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With peaks that tower over town, Sedona plays host to more than two million visitors annually who come to breathe the clear air, explore Indian ruins, poke through a nearby ghost town and rummage among a string of spiffy shops and galleries in this charming village.

December 15, 1985|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

SEDONA, Ariz. — Forget those French country inns you've been drooling over, cherie , because I've discovered a knockout in this endearing town with its buttes and mesas and smothering sunsets.

Only don't spread the word or we'll never get a reservation.

On the banks of Sedona's meandering creek, a French expatriate has assembled what amounts to an Old World inn that would do justice to Burgundy. Indeed, L'Auberge de Sedona would inspire lyrics by Maurice Chevalier himself, were that old romantic still charming audiences.

Without question, L'Auberge is a destination to croon over, even though at first glance its 14 log cabins inspire more of a mood of the Old West than any Old World charm.

It is only after one pushes through the front door at L'Auberge that the full impact of this French country inn collides head-on with the serenity of its surroundings. With handcrafted brass beds--complete with ruffled canopies--and yards of fabric by none other than Pierre Deux, L'Auberge de Sedona seems about as much out of step with this village as a ranch hand herding cattle in a Porsche.

Although only a moment off the main drag that cuts through Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, L'Auberge de Sedona projects a sense of isolation and insulation from crowds that gather in this not-so-sleepy village north of Phoenix and south of Flagstaff.

With peaks that tower over town, Sedona plays host to more than 2 million visitors annually who come to breathe the clear air, explore Indian ruins, poke through a nearby ghost town, and rummage among a string of spiffy shops and galleries at that charming village within a village, Tlaquepaque, which brings to mind old Mexico itself. All of which makes the idea of a French country inn planted smack in the Old West seem a trifle incongruous.

Nevertheless, L'Auberge de Sedona is exactly that, a French experience where guests book accommodations up to a year ahead.

To appreciate the inn, one must meet proprietor Jean Rocchi, who kicked off his career at age 13 as an apprentice chef in Strasbourg. This was followed by stints with the French Foreign Legion, military duty in Algiers and the operation of a nightclub in Tunisia. Think of Humphrey Bogart with a French accent and you begin to focus in on Rocchi whose joint in the Tunisian city of Carthage resembled a scene from that old flick, "Casablanca." Rocchi called it Zero de Conduite Beys-Palladium, and only Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman were missing.

Rocchi's club was packed night and day with gamblers, spies and soldiers of fortune. Unfortunately for Rocchi, it was also the hangout for lawmakers whose absenteeism from government aggravated the head of state who ordered it closed.

After spending a bundle on a fabulous holiday in Tunisia, Rocchi turned to the United States and Chez Bambino de Paris in Brooklyn and the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Later he stirred up a storm in restaurants in Sun Valley, Honolulu and Phoenix, after which he discovered Sedona.

Here his country inn took off like the Concorde. Indeed, business is so good that Rocchi is in the process of building a lodge and another 18 cabins. L'Auberge de Sedona is primed for vacationers seeking solitude, French country atmosphere and what amounts to some of the finest dining this side of the Seine.

With a menu that changes daily, Rocchi's guests select such delights as a spinach and hazelnut salad, French herb pasta, yogurt bisque, tournedos with green peppercorn and a brandy cream sauce, grilled fillet of fresh salmon with basil and pine nuts, and roast duckling with peaches and champagne vinegar sauce.

Likewise, breakfast is a joy: strawberries in a rich brown sugar cream; grilled grapefruit with honey; kiwi and orange slices with fresh mint; pears and raisins poached in plum rum; walnut and strawberry pancakes, and an avocado and Gruyere cheese omelet. Sunday brunch features everything from country-style pate and a cold cream of sorrel soup to spinach crepes with ricotta cheese.

The dining room is small--only 20 tables and a six-stool bar. Candles flicker and background music provides a mood for romance. Be assured, it is not a place to dine alone. On warm days, meals are served on a terrace overlooking Oak Creek, and there are picnic tables where couples gather to sip wine and soothe the soul with Sedona's fiery sunsets.

The stream rushing by is filled with trout and the air is alive with the song of birds, all of which makes L'Auberge de Sedona one of the Southwest's more popular honeymoon retreats as well as a stage for dozens of weddings.

What Rocchi provides at L'Auberge is peace of mind. In place of telephones and TV, guest rooms offer the warmth of a fireplace and an abundance of reading material.

Beyond the elegant inn, Hollywood types gather to shoot Westerns, just as they've done since the beginning of talkies. As a result, millions of moviegoers recognize the surrounding peaks, buttes and mesas--Mitten Ridge, Giant's Thumb, Cathedral Rock and Courthouse Butte.

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