By Maggie LaCoste
Authentic French charm, incredible locations, welcoming hosts, good value. These are common characteristics of my favorite hotels for the year. Often simple by American standards, most of my choices are definitely not in the luxury category. But all of the recommendations offer a unique French experience with great beds, and a unique warm hospitality, often missing at much more expensive options. Here are the remaining five of my top 10 favorite places to stay in 2011:
Auberge du Centre, the village of Chitenay in the Loire Valley
When we rode into Chitenay and I saw the ivy covered walls of Auberge du Centre, I knew it would be a perfect home for the night. Then when the owner came out to carry my panniers to my room, I knew this was a special place. This hotel understands bicyclists, and it makes them feel comfortable, so it’s not surprising that almost everyone who stays here is a cyclist.
Auberge du Centre is a charming, warm and friendly hotel perfectly located between Chaumont, Cheverny, Beauregard and Chambord. For bicyclists, the hotel is located in the heart of Chateaux a Velo territory, an area with more than 300 km of safe, signposted bike itineraries. The hotel is so popular with bicyclists, there is actually a parking garage just for bicycles!
Located south of Blois, Chitenay is a perfect country alternative to staying in Blois, especially if you will be spending more than one day riding the Chateaux a Velo itineraries. Auberge du Centre is part of the Logis chain and is rated with three fireplaces and three pots, insuring that you will have a great place to sleep and a great dinner too. The renowned local chef is Gilles Martinet who cooks his local specialties with foods grown and raised in the local area. There is a beautiful outdoor terrace used for breakfast and dinner time in the summer, and of course, access to the bike paths is right along the hotel. Rooms are 76-120 Euro for 2 people, and breakfast is 8.50 Euro per person.
This hotel is perfect for families with children as the town is small and safe, there is plenty of open space and the hotel environment is welcoming to families and children. There are definitely more plush, luxurious hotels in the area. But for the price, you will not find a more friendly and charming environment with one of the more talented chefs of the Loire region.
Hotel Le Bussy in the beautiful town of Montsoreau
If you are looking for an authentic French experience in a location that makes you feel like you are part of an Alexander Dumas novel, then Hotel Le Bussy is the place for you. It doesn’t have a spa and it is not chic, but it’s clean, comfortable, authentically French and it has one of the best locations on the Loire, at less than half the price of the competition. Our room overlooked the castle and was nothing less than spectacular. For 90 Euros a night, I don’t know how you could possibly ask for more.
The hotel is right on the Loire a Velo trail less than an hour or so from Saumur. The bicycle route through this area is gorgeous, with vineyards and troglodyte caves dotting the landscape. No directions are needed, just keep heading for the castle when you get to Montsoreau. La Bussy is right across the street! The hotel is run by Dominique and Thierry Roi, two of the hardest working people I have ever met. Dominique doesn’t speak a word of English, but went out of her way to make us welcome. As part of the Loire a Velo Network of accommodations, the hotel serves a very hearty breakfast perfect for bicyclists: fresh juice, yogurt, cheese, fresh jams and pastries, even small crepes, all serves in a troglodyte breakfast room.
If you go, definitely request one of the rooms facing the Loire and the castle. It may be the most romantic room you ever have! And don’t miss the Montsoreau Sunday market. It is the perfect place to pick up all your picnic supplies for the day!
Les Jardins de Lois in Beaune
From the moment that our taxi pulled into the courtyard of Les Jardins de Lois, I knew that we were in for a very special stay. The warm welcome of Anne-Marie and Philippe Dufouleur made us feel at home instantly, and they extended every effort to make our stay a memorable one. Staying at Les Jardins de Lois is like being at home, just better. Comfortable, cozy, chic, warm are all terms that describe the atmosphere here. Anne-Marie and Philippe seem to have mastered the balance of being helpful to their guests, while making you feel you are the only ones there.
Anne-Marie is a great resource for things to do and the best local restaurants, especially those not in American guidebooks. If you have questions about wine, or want to learn more about the Dufouleur wines, Philippe will answer them all. A tasting of the Domaine Lois Dufouleur wines is possible and it is a perfect opportunity to learn about not only the Dufouleur wines, but also the vintages of the region.
The hotel is located on the outer Beaune bicycle route, and within easy walking distance of all the major attractions. There are only four rooms at this B and B, so if you are planning a trip, be sure to reserve early. Breakfasts are typically French: juice, fresh pastries, jams, cheese and yogurt. If you visit in the summer, there are always seasonal fruits available. When we visited in August, flat white peaches were in season, and what a treat they are!
If you go, be sure to plan to be there for the famous Saturday market. It is one of the largest in the area and you can easily spend the entire morning walking around choosing supplies for your lunch picnic, and simply admiring all the seasonal products.
Rooms at Les Jardins de Lois are a bit more expensive than my normal hotel choices, but then rooms in Beaune are generally higher than the countryside. With rooms ranging from 135 to 180 Euro, it is a bit of a splurge, but one that is very well worth it!
Hotel Grand St. Michel in Chambord
To stay next door to the largest castle in the Loire is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one that I just couldn’t turn down. While many find Chambord to be over the top, there is a certain magic about the place, especially at the end of the day when the last tour buses have left and the sun begins to set on the chateau.
The two-star Grand St. Michel probably won’t win any awards as the chicest, most up to date hotel, but it is the only hotel where you can be the last person to see Chambord castle at night, and the first person to see it in the morning! The opportunity to sit outside on the terrace at dinner, watching the sunset over Chambord is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and was a highlight of my trip. Rooms are basic at best, but if you are lucky enough to have a room facing the chateau, you can literally reach out and touch it! If you are there in the summer, as we were, the evening light and sound show is interesting. Since there is no car traffic, and practically no other buildings with light at night, the night sky near the chateaux is spectacular also, and no traffic means no noise to keep you awake.
Rooms facing the castle run from 80 to 115 Euro, a splurge well worth it for a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you go here by bike, there really isn’t anything open in the town after 7 p.m. and the restaurant at the hotel is the only one open for dinner. If you don’t want to eat at the hotel, the area is perfect for a picnic dinner overlooking the castle, so just be sure that you pick up your supplies in advance, as we did. There are a number of vineyards selling wine near the castle, so you can easily pick up wine once you are here.
Symphonie des Sens in Rennes
This chic recently renovated B & B in the middle of the Vieux Rennes–the Old Town–is comfortable, cozy and perfectly French. The downstairs of this 16th century building, one of the very few to escape being destroyed in the Fire of 1720, is a decorating shop, complete with everything shabby chic. Not only did I love this B and B, I wanted to ship everything home from the boutique!
Located on the Rue du Chapitre, Symphonie des Sens is in a pedestrian area that is a center for restaurants, bars, very upscale boutiques and creperie. Fabrice oversees both the shop and the B & B and provides a charming, warm welcome to all guests. He will go out of his way to share insight into the best restaurants, one of our favorites was just down the street from the B & B, La Saint George.
The building itself is quite a relic in Rennes, having been one of the few to be spared the Fire of December 23, 1720 that destroyed over 900 historic buildings over 6 days. Great care was taken in the restoration of the interior of the building to preserve its character and charm. The wooden bannister appears to be the original one, and the stairs to the rooms squeak, just as you would want in a building from the 16th century!
There is a large comfortable lounge and terrace for relaxing and the whole building is wired for WI-FI which is free. Rooms are elegantly furnished, complete with chandeliers and beds are oversized, perfect for a great night’s sleep. Large windows open and provide great ventilation, even on a warm night in October. Breakfast is delivered to your bedroom and consists of homemade yogurt, fresh jams, croissants and baguette, freshly squeezed juice and a great tasting coffee. It was one of our best breakfasts in Brittany.
Symphonie des Sens is indeed a great find, especially in a town like Rennes which has very few small intimate hotels or B and B’s. But with only four rooms, this is definitely a place to book early.
So that’s it! The last of my top 10 best places to stay while bicycling in France for 2011. I can’t wait to see what the new year will bring, and what new adventures I will be able to share with you. Please let me know if you have any favorite hotels or B and B’s that you’ve discovered while bicycling in the French countryside.