During the Renaissance, the Loire Valley became the most fashionable leisure retreat of the French aristocracy. From the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 17th century, the nobility commissioned the magnificent châteaux for which the region is renowned. Two hours south of Paris by car, the Loire Valley begins in Orléans and ends 155 miles downstream in Angers. It has long been a classic itinerary, which explains why there are so many good hotels, many of which seek to offer an approximation of the experience of spending a night at a château, with formal service and traditional French décor. Just before the pandemic, however, a spate of new hotel openings showed that the Loire was evolving. A restaurant boom and the increasing excellence of the local wines have also enhanced the area’s already impressive gastronomic credentials. On our recent visit, there were several days when we didn’t tour a single château but instead lingered over lunch, enjoyed wine tastings, went for long walks or bike rides, and relaxed in the spa.
After leaving Paris, our first stop was the village of Montlivault, outside Blois, where we had lunch at La Maison d’à Côté. There, chef Christophe Hay has won two Michelin stars for his light contemporary cooking. A native of the region, Hay is the grandchild of dairy farmers and the son of a butcher, so he had intimate knowledge of local produce long before he launched his career (which included many years in the kitchen of the late Paul Bocuse).
A 15-minute drive from Montlivault, the 55-room Relais de Chambord was created originally from 17th-century kennels, which once housed the hunting hounds of King Francis I. Located directly opposite the vast 426-room limestone Château de Chambord, it has an unparalleled location. At reception, we were surprised by the contemporary décor of the small lobby. Here, as in the bar and other public spaces, there is a sharp break from the traditional pomp that has dominated Loire Valley hotels for decades. Paris architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte was responsible for the makeover of the hotel, and its décor now combines antique drawings, prints, historical maps and early black-and-white photographs with an intriguing selection of contemporary art chosen by Marie-Laure Jousset, for 20 years the head curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The design conveys a respect for the past, as well as a desire for the Loire Valley to reinvent itself for the 21st century.
Our Junior Suite was on a corner of the building and had a spectacular direct view of the château. Light and spacious, it came with a snug bath with double vanities and a combination tub-shower. After having unpacked and settled in, we availed ourselves of the electric bicycles provided for guests and set off on a long and easy ride around Chambord’s vast park and gardens. During our excursion, we caught a glimpse of La Toue du Relais, a traditional flat-bottomed riverboat that has been transformed into a floating suite. It looked romantic, but I couldn’t help but wonder how private it would be during the summer months.
That night, we had dinner on the outdoor terrace of Le Grand Saint-Michel, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant, but the menu was short and expensive. A dish of roasted carrots for $33 seemed preposterous. A simpler meal at Le Bar du Relais the following night was much more enjoyable and included an excellent terrine de foie gras and succulent roasted pork belly with whipped potatoes.
Amenities at Relais de Chambord include a small spa, a tennis court and electric boats aboard which guests can cruise the watercourses of the château. Overall, the hotel is an ideal base from which to visit Chambord without the necessity of having to explore this vast edifice in a single day.
Spectacular views of the Château de Chambord; the friendly staff; cycling through the estate.
The restaurants are only just better than average.
The hotel has electric bicycles and electric boats that are available to guests.
After two days at Chambord, we spent a morning tasting local wines and then went to lunch at Assa, located on the outskirts of Blois. The restaurant overlooks the Loire River from a first-floor dining room with picture windows, and its plain wooden furniture recalls that of a Japanese ryokan (traditional country inn). We arrived at the new 49-room Les Sources de Cheverny with just enough time to be escorted to our Junior Suite in an outbuilding before heading to the spa. Our afternoon of treatments had been prompted by enjoyable experiences at the hotel’s older sibling, Les Sources de Caudalie, near Bordeaux, the first property of innovative hoteliers Jérôme and Alice Tourbier. The spa occupies an attractive new structure adjacent to the small 18th-century limestone Château du Breuil. Our hugely relaxing “rituel à deux” involved a soak in a cedar wine barrel that had been transformed into a whirlpool tub and a 50-minute massage using grapeseed oil.
Our room was also housed within a newly constructed building, one inspired by the architecture of local farms. It came with a cathedral ceiling, parquet floors and stylish modern furniture that Alice Tourbier created in collaboration with Be-Poles, the Paris- and New York-based design firm. Its spacious lounge was appointed with a velvet sofa, a writing desk and several armchairs, along with contemporary lighting fixtures and ornamental ceramics. The limestone-paneled bath was roomy and well-lit and came with double vanities, a soaking tub and a walk-in shower with Caudalie toiletries.
We had an excellent meal at L’Auberge, the hotel’s casual restaurant, where chef Frédéric Calmels, formerly sous-chef to Jérôme Banctel at La Réserve hotel in Paris, serves an evolving seasonal menu. We enjoyed a galantine of guinea hen and foie gras, grilled locally made lamb sausage with white beans, and baba au rhum with whipped cream and orange zest. An excellent selection of Loire Valley wines is available by the glass, including the hotel’s own vintage, La Grand’Vigne, which is made with Romorantin grapes, a variety indigenous to the area that produces minerally wines reminiscent of Chablis. A gastronomic restaurant is expected to open soon.
Les Sources de Cheverny is located on a 90-acre estate, and at reception we found numerous pairs of French-made Aigle boots for anyone wanting to go for a hike in the woods; the property also provides bicycles upon which to tour the property.
The attractive and very comfortable rooms; the excellent spa; the fine restaurant.
The lack of a proper bar.
There are no restaurants in the immediate vicinity.
After stays at two of the Loire’s new hotels, it felt a bit like time travel when we arrived at the ivy-covered 31-room Les Hauts de Loire, a traditional property set in a park with immaculately groomed gardens. Since we’d stayed in the main building on our last visit, on this occasion we opted for larger quarters in the renovated outbuildings. Our suite under the eaves had exposed beams, framed etchings and drawings, and a toile de Jouy baldachin over the bed. Its sitting area was furnished with a white-cotton-upholstered couch, a teal-blue velvet armchair and a glass-topped coffee table. Swagged curtains framed the door leading to a small balcony that afforded views over the surrounding woods and fields. A pink-marble bath came with double vanities and a combination tub-shower. These were comfortable and attractive lodgings, but the traditional décor was lacking in imagination, and fitted carpeting in a country hotel seemed dated.
That evening, we had a good dinner in the hotel’s bistro, a meal that included a delicious fricassee of free-range chicken in mustard sauce with asparagus and baby peas, and ham hock roasted on a rotisserie with honey. The cheese plate, which starred local goat cheeses, was memorable. Chef Dominique Pépin, the former sous-chef, took over the kitchens in October 2020 and is now responsible for the menus at both the bistro and the Michelin two-star gastronomic restaurant.
The following morning, we joined a hands-on cooking course with chef Pépin, who proved to be a patient and very charming teacher. After cooking for two hours, we enjoyed the fruits of our labors for lunch. These included local white asparagus in a sauce mousseline, and roast veal with new potatoes, oyster mushrooms and a Vouvray sauce.
Although the décor at Les Hauts de Loire needs refreshing in places, and some of the young staff would benefit from more training, this remains a delightful hotel that I continue to recommend.
The next day, we revisited the Château de Chenonceau, the most romantic of the Loire châteaux. Built by King Henry II, it was presented to the woman who enthralled him, Diane de Poitiers, in 1547. She then embellished it by adding the gallery that spans the Cher River on four arches, which has become the building’s most celebrated feature.
The lovely parklike setting; the commendable restaurants; the Clarins spa.
Some of the young staff need more training.
The picnics the hotel packs for château excursions are excellent.
Located a 25-minute drive to the west, the 18-room Loire Valley Lodges opened last June and is the project of Anne-Caroline Frey, a well-known Parisian contemporary art dealer and collector. Tucked away in a private 750-acre forest outside Tours, it wasn’t an easy place to find, but this only added to our curiosity. Reception turned out to be an old stone farmhouse, which also contains the hotel’s bar and restaurant. The décor of the public rooms — a mixture of surprising colors and patterns, antiques and contemporary art — provided an early indication that this place would be quite different from any other hotel at which we’d recently stayed.
We were driven to our lodge, where we found our bags awaiting us. The accommodations here are individually decorated wooden treehouses, supported by stilts and reached by stairways. Our spacious room with glass walls extended onto a large deck with a Jacuzzi and overlooked the forest. Furnished with a sizable bed, a dining table and an armchair, it was serene and comfortable. The bath, with two sinks and a shower, had a sliding door leading out to the deck. If we were somewhat disoriented at first, within an hour or so we had relaxed. The views of the forest were mesmerizing, and the absence of a television and the spotty internet connection turned out to be blessings in disguise. Enjoying the Jacuzzi before dinner, we saw several wild boar crashing through the bushes below, followed by a magnificent stag. By early evening, we were reluctant to break the mood of contemplative calm, so we ordered dinner from room service. Cooked by the talented Hippolyte Delcher, the meal arrived in a basket and was unpacked and arranged by a butler, who also opened our wine and served our first course of potato-and-leek soup. This was followed by roast chicken with roasted vegetables, goat cheese, salad and a raspberry crumble. We slept exceptionally well that night. On waking, just as the sun began to filter through the forest, we found a breakfast basket that had been left outside our door.
Somewhat to our surprise, we greatly enjoyed our time at Loire Valley Lodges and regretted not staying longer. On another visit, we will try the small spa, although complete idleness is probably the best way to experience the total serenity offered by this unique hotel.
The beauty of the surrounding forest; the originality and comfort of the treehouse lodgings.
The hotel is not easy to find, so print out a map, because GPS signals are weak in the area.
This hotel is not suitable for anyone with mobility issues or who requires the standard roster of comforts and services offered by five-star hotels.
Traveling on tranquil country roads instead of the highway, it was a 90-minute drive to the 54-room Fontevraud L’Hôtel, which opened 18 months ago in the former priory of Saint-Lazare. The 35-acre complex of the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud was founded during the 12th century by Breton priest Robert d’Arbrissel and comprised four priories: Sainte-Marie, Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Saint-Jean de l’Habit, and Saint-Lazare. By the time of d’Arbrissel’s death in 1117, over 3,000 nuns lived at the abbey.
During the Middle Ages, Fontevraud’s most important benefactors were the Plantagenets, a family who ruled large swaths of western France, including the Duchy of Aquitaine. Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France and then of England owing to her marriage to Henry II, is the emblematic figure at Fontevraud, where she spent the latter part of her life, ordering the famous reclining effigies that ornament the nave of the abbey church. Her second husband, Henry, and her son, Richard the Lionheart, are also buried here.
The latest attraction at the abbey is the Modern Art Museum, which displays the more than 300 works donated to the French state by art collectors Martine and Léon Cligman. Among these are paintings by Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy and Chaïm Soutine, plus sculptures by Auguste Rodin and drawings by Edgar Degas.
On arrival at Fontevraud L’Hôtel, which is housed in a carefully restored building of ivory-colored limestone, we were given a reusable aluminum thermos flask with our room key. The property avoids plastic bottles, and filtered water is on tap on each floor. The hotel also uses wood chip-burning furnaces for heating and hot water, composts its waste and sources everything as locally as possible, including the delicious honey served at breakfast.
The renovation and décor of the hotel is the work of the Franco-Canadian duo Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku, who are best known as the preferred designers of chef Alain Ducasse. Using oak, linen, leather and a palette of neutral colors, they have succeeded in creating an environment of monastic beauty and serenity.
Our Emotion Double room came with a high ceiling, a large casement window that overlooked an herb garden and a comfortable bed with a mattress manufactured by a company in Nantes using no metal parts and only natural materials. The bed was flanked by oak night tables, and there was also an oak writing desk and a yellow-leather tub chair. The bath featured black granite floors, a single vanity, a walk-in shower and toiletries made with local botanicals.
That night, dinner in Fontevraud Le Restaurant was a magical experience, as the space overlooks the former priory’s floodlit cloister. Chef Thibaut Ruggeri’s cooking warrants its Michelin star. His menus change to follow the cycles of the moon — which apparently affect the growth of fruit, vegetables and other produce. We relished a soup of local mushrooms with herbs, and duck foie gras with blackberries and braised figs.
Though not strictly a luxury hotel, Fontevraud L’Hôtel is a delightful place from which to explore the famous abbey and warrants a night on any Loire Valley itinerary.
The fascinating historical setting; the distinguished restaurant; the adjacent Modern Art Museum.
The golf cart transfer from the parking lot to the hotel, which is inconvenient in rainy weather.
Even if you’re staying at the hotel, advance reservations at Fontevraud Le Restaurant are essential.
After an excellent breakfast, we set out for Chinon, where we visited the château and had a very good lunch at chef Christophe Duguin’s Au Chapeau Rouge. From Chinon, it was a 90-minute drive to the 17-room Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé, which opened two years ago after lavish renovations. The 18th-century château, surrounded by 80 acres of formal gardens, was once the home of Jacques Pineau de Viennay III, the Baron de Lucé and Louis XV’s administrator for eastern France. Located about 20 miles outside the town of Le Mans, it is ranked as one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in the country. Its recent overhaul was the work of American hotelier Marcy Holthus, the owner of the Washington School House Hotel in Park City, Utah. In 2017, Holthus fell in love with the property, and working with American designers Paul and Shannon Wehsener of Paul Allen Design in San Diego, she has done a spectacular job of reinventing it. So the château now has a palpable American connection, one reflected by cheerful and smiling young staff, whose style of hospitality is in contrast to the cool and distant service found at some other Loire Valley properties.
Our Corner King Room Garden View was one of the prettiest accommodations we’ve ever seen in France, with unforgettable views over the gardens from two tall windows draped with cinnamon silk curtains. It came with powder-blue floral pattern wallpaper, oak parquet floors, a daybed, pink-marble-topped side tables and a (non-working) marble fireplace. The bed was made up in Pratesi linens, and the parquet-floored bath provided a claw-foot soaking tub, double vanities in a white-marble counter and a walk-in rainfall shower. Toiletries came from Buly 1803, the fashionable perfumer and beauty products shop on Rue Bonaparte in Paris.
At the hotel’s restaurant, Le Lucé, chef Maxime Thomas presents a regularly changing menu. We dined on white asparagus roasted with chestnut honey, a delicious veal fillet with stuffed morels and ramps, and rhubarb with elderflower and vanilla ice cream. A bistro menu is served in Jack Pine’s, the hotel’s attractive bar. The property also has a fitness center, a heated outdoor swimming pool and electric bicycles for guests to borrow.
The Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé is a sumptuous property to which we will happily return when we next want a long weekend out of Paris. Overall, it is a wonderful addition to the rapidly evolving roster of hotels that now distinguish this classic French destination.
The magnificently decorated interior; the charming staff; the toiletries from Buly 1803; the beautiful gardens.
The occasionally erratic Wi-Fi.
Hot air balloon rides are available, with a departure from a field just beyond the lake in the château’s gardens.