La Colombe d'Or began life in the twenties as an unpretentious café just outside the ramparts of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. The Roux family owned the place but called it Robinson. By 1931, the establishment offered lodging in addition to food and refreshment and was rechristened La Colombe d'Or. By then, Picasso, Signac, Dufy, Bonnard and Matisse were all regulars and, as legend had it, they'd settled the debt incurred in their leaner years with works of art. This repayment of hospitality resulted in one of the great private collections and included pieces by Leger, Soutine, Modigliani, Chagall, Braque, Cesar and Calder.
Eventually the hotel drew European—and later—Hollywood royalty. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret married here, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had a jealous row over Isadora Duncan. There was plenty of entertainment.
I wondered what La Colombe d'Or would be like today. It seemed unlikely it could live up to its mystique, but I wanted to find out. Would this legendary auberge feel exclusive in a good way—or bad? And would I remain behind a velvet rope until it came time to pay the bill?
Soon after arriving, I came to believe I was an invited guest. La Colombe d'Or felt like a wonderful house party, if only I had fabulously wealthy French friends who would put up with me for a few days. I roamed the hotel, admiring the china (handiwork of a sometime guest), the garden chairs (fashioned to look like provincial wooden seating but artfully cast in metal) and swooned over works by Derain, Picasso, Utrillo, Modigliani and Miro. I'd heard that this was but a glimpse of the hotel's collection, which was so prodigious it rotated like that of a museum. Yet La Colombe d'Or was anything but stuffy. Paintings hung over tables and occupied hotel corridors almost casually, and I couldn't help ponder the hotel's insurance rates. The art collection reportedly had been stolen in 1960 and recovered in a storage area of the Marseille train station.
We arrived shortly before noon, and the maitre d' asked whether we would like a table for lunch. This seemed like an agreeable plan, but at the time I had no idea how difficult it was to come by a table if you were not a hotel guest. You might call two months ahead and still not be assured of a spot in the garden.
As we ordered lunch, the captain smoothly took over. Instead of pushing the foie gras salad (which I tried on another day and found to be superb), he indicated that we were ordering too much. "One house hors d'oeuvres is more than enough for the whole table, you'll see; and you and your son could really share the poussin. It's a large portion."
Soon the serving table groaned under three kinds of freshly baked bread, butter curls, olives, crudites, a dozen ramekins of appetizers ranging from carmelized onions to herring and chickpea salad, and then he produced a large cutting board and started shaving charcuterie in huge quantities. (I immediately began rethinking my clothing size; suddenly quarante seemed like a much wiser choice than trente-huit.) The texture of the saucisson could only be called silken. The poussin was, as advertised, sizable for a baby chicken, tender and roasted to a beautiful turn.
My older son was conversing with the captain in middle school French, and my younger son had been summoned to the kitchen to survey the ice cream and gateaux selection. As the afternoon wore on, the meal progressed in a festive blur, and our plans to drive to Biot evaporated along with the extremely pleasant and reasonably-priced house wine.
Once our lunch had concluded, the only question was how to kill time until we could return again to the walled garden with Fernand Leger's fantastic ceramic mural framed by luxuriant ivy. I longed to sit beneath the canopy of mature fig trees and jaunty white umbrellas, and contemplate Cesar's six-foot marble Thumb and the sweeping views of the valley and, yes, gorge myself once again. Leaving the property was not under consideration, but we did manage to change into bathing suits and wallow by the pool.
The Calder mobile hanging over the shallow end appeared to be as crucial as the diving board, and it's a close call as to which delighted my kids more. The pool's emerald glass mosaics shimmered in the late afternoon sun as the long shadows of towering cypresses reflected even greener in the water. These weren't any ordinary cypresses, but a brace of outsized specimens carved into a dense, velvety 30-foot-tall slab.
The bar, which opens onto the dining patio, is like a small chapel only not hushed. A few carved wooden stools stand in front of the bar and a handful of tables provide a place to set down your kir in front of the window seats. A fascinating collection of letters, photographs and art occupies the walls. This space feels even more intimate than the rest of the hotel, which is compact and grew up around the restaurant. There is no lobby per se, just a seating area and fireplace within the dining room.
Hotel guests and local residents who dine here regularly are given special treatment. If you fall into neither category it is more difficult to secure a table, but even if you are just passing through and feel like stopping for a flute of champagne, I urge you to do so.
While La Colombe d'Or is timeless and tasteful, it is not of the moment. Our bathroom, charming and generous in size, was most likely renovated in the eighties. The room itself was decorated with antique pieces and gorgeous paintings with cappuccino frescoed walls, terra cotta floors and wooden beams. The view from the terrace of the rolling Provencal hills gave a sense of place that was reinforced by the cockle-doodle-do of roosters each morning.
The destination is the restaurant, its garden and pool; the guest rooms provide access. If you are someone who likes a traditional lobby and other assorted public rooms, this is not the place for you.
A final note: we never ate dinner anywhere else for the duration of our stay. At no time did I venture beyond the medieval walls of la Colombe d'Or without yearning to return to the glimmering world of the garden.
La Colombe d'Or, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France; 18.104.22.168.80.02 firstname.lastname@example.org; www.la-colombe-dor.com ; Place de Gaulle, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France; 16 rooms, 10 apartments, starting at 220 euros. (The hotel is not easy to spot, hidden behind the ancient walls of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, across from the bocce court.)