The first thing you should do after stepping onto Terre Blanche is take a deep breath. It’s not to calm yourself or re-establish your yogic center, but to inhale the air of quite possibly the best smelling resort in the world. The culprit for the fantastic aroma is 750 acres of delicately rolling Provençal countryside bursting with lavender, thyme, rosemary, jasmine, and myrtle.
But in a five-star resort in southern France, the bouquet is but one of the delicious amenities, even back in 1979, when Sean Connery purchased the estate in hopes of turning it into a world class golf club. Eventually, however, this is one mission 007 was not able to succeed at, unloading the property 20 years later to German software billionaire Dietmar Hopp, who picked up golf glove and sank 120 million euros into the project.
Originally opened as a Four Seasons in 2004 (and designed according to their standards), Terre Blanche went independent 10 years later and looks as strong as ever based on my visit there in mid-August. Indeed, passing through the grand palatial gates, it was clear I was in for something special, a feeling confirmed further along the wooded, winding access road that passes one of the two 18-hole golf courses on the property, the spa (itself the size of a small hotel), and into the stone, town square-like space out front of the hotel.
As expected, the uniformed porters and valets emerge immediately all smiles and ready to please, which continues inside as you proceed to past the sleek, curved concierge desk to reception. After passing a few hours through the verdant Provençal landscape on the way to the hotel, the shift in tone to black, gray, silver, and white colors—and overall northern European design sensibility—may startle, as bright colors are kept solidly within the defined borders of upholstery or artwork. The same reserve goes for the lines and shapes, perhaps with the goal of establishing comfort for the wealthy clientele, who value tradition over ambition.
Surprisingly, the largest building at Terre Blanche is not the center of the action, at least for much of day. This honor goes to the two Dave Thomas-designed, 18-hole golf courses and the accompanying golf academy and driving range, which are consistently ranked as the best in Europe. Non-golfers prefer to split the day between the outdoor infinity pool behind the main building and the sumptuous spa just before it. The former is a complex of its own, with multiple tiers of cabanas and day beds, as well as an attached Jacuzzi and kids pool (although the main pool remains at least 60 percent children). Beyond the northern side of its infinity edge, the medieval town of Callian sits high on a hilltop in the distance, adding yet another impressive layer to the geographic ambiance.
But the most direct pleasure is found in the spa that revolves around a grand colonnaded indoor pool that blends both Roman and contemporary aesthetics, albeit any stoic ablutions are likely to be replaced by splashing children pursued by parents, especially in the attached outdoor “vitality” pool. The jets are indeed fun and offer a powerful massage but nearly impossible to access at peak times. It makes the case for arriving at the spa as early as possible in morning if seeking tranquility. Otherwise, slip into the steam room or sauna, or head upstairs for a treatment.
For maximum escape, however, it’s best to retire to the detached villas and suites (starting at $468 a night) spread out on the property. All are reachable by foot, but golf carts are available (and popular) 24 hours a day. Here, the design is somewhat more in line with the natural surroundings, with terracotta-colored, floors, pale yellow walls, beige curtains, exposed stone, and orange throws on the bed and sofa, albeit still kept on a leash. The bathroom is notable not just for its size (as large as some New York apartments) but for the bathtub large enough to make your own spa experience. Outside, the terrace comes not only with a degree of privacy, thanks to the angle and thick foliage, but also with lovely views of the landscape.
As tempting as it is to simply order room service and enjoy a dinner under the stars, it’s worth slipping into something less comfortable and booking a dinner at the Michelin-starred La Faventia. However most guests (this hotel reviewer included) take dinner in Le Gaudina, which may not boast the same pedigree of Faventia but serves plenty of Provençal cuisine to be proud of, particularly when pairing the likes of ox cheek braised and glazed with lemongrass and ginger with a lavender-infused martini and then following up with a puff pastry with praline cream.
In many ways, the stuffing you get at the restaurant mirrors the problem of trying to fit everything in at Terre Blanche if you only spend a single night, or even two. There’s just too much to do and achieve any substantial degree of relaxation. For this, you’ll need at least three days, and that’s probably not even connecting with the even greater number of activities outside the resort, starting with several gorgeous hillside villages nearby. That said, even one night at Terre Blanche is exceedingly memorable and quickly wets your appetite for more. But for now, just breathe.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of Terre Blanche
All photos by Mike Dunphy