Fabulous décors and warm welcomes add up to great vacations.
Back in the ’80s, spending a pleasant night at a French B&B was a matter of luck. In fact, just checking into one required considerable optimism. Often opened au hazard to boost the owner’s income after a hasty move “back to the land,” such establishments were few and far between, inconveniently located and known for their inevitable chenille bedspreads and chipped crockery.
Then little by little, people began to realize that a rewarding life wasn’t necessarily tied to financial success. Equally important were a healthy environment for raising one’s children and time for hobbies—hobbies as absorbing as rebuilding a family château or restoring an old fishing boat. In short, rather than spending their whole lives making a living, people wanted to take advantage of the present and enjoy a quality lifestyle with clean air, simple pleasures, and fresh flowers and vegetables straight from the garden. Increasingly, young couples and fortysomethings looking for a career change began opening B&Bs—not by chance but by choice.
Today, there are almost as many B&Bs in France as there are hotels, and they can compete with some of the most stylish accommodations around. Hand-stitched quilts have replaced chenille bedspreads, beams are whitewashed, floors are refinished, and refurbished flea-market finds spruce up rooms that no one would ever mistake for grandma’s. Even the food is often exceptional. People who never would have imagined themselves in front of a stove have discovered a passion for cooking.
Many of these B&Bs are located in places where you’d truly want to spend some vacation time. Indeed, when little beach resorts such as Biarritz give their town centers a facelift, the renovations are always marked by the opening of new chambres d’hôtes that garner general admiration for their taste and hospitality. You can even find them in the capital (visit bed-and-breakfast-in-paris.com).
But the main difference between hotels and B&Bs is the human element—that’s why you open one or choose to stay there. Without that human contact, you’d miss out on a rich, unique experience. And as a guest, you know your stay is successful when you find yourself saying, “I wish I lived here all the time!”
Coups de Coeur
Unpretentious and convivial, some of the B&Bs that have sprung up in recent years are so beautifully decorated they’ve been the subject of lavish spreads in shelter magazines. Here are some of our favorites at Maisons Côté Est and Maisons Côté Ouest.
BURGUNDY / Château de Créancey /
Eight years ago, Fiona de Wulf and her husband, Bruno, purchased a 17th-century château in Burgundy that had fallen into disrepair. A veteran of Sotheby’s London, Fiona oversaw its renovation, bringing patience, imagination and fantasy to the project. A devotee of antiques and curiosities, she infused new life into this vast dwelling, now a welcoming, comfortable home.
One wing harbors five guest rooms, each with its own atmosphere. Light-filled and cheerful, they are decorated with rare and original pieces—a magnificent box bed, an old apothecary cabinet converted into a chest of drawers, a lovely 18th-century armchair.
The antiques never make the décor seem somber but rather add a poetic note. Paintings with patinas, hand-stitched quilts, embroidered sheets and towels, natural linen curtains—all these details add up to a sense of authenticity. At the same time, there are all the modern conveniences. There’s even a so-called American room with a king-size bed, armchair and other amenities for transatlantic visitors used to more spacious accommodations than those sometimes found in France.
Bedroom windows offer idyllic views of the park: Ducks frolic in a nearby pond, and farther off you can see an ancient greenhouse, a 15th-century dovecote, paths that vanish under the large trees and lawns stretching to the horizon. It’s a wonderful base for exploring the Auxois region with its châteaux, vineyards and gourmet delights. Or you can simply stay put, take it easy and enjoy life. Five rooms from €130 to €220; breakfast included. A cottage can be rented by the week. Dinner available by reservation. 21320 Pouilly-en-Auxois; Tel. 33/1-80-90-57-50. creancey.com
BRITTANY / La Guérandière /
Visitors to Brittany’s Côte Sauvage are always enchanted by Guérande, a walled city dating back to 1343. Sleeping in the shadow of the ramparts and awakening to the peal of church bells is now a dream come true for guests at La Guérandière, a lovely 19th-century manor house overlooking one of the city gates. It’s a perfect location for exploring the narrow winding streets, quaint houses and secret entryways of this medieval town.
Inhabited by the same family since World War I, the building had been left untouched for years when it was purchased in 1991 by a couple bitten by the restoration bug. The original features—a solid-oak staircase, stained-glass windows dating back to 1870, marble fireplaces—were preserved. Nineteenth-century tiles in yellow, blue and gray inspired the palette used for the walls, and the rooms were furnished with treasures from the big summer antiques market held in nearby Batz-sur-Mer.
With the last panel of Toile de Jouy affixed to the wall and fine-cotton sheets laid on the beds, hôtelière Valerie Lauvray began welcoming guests in 1996. The family is always delighted to share its extensive knowledge about the region, offering guests invaluable pointers on visiting the area. Breakfast is served in the quiet walled garden under the spreading branches of a plum tree, and the inn serves up a tasty dinner as well.
Six rooms from €55 to €110; breakfast €10. 5 rue Vannetaise, 44350 Guérande; Tel. 33/2-40-62-17-15. guerandiere.com
LA PERCHE / Château de Saint-Paterne /
The owners drive an old Deux Chevaux, chickens strut about in the orangerie... the Château de Saint-Paterne in the Perche region, between Normandy and the Loire, practically oozes rural authenticity.
The Renaissance castle boasts a noble history—one of Henri IV’s mistresses lived there—but when Charles-Henry de Valbray inherited the place in 1989, it was in a sorry state without water or heating. The young owner was virtually penniless, but he began restoring the place anyway, starting with four bedrooms. At first, meals were served family-style, with guests seated at the same table and Valbray manning the stove.
The B&B really hit its stride with the arrival of Charles-Henri’s wife, Ségolène. Full of decorating ideas, she threw herself into the renovation project, adding a swimming pool and fixing up new rooms. Some are in the opulent château spirit, with lush fabrics and canopy beds; others are more contemporary, in tones of black and taupe, mauve and violet; still others, done up in beige, white and flowing linens, are inspired by southern climes. As in the best establishments, thoughtful details abound: a little tray with a carafe of pommeau in the bedroom, crystal powder boxes and eau de cologne in antique flacons in the bathroom.
The proprietors know how to melt into the background when necessary to give their guests the feeling of being in their own homes. But they are always available to offer advice on an itinerary or day trip, to give a cooking class or even to host a murder mystery party.
Eight rooms from €105 to €210; this summer a new room will open in the orangerie. 72610 Saint-Paterne; Tel. 33/2-33-37-54-71. château-saintpaterne.com
ÎLE DE RÉ / La Maison Douce /
The Ile de Ré, opposite La Rochelle, is to Parisians what the Hamptons are to New Yorkers: a chic little weekend destination where you can enjoy a convivial atmosphere year round. And La Maison Douce is an ideal location for getting into the spirit of this windy island.
Owners Alain and Catherine Brunel have eschewed the traditional navy and white typical of French seaside resorts in favor of a subtler palette of ivory, sand and soft gray—hues echoed in the rehabilitated brocante furniture and driftwood mirrors that adorn each room. Step through the doorway, and you’re greeted with a whiff of tea-scented candles and French toast with cinnamon. The ambiance at this B&B is warm and relaxed, with the sea evoked by small details—a seashell path, for example, or a shrimp net leaning against a wall.
Breakfast—neither American nor strictly Continental—is served until 2 P.M. On sunny days, the delicious assortment of breads and brioches, jams and homemade fresh-fruit compotes is served in the walled garden; when the weather turns gray, it’s best enjoyed in front of a blazing fire in the drawing room. Just a hop and a skip from the lively outdoor cafés of the little port of Saint-Martin-en-Ré, La Maison Douce is an oasis of tranquility.
Eleven rooms, including two suites, from €105 to €185, depending on the room and season; breakfast €12 (€15 for room service). 25 rue Mérindot, 17410 Saint-Martin-en-Ré; Tel. 33/5-46-09-20-20.
THE SAVOY / Les Servages /
Five discreetly luxurious rooms await guests at Les Servages, a farmhouse perched in a high mountain pasture some 3,600 feet above the clouds. Run by Armelle Linglin, a former member of the French national ski team, and her physician husband, Patrick, this chalet in the Savoy region has been wowing visitors since 2000.
Les Servages owes its success to two things. The first is its simple but excellent montagnard fare. Herbs are gathered fresh from the garden, 100-pound wheels of Beaufort cheese come from the local cooperative, and crayfish are plucked directly from Lake Leman. The second is the less-is-more décor. The rooms—so spacious they’re practically individual chalets, with separate staircases and balconies—are a happy mélange of Alpine rustic and grand-luxe sobriety. The clean lines of the impeccably white beds, contemporary lighting, black designer stoves and Jacuzzis are in perfect harmony with the polished wood walls and exposed beams. The sweeping views of the Alps only add to the overall feeling of serenity.
Further pleasures may be found right outside the door: During the summer, you can hike on mountain paths that begin a few feet from the chalet, while in the wintertime, you can strap on your skis at the door. After working up an appetite in the fresh air, you’ll be glad to return to Armelle’s fine cooking in any season.
Five rooms from €160 to €220. 841 route des Servages, 74300 Les Carroz; Tel. 33/4-50-90-01-62. servages.com