My husband — Mr Dawnay — likes to tease me about my travel preferences (if not requirements): swimming in the sea; delicious food I haven’t had to cook myself; unspoilt scenery — basically bathing not just in nature but in beauty.
“Your year is never complete,” he says, “without at least one taste of the Med.”
So if somewhere has all the above, plus luxury, effortless style and what is called “wellness” thrown in, put it this way: I’m not going to be the first to give a terrible review. All of which is why in mid-November I was holidaying just 30 minutes south of St Tropez — yes, that bling and Bardot central on the Riviera where billionaires come to flaunt their superyachts in summer — at a place only the French could pull off. It’s called Lily of the Valley and they even, sort of, knew my name when I tumbled shambolically in, after a 90-minute drive from Nice airport.
Rachel in her wetsuit, right
“Bienvenue, Madame Johnson,” they chorused. I didn’t have the heart to explain that there have been many Mesdames Johnson, but I would have to divorce Monsieur Dawnay and marry a Mr Johnson to become one myself.
Set in private grounds in the pine-clad, birdsong-loud hills of the 1,000-acre Port-Cros National Park, the glass, chestnut wood and steel structure of Lily of the Valley is perched on the cliffside overlooking the Med. With views over a protected marine reserve and across to the islands of Levant and Hyères, the whole place made me think of Matisse’s 1904 painting Luxe, calme et volupté.
First, luxe: bedrooms are insanely comfortable, from the cool linen to the chilled sparkling water, spiked with lime and mint. Mine had 180-degree sea views and a colour palette of cream, caramel, grey and green to match the Riviera.
Every object, whether a painting, jug, rug or Eames chair, is collectable — not surprising given the hotel, which opened in 2019, is the creation of the French architect Philippe Starck, who counts “Californian villas” and “the Hanging Gardens of Babylon” as inspiration.
The hotel’s exterior
Calme is a given here. There is almost complete silence. Even fishing boats are forbidden in the protected waters along the coast, so the chug of outboard engines is completely absent.
And volupté? This is what makes this hotel so special and different. The concept is luxury wellness — although writing those two words makes it sound more vulgar than it is. The Shape Club — the spa and wellness centre — has a 17m pool (one of two), a gym, sauna and snow shower, plus all the fat-shifting and wrinkle-reducing tech you would expect from German-style medi-spas: your Mayr clinics, Buchingers and Lanserhofs. The difference is that at Lily of the Valley you can be as indulgent or as penitential as you like.
I was on a four-day Optimal Weight and Serenity programme, which included 90 minutes of treatments, an hour of fitness coaching and 1,000 calories a day.
The massages and treatments were definitely bracing — on one day a firming, fat-melting massage for my mum tum involved being pummelled with a cryotherapy wand. A skin evaluation revealed signes apparents de l’âge (obvious signs of ageing) and with my report card showing wrinkles and a loss of elasticity I was prescribed a HydraFacial to exfoliate the top layer of skin and then an LED light therapy face mask.
I went on morning hikes on the Sentier du Littoral (coastal path) through the nature reserve and did yoga and meditation. Strength training was with the hunky Loïc, who turned out to be a professional rugby player (I’m not complaining). Loïc stripped off to his trunks to take us — in wetsuits — into the water for a longe-côte session — a salty sea version of aqua aerobics.
In November it was 24C outside, warm enough to swim and sunbathe. While the rest of the Côte d’Azur puts a slipcover over itself in the winter months, with beach bars, boutiques and fish restaurants closing for la fermeture annuelle, Lily of the Valley has been designed to open year-round, shutting only for a week over Christmas. In high summer there would be a team of 400 rostered to look after the 52 rooms, but in low season the 165 staff waiting on me hand and foot were plenty. It felt like I had the run of the hotel and the pools for a few days.
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As for the other guests, about two thirds of them were European, many from northern France, and a quarter American. But it was hard to tell if they were, like me, on one of the plans devised by the nutritionist Dr Fricker.
Time for lunch
I could see no evidence of restraint — this is a sensational place to eat, even if you are calorie-counting. French guests in crisp cotton and cashmere dined en famille on the delectable creations that emanated from the kitchens, including sticky, dark lamb shanks, served with Bordeaux wines. Inventive presentations made every dish feel like a feast, whether a rich and tangy cod’s roe, fennel and orange salad or grilled squid. I didn’t feel a moment’s hunger, perhaps thanks to a substantial breakfast of two slices of wholemeal bread and scrambled eggs; brought to your table of course, no help-yourself-buffets here.
Did I lose weight? Just over two pounds over the four days — a sensible amount. Better still, the silhouette of my mum tum was less alarming in the mirror.
I am already working out how to get “Madame Johnson” back next year at the same time, for my late taste of the Med 2023. Next time, though, I’m bringing Mr Dawnay, and his beer belly, with me.
Rachel Johnson was a guest of Lily of the Valley, which has room-only doubles from £467; the four-day programme starts from £2,123 (lilyofthevalley.com). Fly to Nice