I‘ve just returned from a weekend in the middle of nowhere, France, staying in an 11th century chateau with better modern art and design than any major museum I’d ever reluctantly queued up for. And a peculiar thing happened when I got home after 48 blissful hours away. At 10 o’clock on a Sunday evening, I suddenly began re-decorating. In the midst of carefully re-arranging the ceramics on the bathroom counter to resemble something a little more sophisticated, I realised that I had taken home something far more unusual than the complimentary bottle of luxury bubble bath. The Domaine des Etangs, a restored childhood home, transformed into a most unlikely and intimate retreat (we’ll not even call it a hotel), had well and truly schooled me in the art of living.
What if one of France’s most prestigious families left you the keys to their chateau? I never met the lady of the house, although I imagined Garance Primat as if she were an old friend who had personally invited us round for the weekend, was called away to the city on business last-minute and left her Michelin-star chef to take care of the meals in her absence. We would have the place to ourselves and of course we would be doing Garance a favour by house-sitting the 2,000 acre estate while she was away.
Okay fine, so Garance probably has no idea that I slept in her wing of the Chateau this weekend, in her bed under the exposed beams of the eastern tower. I was told it’s her favourite suite in the house, where she often stays on her monthly visits to check in on the culinary and spa retreat she created here on the estate that seduced her father 30 years ago.
Yes, apparently they’re running a “hotel” here, but at the Domaine des Etangs, that’s easy enough to forget. The staff are invisible if you want them to be, the reception is hidden away in the farmhouse by the drawbridge and there’s a pair of wellington boots in your exact shoe size placed by the door of the chateau as if they had been waiting for their master’s return.
We kick off our shoes by one of the fireplaces where a Matisse casually hangs on the wall. I wonder if perhaps Garance’s late father acquired it, Didier Primat, the publicity-shy billionaire who died before he could finish his castle. Someone or something must have given Garance the collecting bug…
Every room is filled with priceless artworks and trinkets to admire while wondering the house in a fluffy robe. Above the headboard of our bed are a stack of original TinTin lithographs signed by Hergé.
I’ve never seen such a private collection of modern art and design so tastefully and expertly curated– let alone stayed overnight inside one while hiding out on a remote countryside cattle ranch.
To meet the 950 maple syrup-colored cows that live in the fields, you have your own electric car that can take on even the roughest terrain in the park. Along your way, you’ll discover some of the 6 self-catering cottages, each with its own lake.
Some sleep up to 10 people and work out to €150 a head per night. On our first evening, the chef prepared us a traditional supper in one of the cottages just to “switch things up”. I felt a little bit like Goldilocks (with the services of a five-star hotel on call).
There are fire pits placed unexpectedly throughout the forest and around the lakes and when you find your favourite spot, you’d do well to have the friendly kitchen team deliver a custom-made luxury picnic. Or you could do a take-away lunch aboard one of the charming coral-painted row boats, waiting for you to hop in at every picturesque spot by the water’s edge.
Treating yourself to a massage at the restored old water mill is literally an unforgettable experience. The therapist’s hand strokes are inspired by the movement of the exotic birds that seem to have found their very own paradise on the estate. When I asked about the soothing music which had been playing during my treatment, my masseuse told me it had been custom-made for the spa, performed in a studio by an entire orchestra.
“And did you hear those animal noises?” she asked. They even recorded sounds of the wildlife within the domaine during the summer and incorporated them into the music. Unfortunately they hadn’t yet decided whether to sell the soundtrack to the guests, otherwise I can assure you I would have been listening to it as I write this.
It drizzled in the late afternoon so we took to the attic and pulled out board games from antique travel trunks. If you’re with the kids, you’ll find it hard to tear them away from this giant playroom where they can play dress-up and build lego for hours.
But then there’s also the state-of-the-art playground with a treehouse, zip line and trampolines next to the vegetable garden.
After a Michelin-star dinner, my first ever, I almost thought– okay, that’s enough. You need to go back to normal now. And then I remembered the thermal roman baths waiting for us in the basement of the chateau. A midnight swim was surely the way to finish our last evening. We plunged into the pool– a giant jacuzzi– all to ourselves. To sweat out those Michelin-star calories, there’s a Caldarium, a Tepidarium and finally a Frigidarium where you can cover yourself in ice if you’re brave enough.
Of course, the truth is, most of us can’t live like this in our daily domestic lives, not even the billionaires. Garance’s father himself was too busy to even finish his dream project. But that’s what makes an experience like this so “once upon a time”, even if it is once in a lifetime. At least I return to reality utterly inspired by how the lucky ones live– and with the comfiest pair of hotel slippers that ever was.
Nessy was a guest of Le Domaine des Etangs. You can book rooms in the château, farmhouse suites or self-catering cottages. There are trains from Paris Montparnasse to Angoulême and a driver will pick you up from the station for a short car journey to the Domaine.
Discover the experience here.