Taking a taxi along the winding D559 road to the tiny Riviera commune of Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer, I am treated to some delightfully dramatic scenery. To one side is the backdrop of the Massif des Maures mountains; to the other, vertiginous views of the Golfe de St Tropez and the Levant, with Port-Cros and the island of Porquerolles on the horizon.
I am returning to Le Bailli de Suffren hotel, where I passed a thoroughly pleasant few days three years ago. It stands on the site of the 1930s Hôtel La Réserve, which attracted the likes of Edith Piaf and Georges Brassens, who came for the therapeutic waters and to gamble at the former Le Lavandou casino. Taking in the picture-postcard view of the palms, Aleppo pines, herb borders and silver-sand beach lapped by the azure sea, the appeal is easy to understand. It may be just 15 miles from the glitz of St Tropez, but in attitude it’s a world away: discreet, quiet and laid-back. No wonder Rolls-Royce cofounder Sir Henry Royce built Villa Mimosa nearby in 1912, to escape West Wittering winters.
Recently Le Bailli’s owners commissioned Marseille-born, Paris-based architect François Champsaur to revise the decor, giving the whole place a lighter and brighter aspect without losing any of its charm. The 55 rooms (from €235) are all contemporary and crisp, with white walls, tiled floors and bright blue accents, allowing the stupendous views of sea and sky to do the talking.
Chef Stephan Demichelis heads the hotel’s three restaurants: Le Loup de Mer bistro; on-the-beach L’Escale; and La Piscine, located by the alluringly croissant-shaped pool. His breakfast omelettes are made to order in front of guests and are famous in the region for a very good reason. Dinner at Le Loup de Mer of paper-thin rock lobster ravioli and morilles mushrooms, followed by oven-baked monkfish was equally delicious, matched with a fine rosé from nearby Château Léoube.
Noting the mountain bikes I took a leisurely ride, as advised by the friendly concierge, along the disused railway track above the hotel. I also revisited the gorgeously bucolic acres of Domaine du Rayol Mediterranean gardens, just 10 minutes’ walk up the hill from Le Bailli de Suffren, before indulging in a soothing massage in the seaview Carita spa, located in a cottage above the beach. This is the Riviera as it was 50 years ago – with the addition of excellent WiFi.