I have recently returned from a plush hotel in the hillside village of St Paul-de-Vence, near Nice. Due to St Paul’s artistic antecedents - Picasso, Chagall and Matisse were village regulars - the tiny streets of the old centre are now overcome with galleries featuring artists no-one’s ever heard of. I find the art overkill as tedious as hell, but it clearly suits many people. The hotel, on the other hand, is a cracker.
Built on a ridge out from the village, the Mas de Pierre is a series of independent stone buildings - bastides, they call them round here - engulfed by the sort of Mediterranean gardens which always appear to be on the point of breaking loose. The place looks as if it’s been there forever, though it’s barely 10 years old, built on what was olive-growing land.
Even newer - opened last month - is the hotel’s seventh building, the Bastide-des-Fleurs which, with six suites and bedrooms, reckons go beyond luxury to whatever comes next. That’s where we’ve just been. This bastide had its own swimming pool and butler. Rooms were the size of the Maracana. Our suite had three TVs - one in the salon, one in the bathroom and a third which popped up at the end of the bed. Causing it to appear and disappear was significantly more entertaining than French daytime TV. Almost everything was beige, blue or cream and ridiculously comfortable. Towels were so fluffy, you could have smothered poodles in them. We had a little courtyard, white roses as pre-ordered on the form they sent out to future guests, and seating options sufficient for a G8 summit.
The bastide’s was, in short, accommodation where the inconveniences of daily life - the unavailability of butlers, the lack of really good macaroons, an inadequacy of plump cushions - fell away. The rest of the world was imperceptible beyond the gardens.
I have no trouble handling any of this. I am a talented sleeper, with widely-acknowledged gifts in the matter of sitting round pools, sipping in bars and eating free meals in alfresco restaurants. A childhood in Preston, Lancashire prepared me early for the rigours of extreme leisure. Not so my wife, whom I rescued from a French farming life some years ago. A subsequent career as teacher and children’s author scarcely fitted her for the finer things in life.
In our early days in top hotels, she would make the bed and dust, to ease the chambermaid’s burden. She would thank everyone for everything - and draft replies to the printed notes of welcome from the hotel manager. She’s better now - so that, as we toured the gardens at the Mas de Pierre she didn’t offer to do any dead-heading. Nor did she lean into our car, to show the voiturier how the gears worked.
Even so - as we pored over the pre-arrival form, deciding what flowers we wanted, what music and which newspapers should be loaded onto the IPad, and whether we wished the staff to be “Discreet” or “Private” - she did fix me with a stare and say: “This isn’t for us; we’ll be out of our depth.”
“Nonsense,” I cried. “You’re talking to a man who once interviewed Jeffrey Archer. I know my way around the higher echelons. Follow me.” And so she did. On the way, however, I reminded her of the elementary rules for tackling five-star hotels. These may be useful as your own holidays get under way. They are as follows:
* Walk in as if you own the place: Brad and Angelina don’t sneak into places, smiling apologetically. They stride in, bristling with entitlement. Do the same. The Mas-de-Pierre may have employed almost all the polite people available on the Côte-d’Azur but, if they were so startlingly fantastic, they’d be on our side of the reception desk, we’d be on theirs and we’d be serving them. And, let us be honest, standing outside a hotel, usually in uniform, to open the car doors of arriving guests is not the sort of extraordinary performance which need generate awe, applause or the exchange of coinage. And, if you’re going to give a bloke a tenner for, say, hailing you a taxi, how much should you tip the heart surgeon? (“Here you are, doc; buy yourself a small house.”)
* Though usually polite (see above), five star staff are not your friends: However much she smiles, the person cleaning your bathroom or bringing your pina colada is doing it for money. It’s not because she likes you. You’re going to get a very big bill. No need, therefore, to invite her back to your home the following year.
* Careful whom you bump into: Five-star hotels are full of nobodies - but also the occasional somebody. The latter need treating with circumspection. Stumbling in the lobby of the Hotel Negresco in Nice, my rather small wife bumped into, and almost felled, an even smaller Chinese lady. This turned out to be the wife of the then prime minister of China. Yeti-sized Chinese fellows in crazily tight suits suddenly emerged from all quarters. I thought we were in for a lifetime’s re-education somewhere remote in Guangdong province. Only desperate sign language convinced all concerned that this had been a trip rather than an attempted coup-d’état.
* But do wallow in it: The central irony of five-star hotels is that, for those who can afford them regularly, they’re no big deal. They merely reproduce the luxury and service standards to which the wealthy are accustomed wherever they go, home or elsewhere. The people they really pay off for are the rest of us, who only get a shot at these kind of lodgings once in a while. If then. So, while remaining apparently blasé, take full advantage. I have rarely recently been happier than, champagne glass in hand, strolling the classical gardens of a fab hill-topping Italian spot near Bergamo, walking to the edge - and looking down to see how the rural working classes were getting on. Sitting at the baby grand piano in the second salon of my suite at the Athénée Plaza in Paris also promoted a sense of profound well-being. (Should you wish to follow suit, incidentally, note that the Plaza re-opens next Friday, August 1, after a 10-month refurb.)
* No excess, mind: ... unless you’re so famous that you can get away with it. Michael Jackson springs to mind. In a Riviera hotel, he had one room turned into a dance studio and another into a kitchen for his private chef. He would wander out at night disguised - occasionally as a hooker. We may imagine the double surprise of potential clients. Then again, most of us are not Michael Jackson; excess leaves us looking boorish. Or Russian.
* Reading material: Luxury hotel bedrooms are the only places you find magazines with titles like £connexion or (A)musebouche4. They comprise ads for Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior, intercut with articles about spa-resorts on Wallis and Futuna promoted by a fellow who’s made a fortune designing cutting-edge sarongs. He wears flowing white robes and uses only renewable resources. The article will inspire you to travel to W&F to shoot him. Don’t. Simply hurl the magazine into the bin..
* Tipping: Again, don’t. Doormen and barmen in these places are richer than you or me. No use in patronising them. I now leave nothing, and they’re clearly appreciative.
* Le Mas-de-Pierre, St Paul-de-Vence (0033 493 590059; lemasdepierre.com . Doubles in the Bastide-des-Fleurs from £300; elsewhere in the hotel, from £158).
This article was written by Anthony Peregrine from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.