Surrounded by dazzling white limestone cliffs, crystalline coves called calanques and vineyard hills descending directly into the sea, Cassis remains a miraculously friendly, unspoiled spot. The miniature port is a curve of pink, yellow and eggshell-blue houses bobbing with colorful wooden fishing boats. It hums with day-tripping visitors on the outdoor terraces of seafood brasseries, but don’t expect the self-conscious glitziness of Saint-Tropez. There are few designer shops in the narrow streets, and no oversized yachts to gawk at. Instead you’re likely to see fishermen hauling their fresh catches of the day- spiny crabs, baby squid, clams, prawns, sea urchins-straight from the dock into the restaurants. You won’t find any trendy private beaches with lounge chairs and throbbing electro music either-just flat smooth rocks and the deafening thrum of cicadas in the umbrella pines overhead.
But just because you can leave the Hermès towel at home doesn’t mean you have to rough it. One very welcome change in Cassis in the past few years is a new crop of stylish and affordable B&Bs. They’re smaller than hotels, but they have it all: swimming pools, spectacular views and an irresistibly convivial atmosphere.
Among the most visible of these guest houses is the imposing honey-colored stone Château de Cassis. Set high on a cliff above the port, the castle’s walls and a fragment of its Saracen tower date back to the 11th century. The home of the powerful family of Beaux until the 15th century, the castle remained a military fortress until the late 1800s, when the property was sold to a private owner. Now, after seven years of meticulous restoration, the château has been converted into a luxurious five-suite B&B with a quiet walled garden and a stone swimming pool. Each of the spacious suites is different, but they all have whitewashed walls and bay windows, and all except the poolside Moroccan-style Riad suite have mesmerizing coastal views. The Jean-Baptiste and Chambre de la Tour suites have small circular bathrooms in the tower, fireplaces in the sitting rooms and terraces. The Romantique suite offers a canopy bed, a terra cotta-tiled bathroom decorated with Grecian statues, an upright piano in the living room and a garden patio. Breakfast is served on the huge outdoor terrace or in the stately vaulted salon. Traverse du Château, 04.42.01.63.20. website Suites from €350.
Maison 9, which opened in 2003, is on leafy road surrounded by vines and exotic flowering succulents, about a five-minute drive west of the village. New owner Cynthia Maus, a German interior designer, has completely transformed the 18th-century private manor into a stripped-down Provençal retreat. The four suites are all similarly decorated with a dove-grey, green or pale taupe color scheme and furnished with massive antique oak wardrobes; their white bathrooms are finished in natural stone from the Cassis quarries. Copious breakfasts are served on the shaded dining patio or in the big country kitchen. Do-it-yourself cooking enthusiasts can take advantage of the small kitchenettes, and the sybaritically lazy can just bask in the sun by the lovely pool. 9 rue du Docteur Yves Bourde, 04.42.01.26.39. website Doubles from €110, 2 night minimum
Opened in early 2007, Astoria Villa sits above the coastal road on a small quiet residential street just a short walk from the Plage du Bestouan, a pretty pebble beach. Impeccably run by antique collectors Laurent Aiello and Rodolphe Von Blon, the four-room white stucco guesthouse is a 1940s Provençal mini-castle with red-tiled rooftops, a circular tower, a tropical garden and a pool. Every room is a showcase for unusual furniture finds and family heirlooms, but the atmosphere is cozy rather than museum-like. Book the turquoise-walled circular Room 1, up on the second floor in the tower, where you will sleep in a tall 19th-century sculpted bed from Portugal. Or ask for the poolside ground floor suite, which has a private porch, a 1930s walnut bed and an old-fashioned pewter tub in the bathroom. Breakfast is served on the sunny terrace-coffee or tea in silver Art Deco pitchers and a spread of croissants, breads, homemade jams, fresh fruit salad and goat cheese. And topping it off is the dreamy panorama of Cap Canaille-the highest sea cliff in Europe-and the burnished blue sea below. 15 Traverse du Soleil, 04.42.62.16.60. website Doubles from €150, suites from €170.
L’Escale, located up the hill from Astoria Villa, is ideal for budget-minded hikers and rock climbers, since it’s well situated near the Port-Miou calanque. (It’s also accessible by car, for less intrepid walkers). The spare bohemian jumble of furnishings makes for comfortable rooms, there’s a terrific view from the terrace and the affordable price makes up for the fact that there’s no pool. 3 ave Jean-Jacques Garcin, 04.42.01.27.69 or 06.07.22.10.90. website Doubles from €110.
Up in the heights of Cassis, Le Cap is a creamy stone 1960s villa that was converted into a modern five-room B&B in 2006, complete with a kidney-shaped pool shaded by towering, century-old palms. It’s stylish and uncluttered, with two ground-floor suites decked out in a Moroccan-inspired decor. Annie Giacalone, the gracious maîtresse de maison, serves breakfast (freshly squeezed juices, eggs, yogurt and heaped baskets of croissants) on the living room terrace, which has a superb view of surrounding farmland and the majestic jagged peak called Charlemagne’s Crown. There’s also an outdoor summer kitchen for grill-your-own barbecues on the garden patio. 24 montée de la Chapelle, 04.42.03.33.01. website Doubles from €140, suites from €175
Those who can’t get enough of the lively portside scene should head for La Maison de Nino, opened in 2005 and run by Bruno Brezzo, owner of Cassis’s renowned seafood restaurant Nino, a 1960s hangout still going strong. “We wanted to create a luxurious place for our restaurant clients to sleep,” says Brezzo, who converted the two-story dusty-rose village house on the cobblestone street just behind the restaurant into an ultramodern guesthouse whose three loft-like rooms have split-level mezzanines, kitchenettes and every modern comfort including CD players and Wi-Fi access. Think nautical: everything from the walnut paneled walls to the cable-cord banisters make you feel like you might be aboard a small yacht-not Saint-Tropez-style, of course, but just as charming as Cassis itself. 1 quai Barthélémy, 04.42.01.74.32. website Doubles from €210, suites from €310.
In a little alley down the street from Nino, Le Chai Cassidain is a shop and wine bar that stocks all the best local wines, including those of the 12 different vineyards of Cassis, which has its own appellation d’origine controlée. A subtle and distinctive white wine, AOC Cassis is blended from five different grape varietals. “Cassis whites are quite particular because of the shallow soil, which gives a mineral, flinty taste,” says Le Chai proprietor Jean-Loup Wandowski. Nineteenth-century Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral was exuberant about it: “Oh, if only you could taste it! No bee could make a sweeter honey, it shines like a diamond, it is fragrant with the scents of the rosemary, heather and myrtle bedecking our hillsides…and it dances in the glass.” 6 rue Séverin Icard, 04.42.01.99.80
Among the best vineyards:
Le Clos Ste-Magdeleine, ave Revestel (walking distance from the village) 04.42.01.70.28
Le Clos Val Bruyère Château Barbanua, ave Anatole France, Roquefort la Bédoule, 04.42.73.14.60
Le Domaine St-Louis Chemin de la Dona, 04.42.01.30.31
Le Domaine du Bagnol 12 ave de Provence, 04.42.01.78.05
Le Château de Fontcreuse 13 route Pierre Imbert, 04.42.01.71.09
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of France Today; updated in February 2010