Secret Hotels of Provence

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Affordable, authentic and charming digs in France's most alluring region.

Everybody knows about the legendary charms of Provence. The skies are blue beyond compare, and the air is filled with the scent of thyme. Everybody knows that the markets are divine--this is France, after all. Everybody knows that staying there costs a fortune. Or does it?

Not necessarily. Read on!

Murs-en-Provence: Le Mas du Loriot

Chirping cicadas and rustling leaves are the only ambient noises at this quiet haven in the hills near Gordes. Each room has a private terrace with a magnificent view: a small lavender field, and far behind it the mighty massif of the Luberon. An alluring pool is tucked among the trees. The graceful room decor includes tile floors, white walls, a painting or two, and rich fabrics on the beds and windows; bathrooms are stocked with goodies from Yves Rocher. Rooms are accessible from the outside, so mingling with your neighbors is strictly voluntary. The only viewless room goes for $56, while others start at $108. The restaurant serves dinner on weekdays; half-board is strongly encouraged, though not obligatory--and probably not a bad idea, considering how hard it might be to find the energy necessary to get up from your deck chair and drive into town. Doubles $56-$143; eight rooms, one wheelchair accessible. Route de Joucas, 011-33/4-90-72-62-62, fax 011-33/4-90-72-62-54, masduloriot.com.

Vers-Pont-du-Gard: La Begude Saint-Pierre

American-style amenities are rare in French hotels, but this country inn does what it can: Rooms are spacious, beds are large (two small twins clamped together), bathrooms are stocked with toiletries, and there's a sauna, pool, and small gym room. And then there's the French part: glorious countryside views, 17th-century stone buildings, and a gourmet restaurant (prix fixe dinner $35-$58). The inside of this old postal-relay inn has been almost entirely reconstructed to create no-nonsense modern, air-conditioned rooms with faux antiques and Provençal bedspreads. The 34 acres of grounds stretch to the Gardon River, which runs under the neighboring Pont-du-Gard, an amazing chunk of intact Roman aqueduct. The hotel is on a small country highway, so a few rooms get some road noise during the daytime (but the three that face the road are quite large and in the lowest price category). Doubles $83-$143; 20 rooms, three suites. D 981 Les Coudoulieres, 011-33/4-66-63-63-63, fax 011-33/4-66-22-73-73, hotel-saintpierre.fr.

Uzes: Hotel du General d'Entraigues

Centuries old and completely restored, Uzes is a jewel of a town with one of the best open-air markets in all of Provence. Lodgings are scarce, but fortunately there is this classy hotel, ensconced in a series of 15th- and 18th-century private houses just in front of St. Theodorit Cathedral and the Tour Fenestrelle. Rates vary widely, but on the low end are decent-size rooms with exposed beams, nice antiques, and pretty views of interior patios and surrounding monuments. (The more expensive rooms are gigantic, with painted 17th-century beamed ceilings and prsate balconies.) Most rooms are air-conditioned, and there's a gorgeous, though shallow, rooftop pool with a patio bar and views of the cathedral. Common areas like the downstairs lounge are hip yet cozy; be sure to check out the restaurant's view of the underside of the pool. Doubles $65-$178; 36 rooms, two suites, elevator. 8 rue de la Calade, Place de l'Eveche, 011-33/4-66-22-32-68, fax 011-33/4-66-22-57-01, hoteldentraigues.com.

Graveson: Le Cadran Solaire

Once a postal-relay inn, this old stone building in the residential part of a very small town has thick walls, a trellised garden, and a tranquil atmosphere (reinforced by the absence of TVs in the rooms). With high-beamed ceilings and garden views, the rooms are luminous; modern, ornate iron bedsteads, period reproduction furniture, and muted colors complete the decor. The friendly owners try to make it feel like a private home, and by and large they succeed. Though not neighboring any big tourist sites, Graveson is within a half-hour drive of most Provençal highlights, and the town itself has a relaxed southern charm--huge plane trees shade a tiny canal that cuts across the main square. Doubles $69-$90; 12 rooms. 5 rue de Cabaret Neuf, 011-33/4-90-95-71-79, fax 011-33/4-90-90-55-04, hotel-en-provence.com.

Arles: Hotel de l'Amphitheatre

Style, comfort, and great prices combine to make these chic lodgings--unrelated to the hotel of the same name in Nîmes--an excellent deal. New owners have almost completely renovated, exposing amazing 17th-century wood-beam ceilings. Wall colors tend toward the dark, rich side, but they're generally balanced with bright fabrics, light floor tiles, and modern furniture that borrows from antique styles. The cheapest rooms, in the unrenovated part of the hotel, are in need of an overhaul; it's definitely worth paying the extra $12 for a "comfort" double on the spiffed-up side. The Belvedere ($161), which has a 360-degree view of the rooftops of Arles, may be worth a splurge. All rooms are air-conditioned, there's Internet access in the lobby and a massage therapist on call, and the cool art books and toiletries in the rooms are for sale in the hotel boutique. Doubles $58-$106; 28 rooms, one wheelchair-accessible, one suite. 5-7 rue Diderot, 011-33/4-90-96-10-30, fax 011-33/4-90-93-98-69, hotelamphitheatre.fr.

Nîmes: Hotel de l'Amphitheatre

A block away from Nîmes' magnificent Roman mini-Colosseum, this 18th-century town house has been lovingly converted into a remarkably reasonable, family-run hotel. The management may come off as a little brisk, but it's clear they're passionate about their work. Rooms are furnished with antiques and modern pieces; tweedy wallpaper and area rugs add a feeling of warmth, and high ceilings offset the slightly pinched dimensions. If size matters, ask for one of the three larger rooms facing the pretty Place du Marche or a grande with two double beds (which costs more). The top floor is air-conditioned. And because the entire old center of Nîmes is a pedestrian zone, even rooms facing the tiny street are quiet. Doubles $56-$68; 15 rooms. 4 rue des Arenes, 011-33/4-66-67-28-51, fax 011-33/4-66-67-07-79, http://perso.wanadoo.fr/hotel-amphitheatre.

Villeneuve-lez-Avignon: Hotel de l'Atelier

Spare yourself the agony of trying to find high-season lodgings in Avignon--there's a great little hotel across the river in Villeneuve, just a five-minute bus ride from the City of Popes. Rooms are all different shapes and sizes--the building was built in the 16th century as a silk workshop--and there are exposed beams and stone walls, as well as painted niches, art deco dressers, Chinese end tables, and antique photography. A few rooms look a bit like they're from a 1940s movie set. The garden terrace is livened up with modern sculptures; hallways showcase paintings by local artists. The new owners are redoing a couple of rooms in Provençal style--let's hope their taste is as refined as their predecessors'. Doubles $67-$108; 23 rooms. 5 rue de la Foire, 011-33/4-90-25-01-84, fax 011-33/4-90-25-80-06, hoteldelatelier.com.

St-Remy-de-Provence: L'Hotel Sous les Figuiers

Its name means "hotel under the fig trees," and sure enough, Sous les Figuiers boasts 10 rooms that each have a terrace and a small private yard with a fig tree that you can harvest at will (the two that don't have trees cost at least $24 less).

Somewhere between a B&B and a hotel, this low-key lodging is in a residential area just a couple of minutes from the center of town. Recently reopened (and completely renovated) after a change in ownership, the place is spic-and-span, from the lushly painted walls to the earth-tone tiles in the bathrooms. The modern rooms are softened with quilted bedcovers and restored antiques. If you like the faux finish on the armoire, learn how to do it yourself at a workshop in the art studio. The friendly owner lives on the premises and encourages guests to get to know each other over a game of chess or an evening aperitif, but you can also just lounge by the pool on your own or stretch out under your fig tree and take a nap. Doubles $77-$125; 12 rooms. 3 avenue Taillandier, 011-33/4-32-60-15-40, fax 011-33/4-32-60-15-39, hotel-charme-provence.com

Le barroux: Les Geraniums

The rooms may not be anything special, but the hotel is on the edge of a rocky bluff, and the views are spectacular--across the Plain of the Comtat, from the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains to the town of Carpentras. In the main building, windows look out on to mountains, olive orchards, and vineyards; for the head-on view of the plain, ask for a room in the annex. The quarters are relatively spacious, but bathrooms are closet-size. Half-board (breakfast and dinner) is a smart idea, since the hotel restaurant and its geranium-bedecked terrace serve the only real food in town. The tiny village of Le Barroux, site of a 12th-century castle, provides a good base for hikers and nature lovers who want to make the most of the Dentelles and nearby Mont Ventoux. Doubles $54-$60; 22 rooms. Place de la Croix, 011-33/4-90-62-41-08, fax 011-33/4-90-62-56-48, http://www.hotel-lesgeraniums.com.

Maussane-les-Alpilles: Hostellerie l'Oustaloun

Though just a few miles away from the majestic and tourist-heavy fortress town of Les Baux, Maussane retains its sleepy southern atmosphere, complete with a butcher, a baker, and a smoky cafe. It's one of the rare villages in the Alpilles mountains not completely bought out by rich foreigners trying to relive Peter Mayles' A Year in Provence. The hotel's spacious rooms are simple but nicely decorated with family antiques and Provençal fabrics, and an effort has been made to preserve architectural details left from the building's previous incarnation as a 16th-century abbey. (There are a lot of stairs; be prepared to climb.) In summer, the restaurant spills out onto the church square, where you can eat eggplant caviar with red pepper coulis under the century-old plane trees. Doubles $57-$68; nine rooms. Place de l'Eglise, 011-33/4-90-54-32-19, fax 011-33/4-90-54-45-57, loustaloun.com.

Aix-en-Provence: Hotel Cardinal

In the upscale tourist hub of Aix-en-Provence, lodgings tend to be extremely expensive or bare-bones backpacker hangouts. Hotel Cardinal is a rare compromise, with affordable rooms in a beautiful neighborhood just a short walk from the bustling esplanade of the Cours Mirabeau. Don't be put off by the shabby lobby--the 18th-century building is being slowly renovated, and the ebullient owner made the guest rooms her first priority. Most have had a makeover, with reproduction period fabrics and furniture as well as sparkling bathrooms and new mattresses, but the hallways and common areas have a long way to go. The real deals are the suites in the nearby annex. Some are still a little dingy, but they're quite large, with eat-in kitchens--a couple have private gardens--and they cost only $92. Doubles $77; 23 rooms, six suites, elevator in the main building. 24 rue Cardinale, 011-33/4-42-38-32-30, fax 011-33/4-42-26-39-05, hotel-cardinal-aix.com.

Saignon: Auberge du Presbytere

The old stone presbytery dominates the tiny main square of Saignon, a beautiful eagle's nest of a village that peers down on a wide valley and the town of Apt. The Auberge has been in the same hands for a long time--a long-term American expat--as you can tell from the lived-in, un-hotel-like ambience. Rooms are tastefully decorated with a variety of rattan armchairs, throw rugs, local antiques, and interesting paintings by the owner's wife. Two rooms have incredible views, one with a 270-degree panorama of the Luberon massif with the 12th-century village church in the foreground. The smaller rooms are cheaper; the least expensive is cute but tiny with a bathroom in the hall. The restaurant, which has a terrace, is a good bet--it's a long haul downhill to find alternatives. Doubles $62-$137; 12 rooms. Place de la Fontaine, 011-33/4-90-74-11-50, fax 011-33/4-90-04-68-51, auberge-presbytere.com.

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