This was, all 17 of us agreed, the very best week we'd ever spent together at a villa.
The mid-May weather in Provence in the south of France had been ideal for Canadians seeking a break after too much winter last year. The sunny days were sometimes hot enough to justify dips in the villa's saltwater pool, but not so broiling to discourage touring by car and walking. The evenings stayed warm enough to enjoy alfresco dining on the villa's covered terrace.
The nearby city of Draguignan boasted an excellent supermarché plus butchers, bakers, cheesemongers and all the other provisioners necessary for alfresco feasts.
As well, we were truly spoiled for sightseeing. From the terrace, the view southwards featured the low but venerable mountains of the Maures Massif. Beyond them, less than an hour's drive distant, was St. Tropez with its yacht-clogged harbour, high-end shops and the prospect of spotting at least a celebrity wannabe.
About equally distant to the north lay the vertiginous Les Gorges du Verdon, promoted as the Grand Canyon of Europe.
Many more attractions beckoned -- wineries offering the Côtes de Provence appellation, weekly street markets in nearby towns such as Lorgues that sold everything from shoes to spices, a chapel with a celebrated mosaic by Marc Chagall and, almost on our doorstep, a French military base that fortuitously opened its gates for a weekend of demonstrations during our stay.
Yet even the prospect of a spin in a French army helicopter wasn't enough to lure some of us away from the manifold attractions of Le Puits de l'Eouvé, built in 1813 and featuring 10 bedrooms. It is named after the property's stone well (puit) beside an evergreen oak tree (eouve in the Provençal dialect).
And this is not a gang easily impressed by villas, grand mansions and historic homes.
We had begun vicariously living to-the-manor-born in 1998 when a dozen of us rented Goddards, a cosy country house in Dorking, Kent built by the famous English architect Edwin Lutyens (who also designed New Delhi). Operated by Britain's Landmark Trust, Goddards came with its own skittles alley and a garden laid out in collaboration with the similarly renowned Gertrude Jekyll.
Discovering equally outstanding properties to rent every two years has been challenging, especially as the gang swelled with more old friends.
Our shared temporary abodes since then have included a modern luxury home on a hilltop in Umbria (the heart of Italy), a high-class farmhouse in France's Dordogne region (chosen for its proximity to famous prehistoric cave paintings) and a Georgian quasi-castle near Stirling, Scotland (also a Landmark Trust property and complete with ghost and a piano on which Chopin is said to have played).
These dwellings have all shared the practical attraction of providing accommodation for much less than even the most basic hotel, with $100 per night per couple being a maximum. Plus there's the allure of fine dining at exceptionally modest cost since we are blessed with excellent cooks in our ranks (others shop, chop and wash up).
And there's no worry about having a designated driver, which probably helps explains why, in some years, our per capita bill for wine has been larger than the one for food.
Le Puits de l'Eouvé managed to be both rustic and sybaritic at the same time.
For starters, it had the owners, Yves and Marie-Françoise Ledieu, who would normally have been in Paris working, but, fortunately for us, were spending this week at their own Provence home about a half-hour away.
Since we'd only ever dealt with caretakers at our other rental homes, having the actual owners in the vicinity could have been unsettling. Instead, it was a delight.
Yves and Marie-Françoise were present when the gang trickled in, arriving by various means and from different directions over the course of the afternoon.
That meant the visit kicked off with first-hand help supplementing the very useful written information already present about the house on area tourist attractions (such as advising about the best boulangerie locally and supplying a choice of women's bathing suits).
Le Puits de l'Eouvé can offer activities such as golf, badminton, basketball and a pétanque court because the house sits on 16 hectares. Having plenty of space both inside and out is crucial for such rental-property vacations with a large group, because no matter how long you've been friends with your villa mates, there are times you'll want solitude, to read, rest or simply stare into space.
A grove of two-century-old olive trees offered one such escape; in addition, there were cooling pastures with riots of wildflowers and a rose-perfumed garden on a side of the villa that enjoyed afternoon shade.
As for the villa itself, it had been completely refurbished in 2003 and was quite simply a knockout, especially the 10 twin-bedded bedrooms in Provençal designs and colours. When people are here for only a week or two, explained Marie-Françoise, bold and bright is a welcome change from the traditional bland and neutral of most homes.
At 650 square feet, the main kitchen was larger than the entire ground floor of many Canadian homes. Around a central island counter were arrayed three refrigerators, two microwaves, two cooktops (one with five gas burners, the other with four electric ones), two ovens (one gas, one electric), two quiet dishwashers, two sinks and a large pantry. A half-dozen people could easily be preparing food at the same time without any temperamental clashes.
The kitchen opened out onto the covered patio where a table could sit 20. For inclement weather, there was a dining room next to the kitchen, which also seated a score.
Experienced villa-renters also know to check for other desirables, nay necessities, and Le Puits de l'Eouvé has all these, too -- multiple clothes washers, a large living room with comfortable chairs and sofas, satellite TV and -- for keeping in touch with grandchildren or business -- high-speed Internet.
A smaller (250-square-foot) traditional Provençal kitchen on the upper level had been completely modernized, but we used it solely for refrigerating additional white wine.
It would be disingenuous to finish without revealing what one other feature made this villa such a standout for this gang of 60-something renters. Each bedroom had its own ensuite bathroom.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Where: Le Puits de l'Eouvé villa is about a 40-minute drive north of St. Tropez, France.
Cost: Weekly rental for 2010 goes from 4,000 to 6500 euros (about $5,500 to $8,900)
Nearest TGV (France's high-speed train) station: Les Arc (15 minutes away)
Contacts: 33-1-45-66-88-65 or www.eouve.com
Other villa sources:
-- Vacances Provençales: www.europeanhomerentals.com
-- Landmark Trust: www.landmarktrust.org.uk