In late September, our New Hotels Editor, Nadine, met up with a longstanding friend from Australia who was doing a grand tour of Italy and France. Together they enjoyed a whistle stop road trip in a circuit to and from Nice, taking in the sights, art and culinary delights of Provence.

Stop 1: La Maison du Frene

I hadn’t seen my friend Gabrielle for well over 6 years, so I thought it a good opportunity to catch up when she suggested we meet in France. Due to my plane arriving extremely late, we actually reunited at our first stop, colourful La Maison du Frene in the heart of picturesque Vence, half-an-hour inland from Nice.

This unique bijoux guesthouse is the creation of Thierry and Guy, who have transformed a traditional stone townhouse with their wonderful art and collectibles. Think Pop Art canvases, richly patterned wallpaper, antique Limoges china, gilded mirrors and dressers of books and objets d’art – and that’s only in the breakfast salon. Ascend the bright brick red staircase to the four bedrooms (we had a peek at them all), each individually decorated. We stayed in the blue and white La Chapelle Suite on the top floor, with views of the Old Town including the venerable ash tree dating from 1538, and an excellent power shower in the bathroom/dressing area. We also liked Pop Art Suite for its mid-century modern original Charles Eames couch and pastiche Hockney painting beside the bed.

After a delightful breakfast of local jams, warm croissants, yoghurt and several cups of coffee, and some helpful local advice from our hosts, we ventured out to wander around Vence. The old town, once a medieval walled village, is pedestrianised, and we spent time in the fascinating Cathedral (claims to be the smallest in France). It’s built on the site of a 4th-century Roman temple,  and has a 1979 Marc Chagall mosaic, one of his final works. Vence is renowned for its spring water – there are fountains throughout the town – and also for the artistic community which has grown here through the 20th Century; Matisse lived here in his later years.

Stop 2: Domaine de Manville

Next we drove three hours north-west into Provence, rising in the last stages to the foothills of the Alpilles Regional Park, to gracious spa and golf retreat, Domaine de Manville. Everything glowed in the sunshine: the bougainvillea draped over honey-coloured walls; the immaculately tended lawns with statement sculptures; the sparkling huge swimming pool flanked by loungers and umbrellas. The courtyard has vines and seating set around a large tree, and the autumn colours everywhere were delightful.

We were in the vast Family Suite, which has a mezzanine floor and lots of storage, a Juliet balcony overlooking the pool, top quality linens, plus a very spacious bathroom with roll-top tub and walk-in shower plus twin sinks – ideal when travelling with a friend. We tried out the lovely spa – indoor pool, jet pool, ice founding, showers, steam room and sauna – before dressing for dinner. The courtyard and walkways were beautifully lit up once the light faded. Dinner at the Bistrot was delicious (I still recall my squid in bouillabaisse sauce fondly), the service was great, and we shared a bottle of wine on a semi-open terrace, the hillside lit behind us.

For breakfast, there’s an extensive buffet laid out in the winter garden room (a gorgeous glass affair on the side of the spa), and we feasted like queens. Sadly, we didn’t have time for hiring bikes or walking in the national park, but we did manage a refreshing dip in the big pool.

The weather was stunning, and we headed to Les Baux de Provence, just up the road, a historic village (considered one of the most beautiful in France) and ruined castle on a rocky outcrop. First stop: the Carriere deLumières, a spectacular art display where famous paintings are projected onto the walls of a former limestone quarry and set to music. The village above has many tourist outlets (yummy nougat and lovely lavender oils caught our eye), a smattering of restaurants, and a plateau at the very top where you can see for miles.

We followed this with a tour of UNESCO-listed Arles for a couple of hours. There’s so much to see in this handsome city, we barely scratched the surface, but we did marvel at the amazingly intact Roman amphitheatre, drove over the mighty Rhone, admired the incredible carvings on the portal of the Church of St Trophime, and walked alongside the Roman Theatre.

Stop 3: La Bastide des Grand Chenes

We then washed up at La Bastide des Grands Chenes, a new guesthouse in a former 19th-century hunting lodge, whose stunning makeover we kept rhapsodising about. We couldn’t fault the design, the details, the lighting, the garden with dappled light and huge urns filled with flowering plants, and the lagoon-shaped pool (which I lost no time in swimming in). The really lovely couple running the place – Jean-Philippe and Marie – made us so welcome. Marie is an artist and her work is seen throughout. There are also pieces from Morocco, from brocante markets, antiques, interesting rugs and five well-appointed (and very comfortable) bedrooms, all with lovely contemporary bathrooms with solid cool brass fittings.

We had pre-dinner drinks in the shaded pool bar and went out to dinner in Lourmarin, another of the wonderful Provencal small towns hereabouts. You have breakfast on the terrace in good weather or in a glass-sided room if not. We had fresh fruit, local cheese, artisanal bread, coffee, tea and eggs to order.

On our final full day, we wandered around Aix-en-Provence (the city of 1000 fountains) for 2-3 hours, traversing the Cours Mirabeau boulevard with its fine townhouses and fine shops, seeing the ornately carved municipal buildings in the historic centre, looking around the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour which is a mix of architecture and detail dating back to the 5th Century, and enjoying an exhibition on Max Ernst.

Stop 4: Les Rosees

We then drove east again, through pouring rain, our shelter from the storm the very special Les Rosees. This maison d’hotes comes with a charming garden full of nooks and crannies, an inviting small pool, and a very romantic Provencale style.  The rain eased off for an hour or two so we headed out to walk around the artistic small town of Mougins, which was a highlight for its sculptures, the connection to Picasso (he lived here until his death), and the long views across the Cote d’Azur.

We slept in Suite St Honorat on the ground floor, which comes with a big bathtub and a day bed in anteroom. Dinner that night was also a highlight. You sit at antique tables in the salon, and we absolutely loved our three-course set menu (and amuse-bouche), especially the smoked fish risotto and poached pear dessert. Breakfast the next day was dainty and traditional: breads, fruit, yoghurt, an endless array of jams, and a plate of cheese and ham to choose from.

Alas, it was all too soon to head back to Nice airport…