Every great hotel is experienced as a totality, an immersive environment that functions seamlessly, organically—a unified vision. Yet a hotel is also a collaboration, honed by many hands and diverse sensibilities. It’s an ever-shifting, living thing, born from an idea and a place in time. And it’s a story, the kind best told by a multitude of voices. What follows is one such story, depicting the creation from conception to completion of a great hotel—Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, a sanctuary of barefoot Riviera luxury housed in a renovated late-1950s structure within a natural reserve in the coastal commune of Saint- Raphaël between Saint-Tropez and Cannes. We spoke at length to the core team behind the property, opening in May 2017, including Valéry Grégo, the visionary hotelier who masterminded the project and founder of the Perseus hotel group; Perseus brand manager Vanina Kovarski, who was instrumental in shaping the guest experience; architect Hugo Sauzay of renowned Parisian design firm Festen, who led the renovation with his partner, Charlotte de Tonnac; art director Antoine Ricardou, responsible for the hotel’s visual identity and arts programming; and gardener Stan Alaguillaume, who worked in conjunction with Paris-based landscape architect Gwenaelle Grandjean to develop the property’s four distinct garden plots. The result is a behind-the-scenes account of how this singular destination set among the rocky coast of the Côte d’Azur came to be.
Chapter I DISCOVERY
Valéry Grégo: Within my network in France, there was a group of sellers running small three-star hotels in fantastic locations, and they were looking for someone to buy. A friend of mine knew them and got in touch with me very early in the process. We drove there from Nice, and I was taken by the scenery. It’s all blue, on the water, not too many houses … And then comes the hotel, which you can’t really see at first. Because the road is on a small cliff, which is almost the height of the hotel, all you can see is the top floor. He said, here we are, and I was like, ‘What?!’ It looks like a one-story building, five bedrooms, a bit too small. But then you go down into the building…
Vanina Kovarski: You enter and straightaway, through the big windows, you see the sea. It’s really on the rocks. I first went there in the summer of 2015 when Valéry was in the process of buying it. It’s a bit like being on a big boat. There are very few properties on the French Riviera that are like les pieds dans l’eau, which means feet in the water.
VG: I realized the location was phenomenal, as opposed to most of the locales in Saint-Tropez and Cannes, which are very built up. This hotel is in a natural reserve, called Massif de l’Esterel. For a very long time you couldn’t build there. In French Riviera terms you could say it’s secluded—very limited construction around. When you’re at the hotel all you can see is green and blue.
Hugo Sauzay: After seeing the view you forget everything you’ve seen one minute before. And you understand the area when you are inside.
VG: There was this guy, the seller, about 65 years old. We had a quick chat, we got along, and he explained what he wanted to do. I told him what I wanted to do. And that’s it. There was not really any long negotiation with a lawyer. We just sat down for 15 minutes and the rest is history. It doesn’t always go this smoothly but the way we do business, it’s really built on what I feel when I discover the site for the first time and relationships with people. Then it took a long time to get things done, but we would always come back to that day when we shook hands—the framework of the deal was set.
Chapter II THE TEAM
VG: I choose people based on the small group I’ve been working with for a long time. It’s a journey, you know, and half the fun is in the journey. So within this group of people, I will select them according to their strengths for a given project.
VK: I’ve known Valéry for years, and when he created his hotel group, Perseus, he asked if I wanted to be part of it. I’m in charge of branding and product development.
Antoine Ricardou: I met Valéry when we worked on Le Pigalle in Paris, and I am in charge of the visual identity of all the Perseus hotels. We work on the brand statement, we decide the artists we are going to use, and then we work on the identity.
HS: We work very often with Valéry. For Hôtel Les Roches Rouges, we created all the interiors and exteriors and we created a new swimming pool and all the terraces. We are also part of the discussions on identity and the art program.
Stan Alaguillaume: I am a landscape architect working on different Mediterranean gardens. I worked with Valéry on another garden in Nice. I am from Paris, and I went to the National School of Landscape Architecture in Versailles, and later I was chief gardener at the Domaine du Rayol. I design the garden, then afterwards I do consultation and tendering with companies that plant it. But if I am a landscape architect, I am also a gardener. I love gardening and I love plants.
VG: My education is in literature. I started in finance, then moved into hotel development 15 years ago and that’s all I’ve done since. But to me, it’s not just about background. It’s about what you have to say. I always tell my team, all I have to offer is a vision. I do it with hotels. I could be a butcher or a baker, I would do it the same way, with my own eyes. I think a lot of the success of the project lies not so much in whom you choose but in the amount of effort you put into the relationship that you have with these people. I spend a lot of time with them, fine-tuning, discussing. That’s why we can’t do multiple projects at once…
The preceding is excerpted from an article in the fully redesigned 2017 edition of Directions, the travel magazine by Design Hotels™, now available for pre-order. More info here.