Updated: Jul 22, 2019
I’ve stayed in plenty of nice places—some of which I’ve paid for financially, all of which I’ve paid for emotionally. I’ve stayed in big hotel rooms with huge tubs, fluffy robes, and bath products I’ve swept into my suitcase. It’s all luxury. It always feels good. And even though my room in Provence was the top corner of a castle with views for days, its level of luxury didn’t fully register until the bellman introduced one particular feature of the room: the complimentary minibar.
Inside the mini fridge was a smorgasbord of FREE nom noms. Four beers: two light, two dark. Four juices: peach, pear, apple, and strawberry. Four bottled waters: two still, two sparkling. Fever Tree tonic, ginger beer, and soda water. Two diet and two regular Cokes. Two Oranginas. And to nosh on: rosemary salted almonds, caramel popcorn, and chocolate-covered nuts. The first day I mindfully chose my drink as I dressed for my first gourmet meal in France on my 40th birthday: a classic Evian. It was the perfect transition from a 106-degree day of rosé and soon-to-be-more rosé. But the next day the miser in me let loose.
This delightfully decadent, all-inclusive 4-day bicycle tour in Provence cost me over 7% of my salary. 4 days, 7%. And I intended to squeeze every bit of luxury out of it. So instead being a classy lady with one classy Evian like I’d had yesterday, I started popping tabs. I had a sip of Orangina. I chugged a tonic water. I misread a bottle of “pomme” juice for “pear,” and when I discovered it was apple, opened the bottle of pear. Then I opened a peach cuz, what the hey? I’d paid good money for these juices. Then before I went down to the pool I had a brilliant idea: I would bring my own beverages! I was sure the pool would upcharge the same waters and juices I had in my room. So I packed that Evian and a ginger beer peach mix. Genius! Sure enough, I was right. While my travel mates ordered poolside rosé and that very same Evian, I plopped down my bag of clanking glass bottles and smiled smugly. Nobody can say Katie J doesn’t know the value of a dollar. And before I checked out of my room I shoveled those nuts, popcorn, and chocolates into my bag like the Grinch snatching up the last can of Who Hash.
I wondered what other folks on the tour thought of this luxury experience. They were friendly, down to earth, encouraging cycle mates. They also had jobs that seemed to require less than 7% of their salary for 4 days of luxury, I guessed. At the pool I expressed sympathy to one man who’d brought his laptop to work while I read Francoise Sagan. He explained, “If you have to be on your laptop, why not do it at the pool?” It’s funny. I think, “If you’re going to go to the pool, why bring your laptop?” I questioned the best way to experience luxury. What is the sweet spot of not blowing your savings in 4 days versus having to bring your laptop on vacation? I thought of this a few times during those four days. But mostly, I experienced luxury as I never had before.
I ate the most buttery croissants at gourmet buffet breakfasts. (Don’t worry, I packed the little jars of jam and honey in my suitcase). I was served multi-course, wine-paired lunches and dinners—often with a choice of entrees. For four days my decisions were pate or escarole salad, truffle pasta or roast chicken, chocolate mousse or berry clafoutis. Once, after I was poured a bold red, I shyly expressed that I didn’t care for red in hot weather. “Ah, mais oui, Katie. White or rosé?” I biked to a hillside apricot orchard where I tasted apricot nectar, apricot marmalade, and apricots picked an hour ago. When I showed the slightest interest in their homemade rosé, a bottle was opened and a glass poured. On our last night an opened bottle of champagne sat in the middle of the table surrounded by filled glasses—no one was drinking it. I poured myself glass after glass and, thanks to the luxury of Unisom, slept like a baby. I walked through markets surrounded by women in linen with long scarves and straw bags. “Reminds me of Marin County,” I remarked. Yet this is what Marin County strives to be. The real deal luxury. The most vibrant lavender. The freshest tomatoes. The oiliest tapenade. Towns with mandated pastel shutters in light blue and faded terra cotta. Mandatory pastels, people. That is luxury.
I biked not only in the most beautiful places I’d ever seen but on the most beautiful biking roads. They were like trails but actually old farm roads that wound through the country. You’d think you were on trail and then a little MG would putter by. I rode by lavender and sunflower fields. I pedaled along rows of Cypress trees and flew down hills from villages that looked like Tuscany—if I’d ever been to Tuscany. The hills were perfect. Perfect, perfect inclines with just the right amount of effort and swoon-worthy descents. Maybe that was because I finally had an incredible bike. I bike I joked they’d have to pry out of my cold, dead hands. A bike so light it didn’t even feel like I was on a mechanism, but moving by sheer muscle power. The gears so smooth I shifted when I didn’t need to just so I could feel the ease. And brakes that didn’t squeak, but just worked—silently with a gentle, reassuring puff of air. That, my friends, is also luxury.
Maybe it all felt so good because I spent so much money. Or because it really was that beautiful. Or because anytime I wanted anything—water, electrolyte-infused water, beer, wine, freshly cut fruit, to hop in the van—it was there for me. Or maybe because I really had worked for it. I’d created this luxury for myself. The third day at the pool drinking rosé out of a plastic goblet I asked who else had followed the training plan. “What training plan?” they all responded. “The one on the website.” None of them knew about it, not even the guides. I’d skipped happy hours and ridden up hills on my clunker bike with a pannier filled with library books to get ready for this. “Well, it shows,” one of them said. And I agreed. It showed on that 102 day of 35 miles and 2,700 feet: further, higher, and hotter than I’d ridden before. It showed on the bike and it showed in my heart.
I was very aware every day, every moment of this trip that I may never get to do anything like this again. I’m a copywriter in Seattle—the last gasp of the creatives in a tech town. My job, while writing about luxury travel, doesn’t put me on the fast track to regularly experience it myself. So when I ate an olive, I ate it as the best olive I’ve ever had and may ever have. I chewed those baguettes like a king. I dipped a tiny silver spoon into a tiny chilled garlic amuse-bouche like a princess. I sipped that cool rosé like it was my last. And as I biked up one seemingly never-ending hill on that 102-degree day, sweat rolling down my face onto my cooling towel, I expressed gratitude. I thanked the forces and people that allowed me to have this challenge and luxury in this magical space. I thanked the company website for the effective training plan. I thanked my work for finally releasing me for two weeks. I thanked my boyfriend who when asked what he thought about his girlfriend going to France for two weeks replied “I think it’s great!” And when I missed my connecting train from Paris to Brussels and had to stand for an hour and a half on the next train on which I no longer had a reserved seat or meal, I thanked myself that I'd swiped those rosemary salted almonds from the minibar.