by Bethan Ryder, The Telegraph, June 20, 2017
Combining high-end luxury with a sense of calm and seclusion, this historic private estate set in glorious floodlit grounds lies just outside the picturesque town of Valbonne and offers an authentic taste of the Côte d’Azur.
The monks of St Honorat first built this former agricultural monastery in 1697 – before moving to the Iles de Lérins off the coast of Cannes – so there’s no shortage of historical heritage attached to this magical domaine. In the early 19th century it was owned by Napoleon, who presented it as a gift to a favourite general – clearly one of the “lucky” ones the emperor valued so highly. In the last century it was in the hands of the Grimaldi family – the aunt of the late Prince Rainier of Monaco lived here until she died in the 1970s, after which it was purchased by the parents of the current British owners.
We visited in late May, when the property was at its most lush, with countless roses in bloom and clouds of Mexican fleabane bursting out of the stone steps and rustic ochre-coloured walls. Jasmine, lavender, wisteria: the domaine is an olfactory paradise, and quite possibly one of the most fragrant places you will ever experience. That goes for indoors too, where there’s a lot of potpourri and lavender-stuffed cushions on every bed.
We stayed in the main house, known as the Monastery, where a large open fire between two reception rooms makes it cosy in the winter; in warm weather, meals can be taken on a gorgeous terrace. The domaine offers several other buildings for guests to stay in, including the Farm, the Bergerie and the Oliveraie, making it ideal for a wedding, landmark celebration or large-scale (extended) family holiday.
Kids will love it – especially the huge oak door with comically oversized key, the Steinway baby grand (complete with some great sheet music) and, most of all, the dank Famous Five-worthy secret tunnel. Built by the monks as a 3km link to their abbey in Valbonne, the tunnel was later used by the Résistance and to hide fugitives from the Nazis.
To add to the homey feel of the property, there are also three resident horses and four dogs. Warnings to keep doors shut should be heeded. We returned home from dinner on our first night to discover – with much hilarity – that a canine burglar (Barney the beagle we think) had snuck in and scoffed eight individually wrapped pains au chocolat.
Situated a half-hour drive from Nice airport, the domaine is minutes away from the pretty Riviera town of Valbonne, with its cobbled streets, arcaded main square, weekly market (Fridays), organic greengrocers and gourmet restaurants – the epitome of well-heeled Riviera living. There’s an unbeatable array of art and craft to be experienced within easy striking distance, from traditional glassblowing in the village-perché of Biot and the cool, modernist Fernand Léger museum, to galleries devoted to former Côte residents such as Picasso, Renoir and Matisse.
What to expect
The 25-acre domaine contains more than 500 ancient olive trees (you can buy the oil as a memento for €12 a bottle), as well as fragrant lavender, mature oaks and fruit orchards, making you feel en pleine nature despite the fact that you’re only a 15-minute walk from the centre of Valbonne. But what makes this property truly enchanting is the host of charming little touches, like the delicious orange juice squeezed each morning from the estate’s own own fruit, the freshly laid chicken eggs, the 22 birdhouses scattered around the property and the little square slates suspended from olive trees onto which guests have written poems, aperçus and mementoes of their stay – a kind of arboreal Visitors Book.
Another major draw is that wonderful sense of being hidden away from the world – cloistered, even – the perfect ingredient for a truly relaxing break. And you’ll never have a chance to get bored of your surroundings. With so many different areas to make use of in the main house alone, including a ground floor with three reception rooms and a lower ground floor with a winter dining area and summer dining area opening onto another large terrace (that can seat 20) with an open-air barbecue – you could have a huge argument with your fellow guests and never need to be in the same room with them.
At a whopping 22m x 11m, the heated swimming pool is said to be the largest in the region. A minute’s walk from the main residence, fringed by cherry, orange, lemon and fig trees and the odd monumental Cypress, it’s accompanied by a small fitness studio with a running machine, weights and yoga mats, plus a superb tennis court. In the mid-80s, this was the temporary Côte d’Azur hangout of Duran Duran while they recorded Seven and the Ragged Tiger. We couldn’t help feeling that Simon le Bon might be disappointed by the accompanying rules, however, which include “no Speedos” – an amusing in-joke for anyone who’s ever attempted to wear long shorts to a municipal French pool.
Not so keen
While it’s a bonus to be looked after – officially for two hours per day (it’s €25 per hour for extra) – by the domaine’s team of cleaners, cooks and gardeners, it’s worth stressing that the extremely friendly and likeable staff (Gloria and Jun), who live in an adjoining cottage, tend to be very discreetly in evidence most of the time (an estate this size needs plenty of TLC). If you’re after total privacy, there might be better options.
The Monastery has a master bedroom and four double bedrooms (that in a regular house would be master status) - all of which boast spectacular views across the parkland. There is also a single bed that’s ideal for kids. Very much shabby chic, Provençal-style bedrooms have Persian rugs, lovely linen curtains (with pelmets) and some beautiful antique pieces of furniture. Scented candles and matches are thoughtfully dotted around the rooms and bathrooms.
There is ample closet space and they surpass most five-star hotels when it comes to quantities of hangers. Bathrooms are charming, tiled in the local style and all supplied with Simply Argan toiletries and the fluffiest monogramed towels - which make you feel a true lady or lord of the manor. Another fun touch is the small bedside safes that masquerade as paperback novels.
The Farm is divided into two apartments: one at garden level is two bedroomed, and the other one bedroom with a spectacular mezzanine.
The circular “tower” that was once the granary now houses two floors of double bunk beds with shower rooms en suite – it’s a veritable paradise for teenagers (as long as they don’t mind the absence of air-conditioning).
Who it's good for
It was the last day of Cannes – a mere 25-minute drive away – when we visited. Does the domaine get much film festival trade? The representative showing us around shook her head: “it’s not that kind of place.”
You can see what she means. Despite its super-luxe price tag, this is not a super-modern, hi-tech, villa-in-Ibiza type of property. You can’t imagine Tom Cruise staying here. Rather, it offers a classic South of France, Provençal experience (though it’s officially in Alpes-Maritimes). A little rustic, a little shabby chic in places, its charm lies in gnarled beams, wooden shutters, flagstone floors and charmingly wonky walls rather than chic interior design.
And while the property boasts all the comforts you’d expect, such as air-conditioning, wi-fi, Sky TV and an iPod dock, the decor is undeniably trad but is very much in keeping with the property. You do feel as if you’re staying in someone’s home (complete with a fantastic library of books) rather than in a holiday rental, which may or may not be to your liking. But if you relish the idea of sipping a rosé on a terrace at sundown, staring at ancient dry-stone walls and 200-year-old olive trees, listening to doves cooing and swallows wheeling in the sky above, you’ve come to the right place.
The property’s main lawn, with its groovy retractable sprinkler system, is positively crying out for a group wedding photo, while the glorious stone steps leading up to the wisteria-clad main house could only be more romantic if accessorised with a bride and groom. There’s room for up to 24 guests to stay on site, with plenty of excellent accommodation options in nearby Valbonne.
The estate is around 40 minutes drive from Nice airport and two hours drive from Marseille.
Cost and how to book
Accommodating up to 24 guests, rates at Sylviane Estate cost from €30,000 per week or €4,286 per night through Edge Retreats (0203 355 6077; edgeretreats.com). There is also some information about the Estate provided on the owners’ own website: sthonorat.com.