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Destination: France : Cardinal Virtues : A Provence hotel's charm and cuisine inspire a standard

HOTELS TO REMEMBER. One of an occassional series.

November 13, 1994|COLMAN ANDREWS | Andrews writes the Books to Go column for Travel

BAIX, France — This week we introduce a new feature profiling hotels with special appeal--based on exceptional service, distinctive character and unforgettable charm. Or one unique feature--historic significance, a great concierge, a remarkable location.

A dense canopy of sycamores shades one side of the old, three-story stone building. Ivy scrambles up the walls, and along the structure's side, rambunctious rose bushes, sprawling in every direction, illuminate the stone with glowing pink and red. Across a narrow lane, the dark green Rhone river courses past with a fluvial swoosh.

The building, which houses an establishment called the Hostellerie La Cardinale, is not a recognized historical landmark, but for the luxury-minded traveler, it might well be considered something of a shrine: It was here, 40 years ago, that the world's most glamorous and exclusive association of top-quality hotels and restaurants, Relais & Chateaux, was born.

France today is crisscrossed by a network of excellent autoroutes or toll expressways. Clean and well-equipped with gas stations and roadside restaurants (and even hotels), these roads make it possible to travel long distances quickly and in at least relative comfort. Even a comparatively pokey American driver can average at least 60 m.p.h., with rest stops figured in. That means, for instance, that it would be possible to get all the way from Paris down to Nice, on the Cote d'Azur, in nine hours or so--if you wanted to spend the whole day driving.

But before the expressways were built, the journey along the main road (or Route Nationale) would have taken any sane driver at least two days if not three, with overnight stops as necessary along the way. Though it was optimistically dubbed la route du bonheur ("route of happiness"), the section of the road along the southern Rhone, with Provence on one side and the Ardeche on the other, was a grueling thoroughfare. It was a three-lane road, with one lane in each direction and a sort of free-for-all passing lane (sometimes called "the suicide lane") in the middle. Poplar trees lined much of the route, leaving little room for driver error on the outside.

One good thing about the route was that there were a number of attractive, restful small hotels along its path, many of them ancient inns or stagecoach stops--relays, or relais in French. One of these hotels, in the village of Baix (pronounced somewhere between "bakes" and "becks"), about 20 miles south of Valence (and roughly 350 miles south of Paris), was the Hostellerie La Cardinale. Originally a nobleman's manor, the house hosted the infamous Cardinal Richelieu in 1642--hence its name. (Actually, Richelieu was Le Cardinal; La Cardinale means a kind of red-blossomed flower that grows locally. The oblique reference to the notorious churchman, though, is intentional.)

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Early in this century, the place was converted to a five-room roadside inn, and in July, 1954, its owners, Marcel and Nelly Tilloy, had the idea of creating an association of fellow innkeepers from along the Route Nationale. They signed up seven other establishments and dubbed the organization, romantically enough, "Relais Compagne"--country stagecoach stops. This was not a chain, in the sense of a collection of properties under common ownership, but rather a voluntary association of places that agreed to live up to common (high) standards, and to help promote fellow members. The group was an immediate success--and in two years had grown to about 25 member hotels all over France.

So much for the Relais. The Chateaux part came along a bit later. In 1962, inspired by the success of Relais de Campagne, Raymond Thuillier (legendary owner/chef of the acclaimed Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence) and an associate, Rene Traversac, founded a rival group called Chateaux-Hotels. It, too, was a success, and for more than a decade the two organizations flourished side by side.

The Tilloys retained ownership of the Hostellerie La Cardinale until the mid-1970s, but in 1971, Marcel Tilloy relinquished directorship of the ever-growing Relais group to another hotelier, Joseph Olivereau. The following year, Olivereau and famed chef Pierre Troisgros founded a restaurant-only offshoot of Relais de Campagne, called Relais Gourmands. In 1975, Relais de Campagne, Relais Gourmands and the rival Chateaux-Hotels merged to form, yes, Relais & Chateaux.

Today, in its 40th anniversary year, the organization boasts some 410 members all over the world. The sole representative of the group in Los Angeles is a restaurant, L'Orangerie. The nearest hotels are the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara and Rancho Valencia in Rancho Santa Fe.

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