Monday, December 29, 2014

One Shop I Love: By dé Bo in Uzes


Spend any time with expats in France and before too long someone will start whining (or whinging as my English friends like to say) about how poorly they were recently treated by a shop keeper, restaurateur, bank, utility company, parking guy or what have you.  

My most recent gripe was how my bank here in St. Remy--a branch of one of three biggest banks in France--no longer takes or gives out money in the afternoon.  No cash in, no cash out, any afternoon.

Before that, I was grumbling about my phone/internet provider, who told me--after three of their modem boxes crashed within two weeks--to find another company if I didn't like their service. Oh, and I should stop breaking their modem boxes. Because if this one stopped working, they wouldn't give me another. (Anyone who has ever switched phone companies in France knows that's not an option any sane person would pursue.)

Every expat has a tale--or 20--of woe. One of my favorites: up in Paris, blogger David Lebovitz writes about leaving his apartment more than once only to find a ''Sorry you weren't home when we tried to deliver your package!" sticker on the front door.

And whatever you do, don't ever ask an expat about the process of getting a French resident card, long-stay visa or carte de sejour. By the time the teller gets round to the end of the story--cataloging for you every time-wasting hassle and indignity he/she suffered along the way--you'll have decided that getting the visa itself couldn't be anywhere near as painful as listening to the story is. Trust me on this one: Do. Not. Ask.

But come to think of it, my French friends do this too...meaning, complain about customer service. Not to go down that road but it does sometimes seem that businesses here (what with lunchtime closings, Sunday closings, seasonal hours, bank holidays, no-return policies, etc.) operate more for the convenience of owners and employees than customers. 

So it's always a nice surprise to have an experience that goes the total opposite way... meaning, you get treated exactly how you'd like to be treated. So here's a shout out to my new favorite clothes shop and its charming owner, who completely won me over with her warmth and cool attitude before I even had a look at her beautiful clothes.

Back in July, my friend Steph gave me a very-generous birthday gift: a 200€ gift certificate from a St. Remy boutique called By dé Bo. I noted the December expiration date, which of course I had to whinge about just a bit: I only had five months to use it? And what does 12/14 mean? Does that mean Dec 1? December 31? And how lame is it to make a gift certificate by simply scribbling on the back of your business card? Never mind--I was thrilled with the gift and taped it to my desk so I wouldn't lose it or forget.

So with that vague December deadline looming, I popped into town a month ago hoping to get a coat. Only to find that, after 15 years in business, the shop had closed and another had taken its place. But then I noticed that the gift certificate said "St. Remy and Uzes." So maybe all was not lost...maybe, just maybe, the other By dé Bo lived on! So the next morning, I called. Yes they were still in business. Yes they were open on Saturday. And so I drove an hour to the pretty town of Uzes, fully prepared to be told ''sorry, that gift card was good in St. Remy only'' or that the ownership had changed or that the gift card was fake or the manager's dog was sick so she stayed home...or something. 

Instead, the British owner Deborah Tunney couldn't have been sweeter.  Of course she would accept the gift card, she said. And when I didn't find a coat that fit or anything else that grabbed me, she--wait for it--offered to extend the deadline. Extend the deadline! In France! I thought I was hallucinating! And just as I was going to take her up on it and leave empty handed, Deb started bringing me the most beautiful tops to try--soft colors, elegant fabrics--and before too long I had found the sweater of all sweaters...and a new favorite store. 

Deborah's clothes (and shoes, boots and handbags too) are beautifully made and a bit edgy. She carries 40 or so different labels at a time, and another 40 brands of accessories and shoes. She stocks European designers only, with a focus--always--on high-quality fabrics. "I love quirky," she says, "pretty niche and charismatic stuff. The more unknown and beautiful it is, the more it appeals to me. I just love the idea that no one else has picked a new label up and I found it! So you can find established designers like Sarah Pacini sitting along side a new guy that no one knows like A.B. (Italian from Rome in stunning fabrics) which just happens to go with a German knitwear collection like Hannes Roether and a crazy Italian like Maliparmi… and then a bag from Campomaggi or M0851. Basically it's about breaking the rules and buying everything that catches my eye...things that shouldn't really all be in the same shop…but it works! And I pick up five or six new labels each season so there's always a new toy to play with!" 

So there you have it: a French customer-service story that ends with a happy customer. Ladies, next time you're in Uzes, do pop in; Saturday is a great day because that's when Uzes has its big (and wonderful) weekly market. Deb knows what will work for your coloring and body type...and will do her very best to hook you up with something fantastic.  And as your reward for reading all the way to the end here, there's this: the shop will be having "a mega Saturday bash" on January 3rd. "It's total havoc!" Deb reports, "with pretty much everything at 50%, which puts everyone in great spirits to start the New Year." 

By dé Bo
22, rue Jacques d'Uzès
30700 Uzes, France
04 66 03 43 99
bydebo@me.com 
Open: 9.30 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 7 pm, Tuesday to Friday. Open all day on Saturday. From April to September, open on Mondays as well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just Opened: Two New French Ski Hotels


Club Med Val Thorens

Michelin two-star chef Edouard Loubet is creating dinner menus at the new Club Med Val Thorens (two photos above) which opened this weekend (December 14). Loubet was born in Val Thorens and is chef/owner of the Bastide de Capelongue and the Moulin de Lourmarin in the Luberon region of Provence. The new Club Med, at 2300 meters, boasts “doorstep access” to the largest ski domaine in the world, the “Three Valleys,” which offers 600 kilometers of powdery slopes along with paragliding, mountain biking on ice and tobogganing. The new Club Med has 384 rooms, three dining areas, an indoor climbing wall and Carita spa. Doing the day-to-day cooking in the fine-dining Epicurious restaurant is resort exec chef Thierry Van Rillaer, who came from Club Med La Plantation d’Albion, part of Club Med’s exclusive Villas & Chalets collection. (Two are open; a third will launch in the Maldives in February.) The “Chef de Village” (Club Med’s title for GM) is Daniel Guimaraes, who was at Club Med Chamonix last winter season. The advantage of an all-inclusive Club Med stay is that ski passes and lessons are included with your accommodations, along with meals, drinks, and entertainment. The new Club Med will finish its first season in May, 2015. Rates begin at $1332/€1330 per adult per week, all inclusive. For more info on the hotel, click here in English or here in French. For info on Val Thorens, click here.

Hotel des Dromonts












Maisons et Hotels Sibuet, which operates ten elegant villa and hotel properties around France, launched their newest hotel this weekend as well. Located in Avoriaz in the Haute Savoie, the four-star Hôtel des Dromonts (two photos above) is just under two hours from Annecy and three hours from Lyon, within the family-oriented Portes du Soleil ski area (296 ski runs, 11 snowparks, 11 bordercross runs). Perched at 1800 meters, it's an area known for sustainable development, one that Lonely Planet recently called "one of the finest ski resorts in France." The hotel first opened in 1966, with panoramic views and innovative cedar-shingle siding which gave it its signature pinecone shape. Since 1973, it's been host to the Avoriaz Fantasy Film Festival: Steven Spielberg, David Cronenberg, Brian de Palma, David Lynch, Luc Besson and other luminaries have been here to screen their work. When Jocelyne Sibuet and her team took over, everything was done to keep the hotel's original spirit; look for warm, 60s-inspired decor, custom fabrics and a focus on natural, local materials such as slate mined from a quarry in neighboring Morzine. The hotel has 28 rooms and six suites. For dining, there's Les Enfants Terribles Up for intimate dinners and classic cuisine. For more festive meals or lunch close to the slopes, there's Les Enfants Terribles Down, set around a famous bar and serving small plates, burgers, fondue and raclette. Avoriaz is completely carless and the hotel is accessed by a four-minute cable car ride. It will stay open until late April. Rooms range from 156€ to 516 €, suites from 506 to 786 €. For more info on Dromonts, click here. For info on Avoriaz, click here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Win A Sensational Week in Provence!


I first heard about 
Passports with Purpose at a travel-blogging conference a few years ago in Spain. I was so inspired by co-founder Beth Whitman’s talk that I signed on immediately to help. My contribution to the fundraising effort that year (2012) was donating a week's vacation in Provence...and the response was terrific.
 The winner said she and her friend loved every single minute of it: every experience, every meal, every tour, every everything. 

This year I decided to participate again and I set out to top myself, pulling together another glorious week in Provence...but one that's even-more delicious, jam-packed, pampering and luxe than the last. I have to admit I may have gone a little bit overboard, which you'll see as you read on.

The package includes a week in a lovely villa, a rental car, great restaurant meals, private guided tours, cooking classes, a truffle hunt and much more. And to enter to win it, all you have to do is donate $10 to a great cause. I decided to do this just a week ago and was able to pull it together quickly thanks to the amazing generosity of a bunch of super-cool people I know here in Provence.

First let me tell you a bit about Passports with Purpose (PWP), a grass-roots charity initiative founded in 2008, as a way to help folks in need and build community in the travel industry. To see a short video about the program, click here.

Each year, the organizers receive scores of charity applications and after doing all the necessary diligence, choose just one to support. Then they set out a specific goal and call upon travel bloggers, sponsors and other industry pros for help.

In their first year, PWP raised $7,400 for Heifer International. The  next year they raised $30,000 to build a school in Cambodia. Each year they've lifted the bar, building wells in Haiti, schools in Mali, libraries in Zambia and a entire new village in India. The last time I participated, 200 of us travel bloggers and 1,242 individual donors raised $110,000 for Water.org through the donation of 143 prizes.


This year, the beneficiary is Sustainable Harvest International (SHI), which is combating malnutrition by teaching families in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama how to plant organic vegetable gardens and fruit trees...and build fishponds and chicken coops....and more.  To date SHI has helped more than 2,500 families grow healthful food and generate income to meet other basic needs. 

So here’s how it works. Participating bloggers round up prizes--items or experiences--and write about them. So at the same time you’re reading this, people all over the world are reading about other prizes on their favorite travel blogs. A list of this year's participating bloggers (82 at last count) is here.

For each $10 donation you make, you get one shot at the prize of your choice. You can enter as many times as you wish, for as many prizes as you like—but always in $10 increments. If you want to win this trip to Provence, for example, you could donate $100 and get ten tries. If you're already here in France, you should still enter...to win for 
your family, your friends or as a getaway for yourself. Winners will be chosen randomly and notified December 21st. Enter early and enter often!

And Here's What You Get

When you arrive in Provence (probably at the Avignon TGV Train Station or Marignane Airport, Marseille), my friends at Auto Europe will hook you up with a free seven-day rental on a compact, manual-transmission car, with unlimited kilometers, taxes and insurance (liability and fire). How great is that? Then just pop your stuff in the back and head for St. Remy where...

You'll stay for a week in a totally loaded, super-comfy villa at 
Provence Paradise, a charming, historic hamlet of fully renovated houses dating to the 17th century. Owner William Moore, a most- gracious host, says: "Whenever you want to come, we’ll be delighted to share our paradise with you! And don’t shy away from the winter months. These houses are lovely when the weather cools; each has at least two working fireplaces and a full supply of red wine!" William will also throw in free admission to the Pont du Gard (a 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct), passes for horseback riding and more. The day you arrive, you'll find a homemade dinner awaiting you: main course, salad, bread, dessert and wine. Plus a fridge stocked with goodies for breakfast. 

The accomodations are for two people, to be used between Jan 1, 2015 and April 1, 2015....or from October 1, 2015 to April 15, 2016 (with the exception of Christmas and New Years weeks). If you choose to come with more than two people--or stay longer than a week--William will work up a nice price. Read more about Provence Paradise in my recent story here.

But Man Does Not Live By Bed Alone...


Even though your villa has a full kitchen, you’ll want to try the famous sun-drenched cuisine for which the region is known. And since I only want you to have the very best— naturellement!--I’ve asked a handful of my favorite restaurants to donate gift certificates. There are five fantastic meals ready and waiting for you: 

*The Michelin-two star restaurant L’Oustau de Baumaniere, located in a gorgeous five-star Relais & Chateaux hotel nestled in the valley at the foot of Les Baux de Provence, has donated a three-course lunch for two, which usually costs 99€ per person. Baumanière is a mecca for foodies and this is a meal you’ll long remember. Chef/owner Jean-André Charial made this same donation two years ago and I'm thrilled that he'll be welcoming this year's winner as well. 

*Mas du Capoun, 15 minutes from St. Remy, is a cooly elegant cream-and-grey restaurant located in an 18thcentury farmhouse and barn. The food is fresh, creative and refined; the welcome is warm and the prices surprisingly low.  "We’re a family working together,’’ says owner Michèle Roumain, who is fluent in French, English and Flemish. "And we try hard to make the good price.’" As a result, Mas du Capoun is wildly popular and always full...but I got you a prime table...and 100€ to spend as you wish.  When I asked Michèle and her husband Michaël, the chef, to donate again this year, Michaël replied yes immediately, saying:  ''We don't need the publicity but we do need to try to help the world." Remember that old Sara Lee slogan? Well nobody doesn't love Mas Capoun.

*In a real-estate coup that was nothing short of miraculous, Ralph Hüsgen and his wife Margot Stängle, an architect, were able combine two small old village houses with one elegant hotel particulier, transforming them into a modern, light-filled space while keeping historic detailing intact. They named it the Hotel d'Almeran, after the famous St. Remy family who, 400 years ago, built the grandest of the three. While the seven guest suites and pool won’t open until March, the restaurant and wine bar have been up and running since August...and they've already been inducted into the chic Design Hotels group. Ralph describes the restaurant as "gastronomic in quality, bistro in ambiance.” Back in the tiny kitchen, chef Benoit Fauci--who earned a Michelin star at Les Chenes Verts in the Var--is toiling away, crafting modern Mediterranean cuisine. When you come, chances are you'll find the wide front doors thrown open...and a flock of the area's most-finicky foodies tucking into pretty plates. Ralph is giving you a three-course lunch menu for two, with wines from his 350-label cellar.....a 120 value. 

*Patrick and Celine Fischnaller (owners of the Michelin one-star restaurant Le Vivier in Isle sur la Sorgue) are, once again, offering an amazing 140€ food-and-wine credit for you to spend at lunch or dinner. L’Isle sur la Sorgue is a beautifully historic town, an antiques center for all of Europe...with old water wheels in the Sorgue River and a divine Sunday morning market. So after you've picked the market clean, you have a lovely, leisurely lunch to look forward to. Or, do more siteseeing in the region and then come back for dinner.  At Le Vivier, large windows provide great river views and the tables are generously spaced, a nice treat after you've been battling the market crowds. Generosity, it seems, is the Le Vivier philosophy: portions are large, ingredients top rate, sauces plentiful, linens luxe. Exec chef Ludovic Dziewulski sources direct from local farms and purveyors, coaxing maximum flavor from each ingredient and making foodies swoon.  I really love this restaurant and I know that you will too. (For more info, see my story about Le Vivier here.) 


*The big market in St. Remy is Wednesday morning and Cafe de la Place is perfect for lunch right after. It's my favorite village hangout, filled with expats, locals and tourists. Owner Christelle Sarrazin and her team are super friendly, which sets a laid-back and festive tone, and if you speak not a word of French you'll find the servers exceedingly kind. The decor is simple and flea-market funky...and then more elegant in the evening when the chandeliers are lit. Christelle's husband Hervé, the chef, offers a full menu plus daily specials, and they are sweetly giving us 50€ to use at lunch or dinner. La Place ticks all my boxes for the perfect local cafe: long hours (7 am to after midnite); dining inside, outside and in the bar; WiFi throughout; couches and magazines in the back; a big TV for sporting events; sunshine on the terrace until late in the day; umbrellas when it's hot outside and heaters when it's not. Plus comforting food with ethnic/global touches...and the best iced latte in town. 


Okay, that’s your restaurants sorted out. Now, how to make the most of your precious days?


*No visit to Provence is complete without some serious sampling of our world-famous wines. So I’ve arranged a splendid half-day of vineyard touring and tasting around the legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape for you. Your host will be the American sommelier and Rhône wine expert Kelly McAuliffe, one of the area’s best-loved guides. Even if you’re a total beginner, you’ll love your day out with Kelly...you’ll see some gorgeous scenery...and you’ll learn a ton. And since you're not driving, you can sip to your heart's content.

*Another day, you'll explore St. Remy with Philippe Goninet, president of our Tourist Office and an extremely knowledgeable guide. First, you'll ramble through the historic city center, with stops at Van Gogh sites, artisan food producers, artists’ studios,  the home of the famous Nostradamus, our beautiful church with its relics from the 14th century and 5000-pipe organ… and much more. After lunch, Philippe will tour you through Glanum (an excavated Greek/Roman village) and next door, the Clinique St. Paul (the serene cloister/hospital where Van Gogh spent a year and painted 150 canvasses). If time and energy allow, you might pop in at the Calanquet olive mill, where 5th-generation brother-and-sister farmers tend 5,000 trees and offer tastings of homemade tapenades, confitures, olive treats and more. Or, drop in at our favorite fromagerie, to play with the adorable goats and taste the award-winning chevre. Or zip over the Alpilles Mountains to visit the medieval, hilltop Les Baux. 

* Of course you'll want to spend a day in Aix and I've arranged for the perfect host!  Delana Nelsen, a transplated Minnesotan, lives in the heart of the old city and gives terrific three-hour walking tours. Depending on the day, these might include one of Aix’s famous markets, the beautiful old homes lining Cours Mirabeau, the Place de Marie with its 16th-century bell tower and Hall of Grains, the quirky Cathedral de Saint Sauveur and the sites of Aix’s most famous son, Paul Cezanne. Then over coffee in her favorite cafe, Delana will help you choose the best restaurant for lunch or dinner and send you on your way. 

*Next up is Avignon, the historic city on the Rhone, where guide Marlene Boyer has arranged another terrific tour for you. She'll take you all around the city's historical center so you can see the Palais des Papes, the St. Benezet Bridge, churches, gardens, shopping streets and more.  Then she'll treat you to lunch in the loud and colorful Les Halles covered food market, where you'll tuck into platters of delicious Provence specialties (olives, tapenades, local cheeses, cold cuts, oysters, bread, etc.) from the various market vendors. Marlene's tour company is #1 on Trip Advisor in the Avignon activities category...and I'm so delighted with her donation!

Wait Up, I'm Nowhere Near Done!

*If you come to Provence during winter truffle season (November 15 to March 15), Lisa and Johann Pepin of Les Pastras insist that you to come for a truffle hunt, followed by an indulgent tasting of truffle canapés with Champagne from the family's boutique winery.  You'll see the property's olive groves, vineyards and bee hives...learn how truffle dogs are trained...learn how to clean, store and cook with truffles...and much more. 

*Sharon deRham and Jane Satow are two of my best gal pals and two of my favorite guides. Both love to tour in multiple regions, depending on what their clients want to see and do. So once we start fleshing out your schedule, we'll know better where they should take you:  for a fabulous day in the Luberon...or a walking tour of Arles...or a visit to Vaison la Romaine...or a taste of the truffle market at Richerenches...or an afternoon of shopping...or a village market tour...or Roman sites...or wineries...or one from every column! When I asked these two for donations, both said "Whatever you need, I'll do!" Are my peeps the best or what?

*Ever come home from a vacation disappointed with your photos? We all have.  So professional photographer Joanna MacLennan has offered to spend a half or full day touring and shooting with  you, giving you lots of terrific tips and tricks along the way. Joanna will also photograph you and your travel companion and then send you a selection of high-resolution jpegs, either on a CD or for download via WeTransfer. So you get a private tour, a photo safari and a portrait session all in one.

Some Hiking and Biking and a Cooking Class Too...

*Feeling sportif? My favorite hiking guide Lucy Bakr will lead you on a glorious half-day randonée, in and around the Alpilles Mountains just south of St. Remy. Depending on the time of year and your stamina, she'll pick the perfect paths and even provide the coffee and nibbles. Beginners welcome! 

*Electric bikes (vélos électriques) are great fun...a wonderful way to explore the countryside.  After a little time to acclimate you'll quickly be off and running, at a pace that tops out around 40 km per hour.  It’s a wonderful sensation: you pedal as usual and then the motor kicks in and gives you a little extra push. Then a little more pedaling…and another push. The bikes are like a cross between a traditional bike and a moped or scooter…and they’re a perfect way to meander winding roads and gentle hills without major effort. At Sun-E-Bike in St. Remy, owner Maxime Vial will set you up with everything you need for a great day out: top-of-the-line e-bikes, helmets, suggested routes and even an extra battery if he thinks you'll need one.  (For more about e-biking in Provence, click here.)

*Once you've tried the food in Provence, you're going to want to make it a home. And I have the perfect person to teach you.  At Le Mas de Lilou, her beautifully restored 19th-century farmhouse B&B 15 minutes west of St. Remy, Catherine Burtonboy offers a wide range of foodie experiences including cooking and baking classes, table d’hôte dinners and more. Catherine will welcome you for an afternoon cooking class and then send you home with everything you've cooked, perfectly packaged, to enjoy for dinner that evening.

And Finally...

* Waiting for you upon arrival you'll find a big box of chocolates from Joël Durand, who handcrafts irresistible sweets infused with the herb, fruit and flower flavors of his beloved South of France. Pick any one of 32 flavors that comprise his Alphabet des Saveurs and bite gently through the coating: you’ll find a rich, velvety truffle-type ganache, shot through with the essence of Earl Grey or rosemary or cocoa bean or jasmine. Each luscious little square is dusted with a chocolate letter, a hint at what’s inside: L for lavender, M for fresh mint, T for tiramisu. Joël will be putting together a box for you filled with all his most-popular flavors. 

*No one leaves Provence without souvenirs...and I’ve got that covered as well. You’ll receive two boxes of four engraved, elegantly packaged soaps, from Comme un Murmure. They’re made near St. Remy and customized with your choice of monogram, initials or name. The scents are delicious and the soaps are so pretty you’ll find it hard to actually use them.

*Now here's a gift from me. My company Provence Post Travel (ok, that means...me) will help you pull it all together, schedule the week to fit in as much as possible, make your dinner reservations, answer all your questions. That’s what I do for my travel-planning clients and it'll be great fun to do it for you as well.

But You Can't Win if You Don't Play...

Ok so here’s what you have to do win the whole shebang: just click HERE. Then put the amount you want to donate into the little box. Remember, the more you give, the more chances you have to win. And make sure to peruse all the other great prizes HERE...and enter to win those as well! Entries will be accepted only until December 17th so make sure you do it soon. Anyone can enter, anywhere in the world.

And now a major merci to everyone who helped me pull together this prize. Thanks to you, someone is going to have an amazing vacation in Provence and some very needy kids and their families will eat better for years because of you. 


For more info on PWP, check out their website here or follow them on Facebook and Twitter

For more on Sustainable Harvest, see their website and follow them on Twitter.

Ok everybody, start clicking! And Bonne Chance!

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