our stroll along the Boardwalk, past the beach huts. It was in the 1920s that this series of wooden planks was built, to prevent elegant ladies from dirtying their dresses during their promenade. Today, the Boardwalk extends along the coast and is one of the town’s symbols. One after another, they reveal the names of celebrities who have come to the Deauville American Film Festival and still play their role amongst the numerous charms of the town. Deauville and Trouville see themselves as two, sometimes envious, sisters. However, one couldn’t exist without the other and both towns make perfect ambassadors for the Côte Fleurie. Deauville is seen as the worldly resort, where you come to see and be seen, with its luxury hotels, racecourse and promenade along the Boardwalk. In contrast, Trouville is more understated. It has remained an authentic fishing village where people come to enjoy seafood platters and watch the non-stop dance of the boats in the port. In the past, Trouville was even able to overshadow its neighbour, thanks to its reputation as a refuge for artists in search of inspiration. It is early and the beach isn’t yet ready. One man has come to untie the parasols and set up his deckchairs and beach huts. The wind is making the multicoloured fabrics dance, finishing off this picture postcard perfect scene. In the old town, the villas line up as if for a beauty contest with their half-timbering, balconies and Vert Normandy facades. On the rooftops, a menagerie of gargoyles keeps watch and statues look on as Parisians flood into what they call “Paris’ 21st arrondissement”. These roof ornaments enliven the red bricks with cats, parrots and even chimera, irresistible details which lead us to stroll through the streets with our noses in the air. Deauville-Trouville is all about the salty air and the contrast with the capital, just two hours away. It’s the charm of bourgeois villas, artisan cider and traditional brasseries. All this is mischievously depicted by the illustrator Savignac whose works still dot the streets of Trouville, a childhood memory for those who have always known these two Calvados towns and will never tire of them.
Biarritz & Basque country
The drops of the storm rain vanish into the sea foam. The ocean proclaims its reign as the waves, each more powerful than the last, break on the first seawalls of the fishing port. In Biarritz, the ocean rules over the city. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful landscape on the Atlantic than the one stretching between the lighthouse Saint-Martin and the Basque coast, known as a surfers’ paradise. Here every beach lures you with its own unique atmosphere, and every tide clears a new path for a walk along the water. The sounds, the play of the waves, the dancing lights: in Biarritz, the spectacle is played out in front of the ocean. The passersby move as though choreographed to the rhythm of the waves, carried towards the emblematic heart of the city: the Palace, the Rock of the Virgin, Villa Belza. Perched on its peninsula, the Villa Belza returns to its full splendor in the evening, when the sea is dark and the coast lights up, revealing a magical, fleeting vision of its exuberant past. The architecture of Biarritz is one of a kind. Castles, art nouveau villas, an art deco casino, the dazzlingly modern “City of the Ocean”. Sauntering along the coastline, one moves across periods and styles. It is as easy to lose one’s way in the narrow streets of the Saint-Charles district as in a sea labyrinth made of rocks, caves, cenotes and caverns. In the city center, brand stores stand abreast concept stores and age-old edifices. The Miremont tea room has been facing the sea since 1872. Under the glow of its chandeliers, the house specialty of hot chocolate with cream and a piece of Basque cake on the side is simply irresistible. At the foot of the Church Sainte-Eugénie, the fishing port, the soul of the city, lays nestled in the hollow of the Atalaye cliff. The elders with their berets and the small houses, "crampottes", keep the past of Biarritz alive. Over an aperitif, they share their fishing stories and let you in on the latest talk of the town. Heading up towards Les Halles, the city starts to buzz and throb. In the morning, the main meeting point is the market, awash with tourists and locals mixing together in search of wondrous Basque specialties. Ham, piperade, veal axoa, sheep milk cheese, chipirons... In the evenings, everyone gathers in the bars surrounding the market to drink and share the delicious pintxos (tapas in Basque). A great opportunity to taste txacoli, the local white wine. Having transformed from a small fishing village to a seaside resort favored by the royalty, today Biarritz is growing into a thriving creative outpost. Stylists, chefs, graphic designers and photographers have all found their home here... Since the 1950s, the surfing scene has revitalized Biarritz and become an integral part of its culture and way of life. We love its classy but relaxed and bohemian style, that “French California” feel you only find in Biarritz. Now more than ever, it is the call of the open sea that gives Biarritz its unique character and spirit of freedom.
The Luberon is a living, breathing landscape painting: the green of an immense nature reserve and its hillsides teeming with pines and olive trees, the violet of the lavender bushes and the red of the cherries which mark the start of summer in the orchards. These luscious berries are harvested by the basket-load, and turned into delicious pies and rich preserves. And of course the omnipresent ochre, ranging in tone from golden yellow to intense red. This ancestral treasure is all around: on the hiking trails, on the canvases of the many artists who have fallen for the charms of the garrigue, on the cheeks of kids playing cowboys and Indians in a landscape worthy of a western. And it is the ochre which gives the region’s villages their instantly-recognisable hue. Goult, Gorde, Oppède and Lourmarin survey this majestic scenery from atop their rocky promontories. Their winding streets form criss-crossing labyrinths of light and shade. Between secret passageways and private courtyards, you’re never far away from a hidden fountain, chapel or garden. Dappled with sunlight, the dry stone is adorned with ivy and vines, providing shelter for the slippery local lizards. It’s not hard to picture yourself on a balcony, looking out over the plains. These villages have a knack for making you feel at home. People say hello, stop and chat, plan to meet up later. Early in the morning the old wooden doors begin to swing open, as grocers and restaurants spill out onto the street. A few tables on the pavement, checkered tablecloths: perfect. Pull up a chair beneath the wisteria and indulge in some creamy local goat’s cheese served on fresh bread with herbs and a drizzle of olive oil. Or else succumb to the temptation of Luberon truffles, season permitting. When the sun hits its peak, time seems to slow down as everybody heads for cover. Some fall asleep, book in hand, while others set off for a spell of fly-fishing in the Sorgue. In the early afternoon a splendid silence descends, broken only by the cries of the cicadas. Hop on your bike and pedal from one village to the next, along roads lined with tall cypresses. The hardiest souls can set out to conquer Mont Ventoux, and dream of Tour de France glory. For a less strenuous excursion, take a tour of the Luberon’s hidden treasures, from the medieval abbey of Sénanque and its endless lavender meadows to the last surviving traces of Via Domitia, retracing the footsteps of Julius Caesar. Time seems to have stopped in this part of the world, where the past is regarded with pride and tender nostalgia. For proof, look no further than the countless, world-famous antique stores. Indulge in a spot of bargain-hunting – you never know what you might find! – before getting the whole gang together around the table as the summer sun finally begins to fade. The Luberon is a world apart, a sun-kissed haven where holidays carry the unmistakable scent of eternity.
Standing on the ramparts of Fort Saint Jean, you are a stone's throw from the sea. The landscape distills into three colors: the pink of the time-worn stone of the fort, the deep blue of the sea and the light blue of the cloudless sky. Boats sail offshore or enter the crowded harbor. The gigantic shadow of a ferry lazily floats out of the trading port and briefly hide the Estaque from view. Down below people drink coffee and explore the stairs overgrown with flowers. You stop for a moment between two olive trees to enjoy the warmth of the sun. Here, on this immense open sky terrace, one almost forgets the big city behind these century-old walls. The MuCEM stares back at you, wrapped in a garland of black concrete. A few years ago, the site on which it stands was nothing more than an abandoned jetty occupied by petanque players, traveling circuses, and masses of cars bound for the Mediterranean. The old lady of Marseille and this newcomer now guard the port side by side, symbolizing the old and new face of Marseille. Incongruous mixtures make Marseille what it is: the ubiquitous presence of nature in the midst of extremely urban settings, bold architecture standing next to fishing ports, ancient history and street art meeting at the same corner. Go for a family stroll by the harbor and you’re suddenly surrounded by fishing boats and buildings from the ‘50s. The sailors strip paint off sea-beaten hulls as the café terraces steadily fill up. Boats light-heartedly set out towards the inlets whose white cliffs and wilderness are never far away. Although it is two thousand years old, Marseille never takes itself too seriously. It is known for having its own distinct character. It has a unique knack for knowing how to let life flourish, allowing little histories to live alongside its grand one. In Le Panier, the oldest district, one plays hide-and-seek with the sun under the 17th century arches of La Vieille Charité. In Le Cours Julien one sits in the shade of trees, surrounded by more street art than anywhere else in Europe. Under the arcades of the byzantine-style La Major, the waiters shout across to one another from their fish stands and pizza ovens. As you follow the footsteps of the Impressionists to the small port of l'Estaque, you find yourself swept away by the smell of panisses exuding from huts that have remained unchanged for decades. The summer and the easy-going rhythm of life linger in Marseille throughout the year. They are in the little Malmousque coves hidden under the Corniche, between the beautiful pastel houses and the fishermen's huts somewhat eaten away by salt. They are in the sea that emerges at every turn. You find a bit of this communal and holiday feel everywhere in Marseilles. Each neighborhood has its own identity, but perhaps nowhere as much as in the tiny port of Les Goudes, where the sight of pink, blue and yellow huts makes you suspect that time has truly stopped. The lone street is so narrow that going down it by car is a real feat. This is where you go to enjoy the catch of the day in one of the bars facing the harbor, a pergola above your head, sheltered even in winter from the mistral. Marseille is a great lady of inexhaustible youth - without frills and rejecting conventions. Her beauty is welcoming, indolent and brazen at the same time. She is forever turned towards the Mediterranean, seeing off her fishermen as they leave for the sea under the watchful eye of La Bonne Mère (a local nickname for Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde).
Cannes & surroundings
The mimosa plants in the Croix des Gardes district burst into flower every January, heralding the advent of spring in Cannes. Their bright yellow globes signal early-season sunshine for congress-goers before the heat of the summer sun starts to tan the sunbathers. Cannes may be known worldwide for its red carpets, luxury hotels and glamorous social life, but we often forget that the region has almost as many facets as it has colours in its impressionist palette. First is the omnipresent blue, sometimes electric, sometimes aquamarine. Wherever we go, it is impossible to escape the magnetism of the Mediterranean and the dazzling azure of the sky. The old part of the town at the top of Suquet hill and the picturesque Provençal charm of its colourful little buildings contrast with the Hollywood-style letters overlooking the bay of Cannes and the Lérins islands. Not far away, people are bathing in Gardiole creek among the brown rocks and the shade of the pines at Antibes. Then comes green, dark, tender and vibrant. Whereas the Croisette is lined with casinos and attractive boutiques, the boulevard consists essentially of a more than three-kilometre long green swathe planted with palm trees all the way to the giant agave and eucalyptus trees on the banks of the Siagne canal, the centuries-old olive groves of Saint-Honorat island and the bamboos of Montfleury garden. Next comes the pink Centifolia rose, "the rose of May". It is endemic to the region and embalms the rolling hillsides around Grasse with a bewitching scent that never ceases to enchant the perfumers of the region, Fragonard, Galimard, Molinard. The blooms are still hand-picked at sunrise in order to capture their full fragrance. Their fame has spread to the shaded gardens of Port Canto and the stalls of the flower market in the Allées de la Liberté. And lastly, vibrant red, a passionate blaze of colour. The same red that adorns the steps of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès for the Cannes Film Festival, but also for the MIPIM, MIPCOM and MIDEM trade fairs, and the Tax Free World Exhibition. The same red that throbs on the Massif de l'Esterel, contrasts starkly with the white sand of Rochers de Cannes La Bocca beach and adorns the Square du Huit-Mai when the coral trees are in bloom. From the Route de la Corniche d’Or to the little winding streets of Mougins, the "garden city", the whole region is a blaze of colours stretching like a patchwork from the mountains to the sea.
The rusticity of Comporta belies its luxury. As we drove from Lisbon, it was the ruggedness that called to us. The region, straddling the border between Setúbal and the Alentejo, is a wild place, with fields of beautifully gnarled cork oaks, meadows of vivid wildflowers, and lush green rice paddies and narrow canals—the name Comporta means “a gate that holds back water”. Beyond the dunes, the white sand beaches are some of the loveliest in Europe, and they may as well be endless, for there’s no way we could walk the length of one. The architecture adds to the charm. The typical “Comporta cabana” is a Portuguese rendition of a tiny home, but created long before tiny homes came into vogue. Dotting the countryside, they have a distinctive, deceptively simple architecture using humble materials like thatched straw (even for the walls) and weathered wood. They have seduced more than one marquee-name interior designer, fashion designer, or artist into purchasing one as their private retreat from the stresses of city life. It is those part-time residents that tempt us to call Comporta “the Hamptons of Lisbon” or to compare it to Ibiza, St. Barth, or José Ignacio. But those comparisons do a disservice to Comporta, which has a magic all its own. It’s not only a place where the wealthy and the well-known get to let down their hair, take off their shoes, and remove the mask of public life. It’s a place where everyone is welcomed as a friend, where people eat chicken with their fingers at an unassuming roadside restaurant like Dona Bia, or feast on seafood at a beach restaurant like Sal with their feet in the sand—with nothing but interest in and amiability toward whoever is at the next table, be they a crinkly local fisherman, a foreign tourist, or a celebrity. Comporta is also far more than the village of the same name. It is a coastal region between the Sado Estuary—an important stopping point on bird migration routes from Africa that’s visited by more than 250 species each year—and the wild Atlantic. Its 12,500 hectares (more than 30,000 acres) encompass seven hamlets and some 65 kilometers (40 miles) of pristine, largely empty beach. It’s one of those places where there is nothing to do—relax, unplug, and perhaps invite some new friends to your villa for dinner—or everything to do. We like dolphin watching and horseback riding on the beach, and of course we love long, languid days on any of the seven beaches. They aren’t overrun with lounge chairs and umbrellas. They, like the rest of Comporta, are just as nature intended them to be.
Dawn breaks over the Val de Bagnes. The little chapel of Mauvoisin has the air of a mountain refuge, one of those precious shelters where the hearth is always warm on stormy nights. Its whitewashed walls are flushed bright red by the first rays of the rising sun. Turn to face the Haut Val de Bagnes nature park and watch in wonder as, beyond the morning mist, the lights of Verbier begin to flicker out. It’s time to set off on the narrow path that leads to the summit. The morning air is crisp and dry, summer and winter alike, as you make your way over the rugged rocks which lead to the Mauvoisin dam. Mont-Gelé is several valleys away, and yet there she is standing tall, proudly surveying the Domaine du Valais. Her grand silhouette seems much less imposing from abroad the Attelas cable car… Seen from the Lac de Mauvoisin, the summit forms a pair with Le Voisin, that forbidding granite façade criss-crossed by the boldest free riders. It’s no coincidence that Dominique Perret, considered the best off-piste skier of the century, set up home here in Verbier. The landscape is a succession of inaccessible crests and vertiginous slopes, a natural playground for adrenaline junkies. After passing through the caves beneath the Mauvoisin dam and clambering up the ladders sealed into the rock face by mountain guides, you finally arrive at the Giétro shelter, last stop before the ascension to Grande Ashle. Up here the edelweiss are not just a cliché: there are so many that you could almost mistake them for banks of snow. These little white flowers are the emblem of Verbier, and you’ll find them everywhere: embroidered into the table cloths of restaurants, painted onto shop signs and adorning the wooden friezes which run around the farmer’s chalets. But it is up here amid the highest peaks, in the company of the ibex who wander the moraines and the mountaineers setting out to conquer the glaciers, that you truly appreciate the local fascination with this delicate little flower in the form of a snowflake. The edelweiss serves as a welcome reminder that Verbier is first and foremost a paragon of untamed natural beauty, in spite of its well-manicured ski runs and vibrant nightlife. Though many of the old alpine farms are now plush chalets, those in the know still meet up at the Milk Bar. This Verbier institution, established in 1936, still evokes the spirit of the great outdoors, and the special warmth that can only be found in a bowl of steaming hot chocolate among friends. Snuggled up amid the solid pine décor, revel in the aromas of nutmeg and cinnamon as you listen to one of the owner’s many anecdotes; soaking up the spirit of a truly authentic mountain resort, the hallmark of Verbier.
Sicily, suspended between Europe and Africa, is a world apart. Syracuse, in the south-eastern corner, is the best starting point for a voyage of discovery across the largest island in the Mediterranean. In the historic heart of Ortygia, set on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, the food market is a nostalgia-inducing festival of Italian culture. The vibrant colours and flavours are matched by the equally vibrant gestures and cries of the locals. As you stroll on, gelato in hand, an immense shadow looms into view and you raise your eyes to behold the majestic, imposing spectacle of the Duomo in all its Baroque splendour. A little further on, back on terra firma in Neapolis, you can truly begin to appreciate just how important Sicily has been throughout the millennia as a cradle of civilisation. Plunge into the past, as you explore remarkable ruins in the shade of olive and lemon trees. Up in the north-western corner of the island, the Trapani peninsula is well worth a visit, not least for its unspoilt port lined with white fishing cottages, and narrow streets dotted with Baroque townhouses. Further east, Palermo is and always has been a magnet for lovers of art and history, with its façades still bearing the traces of the successive occupations which shaped Sicily: Norman, Arab and Spanish. In this cultural melting pot, Byzantine mosaics, Baroque churches and souk markets exist side by side. Date trees tower over sublime palazzi, beneath the scorching sun. The contrasts which abound in this multifaceted city never cease to amaze: from the grand avenues, lined with palm trees and elegant boutiques, to the warren of winding alleys and lively market squares. No trip to Palermo would be complete without a visit to the museums. In keeping with the city’s protean image, Palermo’s Gallery of Modern Art displays Italian masters from the 19th and 20th centuries side by side with works by some of the most celebrated contemporary artists. As in the rest of the island, Palermo’s local cuisine is a beguiling combination of styles and influences. After a hearty main course of fish couscous, round off your meal with some delicious cannoli. The island’s gastronomic heritage is enriched by its diverse influences, and the sheer quality of the local ingredients: ricotta, crustaceans, pistachios, almonds… To truly appreciate the scope of Sicily’s natural riches, set sail for the Aeolian Islands and weigh anchor at Lipari, the largest and most populous of the islands in this astonishing archipelago. These volcanic islands seem to emerge from another age, unchanged since the days of Odysseus. Framed by the endless blue sky and sea, white villages nestle amid the steep hillsides. The coast is wild, rugged, virtually untamed and utterly gorgeous. The beaches are inaccessible to cars, but the view is well worth the walk. Sicily proudly retains its status as a bridge between east and west, and between different eras stretching way back into the mists of time. The influence of this storied past is everywhere visible in the island’s architecture, markets and cuisine. Visitors invariably fall under Sicily’s spell, and the fact that it feels like a raw, more authentic version of mainland Italy. As Goethe said, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.”
As you cross the ramparts of Marrakech you will discover a whole new world, the ostentatious Red City. The riad is a cool, verdant haven of peace in the bustling Medina. Amid cactuses and exotic plants on the roof terrace, you catch a glimpse of the red tower of the Koutoubia and the city’s ramparts. The colours and noise of the streets create a striking contrast with the pale, hot, silent desert just a few hours’ drive away. As you wind through the maze of ochre-coloured streets, you will begin to think you’ve mastered them just as you find yourself getting lost again. Surprises lie around every corner, from kittens and scooters to walls adorned with cascading bougainvillea. Plunge into the inviting coolness of the Souks, admire the inspiring colours and textures and unearth the most unlikely finds. You will fall in love with Marrakech craftsmanship. Berber rugs overflow in the coolness of rooms that are surprisingly large for this crowded city, and Mashrabiyas and leather bags are piled high next to their sellers. Their colours and shades reflect those of this bright city. All kinds of different scented spices are presented on open display stands in a patchwork of vibrant colours. At the end of one of the winding streets, sip a cup of hot mint tea surrounded by snake charmers and tortoise sellers. The local gastronomy is refined and spicy, but an increasing number of restaurants also serve their own dishes created with hints of European and Asian cuisine, besides the traditional tajine and couscous. Morocco is far too full of sights to see to remain in the city. As you drive through the red countryside surrounding Marrakech, you will discover stunning oases and their Berber encampments just a few kilometres away. From here, there is a closer view of the majestic snow-capped Atlas mountains. These little havens are a blend of extreme refinement and varying degrees of untamed nature. Sit and read in the palm groves or take a siesta beneath the bougainvillea. At lunchtime, couscous is served in the shade of olive trees near the springs where frogs and goats come to drink. In the surrounding desert, you will cross the odd camel and traditional tent. It would be easy to think you were in the middle of nowhere, and yet the bustling Medina is just 30 minutes away. Time slows down in Marrakech, in both nature and the city. Arabic culture has blended with French influences to create a unique, irresistible and undeniably magical coalescence.
With the Vesuvio rising tall and proud, the bay of Napoli extending widely until Capri, and the Amalfi coastline in the background, there is no more beautiful landing in the world than in Napoli airport. Italy is synonym with red, passion, dolce vita and pasta, we all know that. However, the Amalfi coast also brings softness, with its long windy roads and gentle blues blending in the horizon. The region has quite a few landmarks and it’s a tricky decision when it comes to choosing a base. Capri, located in the distance of Napoli’s bay could be visited for the day but it wouldn’t give this stunning island justice. Sorrento, with its graphic beach clubs makes a photogenic first stop going South on the coast. Positano comes next with its picture-perfect white houses dotting the hills. Then, it’s Amalfi, a larger town with a proper harbour and imposing aristocratic houses. And high up, Ravello, standing proud and discreet over the cliffs. For the epicurean, the Amalfi coast is filled with outstanding places of delight. From the little trattoria hidden away in villages to the fancier alternatives of Positano and Capri, the mamas and papas in the kitchens need only to extend an arm to collect the freshest produce in the country. First-crush olive oils, bright organic lemons, juicy red tomatoes paired with melting burrata, meals are a feast from breakfast until late at night. The sea provides an added source of culinary pleasures, whether you like your fish seared, in carpaccio or perhaps marinated with olives and capers. For the sun seeker, the multitude of little bays takes the art of farniente to an extreme. Hiring a skipper for a day and hopping from beach to islets is a wonderful way to discover the photogenic coastline. Pebble stone beaches are a gentle reminder of the limestone sea cliffs hanging above. The contrast between the deep blues of the sea and the bright white of the coast are blinding with the noon sun. For the culturist, there is an abundance of festivals during the spring and summer months, culminating with the world-renowned Ravello music festival. Under Apollo’s guidance, the sky and the sounds seem to merge in a magical tune in this little town perched high up above Positano. Yet, for a region so famous the world over, it is remarkable how many pockets of quiet and discreet charm one can still enjoy. Take Capri, the grande dame of luxury. She has seen it all from Jackie Kennedy to the curious day-tourists visiting from Napoli. However, beyond the busy little harbour and climbing towards Anacapri, one is reminded of the simple pleasures that the island has to offer. Scents of orange blossoms mixed with pine trees, a shoemaker offering his services seated on a stool in front of his shop window. A widow dressed in the customary black, hanging the bed sheets to dry under the sun. Hikes in the surrounding forests of the island provide another perspective, with vistas high above the deep blues of the sea. Indeed, there is more than one side to the Amalfi coast and one would miss it entirely by coming for just a few days. Soaking in gently the dolce vita is a must to appreciate this treasure given to all of us by the Roman gods.
Chamonix is a town with a dual identity. Like the icy North face of the Massif, it sometimes has an air of cold beauty about it. But get to know the locals and their enchanting way of life, and you’ll soon discover the warmth of the South face. Arriving in Chamonix means setting foot in the fascinating, other-worldly universe of the high Alps. Scientific experiments, pioneering endeavours and ancient legends: this place is steeped in the history of the mountains, and the evolution of Alpine exploration. The streets of Chamonix are alive with a constant hustle and bustle: a race, a live concert, people flocking back from the slopes. On these pavements you’ll hear every possible language, see every possible type of face, and all of them drawn here by the lure of one thing, the object of all attentions. You meet it at every street corner: Mont Blanc, 4810 metres of rock, snow, ice and dreams. The highest summit in Western Europe, and a rallying point for travellers from all over the globe. In Chamonix, the locals have a saying: “whatever the glacier takes, it will give back one day.” Although often associated with mountain tragedies, this proverb doesn’t have to be negative. We can also choose to see it as a source of hope, an inspiration to all those who raise their eyes, peer up at those lofty peaks and dare to dream. The mountains have sculpted men in their own image: stocky figures, piercing eyes, sun-weathered faces and hands as solid as blocks of glacier ice. The life of a Chamoniard is inextricably tied to the mountain, and his eyes are always turned skywards. The locals know the mountain like their own back yard, and have spent decades making it accessible to all, with the Montenvers train, the ice caves, the hiking trails and the Aiguille du Midi cable car. In these extraordinary natural surroundings, time stands still as your breath is snatched away. The panorama is lined with peaks, like clouds rolling in over the horizon: the Glacier des Bossons, Mont Blanc, l’Aiguille Verte, Les Drus and Les Aiguilles de Chamonix. Up above the ice cliffs and glaciers, eyes wide open, you learn to live and breathe to the rhythm of these magnificent mountains. When you leave Chamonix you always leave a part of you behind, borne aloft by the clouds over Mont Blanc, wandering from peak to peak.
Courchevel springs into action with the first rays of the new dawn. In the pure blue sky, the morning sun lights up the jagged peaks of the Aiguille du Fruit. The crisp chill in the air makes your cheeks glow as you step out of the chalet, wrapped up and ready to go. The resort is slowly waking up, and the hustle and bustle soon begins amid the snow-capped palaces. Their architecture is inspired by the traditional wooden chalets of these valleys, and in the early morning haze it can feel like you’ve wandered into some alpine fairytale village. The hardiest souls are already queuing up to catch the first lift. It’s hard to resist a moment of nostalgia when you remember the cheerful colours of the “egg” cable car, replaced just a few years ago. Soaring above the treetops, the lift drops you off at the summit of La Saulire, over 2700 metres above sea level. At the top you’re greeted by an astonishing collection of contemporary artworks, half hidden by the snow: Courchevel is always full of surprises, and every year the mountains are scattered with pop-up exhibitions in unusual locations. Up here the panorama is magnificent, from Mont Blanc in the north to the Ecrins in the south. Courchevel is the gateway to the Three Valleys, a vast resort with hundreds of miles of slopes which will keep even the most intrepid ski-clad explorers busy for days on end. Down the hill at Le Praz, the famous ski jumps built here for the Albertville Winter Olympics (1992) are a challenge for the very bravest thrill-seekers. Away from the speed and excitement of the ski runs, the mountains are crisscrossed by countless hiking trails, probing the silent splendour of these great peaks. Amid the towering pines, keep your eyes peeled for the tracks left by marmots, mountain wolves and ibexes. The Vanoise natural park was the first of its kind in France, pioneering the conservation of these majestic species. As the sun gradually sinks behind the horizon, the second part of the day begins. With rosy cheeks and tired legs, it’s time to head back to the warmth of the chalet for restorative drinks and board games by the log fire… before heading out to sample one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants which are the pride of Courchevel. In the centre of the old town, the old carousel keeps on spinning and the horse-drawn carriages are still filled with couples holding each other tight against the cold. When the sun goes down Courchevel slips into something more comfortable, as the resort’s legendary nightlife lights up the streets. Dozens of bars and clubs keep things moving until the sun comes up and it’s time to start all over again. An alluring blend of tradition and modernity, Courchevel is seventy years young and her dancing days are far from over.
The Tyrrhenian Sea breeze blows along the cliffs of Versilia and wafts through the Tuscan countryside, bringing with it the salty smell of the Lagoon of Orbetello. Scents of cypress trees and the warming smell of ripe wheat are borne right up to the towers of Siena, Lucca and San Gimignano. As you sit out and relax on a shaded terrace in Siena, Tuscany will come to you. As the dawn light spreads over the Facciatone, the unfinished facade of the Duomo cathedral, you feel that the Italian Renaissance could only ever have started here. Its romantic outline is evocative of both works in the museums of Florence and the lunar landscape of the Crete Senesi. The frescos by Lorenzetti tucked away in the Palazzo Pubblico of Sienne invented nothing new. Their softness comes from the rolling hills of Gaiole in Chianti. Their colours are inspired by the changing skies over Lake Trasimeno. Crossing Siena on foot always gives the impression of walking along Via Francigena, the pilgrimage path running through the Val d’Elsa to Rome. As the morning progresses, the streets fill with different sounds and cries. The Palio dell’Assunta race, held on the Piazza del Campo, is attended by thousands of people. The champions from the 17 Contrades and their horses are escorted by residents to the track in the city centre, but before that, the Alfieri and the Carabinieri prepare their traditional outfits and sedan chairs for the great parade. The Palio race is iconic of Tuscany, combining theatrical splendour with popular simplicity, codified ceremonies with good-natured conviviality. Visitors are always welcome to participate in the celebrations, whether spectacular or understated. Locals gather with a couple of friends over a bottle of Chianti and a plate of finocchiona or lardo di Colonnata before dinner. This delicate balance, this union between impressive beauty and simple pleasures is what defines the region of Tuscany.
On one side, the jagged mountain crests are silhouetted against the sky. On the other, the hardy pines cover even the most rugged slopes in a coat of evergreen. Sandwiched between the two, the bells of Val d'Isère bravely attempt to impose the hours of men on this timeless landscape. The clock tower has stood here for centuries, surrounded by giants, a comforting sight in this wild, untamed landscape. Its octagonal form and Romanesque stone have stood firm against all comers: avalanches, wars, migrations, and tourism. It is living proof that, although the village may no longer be the isolated mountain hamlet it once was, Val d’Isère has retained its authentic soul. And when the first notes of a classical concert fill the nave of the church, this history comes to life. Huddled around the historic church, the village’s traditional chalets are a big part of its inimitable charm. Their solid stone façades tower over the lower floors, with their wide wooden balconies. And of course the roofs are topped with lauze stone tiles, in keeping with Savoyard tradition. In winter the rooftops are coated with a thick layer of snow, and when the lights come on Val d’Isère takes on the fairytale air of a Christmas village. Down in the streets, stroll through the arcades and peer into the windows of the enticing boutiques. It’s hard not to get sucked in by the window display at Maison Chevallot, where spectacular patisseries and pastries jostle for your attention. Amid shelves crumbling under the weight of artisanal jams and other sweet treats, find yourself a table and get stuck into a huge ‘bear paw’ cake and a homemade hot chocolate. Then strap on your skis and test your nerve against the colossal Face de Bellevarde, peaking at over 2800 metres above sea level. The dizzying view from the summit plunges all the way down to the clock tower, a speck far off in the distance. From the top, follow in the ski trails of the champions who have shaped the legend of this incredible black run, with its 1000 metre drop in altitude. The run takes you right back to the village. From there it’s time to switch lifts and head back up the mountain to the pristine slopes of the Killy zone. This section of the mountain is named for French skiing legend and local hero Jean-Claude Killy. No cables, no pylons, just unspoilt glaciers, peaks and endless expanses of white. In the mountains around Val d’Isère, some trails demand a little more work than others. The Couloir des Pisteurs is one such route. At the top of the Grand Pré lift, strap your skis to your back and set off on foot towards the summit of Mont Charvet. After a half-hour of solid trekking, you’ll find yourself faced with some of the most challenging off-piste descents in the whole station. From here, the view of Pointe de la Sana and Pointe de Méan Martin is all-enveloping. Here, more than anywhere else, you can feel the force of the mountain in full effect. Afterwards, flushed with the warm glow of satisfaction, head towards the familiar clock tower of Val d’Isère and return to civilisation and the comforting warmth of the village.
Early in the morning, curiosity leads us to the warm, crystal-clear waters of Sa Caleta, a little cove sheltered from the wind and swell south of Ibiza. Behind the white sandy beach, we find a small traditional fishing port teeming with cabins. We walk from one to the other, balancing on their thin wooden ramps submerged in glistening water. Their doors follow in line, green then blue. Just above us, the sharp ochre cliff strangely evokes the great American West. Silence reigns, disrupted only by the echo of the small boats - llaüts – sailing off into the turquoise sea. We sit down for a moment among the ropes and chains in the cool shade of haphazard roofing before starting up the stairs that stretch behind the cabins towards the ruddy heights. High up, we find Phoenician ruins surrounded by pines. Far from the clamor of the towns, only the sound of the cicadas echoes on the rocks. Some lizards scamper around our feet. From the top of the cliff, the coves seem tiny, lined up like horseshoes opening upon the shimmering sea. Everywhere on the white island, nature manifests itself in all its wildness and diversity, baffling and fascinating us at the same time. Throughout the seasons, we come across cacti, carob trees, almond trees in bloom and centuries-old olive trees. With one’s feet in the water and one’s eyes on the horizon, it is not rare to witness a sunset of pink, yellow and pale blue, the background of our most beautiful evenings. In such tranquil moments, one almost forgets that Ibiza is about to burst with light. As night falls, the island holds to its ‘party capital’ reputation. Night after night, the cities of Ibiza and San Antonio host the best beach, rooftop and club parties. Moreover, with the numerous chiringuitos and restaurants scattered around the island, Ibiza ranks high among the top gastronomic destinations. The festive atmosphere goes hand in hand with Ibiza’s own version of la dolce vita. Since the 1930s, many intellectuals, artists, and nonconformists who seek warmth and tranquility have been drawn to the wilderness and hedonism of Ibiza. Its spirit of freedom and of creativity has persevered to this day. A detour to Formentera When Ibiza becomes too hectic, there is always its little sister Formentera, wilder and more preserved from mass tourism and urbanization. As it has no airport, it can only be reached by sea from Ibiza. A long way from Ibiza’s extravagances and clubs, with the clearest waters of the Mediterranean, this secret retreat will please those in search of quiet and tranquility. Here, straw hats replace sequin dresses. Country roads lead to sandy beaches that easily compete with those of the Caribbean. To preserve its much sought after calm, bicycles and scooters are favored on the island. There are few restaurants, bars and hotels in Formentera, an absence that only adds to the island’s discreet charm. In the back of its paradisiacal beach, there’s Beso, where you can grab lunch with your feet in the sand and great music in the background. The restaurant is renowned for its paella and octopus, served with warmth and flair in the shade of an impressive pergola.
Aix-en-Provence & surroundings
Aix-en-Provence begins to stir as the first rays of the morning sun creep through the wooden shutters. Down in the street, the market stallholders are already setting up shop in the shade of the plane trees. The riot of colours from their flowers, ripe tomatoes and sugar-sweet figs create an ever-changing tableau of Provence life. Soon enough, the café terraces begin to fill up. Time to compare hauls from the morning’s market, over a glass of chilled rosé. Just across the way, the children are splashing about in the fountain. Aix has always been famous for its natural springs, and the city which the Romans knew as Aquae Sextiae still has around a thousand fountains. These symbols of Aix’s long history also serve as convenient meeting points for the locals, as well as providing a welcome supply of cool water when the temperatures begin to rise. The exception to the rule is the striking Hot Water Fountain, whose sculpted decorations have long since disappeared beneath a thick coating of moss. On crisp winter days, plumes of steam rise from the warm spring water. Regardless of the season, the sun always shines on Aix-en-Provence. Scattered by the Mistral breeze, clouds are a rare sight in these parts. The best way to visit Aix is to stroll through the streets with your head held high, soaking up the cool air of the narrow streets lined with honey-hued façades. Each stroll brings its own share of surprises, from extravagantly-sculpted balconies held up by imposing telamons to the crafty visual effects employed to transform modest houses into opulent palaces. The long and storied history of the city and its people reveals itself step by step, from Saint Sauveur Cathedral to the solemn townhouses of Cours Mirabeau. Down on the boulevard, the Brasserie des Deux Garçons is the perfect spot to stop off and watch the crowds go by. This café is an enduring emblem of the effervescent spirit which has always defined Aix. It’s also where local hero Cézanne used to meet up for a drink with his old friend Emile Zola, before heading back to contemplate his one true love: Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The old girl is just a few miles away, towering imperiously over the surrounding villages like a landlocked lighthouse. At the foot of the mountain, the Château de Vauvenargues still bears the traces of its most famous owner, Pablo Picasso. Here the flower-strewn meadows are dotted with little villages perched on the hillsides. Take the time to roam from village to village, taking the little lanes bordered with local stone walls which wind their way through fields of lavender, poppies and olive trees. Along the way, you’re guaranteed to stumble across any number of Roman ruins and abandoned chapels. Without ever losing sight of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, call in at the Tholonet windmill before stopping at Puyricard for chocolates and calissons. Each village is home to its own vibrant community, with ochre-hued houses clustered around shady squares. Pull up a stool at the café for the latest news from the pétanque rink, or speculation on the weather. And of course there’s always a festival, an antique fair or a flower market to visit before the Mistral starts blowing. Strolling through Provence is the best way to plunge into a culture sculpted by the sun and the Mediterranean.
Cap Ferret & the Arcachon bay
The stairs soar up to the golden summit. We lift our heads to watch the steps disappear into the sand. In the mild morning, the Dune of Pilat takes on a pink color. The light scampers around us as we scale the great mount of sand, the tallest sand dune in Europe. We are breathless as we reach the top, but barely have time to catch our breath. Atop the sandy ridge, we look down on a rainbow of blues and greens, the ever-shifting territory of Arcachon Bay. The turquoise water of Banc d’Arguin shimmers at our feet. Perched on their stilts, the huts keep watch over the mysterious Ile aux Oiseaux (Bird Island). In front of us the peninsula of Cap Ferret, far out on the horizon in the Atlantic Ocean, while at our back the green ocean of the Landes pine forest extends endlessly. Arcachon, the "capital", is also the bay’s central attraction, with its neatly laid out port, its beautiful beaches and four distinct neighborhoods, each with its own deeply ingrained character. The Ville d’Hiver (Winter City) is by far the most amazing with its extravagant villas - something between chalets and palaces – from the 1860s. Go for a walk, searching out turrets and trusses buried beneath the vegetation. Linger in the seafront restaurants of the cheerful Ville d’Eté (Summer City), between two gable roofs. In the other two cities, you’re drawn towards the open sea. La Ville d’Automne (Autumn City) watches over the port and its sailors; La Ville de Printemps (Spring City), stretches along the beaches, indolent, in the shade of the pines. You traverse Arcachon Bay by bike, just like the Belgian “Flat Country” Jaques Brel sang of, only here the sun shines bright. With the wind in your hair, you trek through the small oyster-farming villages of Gujan-Mestras, Biganos, Audenge and all the others. You set foot amid houses huddled together as if to fight against the offshore wind. At times, the trail disappears beneath the maritime pines. Breathe in the evergreens mixing with the scent of the salt marshes carried by the sea breeze. The ride on the maritime shuttle that connects Arcachon to Cap Ferret feels somewhat like an adventure: as if face to face with the immensity of the Atlantic you were heading towards the last frontier. You arrive to the Epicurean side of the bay, where the oyster-farming huts of L'Herbe or Le Canon are concentrated. It’s hard to say no to a dozen oysters or resist a dive in the calm and warm sea. The Atlantic side has to be earned a bit more. At first you are sheltered by the shade of the pines, but further on you will have to summon up the courage to clamber up the sand dune that opens to the sea. The sand gives way under your feet and the sun burns. But then it’s there, the immense wave-beaten beach, reflecting green and blue, a true surfers’ paradise. In the evening, in the restaurants and trendy bars of Lège-Cap Ferret, the heart of the peninsula continues to beat long into the night.
You weigh anchor on a beautiful summer afternoon and head for the beach of Agios Sostis, north of the island of Mykonos. Wild and bright, this fine sand and crystal-clear water beach is nearly empty of swimmers. After a long day of idleness, you return to the capital of the island, Chora. Dusk begins to descend on the village, bathing its incandescent white in a pastel pink. The village somehow softens, becoming even more charming. Like the other Greek islands, its architecture is a timeless mix of white cubic houses, cobbled alleys and churches with blue domes. Making your way out of the labyrinth, you find yourself in the village port, full of cafés and welcoming bars, with fishermen pulling the last nets from their boats loaded with octopus and sardines. You are in "Little Venice", where balconies suspended over clear water recall the majestic Italian city. On a terrace only steps away from the water you can have a drink while watching the shadows of the windmills, symbols of the island, flitting over the hills. The island of Mykonos lies naked and exposed. Aside from the sun-scorched grass, its wild and arid terrain is devoid of vegetation. There are no ruins like those found on many of its sister islands in the Cyclades. But that won’t leave you bored, quite the opposite. In Mykonos you are the master of your time, cultivating the art of idleness and walking among thatch-roof windmills and houses with rounded lime walls. You swim on turquoise beaches and stroll through rocky valleys. The island expresses itself in primary colors, the bright blue of the sky and the sea, small colorful boats in the port. Fresh fruit and bougainvillea liven up the dry natural surroundings. At sunset, the biggest DJs follow one after another behind the turntables as you dance all night on the sandy beaches. The energy that this "new Ibiza" awakens is contagious and has been attracting devotees of the dolce vita since the sixties. Mykonos mixes the bohemian with understated luxury, natural beauty and stunning architecture, and looks just like paradise on Earth.
Rosy-fingered dawn creeps over the Zermatt Valley. The first rays of the rising sun make tentative attempts to pierce through the clouds which cloak the peak of the Matterhorn. Its iconic peak is so sharp it looks like something out of a drawing, a child’s impression of a mountain. Across the way, the twin peaks of Castor and Pollux go head-to-head 4000 metres above sea level. A few experienced mountaineers have already embarked upon the ascension, passing via the Monte Rosa massif. An impressive phalanx of chalets on stilts stand out from the mountain side. These immense larch-wood refuges have been blackened by over 300 years of storms, but are still standing as solid as ever as they await the first skiers. Down below, in the village, the unmistakeable aroma of pear bread calls out to you from Fuchs’ bakery. But the urge to get started is too strong to resist: it’s time to head up the Little Matterhorn and glide down those pristine slopes of fresh, untouched powder. A day’s skiing sees you bouncing between two worlds, from Swiss opulence to Italian discretion. Only the sacred peak of the Theodul Pass seems capable of reconciling the tranquil Alpine retreat of Cervinia with Zermatt and its host of high-altitude gastronomic restaurants. Over on the Italian side lie the dizzying slopes and glacial silence of Valtournenche. When midday rolls around, head back over to the Swiss side and join the tired and ravenous crowd lunching at Vrony’s, a hundred-year-old cabin perched at over 2000 metres above sea level. The scent of rösti fresh from the oven mixes with the caramel aromas of the warm apple doughnuts, filling your nostrils and sharpening your appetite as soon as you walk in the door. Down in the village, the car-free streets are filled with nothing but fresh air and silence. On either side of the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Zermatt shows off its different sides: in places it’s the village that time forgot, complete with open sleighs, while in others it feels like a buzzing mountain city. Stroll through the maze of boutiques, their dark wood façades adorned with red and pink flowers. Switzerland’s master watchmakers need no introduction, and Zermatt is the home of Haute Horlogerie Schindler, their window display sparkling like fresh snow. And yet, just around the corner from this hustle and bustle, the Hinterdorf belongs to a completely different era, still filled with barns, granaries and old stables. Bearing witness to the time when this was just an Alpine farming village, the dark wooden raccards and gädinis sit side-by-side with timeless flagstone cottages. A sudden noise breaks through the calm, the crunch and creak of wheels on rails: the Gornergrat is pulling into the station. This is the king of rack railways, the highest in Europe. Its route crosses vertigo-inducing bridges and passes through galleries hewn into the rock. The scenery is a stunning procession of larch and pines, gorges, natural amphitheatres and sparkling, emerald-green lakes. At the end of the line, and the peak of the mountain, the train pulls into the 3000m-high Gornergrat station. Lined up on the horizon, majestic and implacable, are the undisputed masters of Zermatt: the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and the Dom in the Mischabel massif. This awe-inspiring natural wall has helped Zermatt to retain its air of mystery and seclusion, watching peacefully over the village described by Mark Twain as a “hidden wonder.”
Is it the golden light or the crisp scent of thyme? Or maybe the cicadas singing in the background? No matter what comes to you first, your senses are on alert whenever you get off the train in Avignon. Yes, this is Provence, although not necessarily the Provence of postcards, the one with never ending lavender fields and romantic sceneries. The Alpilles region is a bit more dramatic than that, more enigmatic perhaps, with large rocks dotting its landscape and rosemary growing wild everywhere. The Alpilles actually designates this range of low mountains 20km South of Avignon, with hundreds of hiking trails and thousands of olive trees. Pleasures are simple. A stroll at the weekly market, a splash in the pool, a tasting of the local organic wine... The region is dotted with little villages, all with their own personality and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them incredibly charming. Eygalieres might be the prettiest of them all. It’s also the most dramatic, standing proud on a large hill dominating the plains. Try climbing up to the ruins, breathing in the fresh air of lavender, and you’ll understand what makes Provence raw and refined at once. In the other direction towards Les Baux, with its impressive medieval castle, Maussane-les-Alpilles and Le Paradou exude an old-world charm reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol’s novels. Here is the place to stop for a pastis, and take in the pulse of the locals. And then, there is Fontvieille, a bit closer to Arles and the wild lands of Camargue, a little town made famous by Alphonse Daudet and his windmill tales. At the heart of the region is Saint Remy de Provence, the unofficial capital of les Alpilles. It has attracted artists and intellectuals for centuries and locals will show you with pride where Nostradamus was born, or where Van Gogh comforted his emotional demons. More recently, the town has become a destination of choice for those seeking a refuge out of the spotlight, a sort of anti-St Tropez if you like, a place where the mantra is to go as low key as possible. You’ll experience this first hand when getting your baguette Chez Bergese in the morning, sunglasses and a straw hat as your only accessories. And while you’re there, pick up a few sacristains for snack time by the pool. Soft, airy, almondy, sugary, they’re a specialty of St Remy and must be eaten fresh on the day. Truth is, a stay in Les Alpilles is all about slow living, taking a stroll in the hills when the light turns gold, enjoying a long lunch with friends prepared with fresh produce from the surrounding farms. Perhaps even listening to a concert under the stars in the Roman ruins of Arles, and finishing those books that you’ve had on hold all year long, a glass of fresh rose in hand, hidden behind the tall cypress trees.
You can see its extravagant, vibrant yellow and blood red domes from miles around. Perched atop a hillside bedecked with sumptuous, dense vegetation, the National Palace of Pena is the heart and soul of Sintra. Like something out of a fairy tale, this extravagant castle was the high watermark of Portugal’s 19th-century aristocratic splendour. You wander through its ivy-clad arcades and up its spiral staircases wide-eyed and open-mouthed, cast back to childhood dreams by the magic of this improbable place. This architectural gem is far from the only sight worth seeing in Sintra, a small town filled with echoes of its sumptuous royal past. Set amid rolling hills, Sintra was the preferred retreat of Lisbon’s aristocrats when temperatures soared in the city. Follow in their footsteps up to the remarkable Castle of the Moors, before sampling some bacalhau com natas, a local speciality made with Atlantic cod. From the heights of Sintra, move on down to the Atlantic coast for some refreshing sea air, and savour the spectacle of Portugal’s rugged cliffs and infinite sandy beaches. At Praia do Guincho, tuck into freshly-grilled king prawns as the waves beat against the verdant shore. Out at sea, surfers from all over the world pit themselves against the might of the Atlantic Ocean. Cascais is a traditional fishing village, its white walls adorned with splashes of bougainvillea and the delicious aroma of grilled sardines floating on the sea breeze. In the seafront cafés, nobody can resist a glass of ice cold vinho verde with a view of the seemingly endless beach. A little further along the bay of Cascais, Estoril well deserves its nickname as the “town where spring comes twice,” with its palm-lined streets and parks full of exotic greenery. The town was once a firm favourite of Portugal’s royal family and aristocracy. The country’s nobles had grand summer houses built here in order to enjoy the restorative benefits of Estoril’s famous thermal waters. This aristocratic past is still a constant presence, in the form of the magnificent coloured palaces which line the coast. But of course, Estoril is also home to the casino frequented by James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Rumour had it that the casino was a hotbed of spies from all over Europe during the Second World War, making the most of Portugal’s neutral status. This is the perfect spot to trade secrets over a glass of vintage Macallan. When the sun goes down, a welcome breeze blows in from the ocean and gently caresses the silent sands and secret gardens so cherished by the people of Lisbon.