When the French painter Gustave Courbet depicted the flat pale gray beach of the Languedoc Coast in “The Seaside at Palavas,” in 1854, it was wild and empty, which is what makes the tiny man in a suit doffing his top hat at the low dark green waves rolling in off the Golfe de Lion so poignant.
Successive building booms tamed that wildness, first during the 1920s, and then again during the three decades from 1945 to 1975 that the French call “Les Trente Glorieuses” (the 30 glorious ones), when the country’s economy was thriving after World War II. In the early 1970s, the government of French President Georges Pompidou, frustrated to see so many Gauls heading south to Spain for their holidays, drew up plans for new resorts on the Languedoc coast, notably La Grande Motte and Cap d’Agde. These huge blocks of blunt-looking white-painted concrete holiday flats and hotels with affordable rates gave the Languedoc coastline its less-than-glamorous reputation.
So the Languedoc was an unlikely spot for the trendsetting brothers Jean-Louis and Guy Costes to have opened the family’s first hotel outside Paris, the 72-room Plage Palace, in the low-key beach resort of Palavas-Les-Flots, five miles south of the year-old TGV Montpellier Sud de France train station.
When Jean-Louis Costes and another brother, Gilbert, opened the family’s first hotel in 1995, its louche Napoleon III decor jolted the sedate world of Paris luxury hotels. If the French capital’s grande-dame palace hotels spun on the fantasy of spending a night in an aristocrat’s chateau, the Hotel Costes, with its low lighting, plush fabrics and carefully cast staff, seemed to suggest that it might be more fun to bed down in a bordello instead. The international fashion world promptly made it one of its favorite Paris addresses.
Like many people from the Aveyron region of central France, the Costes spent their childhood summer holidays in Languedoc, but nostalgia alone can’t entirely explain the daring of this newly built property, which cost between 25 and 30 million euros, or about $40 million according to the French press (the Costes have declined to comment on the hotel or its cost). The Plage Palace is a bold bet that there’s a market for something new, in this case, a style-driven luxury hotel on a stretch of the French Mediterranean coast that’s never had the glamour of the Côte d’Azur.
Palavas-les-Flots, a 20-minute drive from the TGV station, is over a bridge from the mainland on a long narrow barrier island with a series of lagoons on its northern shore and the Mediterranean on its southern one. It’s a motley mix of low-rise 50s and 60s apartment buildings, small bungalows covered with ivory, umber or pink stucco, and cafes and souvenir shops brightened during the summer by huge banks of oleander.
First step, find the hotel
Since it’s hidden by thick plantings and a wall of weathered planks and has no signage, the Plage Palace was not easy to find. Three times I went through a gate I guessed was the entrance looking for a place to park, only to quickly find myself in front of the sign that said Sortie (Exit) and back on the road by which I’d arrived. On a fourth try, the road was blocked by a car with Swiss license plates, and a smiling bellhop-cum-valet parking attendant dressed in white suddenly emerged from the greenery.
“Hey, welcome! Leave your car here, and I’ll take care of it,” he said, and escorted me up a curving boardwalk to the hotel. When I mentioned I’d had a tough time reaching the hotel, he nodded.
“Eh, oui,” he said. “The Costes are very discreet people, and they want the hotel to be a surprise.”
The hotel, a new-built, all-white, Cubist-style, two-story building, is pure Costes. The staff have been carefully cast from the young and beautiful, the property has a major design pedigree: the Paris-based interior architects Buttazzoni, Imaad Rahmouni and François-Joseph Graf collaborated on it. Lounge music thumps from speakers in the restaurant, and the wooden deck overlooking a heated saltwater pool and a neatly groomed stretch of beach is furnished with sun loungers, white umbrellas and a bar-restaurant. Checking in, I noticed one big difference in the Costes’ Languedoc hospitality style: Unlike the hauteur that characterizes the service in many of their Paris establishments, the staff were welcoming and friendly.
Rooms, most of which have sea-views and private terraces or balconies, come with appealingly minimalist beach-shack décor (they start at 300 euros a night, or about $336). The restaurant has almost exactly the same basic — and expensive, menu as the brothers’ several dozen restaurants and brasseries in Paris — dishes like steamed shrimp dim sum or tuna and avocado tartare, and in a rare feint at local gastronomy, a stew of bull’s meat eaten in the adjacent Camargue and grilled cuttlefish from the neighboring port of Grau-le-Roi.
In the bar before dinner, the crowd was chatting about their winter vacations in Saint Barth’s and Thailand. I couldn’t help but wonder what the pampered clientele would find to do if they decided to step outside this carefully created bubble of luxury.
Outside the bubble
So after an excellent buffet breakfast at the Plage Palace, I set out to discover the appeal of the Languedoc coastline as a destination, whatever your travel budget might be. Driving 12 miles east, I passed through La Grande Motte, and arrived at Aigues Mortes, a walled medieval town surrounded by marshes and salt pans. In 1240, King Louis IX ordained the construction of a port in what was then a village of fishermen and salt harvesters that would serve as the embarkation point for French troops heading off to the Crusades in the Holy Land. His son Philip III ordered the construction of stone ramparts to completely encircle the town, and today these formidable fortifications are a French national historic monument.
I enjoyed the briny breezes and sweeping views over the town, the surrounding marshes and the vivid pink salt pans during a leisurely hourlong ramble around the ramparts with just the occasional noisy sea gull overhead to keep me company.
From Aigues Mortes. I backtracked a few miles to the pretty little seaside town of Le Grau-du-Roi, the second largest French fishing port on the Mediterranean. At Le Vivier, a restaurant in the old town, I tucked into a 24-euro, prix fixe lunch of locally caught shrimp cooked in a crust of salt and rouille Gaulenne, a succulent casserole of stewed octopus and potatoes served with lashings of garlic mayonnaise, a local specialty. I enjoyed this very good value meal with a glass of white Picpoul de Pinet, a Languedoc white.
After lunch, tipped off by a friend in Paris, I spent a lazy afternoon at the magnificent Plage de L’Espiguette, a six-mile long strand of dunes and white sand just outside Le-Grau-le-Roi. As a New Englander who habitually went to the beach with nothing more than a towel and a good book, I preferred this vast empty wild shoreline to the carefully groomed beach at the Plage Palace.
I arrived at the recently renovated and very popular 10-room Hotel Les Coquilles in Palavas-les-Flots at the end of the day, where the owners were exceptionally welcoming and friendly (they also own La Cave d’Aristide, a very good wine store on the premises). They also volunteered a very good recommendation for dinner, Le Saint Georges, where I had an excellent meal of shrimp tartare with fava beans and rhubarb vinaigrette and grilled sea bream, squid, zucchini and artichokes.
With spacious rooms priced at about 90 euros a night, Les Coquilles highlighted the appeal of being in a place mostly overlooked by foreigners.
Forty minutes west of Palavas-les-Flots, the brawny old port town of Sète was built in 1666 to encourage commerce on the Canal des Deux Mers, which is today better known as the Canal du Midi. The port boomed after the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.
The outskirts of Sète are gritty and industrial, but the heart of the city, which is built on a series of canals, has a sepia-toned, 19th-century charm exemplified by Le Grand Hotel, a delightful three-star property with great canal views and an atmospheric interior atrium with wrought-iron balconies. Sète, long well-known for its tieilles — pastry tarts stuffed with a ragout of octopus in a spicy tomato sauce — has recently become a great food town, too. I had a quick but delicious lunch of deep-fried merlan (whiting) and panisses (fried chickpea-flour beignets) at Fritto, a French style fish-and-chips shop, and rushed off to the Quai de la Resistance to catch the jousting on the canal.
The first jousting tournament in Sète took place on July 29, 1666 to celebrate construction of the port. Originally, tournaments opposed young bachelors in a blue boat to married men in a red one. Before the tournament starts the jousters parade with an oboist and a drummer playing the traditional jousting tune. Then the battle begins, with the jousters using their spears to try and make their opponents fall into the canal. In Sète, jousting takes place from June to early September, and the tournament schedule is available from the tourist office.
A friendly Dutch couple with whom I fell into conversation during the spectacle told me they come to see the jousting every year at the beginning of their annual beach holiday, and then invited me to join them for dinner at the Michelin one-star The Marcel, where the talented young chef Fabien Fages took over the kitchen last year. Over an excellent meal of marinated Mediterranean tuna with crunchy vegetables in a tonnato sauce and red mullet in an anise-spiked court bouillon with chorizo oil, conversation flowed as easily as the white wine.
Oysters, wine caves and the option to bare it all
The following day, the drive from Sete to Marseillan along the Etang de Thau on a road shaded by plane trees was blissfully bucolic. I was on a mission to scarf down a dozen oysters at Le Saint Barth just outside of Marseillan. This simple water’s edge seafood shack is run by the Tabouriech family, who farm the meaty, iodine-rich oysters that many consider the best in France at the foot of the wooden deck adjoining the restaurant.
After lunch, I took a guided tour of the Noilly Prat caves in Marseillan, where the Vermouth maker has been based since 1855. Noilly Prat is made from white grapes — Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette, grown in the vineyards that surround the town — and aside from the secret mixture of herbs and spices that season the dry full-bodied amber-colored wine, its character, I learned, comes from a two-step aging process. This interesting visit concluded with a tasting of the four vermouths they produce: Original French Dry Vermouth, Red Noilly Prat, Ambre Noilly Prat, and Extra Dry Noilly Prat, which is primarily produced for the cocktail-loving North American market.
Slightly pickled, I walked into the old town of Marseillan to the five-room B & B Rue Galilee, where I discovered one of the most delightful small hotels I’ve ever found in France. This old stone house with blue wooden shutters and boxes of red geraniums was meticulously renovated by the Swedish owner Janne Larsson. The generous Scandinavian style breakfast, including herring and house-smoked salmon, that was served the next morning was excellent, too.
Nine miles south of Marseillan, Le Cap d’Agde is the last major beach resort on this stretch of shore and was developed in the 1960s by architect Jean Le Couteur in one of France’s largest state-run development schemes. It also has one of the country’s largest nudist colonies.
Deciding to spare the bared my rather portly presence, I regretfully ended my trip and hopped a TGV train home to Paris in nearby Beziers.
As the train pulled out of the station, I thought of my new Dutch friends. During our dinner, I’d asked them why they’re so loyal to the Languedoc.
“It’s cheap, pretty and unpretentious,” said Esmee, a doctor in Rotterdam. “Good beaches, but lots of history, too.”
“The food and wine are excellent, too” added her architect husband Carel.
I agreed with them both.