Les Bords De Mer: Marseille, waterside…
Luxury, peacefulness, view, light and delight provide for an exceptional stay. Opened at the end of 2018, Domaines de Fontenille’s magnificent, stationary, flagship is anchored on the rocks of Corniche Kennedy. An exceptional place, still in its infancy, but very much worth following.
Flooded with light, its narrow and slender lines are reminiscent of an old yacht, pure white, racy like a greyhound: a timeless building off the beaten path that now stands erect at the eastern end of plage des Catalans, Catalans beach. It has a vibrance and sense of freedom to it, sails at the ready, hovering on its rock like a seagull preparing to take off, head turned towards the sea. For a moment—a tiny moment—one can almost feel the jingling of the metal parts of the rigging and the flapping of the cloth answering the song of the waves and the wind. Domaines de Fontenille’s very elegant and intimate port-of-call is a true success.
Curiously, until last December, Marseille lacked a charming waterfront property with stylish comfort. Sure, there’s the luxuriously renovated but entirely soulless Hotel-Dieu as well as a few old chains entirely devoid of appeal. Recently, a few new properties opened that mainly target businessmen and women, all with the same pleasing but boring decoration and the same efficient and industrial service. But nothing at the waterfront, except for the mythical and charming but very outdated Hotel Peron a little further along the Corniche. Nostalgic and passé with its, fortunately, preserved Art Deco façade and its basic comfort, frozen in the days of its last renovation, en vogue around 1960. Where the brazenly timeless silhouette of Les Bords De Mer, at No. 52 of the Corniche now stands, once stood another local institution: the modest but very popular Richelieu. A decaying two-star property, narrow and oddly concave, its right angles and its lanky shape nestled between the road on the cityside and the rocks on the seaside. And overlooking a curious circular concrete pier—so improbable, with its semblance of a landing strip for miniature flying saucers that its lack of elegance manages to transcend the ugliness intrinsic to the 1950s. The late Richelieu may have been laid to rest but its nostalgic and sublime ghost lives on in the clean lines of Les Bords De Mer. An architectural success signed by Marseille-born Yvann Pluskwa. In love with his city’s coastline, he managed to keep its quaint, very ‘seaside-resort-of-the-Roaring-Twenties’ charm by reinventing it. The result is breathtaking. Taking advantage, with grace and talent, of even the smallest spaces and the implacable contingencies imposed as much by the narrowness of the site as by the architectural incongruities of a building that seems to have been built haphazardly over time, he based his design on the original 1930’s plan to breathe new life into the place by filling it with light and space. An amazing feat on such a small surface.
Ode to the sea and the light
Facing the spectacular panorama of the bay of Marseille, with the Frioul archipelago and Château d’If almost opposite, Les Bords De Mer seems to dissolve between sky and sea. Everything here speaks of the Mediterranean. And each of the 19—small—rooms opens to the sea. Some, on the lower floors, have a patio or sliding glass door, others have a French balcony where you can flirt with the seagulls and picture yourself diving into the waves—were it not for the end of the concrete promenade that extends the public beach, of course. It’s also one of the place’s flat notes—inevitable but bearable: the promenade is busy and noisy in the summer, especially at night. As the air-conditioning in our room (minor though annoying defect, often unavoidable in brand new buildings) did not work the two times we stayed there, there was no way to cancel out the racket rising from the below by closing the windows. Ear plugs were an absolute necessity, especially if the forecast was favourable and devoid of rain, for a night of more or less peaceful sleep.
The minimalist decoration leaves plenty of room for light, which adds itself to the décor of custom-made furniture with clean lines, family photos reminiscent of sea-side holidays, the most comfortable bedding, and very functional and very pleasant bathrooms. An assortment of books, casually and yet carefully arranged, completes, together with the very beautiful white sheer linen curtains and the photographs of Berni Searle and Laurent Millet, the feeling of pure and serene luxury, splashed with light, of this very beautiful place. The perfect occasion to reread, in situ and in technicolour, the Count of Monte Christo...
Spa side: luxury, serenity and voluptuousness, organic version
On the roof, a swimming pool. Heated. Where seabirds sometimes come to rest. A raw timber pontoon with some chaises longues, reminiscent of the deck chairs of yesteryear’s cruise liners, where one can take in the sea air and lose oneself in the beauty of the landscape. Down below, a terrace-bar where one can sip cocktails concocted by a young, talented mixologist. Additional benefit: a beautiful neobistro with a short but impeccable and flavoursome menu, in perfect harmony with the decor and the seasons. The service is attentive and friendly. And then there’s the jackpot: a small but absolutely delicious spa, tucked away in the golden rock, offering a relaxing bath, sauna, hammam, and gym and yoga area (you can book personalised coaching). And a superb offer of massages and skincare by REN, the London cult brand. Having had an extremely disappointing experience at the Clarins spa at Hotel Intercontinental (which I advise against: very high prices for indolent beauty treatments, an atrocious decor, a poorly maintained and malfunctioning hammam, and beauticians with minimal training... The type of pretentious and unfriendly place that one should absolutely avoid, a big fat zero in my personal rating system!) that left me in a very bad mood, discovering this little gem of attention and professionalism dedicated to well-being was appreciated at its true value. The surroundings, first of all: constrained, due to the narrowness of the building but incredibly soothing and harmonious. The light subdued by the surface of the rock: feeling of deep serenity. It feels like diving into the heart of a sea cave, where all the senses subside, creating space for timeless moments of relaxation. I dream of going back... The signature of Sandrine Barberis, director in charge of the spas of the Fontenille group, is visible in every detail. She has created a unique atmosphere, a true signature, recognisable and distinctive, at all the spas of the brand. And the one at Les Bords De Mer is a new and remarkable success. The choice of treatments, products (always topped with a wonderful ‘local touch’, in this case, the beautiful Sainte Victoire candles, and the team: exceptional. A special shout-out goes to Syndie, who kindly took charge of my stress and my back pain, answered my questions, shared her enthusiasm and professionalism, and gave one of the most remarkable massages that I have had the opportunity to enjoy in a long time; relaxing and soothing with a mastery and impressive knowledge of the muscles and the tightness that I continue to hope will one day cease to remind me of their presence... If you have time for only one treatment, the Rose Ritual Body and Face is an absolute must!
Flat and false notes…
So, let me be honest: some things don’t live up to Les Bords De Mer’s promises. Not yet, at least. The AILLEURS Gold rating goes to the spa, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed. And the AILLEURS Silver rating goes to the bistro-restaurant. Both well-deserved. As is my appreciation of the maids: impeccable service and effectiveness no matter the situation. On the other hand, perceivable pandemonium during our two stays (several days each time, the time to really dig into our subject: our ‘AILLEURS The Blog’ trademark and signature) on several points. Minor points, but points that should not occur at all at the four-star level, which is also not up to par with the excellence of the other hotels in the group. I do, however, believe that the nature of these points is transitory and that the ship will soon be back in shape. Teething issues, shall we say: a bit of slack on behalf of management, perhaps? I don’t believe that leaving a young trainee, on her first day on the job nota bene, alone at reception, on a day of cascading problems, was a very judicious decision (if it was one, the general feeling that day was one of chaos)... the impeccable courtesy that she was nevertheless able to show, in all the frenzy, must be highlighted and applauded! Technical defects—heating that couldn’t be adjusted and total lack of air-conditioning—are forgivable in a new building, a few months after its opening, but the way they were managed (like my inability to connect to the unsecured Wi-Fi, which the secure firewall on my laptop absolutely refused to do, and afforded me rather unpleasant remarks in a tone bordering on sexist from the irritated and irritating man supposedly in charge) and the response to customer requests leave a lot to be desired. One may have a technical problem, but making up stories and explaining that ‘all the hotels in Marseille have the same problem‘ and that ‘the air-conditioning works’ when it clearly does not, and implying, on top of it, that it is I who did not know how to use it (even if this were the case, a receptionist worthy of the name would inquire about the problem, take note of it and do their utmost to resolve it as quickly as possible. End of discussion.) In my books, the young man deserves a big ‘can do considerably better’ rating. The inability to serve even peanuts with the drinks ordered to the room on Sunday afternoon (under the pretext that the kitchen is closed) was mindboggling. Utterly mindboggling. And the outside noise really prevents you from sleeping, although this is something the staff can’t do anything about and the—prompt, it is to hope—repair of the air-conditioning system should fix the problem. Teething problems through and through. Not bad enough, though, to prevent us from coming back very quickly and very often to a place that really stands out and that will, I am sure, become a must for people who love beautiful places.