If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting France, and are looking for the perfect tour group, you’ll love this interview with Dawn Sileter who hosts tours of Provence.
When did you first decide to start hosting tours to Southern France?
I started Simply France with Dawn in 2013 although my first trip to Provence was in 1999. We went to 7 different countries on that trip and I remember that, for whatever reason, I felt an instant affinity for France, especially Provence. There is something about the energy in Provence that just makes one relax and enjoy the beautiful food, wine and ambiance. My husband and I found ourselves often returning to Provence when traveling…..it’s hard to explain, but we just felt “at home” when there. I wanted to provide a tour that gives my guests that same feeling of relaxation and enjoyment.
What is your favorite part about the region?
Picking a favorite part about the region is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child! I must say that I love many things about Provence. The food and wine are just incredible. The region is very agricultural, so fresh fruit and vegetables are abundantly available. Of course, there are the fabulous Cotes du Rhone wines that are just amazing! I also find the historical sites of Provence to be very interesting. Not many people know that Provence was occupied by the Romans for 6 centuries and had such a massive impact on the area that today this area remains richer in Roman monuments that anywhere else in the world.
Compared to other tours, what is the most unique aspect of Simply France with Dawn?
There are many unique aspects of SFWD. We keep our groups at 8 or less people which is very small by industry standards as most “small” group tours are 12 to 16 people. Our guests stay in a beautiful Provencal villa verses a hotel. Staying in a villa facilitates a more immersive approach by providing our guests the opportunity to “live” like a local. In the privacy of our villa we are able to cook together, have wine and cheese tastings, and occupy outdoor spaces that we don’t have to share with others. Another unique aspect of SFWD is that we are able to customize our itinerary to the wants and needs of our guests. Some guests want an emphasis on food and wine, others enjoy the scenic beauty and historical sites. We try to incorporate many activities into the itinerary but will definitely tailor the activities to the specifications of our guests.
How many days does a typical trip go?
Our trips are 8 days in total, from Saturday to Saturday. We structured our tours so that our guests will be able to access an international flight on a Friday night and leave the following week on a Sunday morning. By doing so, our guests are able to take just a week off from work: a great option for a busy professional.
What is the villa that your guests stay in like?
SFWD has several villas that we use for our tours. There is a criterion that all villas must have before we add them to our list:
- Guest rooms with en-suite bathrooms
- A swimming pool
- Beautiful chef kitchens
- Gorgeous outdoor areas
- Within walking distance (or short drive) of a village
- Climate controlled
Do you have different villas that you stay at depending on the tour?
We do select villas based on our clients interests and also availability. If a group is very interested in cooking we will book a villa that has a very large working kitchen that can accommodate more people. For those guests who want to be able to walk or ride a bike into the village we select a villa with closer proximity to the village. Also the size of the group will dictate what villa we will stay in as well.
Tell me about a typical day… What can guests expect?
A typical day will include a continental breakfast at the villa at around 8-9AM After breakfast we depart the villa for a day of excursions which could be a visit to some Roman ruins, wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape, a Provencal cooking class, a bike ride through the countryside or shopping at a local village market. Lunch could be a picnic with some local cheese, bread, fruit and wine or eating at a quaint cafe. After lunch we could visit a local olive orchard, fig farm or goat cheese farm. We usually arrive back at the villa by mid afternoon leaving the guests some free time to swim and relax before dinner. Some evenings we will have a local chef prepare a wonderful meal, other evenings we cook ourselves or go out. Always, always, amazing wine and great conversation!!!!!
What are some of the places that you visit during your tours and what is your place to show off?
I am a bit of a history buff….so every tour will include the Pont du Gard. It’s an extraordinary bridge/aqueduct that crosses a rocky gorge over the River Gardon. It stands as solidly today as it did 2000 years ago when it was built by the Romans. The vineyards in Chateauneuf du Pape are also a staple in our itinerary. We spend a day in the Luberon which boasts some amazing scenic sights like the Abbey Senanque with it’s amazing lavender fields and the beautiful village of Roussillon with it’s red ochre cliffs.
Do you get a chance to mingle with the locals very much during a typical tour?
Yes!! One of the advantages of traveling in a small group is that we can get into places that larger groups cannot. Small restaurants and farms are available to us where we can get one on one interaction with the proprietor(s).
For those who are interested in the culinary aspects of their tour, what are some dishes that you create with your guests?
I am a firm believer in buying fruit and vegetables that are in season, so our menus reflect that philosophy. Provence is the top region in France for fruit and vegetables, growing over half of the nations produce, so the local village markets have a huge array of fresh fruits and veggies. We decide what we will make that evening by what looks best. Summertime menus take advantage of the beautiful tomatoes, lettuce, courgette (zucchini), bell peppers & Cavaillon melons & strawberries. In the autumn we will use more mushrooms, squash and olives. Of course there is le fromage! Many, many varieties that are absolutely amazing. My favorite is the goat cheese (Chèvre) that we serve with local honey and fresh apricots & figs. Proteins will include lamb, pork, beef and chicken. Often at the markets you will find a fishmonger from Marseilles with really fresh fish/shellfish….it sells out fast so you must get there early!!!
What is your favorite thing about the French culture and its cuisine?
I can answer this question with a personal dining experience from some time ago. While driving around the countryside with my husband we decided to stop for lunch in a small village. There was a cafe that had a 3 course Prix Fixe menu of salad, mussels in wine and a dessert (for 12 Euro!!!). We were seated in the courtyard and ordered our food and a carafe of the house rosé. The food was simple but fresh and delicious…but what struck me most was not so much the food but the people who were dining with us in the courtyard that day. The tables were filled with locals of all demographics: young families, local city workers, an elderly couple & business professionals. All of them enjoying and savoring this simple and delicious meal. It wasn’t a special occasion for them, it was just a normal day, enjoying a normal meal at a leisurely pace. The French enjoy good food but more importantly, they savor the experience of the meal. That’s my favorite aspect of French culture and their cuisine…..
Out all of all the experiences you’ve had hosting different groups, what has been your favorite?
I think that my favorite thing to see is my guests’ perception of France and the French people evolve. Often times my guests will have a pre-conceived notion of the French and it’s not always positive. Over the course of the week they interact with locals and see for themselves how warm and friendly the French can be. That to me is very rewarding because it is precisely why I love this region so much….because of the people.
Thanks so much for sharing, Dawn. If you’re interested in one of the upcoming tours with Simply France with Dawn, you can check out her website here.