Golf Pont Royal in Mallemort

While dining in the clubhouse at Pont Royal, one is obliged to meet the head chef, Thierry Candaele, a barrel-chested man with curly gray hair and an obvious gift for bonhomie. In traditional Gallic fashion he glides from table to table doling out multi-lingual pleasantries, accepting deserved compliments and making sure everything is just so. At our table, however, something is amiss. With a quick, playful scowl Candaele eyeballs our vin de pays, our table wine, and lets loose with a wave of apologies. He deftly snatches the bottle away, returns with an upgrade, and issues one last apology before moving to the next table of guests.

The wine he replaced? Only a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one of the world’s most celebrated appellations.

Welcome to Provence, where the good life is so pervasive it’s basically taken for granted. I won’t bore you with smug references to Candaele’s choice of replacement wine (a cheery yet robust Reserve from the Mas de la Dame vineyard just up the road). The larger point is plain: They ain’t drinking Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the clubhouse at Prestwick or Cruden Bay — and the head chef sure as hell ain’t replacing it, unbidden, with something even better.

Only in the south of France does one come to expect this sort of finer touch, proving once again (to those with the good sense to listen) that sometimes, oftentimes, there’s more to an exotic golfing adventure than the golf alone. Witness the Provence region, a Mediterranean wonderland extending north from coastal hubs Marseille, Toulon and Nice. With so much hallowed ground to cover in Scotland and Ireland, we recognize that a case must be made for golf in France, what with its puny reputation, its obstinate foreign policies and, well, that whole Jerry Lewis thing. But you may be surprised to learn that the south of France just happens to include more than a dozen superb golfing venues, all in relatively close proximity to one another.

Pont Royal, for starters, is a first-rate parkland design situated in Mallemort, equal distances from both Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Designed by the late, great Seve Ballesteros, Pont Royal gallops over lush, dramatic terrain, skirting water hazards and topiary gardens by turn. The layout at Pont Royal is but part of a unique, eponymous resort development designed to look and feel like a typical rural hill town Provençale, complete with pink-washed stone walls, terracotta roof tiles, narrow walking streets and small shops selling local wines, breads and cheeses. Of course, there are modern niceties, as well: several enormous pool complexes; Seve’s 18 holes; the lovely Hotel du Golf, overlooking the 9th and 15th greens; and a clubhouse whose stunning fare, thanks to Candaele, would put most American bistros to shame. What’s true for wine goes double for food. One simply cannot compare the vittles in French clubhouses to those in Britain, Ireland or the States. Not a fair fight.

[Read Part II of this story here.]