“The Loire Valley badly needed a reset,” says French hotelier Jérôme Tourbier, who recently opened Les Sources de Cheverny, a new, 49-room country-house hotel on a 110-acre estate of forest and fields outside of Cheverny, a two-hour drive south of Paris. “It’s always been a cultural destination, because of the magnificent châteaux, but most of the hotels were, well … ”
“Stuffy” is the word Tourbier was looking for. All over France, but especially in the Loire, the faux-château hotel has been one of the most enduring and popular idioms of Gallic lodgings ever since the automobile democratized travel in France, in the middle of the 20th century. If some of these queen-for-a-day/king-for-a-stay châteaux actually are glorious old piles with bona fide aristocratic pedigrees, more of them were created to ape such credentials with oil paintings of someone’s dour-looking ancestors, Louis-something flea-market antiques, and often wiltingly formal whispery service intended to keep you in your place as a paying guest/commoner.
Though some of these concocted château hotels are impressively stately and elegant, no one could ever accuse them of being a good time, and that’s where the Tourbiers stepped in. “The outstanding vineyards and rural beauty of the Loire always played second fiddle to the châteaux,” says Tourbier, who with his wife, Alice, opened Les Sources de Caudalie outside of Bordeaux 22 years ago. “We decided to change that.”
Les Sources de Cheverny offers a Gallic retort to the new generation of hip English country-house hotels, including places such as the Newt, the Pig at Combe, Babington House, and the recently opened Birch, and it’s just as appealing for a cocooning weekend of walking in the woods—there’s a rack of French-made Aigle boots in a range of sizes near the reception area, spa pampering, wine tastings, reading corners, and plenty of opportunity to simply let your screen go blank—as it is as a base for visiting Chambord, Chenonceau, Villandry, and the other historic châteaux.
If there actually is a château on the estate of Les Sources de Cheverny—the 18th-century limestone Château du Breuil—the reception, spa, and most of the rooms are found in newly built clapboard-sided lodges with steep roofs of flat terra-cotta tiles. The lodges were designed by Paris architect Yves Collet and reference the outbuildings found on farms throughout the Loire Valley. “We wanted Les Sources de Cheverny to be warm, welcoming, and low-key,” explains Jérôme.
“The outstanding vineyards and rural beauty of the Loire always played second fiddle to the châteaux. We decided to change that.”
Working with Be-poles, the Paris- and New York–based design consultancy that completed the stunning revamp of the Roches Rouges hotel in Saint-Raphaël, on the Riviera, Alice Tourbier not only jettisoned the prevailing faux-château style of the Loire but shrewdly jolted the stale visual conventions of Gallic rustic chic with a racy dose of midcentury modern. This comes across through the hotel’s earth-tone décor, Danish-modern-inspired furniture, contemporary lighting fixtures such as egg-shaped glass spheres in wooden stands, and the use of contemporary ceramics as accessories in all the rooms, even a few found in the original Château de Breuil.
Caudalie products are used for many of the treatments at the hotel’s spa, which has a beautiful Impressionistic mural of the surrounding woods by artist Claire Basler in its reception area with raw-oak parquet floors. The spa also features a large indoor pool in a newly built pavilion with a cathedral ceiling and glass walls, along with a sauna and Jacuzzi. Complimentary bicycles are available to guests for a two-wheeled outing in the surrounding countryside.
A wall-mounted wood-burning rotisserie is the centerpiece at the hotel’s cozy L’Auberge, where chef Frédéric Calmels, who was formerly sous-chef to Jérôme Banctel at La Réserve in Paris, serves up a regularly changing menu that offers seasonally inspired comfort-food dishes such as 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. Loire Valley wines star on the wine list, which offers an excellent selection by the glass, including a pour of the hotel’s own vintage, La Grand Vigne, which is made with Romorantin grapes, a variety indigenous to the surrounding area. A second restaurant will open at the hotel in the spring.
“Our idea was to create a contemporary country-house-style hotel people would want to visit even if the Loire Valley didn’t have all of its famous châteaux,” says Jérôme. The extent to which the Tourbiers have succeeded is that you may have to goad yourself to go out sightseeing during a stay at this bucolic hideaway, a place where you’ll never come across a dusty suit of armor or a haughty front-desk clerk.
Alexander Lobrano is a writer and restaurant critic. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, will be published in June