Mountains getaways; Retreats: Two romantic inns in South Carolina's 'Upcountry' offer a choice of equestrian or Provencal themes.; DESTINATION: SOUTH CAROLINA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The South of France? No, South Carolina.

During a weekend retreat to La Bastide, my husband and I linger over a sumptuous Provencal breakfast of crab omelets, savory rabbit and veal sausage, croissants and strong hot coffee replenished from a steaming silver pot. Occasionally we gaze out the dining room's French doors to admire the cloudless turquoise sky and the irregular profile of purple mountains.

Outside, a walled courtyard features a dormant perennial garden, stone-paved patio, croquette lawn and gravel court for the French game petanque.

Because it is winter, the rectangular playing fields are empty, but it's easy to conjure images of a summer scene where ladies and gentlemen clad in white attire whack balls through wickets with wooden mallets. Or, I can imagine a couple, their shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, flinging weighty stainless steel petanque balls at a colorful target in the bowling enclosure as an appreciative audience looks on from the terrace. I squeeze my husband's hand and say enthusiastically, "Let's learn to play petanque." He smiles and nods in agreement.

Many savvy travelers are familiar with South Carolina's Grand Strand beaches, but fewer have discovered the charms of its mountains -- although that is changing. The Appalachians pokes a toe into the far western corner of the state. They form a 3,000-foot escarpment that gives way to the Carolina Piedmont.

This "Upcountry" landscape of spectacular rounded cliffs provides a setting for two new inns. Couples searching for a secluded, romantic getaway will do well to consider the Red Horse Inn and La Bastide.

Horse country

The Upcountry of South Carolina is a regionally famous equestrian hub. Horse farms, stables and riding academies abound. Annual steeplechase races draw enthusiasts who try to outdo each other with elaborate tailgate feasts featuring candelabras, silver flatware, crystal, china and glistening gourmet tidbits.

The look of the Red Horse Inn is based on an equestrian theme, and it fits into a countryside frequently traversed by fox hunters and horseback riders. The 190-acre inn complex is the work of Mary and Roger Wolters, transplanted designers from New York City.

Although the main inn building will not be complete until spring, five adorable tin-roofed cottages, with names such as Huntbox and Grainary, nestle into a picturesque pastoral setting and have been providing guest accommodations for almost a year. The decor of each of the diminutive guest quarters is splendid, thanks to the Wolters' artistic talent.

My husband and I stayed in the Hayloft, a cottage decorated in blues and white. Real Delft tiles, faux plates, pitchers and vases and cobalt glass containers augment the color scheme. In the sitting room, two velvet wing chairs are positioned in front of a decorative cast-iron wood-burning stove (the other cottages offer gas-log fireplaces).

Fresh flowers, wine glasses and miniature bottles of Harvey's Bristol Cream are on the nearby wicker table. The refrigerator in the kitchen is stocked with coffee and tea supplies, a carafe of orange juice, a breakfast basket filled with muffins and croissants, and a supply of fresh fruit is stationed on the counter. The loft has a TV, board games and a futon for naps or extra guests. A rubber ducky sits on the tub ledge in the bathroom.

Views include mountain vistas and fenced pastures where sheep graze and chestnut horses frolic. The kitchen windows look out on a patio and goldfish pond with a fountain. Guests sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch should not be surprised to see a mob of hounds followed by a party of fox hunters come charging into view over the crest of a hill in the near distance.

This is what I enjoyed most about Hayloft: The lyrics of "Carolina in The Morning" are stenciled in Carolina blue around the border between three walls and the steeply pitched ceiling in the bedroom: "Nothing could be sweeter than my baby when I meet her in the morning. ..."

The fourth wall features cascades of hand-stenciled morning glory vines. They twine from the apex of the ceiling down to the headboard of the open canopy bed -- swathed in tulle -- and over the doorway. Roger Wolters says morning glories are planted outside the bedroom windows so summer guests will be surrounded by pretty blue flowers.

Another attractive feature of the Red Horse Inn is its fantastic value. Rates for the cottages (which sleeps a family of four) are a steal at $110 to $125 a night, though there is an additional $15 per person charge for more than two occupants. Housekeeping may be requested as an add-on for $15 per day.

Escaping barbarians

Visitors to Provence in the South of France will find the term "La Bastide" plastered all over. It might be attached to a monastery or a public building, but in the countryside it is most often attached to large (and often, lovely) renovated farmhouses. The term comes from the Middle Ages and was applied to a place where village residents could seek refuge in case of attack by rampaging barbarians.

Ray and Lucile Stamm christened their Provencal-style inn and vineyard complex La Bastide. The luxurious retreat and agricultural operation is located on 120 acres near the small town of Traveler's Rest.

The town is aptly named -- it truly offers an idyllic sanctuary to the city-weary.

The inn and gourmet restaurant attached to it have been in business since December 1998. The vineyard is producing grapes, and ground was recently broken for a winery, which should begin producing in about two years. An ambitious plan to add a "French village" of shops and boutiques is also in the works.

The exterior of La Bastide features moss-green stucco walls accented with native gray stone and a rustic tile roof. Shutters and wrought-iron flourishes add panache. It will be easy for guests at La Bastide to imagine they have been teleported to Provence.

The interior decor is opulent. Wrought-iron chandeliers decorate the lobby and seem crafted from grapevines. Bunches of crystal grapes dangle from metal coils and reflect light. Pine floors and walls glow like honey. An open blue granite fireplace offers warmth and light to the main gathering space on one side and to a cozy book-lined library on the other.

A wall of French doors offer views of a walled courtyard and distant mountains. A collection of seven tables of differing sizes stands ready for breakfast and luncheon service.

La Bastide offers 14 individual rooms, several of which may be combined to formed suites.

My husband and I stayed in "10." A dream of a room decorated in salmon, cream, wheat and French blue. A king sleigh bed topped with a thick down duvet and heaped with decorative pillows commands one wall, while a large armoire dominates another. A dresser, writing desk and two small antique commodes, all with marble tops, are stationed around the room. A pair of curvy French provincial chairs upholstered in a deep peach damask add flair.

Two large gilt-framed mirrors reflect interior details over twin sinks in a dressing room area. But the piece de resistance is located in a separate bathroom -- a very long, deep tub. The sarcophagus look-alike features a sculpted ledge for resting the arms and back. The crystal, brass and white faucet apparatus looks like a complicated old-fashion French telephone with the earpiece being one of those hand-held shower attachments. Floating in steamy bliss was one of the highlights of my stay.

The gourmet restaurant at La Bastide is a favorite destination.

Many diners drive the 30 minutes from Greenville to celebrate holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. The menu changes daily. On the evening my husband and I ate there we enjoyed a superb roasted eggplant mousse and filet mignon.

The room rates at La Bastide are in accord with the high quality of accommodation. They start at $260 for a double. The price includes a complete breakfast and unlimited access to a "Guest Pantry" stocked with hot drink supplies and snacks.

WHEN YOU GO:

The Red Horse Inn:

Getting there: Take a leisurely drive along South Carolina's Scenic Route 11, then head west at its junction with Highway 14. A mile later, turn left on Tugaloo Road and, a mile after that, turn left onto Campbell Road. The inn is at 310 N. Campbell Road, Landrum, S.C. 29356

Call: 864-895-4968; fax, 864-895-4968

E-mail: theredhorseinn@aol.com

Web site: theredhorseinn.com

La Bastide

Getting there: Take Highway 25 just past the junction with Highway 11. Turn right onto Old Highway 24, then turn left onto Road of Vines. The inn is at 10 Road of Vines, Traveler's Rest, S.C. 29690

Call: 877-836-8463; fax, 846-836-4820

E-mail: labastide@mindspring.com

Web site: labastide-us.com

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