The South of France? No, South Carolina.
During a weekend retreat to La Bastide, my husband and I linger over a sumptuous Provencal breakfast of crab omelets, savory rabbit and veal sausage, croissants and strong hot coffee replenished from a steaming silver pot. Occasionally we gaze out the dining room's French doors to admire the cloudless turquoise sky and the irregular profile of purple mountains.
Outside, a walled courtyard features a dormant perennial garden, stone-paved patio, croquette lawn and gravel court for the French game petanque.
Because it is winter, the rectangular playing fields are empty, but it's easy to conjure images of a summer scene where ladies and gentlemen clad in white attire whack balls through wickets with wooden mallets. Or, I can imagine a couple, their shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, flinging weighty stainless steel petanque balls at a colorful target in the bowling enclosure as an appreciative audience looks on from the terrace. I squeeze my husband's hand and say enthusiastically, "Let's learn to play petanque." He smiles and nods in agreement.
Many savvy travelers are familiar with South Carolina's Grand Strand beaches, but fewer have discovered the charms of its mountains -- although that is changing. The Appalachians pokes a toe into the far western corner of the state. They form a 3,000-foot escarpment that gives way to the Carolina Piedmont.
This "Upcountry" landscape of spectacular rounded cliffs provides a setting for two new inns. Couples searching for a secluded, romantic getaway will do well to consider the Red Horse Inn and La Bastide.
The Upcountry of South Carolina is a regionally famous equestrian hub. Horse farms, stables and riding academies abound. Annual steeplechase races draw enthusiasts who try to outdo each other with elaborate tailgate feasts featuring candelabras, silver flatware, crystal, china and glistening gourmet tidbits.
The look of the Red Horse Inn is based on an equestrian theme, and it fits into a countryside frequently traversed by fox hunters and horseback riders. The 190-acre inn complex is the work of Mary and Roger Wolters, transplanted designers from New York City.
Although the main inn building will not be complete until spring, five adorable tin-roofed cottages, with names such as Huntbox and Grainary, nestle into a picturesque pastoral setting and have been providing guest accommodations for almost a year. The decor of each of the diminutive guest quarters is splendid, thanks to the Wolters' artistic talent.
My husband and I stayed in the Hayloft, a cottage decorated in blues and white. Real Delft tiles, faux plates, pitchers and vases and cobalt glass containers augment the color scheme. In the sitting room, two velvet wing chairs are positioned in front of a decorative cast-iron wood-burning stove (the other cottages offer gas-log fireplaces).
Fresh flowers, wine glasses and miniature bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream are on the nearby wicker table. The refrigerator in the kitchen is stocked with coffee and tea supplies, a carafe of orange juice, a breakfast basket filled with muffins and croissants, and a supply of fresh fruit is stationed on the counter. The loft has a TV, board games and a futon for naps or extra guests. A rubber ducky sits on the tub ledge in the bathroom.
Views include mountain vistas and fenced pastures where sheep graze and chestnut horses frolic. The kitchen windows look out on a patio and goldfish pond with a fountain. Guests sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch should not be surprised to see a mob of hounds followed by a party of fox hunters come charging into view over the crest of a hill in the near distance.
This is what I enjoyed most about Hayloft: The lyrics of "Carolina in The Morning" are stenciled in Carolina blue around the border between three walls and the steeply pitched ceiling in the bedroom: "Nothing could be sweeter than my baby when I meet her in the morning. ..."
The fourth wall features cascades of hand-stenciled morning glory vines. They twine from the apex of the ceiling down to the headboard of the open canopy bed -- swathed in tulle -- and over the doorway. Roger Wolters says morning glories are planted outside the bedroom windows so summer guests will be surrounded by pretty blue flowers.
Another attractive feature of the Red Horse Inn is its fantastic value. Rates for the cottages (which sleeps a family of four) are a steal at $110 to $125 a night, though there is an additional $15 per person charge for more than two occupants. Housekeeping may be requested as an add-on for $15 per day.