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A Week in Provence

Come for the golf, but stay for everything else on this river-themed trip through this historic region of southern France

By: John Steinbreder

Appeared in November/December 2008 LINKS

I had just played one of the worst rounds of my life, and frankly, I did not care.

That’s because what followed was a wine tasting at Domaine de Beaurenard in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region in southern France. Standing among racks of oak barrels in a “cave” surrounded by fields of luscious Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre vines, I sampled several vintages of reds and whites.

Then my golf partners and I toured a nearby chocolate factory, where we learned how cocoa beans are made into bonbons and bars. We then took a peaceful drive through the Provencal countryside—past vineyards and fields of red poppies that look right out of an Impressionist painting, and through villages with quiet cafés and outdoor markets.

Indeed, the non-golf activities are the primary attraction of this weeklong Perry Golf cruise through Provence aboard Le Phenicien, a tidy yet sumptuous vessel that accommodates just 18 passengers. There are three rounds scheduled, and for every fairway, there is a sight like Avignon, home to Palais des Papes (Palace of Popes), where the Papacy resided for much of the 1300s. Or Arles, where Romans built magnificent monuments and Vincent Van Gogh created some of his best-known works. Or Aigues-Mortes, a charming 14th century city from which Saint Louis set sail on his Crusades. Or Pont du Gard, an aqueduct bridge built by the Romans in the first century.

Provence has become synonymous with the good life, and I could see  why after just one day, the one that began with that disastrous round at Golf de Pont Royal, a tight, hilly Seve Ballesteros design that features lots of ravines and water hazards.

But after the wine tasting, chocolate sampling and the country drive, we arrived at Le Phenicien, which was docked on the Rhone River just outside the ramparts of the medieval city of Avignon. As I settled into a chair on the sun deck of the 127-foot vessel and sipped a crisp blanc, the round had long been forgotten, replaced by more pleasant memories. By dinner, expertly prepared by Thierry, our on-board chef, golf had been thoroughly obliterated from my consciousness.

Still, golf is an important facet of the voyage. It would have been a major oversight to miss a round at Golf Club de Servanes, one of 16 courses in Provence. Set at the base of the Alpilles range, one of Paul Cezanne’s favorite landscapes, the 18-hole layout boasts wide fairways and generous greens as well as groves of olive trees and fragrant patches of lavender and thyme, their scents scattered throughout the course by the formidable minstrel wind.

After a round that required a variety of shots, I could have lingered for hours in the clubhouse, built in an old olive mill. Not your typical 19th hole, it features a superb wine list with dozens of local vintages as well as a menu with moules frites (mussels in garlic and butter with French fries) and chocolate fondue.

Another key component of the trip is the method of transport itself, a luxury barge that has been converted from a commercial vessel to a pleasure cruiser with nine guest cabins, lounge, dining room, full bar and sun deck—a very civilized location for enjoying coffee in the morning, a book in the afternoon, and a cognac and cigar after dinner.

The barge made for a first-class journey, and perhaps no leg was more enjoyable than the one that first took us through the lock of Beaucaire, where the water slowly lifted us almost inconceivably 45 feet, then to Arles. As we approached the city, stately church spires and stone city walls came into view.

There is more to Arles than Van Gogh, and we spent the following day on a ranch in the Camargue, a low-lying region near the Mediterranean Sea where cows and horses flourish, and where local cowboys nurture a special breed of bulls used in a sport where competitors enter an arena and attempt to snatch ribbons attached to the bovines’ horns. As I listened to descriptions of this recreation, I could not discern which was more unbelievable: that grown men with no form of protection actually think taunting large bulls in such close quarters is a good idea, or that there actually are cowboys in France.

At the walled city of Aigues-Mortes, we had one round remaining, at Golf de la Grand Motte, a Florida-style layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.

But the tee time was not until the afternoon, so I headed into town. After finding an outdoor café in the square, I ordered a coffee and did nothing but watch: workers watering the pots of flowers outside the restaurants just opening. Waiters in white coats setting up tables. Butchers putting fresh chickens in rotisseries outside their shops, then hanging different cuts of beef and veal, as well as the freshly cleaned rabbits, on their walls. A restaurateur laying out fresh seafood on ice, while another started paella, the rice, shellfish, saffron and onions sizzling in a massive pan.

As the chairs and tables began to fill up, I ordered another coffee while the smell of fresh bread enveloped me every time a customer opened the door to the bakery next door.

After an hour, I realize it is almost time for my golf game. But I am not at all sure I really want to leave. 

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