Belmond barge cruises include transfers to and from Paris, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to strike out into the countryside. I never tire of driving along the back roads of France, and I find the sculpted landscapes of Burgundy especially appealing. Allées of poplars and plane trees give way to well-tended pastures and views to distant castles and compact villages. Burgundy’s most famous department, the Côte d’Or, is home to some of the world’s most coveted wines, and I currently recommend several hotels in the region. But Burgundy stretches far beyond the “slope of gold,” so I set out to see what other hideaways I could discover.
Some of Burgundy’s best wines come from Chablis. I love the region’s forceful whites, and because they lack the cachet of those from the Côte d’Or, these wines usually offer excellent value for the money. But Chablis draws fewer visitors, and the town itself lacks a distinguished hotel. However, luxury lies 45 minutes to the southwest at La Borde, a rural estate with just five suites, four of which are Junior Suites, tucked deep in the pastoral heart of Burgundy.
The property dates back to at least the 14th century when a walled manor house stood on the site, but most of the current structures were built in the 16th century. Owners Rik and Marieke Klomp originally used La Borde as their vacation home, hosting house parties and relaxing there over school breaks. Once their children started lives of their own, the Klomps decided to turn La Borde into a guesthouse. “But we needed a challenge,” Rik explained to me one evening by the fire, “so we wanted to make it a five-star property.” They succeeded: Their talent for hospitality has resulted in a hideaway of the first order.
While Rik took our luggage to our room on a golf cart, Marieke escorted us there on foot through the fragrant gardens. The 17 acres that surround the central buildings were just fields when the Klomps purchased La Borde, but the couple quickly set about creating formal gardens, starting with an allée of lindens. The grounds now also comprise extravagant beds of roses, a flourishing kitchen garden, elaborate topiary and an orchard of apples and pears. A Victorian-style conservatory contains a sofa and numerous armchairs surrounding a woodburning fireplace. “It’s a delightful place to relax when it rains,” Marieke told me.
Clear blue skies allowed us to relax by the well-kept swimming pool, which is surrounded by umbrella-shaded loungers facing the former dovecote. This cylindrical building, capped by a conical tile roof, now contains showers and a hot tub and stands adjacent to the spa, which has a steam room, a sauna and a massage treatment room. An extra fee is charged for use of the spa, required in order to keep it a private experience, it was explained. The gleaming and well-equipped fitness center, however, is complimentary.
Continuing around a central courtyard, we arrived at the entrance to our Junior Suite. We had chosen Aubépine, which came with vaulted ceilings of ancient wooden beams, a king-size bed with a linen headboard and two contemporary scroll-top chairs facing a functioning fireplace. Antique shutters concealed the closet and the terra-cotta floor looked original. Worn wooden beams also supported the ceiling of the bath, which had a soaking tub, pedestal sinks and a walk-in shower. Aubépine is up a flight of stairs, but ground-floor accommodations are also available.
Nearby, a former carriage house has been renovated into an airy and stylish lounge centerpieced by a massive Renaissance-style hearth. Louis XV sofas and armchairs upholstered in pearl gray face the fireplace, which is flanked by a giant antique bellows. One of the original half-timbered walls remains, but the other has been replaced by a set of immense glass doors, which can transform the lounge into an indoor/outdoor space that opens onto the courtyard.
A wood-beamed loggia covers a communal dining table facing the courtyard and gardens, but evenings proved too cool for outdoor dinners during our stay. Instead, we dined inside on fine French cuisine prepared and served by Marieke herself. After delicate gougères, we tucked into some escargot, followed by flavorful duck breast accompanied by a potato gâteau and zucchini with pesto. Next came a superb cheese tray with Epoisses, Chaource (made by a nearby fromager), Roquefort and double-cream Saint-Félicien Tentation. And finally, we enjoyed a dessert of hazelnut macaroon topped with raspberry coulis, homemade vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries. Marieke incorporates produce and herbs from La Borde’s garden as much as possible.
After such a satisfying meal, a stroll in the garden seemed like just the thing. Rik refused to let me go, however, until I put on some rubber overshoes to protect my leather loafers from the wet grass. This thoughtful gesture exemplified the anticipatory service and warm hospitality at La Borde. I also appreciated details such as the list of nearby restaurants placed in our room, complete with a chart of opening times, prices and types of cuisine. We left with real regret.
The unfailingly warm, hospitable and anticipatory service; the rich historic details; the tranquil garden setting; the unfussy, delicious food; the well-kept pool; the house-party feel.
The leather armchairs in the conservatory need conditioning; the bath had limited counter space.
The property is a fine base for sightseeing, within easy reach of Chablis, Auxerre, Vézelay and Avallon, among other attractions.
We continued southeast through the forests and pastures of the rolling Morvan. After pausing to admire the immense hilltop Vézelay Abbey, we arrived in Saulieu, home to Le Relais Bernard Loiseau and its Michelin two-star restaurant. The property has a tragic past: In 2003, chef Loiseau, already suffering from depression, committed suicide when he learned his restaurant might lose one of its (then) three stars. Having worked with Loiseau for 20 years, chef Patrick Bertron took over the kitchen. I was curious to see if the famous gourmet retreat merited recommendation today.
Certainly, the restaurant deserves its continued acclaim. We tried the “Hommage” menu, which included chef Bertron’s interpretations of classic Loiseau recipes. I loved every dish, from the amuse-bouche of a mosaic-like poultry terrine en croûte, to the exquisite mignardises following dessert. Especially memorable were the red mullet with shellfish jus and a ratatouille brunoise; and the perfectly rendered duck in a dizzyingly rich foie gras- and truffle-infused sauce, accompanied by slightly bitter turnips.
I also enjoyed the hotel’s shady gardens and free-form swimming pool as well as the compact spa and the clubby, wood-paneled library and billiard room. Service, too, was always friendly and helpful. I would happily recommend Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, if only our accommodations hadn’t been so unattractive. Our suite, which in no way resembled that pictured on the hotel’s website, had a small living room with one window facing an interior corridor. The two medieval-style armchairs were, inexplicably, upholstered in fabric printed to look like wicker. Matters improved in the bath, which had a deep, jetted soaking tub and dual sinks set in a wood counter, but it was as brown as the ugly plush cover on the bed. We spent as much time on the topiary-bordered patio as possible, but it could not compensate for the aesthetic crimes committed by the rest of the suite.
The friendly staff; the excellent restaurant; the shady garden; our suite’s spacious bath; the clubby feel of the lounges.
The lack of natural light in our living room; our suite’s ugly brown décor.
The restaurant is open for lunch, making it unnecessary to overnight at the hotel to experience the cuisine.
We checked out and drove to Beaune, the walled capital of the Côte d’Or, where I hoped that Chez les Fatien would prove a compelling hideaway. With four rooms surrounding a small courtyard, this historic property in the city’s beautifully preserved center was blessedly free from design disasters. Indeed, our large junior suite, La Bourguignonne, was lovely with its ceiling of massive wood beams and a dramatic wood-paneled niche framing the king-size bed, which was topped by a voluminously fluffy duvet. Comfortably worn leather chairs faced a brick fireplace with a carved stone mantel. Touches such as a chandelier festooned with brass grapes, a grape-emblazoned wall sconce and a bronze desk clock surmounted by a sculpture of a young grape picker gave the room additional sense of place. The bath was equally as attractive, with exposed stone walls, a freestanding tub, dual vanities and a wide walk-in shower.
Unfortunately, the service at Chez les Fatien did not rise to the level of the accommodations, leaving the property firmly in bed-and-breakfast territory. When we arrived, the front door was fortunately open — there is no doorbell or intercom — allowing us to walk in. The owners, while very personable, were often absent, expecting guests to call their cell phone should anything be required.
When in Beaune, I highly recommend making an appointment for a wine tasting next door to Chez les Fatien at Maison Fatien Père & Fils. The engaging Charly Fatien led us through the extensive centuries-old cellars there, giving us samples straight from the barrels that included wines from Gevrey-Chambertin, Pommard and Rully, among others.
Beautiful though Chez les Fatien may be, it is suited only to self-sufficient travelers. My preferred hotel in Beaune remains Le Cep: This 65-room property has a full staff, plus an impressive new spa.
The central but quiet location; the historic character; the stylish traditional décor; our large and well-designed suite; the personable owners.
For significant periods of time, no staff member was on-site.
If you opt for a stay, tell the hotel when you plan to check in, and be sure to bring its telephone number in case no one answers the door when you arrive.