Choosing my top 10 places to stay is one of my favorite ways to start the new year! Not only does it let me review my trips of the year, but it reminds me of all the great friendships developed on our trips. To me, there is no single more important element to bicycle trip planning than choosing where to stay. That’s why I spend almost as much time researching places to stay as I do researching routes! I know that I’ve done a good job on my research during the year when it’s nearly impossible to narrow my list to just 10 choices!
It’s taken me many years of travel to develop a sense for choosing unique and charming places to stay when I am bicycling. I generally stay away from guidebook recommendations and avoid large chains like Relais and Chateaux, opting instead for small, charming and very French options in small towns and villages. Most of my options are modest in American terms, but what they lack in overall services, they more than make up for in character.
I choose places to stay that will enhance my bicycling experience, and provide an opportunity to learn more about the people, culture and history of the region. Most of my choices are small establishments run by the owners who welcome guests like they are part of the family. As I look back at this year’s selections, we arrived at each location as a guest, and we departed as friends. I think this is the most perfect travel experience that anyone can have!
Whether a small hotel, a B&B, campground or gite, a great place to stay can be a perfect ending to a difficult day of bicycling, while a mediocre choice can ruin even the most perfect one. I strive to make every choice more unique and special than the last.
Each of the selections on my 2013 list enriched my French bicycling experiences this summer. If you have the opportunity to be cycling in the vicinity of any of them in 2014 and you are lucky enough to secure a room, I’m confident that you will have an experience that will enrich your travel too. Here are my Best Places to Stay for 2013.
The Wine B&B, “Chez la Sommeliere”, Chateauneuf du Pape
If you want to experience Chateauneuf du Pape like an insider, I cannot imagine a better place to stay than the Wine B&B owned by Daniele Raulet Reynaud. If you are lucky enough to secure one of her three rooms in this former vinegrowers home, you are really in for a treat.
From the first moment that you meet Daniele you recognize what a very special person she is: energetic, exuberant, warm, personable, welcoming guests into her home as if they were part of the family. The Wine B&B is Danielle’s home, a home filled with a history reflecting her years of international travel and her passion for French wine. A stay with Daniele is a stay with one of the best known professional sommeliers and wine lecturers in France. In addition to running the Wine B&B, Daniele is a speaker and trainer on French wine and cheese throughout Asia. Clearly she is a great person to help guide your days exploring the vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape. And a tour of Daniele’s wine cellar is an opportunity to get an insider’s view of the very famous Chateauneuf du Pape wines. During the summer time, guests can partake in weekly wine and cheese pairing lectures led by Daniele, an experience I have not yet had, but will definitely return for.
This B&B is part of Fleur de Soleil, an organization that specializes in providing an authentic local experience for guests. There is no question that Daniele performs this to perfection, making guests feel welcome and at home, but never being overbearing. The rooms are large, clean and very charming. Breakfasts are wonderful and feature local cheese, meat and breads as well as fresh yogurt and juice. The icing on the cake: a room for 2 including breakfast at Daniele’s runs from 80-100Euro/night.
La Villa Noria, Modene near Mont Ventoux
La Villa Noria is the quintessential Provencal inn. From the moment you ring the bell and step through the gates of La Villa Noria, you instantly know that you have arrived at a very special place. The huge beautifully landscaped garden is a perfect backdrop for the saltwater swimming pool, surrounded by lounge chairs and a shaded cabana for relaxing after a day of cycling or sightseeing.
Villa Noria is the kind of place where you could easily forget about bicycling. The grounds are so lovely, the scenery so spectacular, and the Provence weather perfect. One night is definitely not enough here, this is definitely a place you should plan on staying several nights or longer.
And then there are the owners, Philippe and Sophie Monti. They have carefully transformed an 18th century school house into a home and a charming B&B. From the furniture to the linens, to the appointments in each room and public spaces, Villa Noria simply oozes with Provencal character. They are the perfect hosts: warm, inviting, ready to help when asked, but never overbearing. Philippe is a very well known regional chef, having served as head chef at neighboring hotel Crillion le Brave for a number of years.
Guests benefit from his cooking and baking expertise every morning at breakfast where Philippe treats guests to breakfasts with fresh breads and cakes, jams, yogurts and juices. But the creme de la resistance is dinner with Philippe. Three to four times a week, Philippe prepares a chef’s choice dinner for guests, using seasonal and local products served with wine from Cotes du Ventoux. These dinners are nothing less than spectacular, 4 courses, an aperitif and wine for 30 Euros.
If you plan on staying at Villa Noria, be sure to find out if dinner will be served the night you are there. Otherwise, it’s about a 10 minute ride to the closest cafe in a neighboring town. Fortunately there is a refrigerator for guests in the cabana where you can store food and beverages. If you are at Villa Noria on a night when dinner is not served, you can pick up picnic supplies when you are out during the day and enjoy a picnic by the pool like we did. Add a cold rose from one of the local vineyards and you have the makings of a perfect Provencal evening!
If you have the opportunity to stay at Villa Noria, you will find Philippe and Sophie to be your best resource for things to do in the region, including the best markets, vineyards and attractions. I suspect like me, you will find that one or two days at Villa Noria isn’t close to enough to enjoy this area. I cannot wait to go back again for a longer visit!
Le Grand Bassin, Castelnaudary
Le Grand Bassin is probably one of the most scenic places to stay along the Canal du Midi, with terrific views and bargain prices. My room with a terrace was 60 Euros including breakfast for 2! You won’t find a place much nicer than this for the money, regardless of your budget.
I was a bit skeptical of the place the day we arrived by bicycle. From the outside, it is a little rough around the edges, but the minute that you step inside the B&B, you are impressed with the warmth and charm of the place. Le Grand Bassin is about a 10 minute walk from town, and is located right off the bike path along the Canal du Midi.
Le Grand Bassin provides basic accommodations with a great location and beautiful views. Rooms are clean, beds very comfortable and breakfast basic. We never met the owner Giles, but my interactions with him regarding reservations were pleasant and professional.
Restaurants are an easy walk from the B&B, and the town is full of restaurants specializing in Cassoulet, a specialty of the region. Since we had such a terrific view from our room, we opted to have a picnic on our terrace.
You could easily spend several days exploring Castelnaudary and the surrounding area, and there is no better place in town to stay than Le Grand Bassin.
La Colombiere in Colombiers
There simply are not enough superlatives to describe the charming gite, La Colombiere located close to Beziers near the Malpas Tunnel and the ancient hill town of Enserune, along side the Canal du Midi. I chose to stay in this small town instead of Beziers and I am so glad that I did. From the moment we entered the gates to La Colombiere, I felt at home. From the sign on the front gate welcoming me to La Colombiere, everything about this place was perfection!
La Colombiere is part of the Gites de France chain, and it is rated with 4 ears, making it one of the chains best members. Owners Pierre Claude and Evelyne Metenier are the consummate hosts and provide an incredible relaxing environment for those fortunate enough to stay here. There are only 4 rooms at La Colombiere, so those who are able to book are truly fortunate. Most guests stay for 3 nights or longer. It did not take us very long to see why.
The fully renovated gite is spotless from the public areas to the individual rooms. The attention to detail throughout the gite is amazing. Pierre Claude and Evelyne have spared no expense to provide a perfect environment for guests to relax and enjoy the incredible Languedoc weather.
There are huge gardens in the front and back of the gite, where there is a large saltwater pool and hot tub.
There is a beautiful covered cabana next to the pool where breakfast is served in the morning, and where guests can sit and relax in the afternoon, enjoying a glass of local rose, which Pierre Claude always has chilled.
Pierre Claude and Evelyne are excellent resources for anything you need to know about touring this area of the Languedoc. They are proud of their region, and enjoy sharing their knowledge of the area with their guests. This is a very special place indeed, and I was extremely sad to have to leave after just one night here. La Colombiere is a perfect base to explore this beautiful part of the South of France. If you are lucky enough to be able to stay for 2 or 3 days, do so. You won’t be sorry.
Thinking that this place may be out of your budget…..think again! The room rates range from 63-83 Euro/night for 2 people including an incredible breakfast of eggs, home made pastries, jams and yogurt! My room was the most expensive in the gite during high season and it was 83 Euro/night for 2 people. We had a picnic dinner the night we stayed here, so our expenses for the day were well under 100 Euro, including a terrific bottle of local rose wine.
If you bicycling on or around this part of Languedoc and you have the opportunity, plan to spend an evening or two with Pierre Claude and Evelyne at La Colombiere. I can’t wait to return!
Maison Allene in Lezignan Corbieres
When I told my husband we were taking an hour’s deviation from the Canal du Midi at the end of the day to stay at Maison Allene, he commented that it better be a great hotel. Unfortunately, there was major construction going on in the area, and the route we planned to take to the wine town of Lezignan Corbieres was one deviation after another, with vineyards in every direction.
As a result, it actually ended up taking us more than 1 1/2 hours to get there. The great news: not only was the Maison Allene worth the trip, it surpassed every expectation. From the street, you would never guess that such a perfectly charming oasis lay behind the simple street front door. Owners Albert and Marlene Van Creveld have spent several years lovingly restoring the building that houses Maison Allene, and when you stay here, you are a guest in their home.
Albert’s and Marlene’s hospitality and knowledge of local attractions makes this a very special place to stay. In the summer, local rose wine is always chilled and ready to serve tired and thirsty guests when they arrive. Marlene knows the best places to buy local olives, cheese, meats and bread. Albert is a great resource for local wines and vineyards to visit. They love their town and this region of Languedoc and they enjoy sharing their knowledge with visitors.
There are four rooms here. Each is unique, large and impeccably furnished. Our room overlooked the gorgeous courtyard where breakfast is served, and where you can sit and read and enjoy a glass of rose wine on a hot summer afternoon. Rooms here are a bargain, especially compared to comparable B&B’s in larger town in the South of France. Depending on the room, rates run from 90-100 Euro/night for 2 people, including breakfast.
Speaking of breakfast, it’s a very special treat here, with eggs, local bacon, yogurt, cheese and breads served along with homemade jams. Tapas are available for purchase most afternoons, and a special seafood dinner is served most nights of the week during the season. There are also a number of local restaurants within an easy walking distance. We went to one of Marlene’s favorites, CoCoSweet which is right next door. It is very popular, always crowded and very affordable. My favorite was the special crepe dessert which was so yummy!
Once you’ve visited this town, it’s easy to understand why Marlene and Albert chose Lezignan Corbieres for their B&B. The town is warm and friendly and always full of activity, in a small town kind of way. Residents are friendly and always interested in lending a helping hand, such as helping bicyclists who have lost their way.
I’m so happy that we took the time to deviate to Lezignan Corbieres from the Canal du Midi. The area is just beautiful and Marlene and Albert made our time at Maison Allene so special. Meeting them and seeing their love for the region and their B&B definitely enriched my French vacation experience. If you ever have the opportunity to stay as guests at their home, I know you will experience their very special brand of hospitality.
So that’s the first 5 of my 2013 Best Places to Stay. I can’t wait to return to every one of them!