I continue my tour of Kenyan Fairmont properties with a stay at the iconic Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
High above Nairobi, our female Air Kenya pilots give us astonishing views from our 18-seater, Twin Otter 300 plane over the city’s western suburbs before the landscape changes to dry brown scrub, then pockets of farmland criss-crossed by red-earth tracks turning greener as we neared the slopes of Mount Kenya – the Magic Mountain. For that is certainly what Mt Kenya is. Our first sight of her through the sun haze is breathtaking: snow-covered jagged peaks are the plug of an ancient now-extinct volcano. The 17,058ft-mountain looks ethereal.
No wonder local tribespeople consider Mt Kenya to be sacred. A protected area since 1949, it became a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1973 and a World Heritage Site in 1997. Today the whole area is managed by the Government-funded Kenya Wildlife Service.
Few hotels can boast they have the Equator running through their grounds, but such is the fortune of the historic Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club near Nanyuki in East Africa. This award-winning 100-acre resort estate on the slopes of Mount Kenya has a fascinating history. Formerly the retreat of Hollywood star and game hunter William Holden, who sold the Safari Club estate to previous owner Adnan Khashoggi, this idyllic Kenyan hideaway still feels like a family home – albeit on a super-grand luxury scale.
By the time we land at Nanyuki’s grass airstrip, Mount Kenya – usually shrouded in fog and clouds – is clearly visible. An auspicious portent on our arrival at the Equator. The air smells fresh; there’s a slight wind to cool the heat; the sky an iridescent blue. Acacia trees stand sentinel alongside the newly built runway. I inhale deeply like a free diver re-surfacing. There’s magic in the air here.
We arrive in minutes at the resort’s grand gated entrance. Security is tight at all Kenya’s Fairmont properties: The guards wave us through and we enter an enchanted kingdom. The drive to the main house passes the stables, flame trees, more acacia and thorn trees, lush manicured lawns and gardens, vivid purple bougainvillea and orange bird of paradise. To greet us, a colourful group of Kikuyu dancers dressed in traditional costume lead us singing and dancing to the exquisite Rose Garden for a very special Equator Ceremony and presentation of our Equator crossing certificates.
The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club lies at 7,000ft and straddles the Equator, so guests can spend part of their stay in the Southern Hemisphere and part in the North. Our guide Charles demonstrates how water drains clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern. It’s known as the Coriolis effect. How extraordinary to be in a garden divided by the Equator. The varying north and south energies are tangible here.
The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club offers guests a haven of tranquillity with 120 luxurious rooms. The main house, with its 1950’s colonial aesthetics and superb rooms and suites, an arc of independent cottages (huge two-bedroom luxury bungalows) and additional bungalows in a forested area of the estate. It’s the perfect setting to marry the love of your life (the Signature Suite is a honeymoon favourite). And the perfect solo escape… as I discovered on entering my gorgeous two-bedroom bungalow. Discreetly tucked away along the driveway to the right of the main house, it boasted a massive lounge space with working fireplace (lit each night, thank you). And two beautiful bedrooms each ensuites with capacious bath tubs and showers. And all the amenities you’d expect at this level, including two hot water bottles discreetly placed in my bed each evening.
The expansive private terrace looked out across to Mt Kenya across manicured lawns and a large pond that came alive each afternoon with birds. And to my left partial views of the main house. The most beautiful escape. And I was only a few hundred yards from William Holden’s former cottage. Apparently, he set up a telescope in the garden, so he could keep an eye on proceedings at the main house.
The silence is so welcome. No cars here and the only noise you’ll hear during your stay are the bird calls from over 50 species: semi-tame sacred ibises, marabou storks, peacocks, Egyptian geese and lots of beautifully coloured smaller birds who approach the lunch and breakfast tables in anticipation. Other resident animals include two gorgeous black Labs, Tusker and Grammy who appeared to spend most of their day in blissed out repose.
We had lunch in the courtyard (intriguingly divided by the Equator line – we chose to eat in the Northern Hemisphere). The choice of food here was superb: hot and cold dishes, salads, soups, starters, an incredible array of desserts and fruits. And a meat grill with freshly barbecued cuts of chicken, lamb and beef. The pterodactyl-like Marabou storks with their grizzled heads waited patiently for titbits on the rooftops. They are the most extraordinary birds. They really do stalk when they walk.
Afterwards, I relaxed by the inviting outdoor pool, enjoying the spectacular views over sweeping terraced lawns towards the golf course and the rising majesty of Mt Kenya in the far distance. Of course, you could spend the whole time pool lounging, or relishing the spa treatments (great massages from Margaret) but there’s so much else to do. There’s a nine-hole golf course, a maze to get lost in, tennis and basketball courts, as well as horse-riding, mountain biking and nature walks. And fabulous bush dinners and game drives at Solio Game Reserve, Sweet Waters Game Reserve or further afield at Aberdare National Park and Samburu Game Reserve.
I took one of the mountain bikes around the estate and came across a group of Colobus monkeys playing tag in the trees. Black and white long-haired bodies leaping from branch to branch, their long white bushy tails like trailing scarves.
That evening we dined on succulent barbecued pork, beef, lamb, Berber chicken and marinated prawns on the lantern-lit pontoon deck over the pond. Warmed by the lively fire and fortified by Tusker beer, mains included pan-seared fish and delicious truffle mash, accompanied by fine local vintage wines and fabulous desserts (mousse, fudge, macaroons… The backdrop to our voices were fish and frogs in the lake below us, their grunts and croaks echoing around the estate giving the impression of much larger beasties.
After a sumptuous breakfast at the main house the following morning, we head for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy an hour’s drive from the hotel. Zebra, wild dogs and lions are here. As well as the world’s last-remaining three northern white rhinos and it’s a sanctuary for 113 critically endangered black rhinos and is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. Today the demand for ivory comes from Asia and the Middle East, where rhino horn is falsely considered to have medicinal properties and is used to make ornamental dagger handles. A kilo of rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 on the black market. Ironically, rhino horn is just made of the same substance as human fingernails – keratin.
We were honoured to meet Baraka, the blind black rhino who lives on his own 100-acre enclosure. He has plenty of visitors and a specially designed platform affording a close-up experience with this remarkable animal. He was sleeping when we arrived, yet the brave keeper went down next to him to take photos.
In 1970 there were around 20,000 black rhinos living in Kenya. Due to poaching and drought there are significantly less. We next meet Sudan, the only remaining northern white rhino. Thought to be about 45, he’s an old fella, heavily protected. He’s not entirely alone, there are three female northern white rhinos here too, but they are not able to become pregnant. So, the ambitious plan to avoid complete extinction is to use in vitro fertilisation. Since writing this, Sudan has sadly died. Even more reason to protect these irreplaceable species.
Returning to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club for lunch we were treated to the most gorgeous dining setting in the exquisite Rose Garden. Beautiful arches and pergolas, running stream and indigenous trees providing shade, it felt like an English country garden. The perfect wedding location, we savoured tuna starters followed by an amazingly spiced vegetable curry with the best crème brulée. Magical.
Adjoining the Safari Club is an animal orphanage – part of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy – and currently home to some 1200 animals. Privately owned and run it was founded by William Holden and Don Hunt in the Sixties, supported by Don’s wife Iris and actress Stefanie Powers. Recognised by the Kenyan government, the education centre receives visits from hundreds of school children each year. We wandered among orphaned ostriches, Mountain Bongos (forest antelopes), llamas, monkeys, cheetahs, baby buffalo and a giant tortoise. There are also cheetahs and lynx.
A combination of animal rescue, adoption and rehabilitation here has ensured the survival of the endangered and rare Albino Zebra. The conservancy which is spread over 700 acres is also home to Mountain Bongo breeding programme which has seen the population of the Bongo’s increase from 18 to 70 renewing hopes for their survival whose population was below 100 in the wild.
Photos of Hollywood stars who have visited the conservancy grace the walls, including Grace Kelly, and a very young John Travolta.
Having been thrown from horses as a kid, I faced my fear and actually enjoyed a 1:1 ride with horseman John before dinner. Riding next to the Safari Club was a great way to get closer to a herd of white zebra, many deer – and sneaky warthogs who hide in the long grass and scare the horses. My trusty steed was spooked, but luckily I was holding on tight. No bolting back to the stables this time.
We enjoyed a superb dinner on our final evening in the private dining room at Tusks.
Fire lit, we all gathered around an impressive antique dining table, like a scene from out of Africa. Executive Chef Picco truly worked his magic with a range of African, Indian and European-inspired dishes. Scallops starters followed by Salmon Wellington and a divine Pistachio and Coconut Ladoo. The flavours here are so fresh and flavoursome – what a joy to have local provenance.
Reclining on my bungalow lounger later that evening I stare up at the inky night sky. Lanterns flickering on the pontoon the only visible light. And the stars. Pure, blissful silence. If heaven is a place on Earth, then Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club is as close as I’ll get.
East Africa has cast her spell once again. A magical and unforgettable experience.
Where & How
Where: P.O Box 35, Mount Kenya, Nanyuki, Kenya
How: Please email email@example.com, phone + 254 (0) 62 203 6000 or visit fairmont.com.
I head to the Maasai Mara for a stay at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club
Vast yellow-green savannah below, bright blue skies above, we’ve taken off from Nanyuki on the slopes of Mt Kenya on our way south west, across the Aberdare National Park and Mau Forest to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, near the border with Tanzania. Just 60 minutes later we’re touching down on the bumpy grass airstrip at Ngerende in the Mara.
Ancestral homelands to the Maasai tribespeople (‘mara’ is Maasai for spotted), the landscape here is a mix of trees, scrub and savannah. Replete with the Big 5, the most popular visiting season is during the annual Great Migration between July and October, where wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s’ gazelles running the gauntlet of Nile crocodiles in the Mara River to reach the fertile grasslands in Kenya.
A group of lithe Maasai tribesmen meet us off the plane, and I am escorted hand-in-hand to a clearing where I attempt to join them in their spectacular jumping. These energetic dancers in their bright red shukas (the colour apparently scares lions) adorned with beautiful necklaces and jewellery are breathtaking.
The Fairmont Mara Safari Club enjoys a privileged location on the banks of the Mara River in the north-western corner of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Surrounded on three sides by the hippo and croc-filled river, this is luxury glamping. My spacious tent is fully powered, with king-size four-poster bed, shower, coffee-maker and ample wardrobe space. Decorated with beadwork and tribal art, there’s a relaxing outside deck for watching the hippo and crocodile action in the river below. Some tents have their own private dining space – choose Number 46 for that heavenly experience – it enjoys superb views of the Mara River and is discreetly sited away from other guests.
The main lodge at the Fairmont Maasai Mara Safari Club has a beautifully cool, spacious lounge and reception area, with comfy sofas, an inviting fireplace, tribal art and a rustic use of glass and local mahogany. There’s a library here and computer room and it’s a welcoming, light-filled space. Wi-Fi is only available at reception, which makes digital detox so much easier.
The inviting outdoor pool near the main restaurant provided a welcome cool-down before lunch. It’s also near the massage rooms where I enjoyed a superb reflexology treatment the following day with therapist Liz.
Osotua – the main restaurant – has extensive indoor and outdoor seating on a deck overlooking the river. Food is buffet-style with a generous selection of salads, pasta, meat and fish dishes. We ate only locally sourced organic food together with veggies from the Safari Club’s own organic garden. They also cultivate the most succulent chillies.
Our first game drive is at 3pm and I’m beyond excited. Led by Henry, our brilliant driver and guide we head out of camp into the lush savannah. It’s much greener than I’d expected. Zebra are abundant here, eating the tips and stems of the tall grass and so exposing the lower leaves for the wildebeest, who in turn prepare the protein-rich shoots and herbs for the Thomson’s gazelles.
The 360-degree views here are incredible. For an urban dweller like myself the sense of freedom is exhilarating: fresh air, clear blue skies and just animals and stunning landscapes for hundreds of miles. Our Landcruiser is the perfect height for game viewing: first zebra silhouettes against acacia trees and the miles of grassland and Aitong Hills behind. Then we approach a group of wildebeest, their rounded humps reminiscent of a Lascaux cave painting. Beautiful zebras these, each with unique black brushstrokes across their strong bodies. Graceful giraffe in solo and pairs, cantering across the green landscape.
We approach a solo water buffalo, his horns positioned like a judge’s wig, staring at us imperiously from a thicket. Then a surprise appearance from a beautiful jackal scampering
around the vehicle. We are close enough to touch its bushy fox-like tail, as it runs among carcases from previous kills. Then seconds later – a male lion! Simba is asleep, completely relaxed flat on his back. Legs akimbo, enormous paws resting on a full stomach. He’s only a few feet from the Landcruiser. My heart is booming. This is wildly exhilarating yet somewhat terrifying. Our Landcruiser is open on all sides. He could jump in any second. But the wildlife here are so used to the vehicles, this beautiful lion completely ignores us. Then we spot another male. Clearly a fighter, he has a deep gash above his left eye. What a beautiful, noble face. Then more.. two females resting, their cubs playing a few feet away.
Unexpectedly, Henry stops the Landcruiser next to a wooden shack. We’re in the Aitong Hills now, the flat savannah giving way to rocky outcrops and beautiful trees. “We’re going on a safari walk now,” he says. Dressed for cocktails, we are slightly bemused. The safari ‘hike’, to our delight, was a five-minute hill stroll towards a heart-stopping scene: two magnificent white rhinos, Kofi and Queen Elizabeth, grazing just a hundred feet in front of us. Kofi was born here in 2008 in the community-owned Ol Choro Oirogua Conservancy, and both he and his Queen are guarded 24/7 by machine-gun armed soldiers. They seemed little disturbed by our presence, and what a privilege to be so close to these endangered beauties.
Our sundowner on the slopes of the Aitong Hills was bathed in a magnificent red-orange sunset that lit up the horizon. Warmed by Amarula liqueur, we chat by the camp fire as darkness falls, reluctantly leaving since nightime and fire attract predators in the African bush. A delicious dinner at Osuata awaited us: fabulous cuts of barbecued meat as well as fish options and beautifully prepared fresh salads and desserts.
The grunts and splashing of wading hippos in the river below were my alarm clock the following morning for our dawn game drive. Heading out of camp we immediately spotted a hyena. Despite their negative reputation, they are quite impressive, and have even been known to gang up on lions, such is their tenacity. Henry spots a cheetah relaxing in the long grass and we drive over for a closer look. Alert, noble and built for speed. This cool cat is truly mesmerising.
We see plenty of warthogs too, which are found across the Mara. Such characters with their huge snouts, fearsome horns and amusing habit of eating on bended knees. And a peculiarly dainty walk. We also see monkeys, baboon, gazelles, zebra and more giraffe. The only wildlife we didn’t see were elephants, which were apparently grazing in another part of the Mara.
Our post-safari bush breakfast was set out on tables on a low ridge overlooking the River Mara. Warm sun, hot food and such a stillness in the magic of nature. We were so well looked after by John Kin’gori and chef David. Fruits, biscuits and delicious hot breakfast eggs, bacon, sausages. Priceless moments.
Then, the experience I’d been waiting for – a visit to the local Maasai village. We are met by the young son of the chief, ole Maitai, who leads us inside the compound of 22 mud-baked houses. The women in their brightly coloured shawls are caring for the excited children, while the men dance for us again. Their red shurkas astonishingly bright in the hot sun that catches their beautiful beaded jewellery. A couple are wearing long braids, signifying they have killed a lion. “With a spear,” they tell me proudly.
We’re given a fire-making demonstration and shown inside one of the dwellings, with its tiny windows and doors as protection from predators. A pot on an internal fire. Stifling heat. There’s a guest room here too. The Maasai are nomadic and demolish their houses before setting up camp again elsewhere. Goats and sheep are their lifeblood – quite literally. Apparently, this tribe doesn’t eat chicken but rear them to sell to other tribes to buy clothes for their children.
I play with the beautiful children before we’re taken to their ‘market’. Necklaces, spears, shields, bracelets, belts, jackal’s teeth and more laid out on the dry-baked ground. And some beautiful hand-made jewellery. Be prepared to bargain hard here.
A special treat awaited us that evening with a fabulous barbecued dinner on the hippo hide deck above the Mara, between tents 45 and 46. We could make out mother and baby hippos sploshing their way upstream. An amazing sight.
Our last morning game drive was followed by a relaxing sunbathe and swim at the pool. More energetic options are also available, including a two-hour walking safari – with an armed guard and two Maasai warriors to frighten off the lions. And bird walks with more than 70 species to spot. Alas, we didn’t have time for a dawn balloon safari, but I imagine that would be an amazing adventure, especially during the Great Migration.
My stay at the unique Fairmont Mara Safari Club was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that took me to the heart of Kenya: both her people and her wildlife. Mama Africa is already calling me back…
Where & How
How: Phone +254 717969611, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit fairmont.com.
Where: P.O. Box 58581, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
I escape to the south of France for a stay at the luxurious Domaine de Verchant – a grand boutique hotel near Montpellier with its own wine estate
It’s winter. Yet the special light in the South of France is enchanting. A golden glow highlighting the honey-coloured stone mansion here at the Domaine de Verchant Hotel & Spa. This magnificent wine estate-turned-boutique hotel is Montpellier’s only Relais & Chateaux property. Just 20-minutes from the Place de la Comédie, the main house and outbuildings are nestled among 11 hectares of sun-dappled vineyards.
The aroma of vine, oak and pine trees in the summer must be intoxicating. Today, north winds are upon us, yet the Domaine de Verchant’s public rooms and suites are well insulated and heated. I feel deliciously cocooned against the elements.
Near enough to Montpellier’s attractions yet far enough to feel timeless, the Domaine de Verchant is a luxury retreat in which to eschew all things digital, kick back and relax. Owners Chantel and Pierre Mestre are both keen travellers, which is reflected in the hotel’s exquisite interiors: bamboo, marble, dark tiles, dressed stonework and whitewashed walls: a marriage of east and west aesthetics with exquisite local craftsmanship. A backdrop of stone walls, weathered shutters, wooden flooring and mosaics with sophisticated modern amenities.
The couple both hail from wine-growing families and say that it was love at first sight when they first saw the Domaine de Verchant. “Its exceptional history going back over 2000 years, its extraordinary land and exceptional position on the doorstep of Montpellier seduced us.”
And I can see why.
The original wine estate was built on the remains of a Roman Villa – there’s evidence of it in a building block in the foyer, incredibly marked with the name of the family who lived there at the time.
The Domaine de Verchant’s 26 guest rooms and apartments (varying in size from 30 to 90 m2) have been beautifully restored with an elegance and sophistication. The main house, which is host to the smaller restaurant, has nine guest rooms and suites, while the outhouses, creatively re-imagined into stunning accommodations are home to another 14 guest rooms, including two apartments.
For extra space choose the 52m² Blossom Suite that overlooks the outdoor pool. It has its own roof terrace and private Jacuzzi – perfect for weekends à deux as you unwind on the giant futon and daydream across vineyard views. Architect Raymond Morel’s design is minimalist yet warm and sexy. A theme that is echoed in the reception, lounges and lounge bar.
My deluxe room was gorgeous: sleek yet welcoming with an abundance of natural materials. I loved the dressed golden stone walls, unique headboards, and the most comfortable bed. An open screen wall divides the bedroom and bathroom – the latter replete with the deepest bath (Starck for Duravit) and giant rain shower. It’s designed for romance. Relais & Chateaux amenities, soft towels and robes; and a bed I was reluctant to leave for dinner. I had lovely views across the front lawn, while the entrance had a dreamy vista across the vineyards.
I enjoyed supper in the Gourmet restaurant Verchant on the ground floor of the main house. There are several dining rooms from the open kitchen room, to the more intimate library where I dined. The Mediterranean menu from head chef Damien Cousseau is imaginative and uses local provenance. He has a penchant for fish and shellfish apparently, so the à la carte menu features tempting Brittany lobster, as well as oysters, and Dublin Bay prawns. The venison, with ginger bread, black cherry and parsnip and pistachio cream looked out of this world.
My surprise menu – comprising seasonal flavours of the month – was fascinating. The ball-shaped amuse bouches flavoursome: beetroot with Granny Smith apples, a decadent puffed pastry filled with cheese and béchamel. And a delicious beef ball. This was followed by an egg mimosa, in an egg shell. Smooth and rich.
This, my first experience of a surprise menu, was exciting: I loved my octopus, cabbage and green apple salad with a subtle mango curry dressing. Beautifully garnished with wild flowers. The main Simmental beef with mushroom sauce and jus was superbly cooked.
Alas I didn’t have room for the poached pear with home-made vervaine, coconut and dark chocolate ice cream, but it looked very tempting at a neighbouring table.
I sampled vines from the Verchant’s own vineyard: a fruity sparkling rosé, followed by an unctuous red. The Verchant vineyard dates back to the 19th century and is made up of Syrah and Grenache Med varieties, alongside the Bordeaux: Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. There is also a Petaile de Rose. Some 10% of the Verchant vineyards are devoted to white using Roussane, Viognier and Vermentino. The cellars are open to guests and well worth a visit.
To sleep in pitch darkness, and to wake naturally, without the roar of London traffic was complete bliss. There’s the option to have breakfast in your suite, but I took a seat in the Verchant restaurant, with glorious views over the gardens and the outdoor pool. This must be heaven in summer when you can take petit déjeuner on the terrace. Today we are inside and warm, next to the open kitchen.
I ventured for a spin on the Verchant’s electric bike after petit déjeuner. Not on the roads, rather a circuit on the vineyard tracks as the sun began to heat the cold morning air. The Domaine de Verchant is sited along the Languedoc-Roussillon route de vins, linking various Pic St Loup chateaux and wine estates with those of the Mejanelle, before entering the Pyrénées–Orientales. In total, there are 18 wine appellations in the area to explore.
The Domaine de Verchant is renowned for its beautiful 2000m² spa, and I thoroughly enjoyed my massage. Designed by architects Studio Marc Hertrich & Nicolas Adnet, this is a zen-like space that combines treatments, sports, wellness and relaxation against a stunning vineyard backdrop. The reception lounge is cosy with teas and nibbles, and there’s a sauna, steam room and indoor pool with counter-current lane. Products by Anne Semonin, Valmot, Theme and Toofruit skincare for children are also available to buy in the spa shop.
The new fitness area is the most expansive I have seen in any luxury hotel. A full 400m² of cutting edge TechnoGym stations and separate training areas. Personal coaching is also available. However, if teeing off is more your thing, there are three golf courses within easy reach of the Verchant: Montpellier Massane, the Grand Motte and Nîmes Campagne.
Lunch was a relaxing affair at the La Plage Dans Les Vignes – the Verchant’s second restaurant situated next to the spa. There’s a distinct beach vibe here, with vines replacing the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean (itself only 15-minute drive from the hotel). With a DJ bar, tapas and sunbeds for the summer months. The menu is distinctly French and very appetising: my cod fillet with artichoke and gnocchi puree was succulent followed by an enticing fig and noisette with lemon cream dessert.
It’s hard to leave the Verchant, but Montpellier was calling. Especially Ecusson, the delightful old town with its beautiful architecture, independent shops, funky bars and cafes, and a selection of renowned restaurants. Culturally Montpellier has a lot to offer visitors: The Fabre Museum is a must – with its Beaux Art collections, and I loved the Panacée (the contemporary culture centre) that supports local artists and visiting exhibitions. Just walking around the squares and admiring the monuments is a pleasure in itself.
That evening, Montpellier played host to its Son et Lumière light festival. Digital image mapping and music projected onto 11 of the city’s historic churches and monuments. I joined friends as we wandered in awe from the Arc de Triomphe, down Rue Foch to the Prefecture, then to the Musée Fabre and back up to the Cathedral, Place Notre Dame and the St Roch Church. Extraordinarily beautiful.
Supper was at the delightful Le Petit Jardin located at 20 Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau in Ecusson. The outside terrace in the summer is beautiful. Tonight, my friend and I were snugly in the main restaurant. Entrées included fish soup and onion tarte. I chose delicious langoustines on a bed of parmesan with pesto legumes. Followed by a succulent roasted sea bass with cardamom carrot puree and fennel. Desert was a magnificent Grand Marnier soufflé, all accompanied with a superb Marcel Richaud Côtes du Rhône.
Montpellier is an easy day trip to the Camargue, the Cevennes, as well as Avignon, and the beaches of the Med are just 6km from the city. You can even get to Barcelona from Montpellier St Roch station in 3.5 hours. Small wonder that Montpellier is the fastest growing city in France. Property is cheaper here than Provence, it has a great cultural life, climate and lifestyle – with a beautifully well-preserved medieval heart.
A stay at the Domaine de Verchant Hotel & Spa, combined with the cultural and gastronomic delights of Montpellier is the recipe for a perfect weekend retreat.
Where & How
Where: 1 Boulevard Philippe Lamour, 34170 Castelnau-le-Lez, France
How: Phone +33 4 67 07 26 00, email email@example.com or visit domainedeverchant.com.
Gina Baksa tees-off in Deauville at a luxury spa and golf weekend – staying at the Hôtel Barrière l’Hôtel du Golf & the iconic Hotel Barrière Le Normandy
Just two hours north of often-snooty Paris is another, friendlier world: Normandy. Its D-Day golden beaches now the playground to more peaceful visitors. Picturesque Honfleur gets the Insta hits and Rouen is a must for history buffs, while sophisticated Deauville remains the glitziest resort on the coast. The town is an easy day trip from Paris and is a popular summer vacation destination.
Deauville is the former fishing village that became an overnight hit once Napoleon III’s half-brother unleashed his entrepreneurial savoir faire. Designed to attract the cognoscenti and wealthy, 19th-century Deauville soon boasted luxury hotels, horse-racing (1854), a casino and beautiful mansions for the Parisian elite. Fast forward a couple of centuries and the Deauville American Film Festival put the town on the world map, attracting Hollywood’s elite to its all-star showings. Now there are two marinas, three golf courses, and the Gold Cup Polo event – Deauville is a popular playground for the wealthy and influential.
This is my first visit to Deauville and I’ve arrived via Eurostar from St Pancras, changing trains in Paris and heading to Normandy via Gare St Lazare. I’m staying at the Hôtel Barrière l’Hôtel du Golf: the prestigious hospitality and casino group also owns the Royal, Normandy, Deauville Casino and several restaurants including Le Ciro’s. En fait… Deauville could easily be renamed Barrièreville. Under the talented and astute eye of the late Diane Barrière-Desseigne – former CEO and matriarch of the family – the Barrière’s hotel and casino holdings underwent major renovation during the Nineties, bringing a more glamourous and updated aesthetic to the portfolio.
Hôtel Barrière l’Hôtel du Golf
Giant apples (Calvados and great cider hails from Normandy) and horse sculptures are a major decorative theme in the lobby of the Hôtel Barrière l’Hôtel du Golf – our destination for the weekend. Now at the end of its three-year refurbishment with contemporary- heritage interiors from Chantal Peyrat (think Scottish tartans and Chesterfield sofas), the L’Hôtel du Golf stands sentinel on a hillside above Deauville in the middle of a spectacular 27-hole golf course. Indeed, my superior sea-view room is just above the manicured 18th and affords amazing views: I can spot the jetty of Le Trouville beyond the Hippodrome race course and Deauville Casino. And beyond that the port of Le Havre. This is a quiet oasis that feels in the middle of the countryside, yet is just a five-minute drive from town. Offering 171 rooms and 11 suites, it’s the perfect destination for golfers.
My room is calm and warm: a palette of sophisticated ochre and grey alongside wood and black granite – with a superbly comfortable bed. Best of all the huge picture windows actually open and I enjoy the breeze; a welcome change from the usual headache-inducing aircon. Thoughtfully I’ve been given a bottle of Cidre Bouche and a whole banana loaf to wolf down.
We’re booked for a massage at the Spa Diane Barrière on the ground floor. There’s a sauna and steam room here, as well as fitness sessions, massages, beauty, and hair and scalp treatments. The outdoor pool looks inviting but the weather is too chilly. However lovers of le freeze will enjoy the cryotherapy chamber here – used by professional sportspeople to aid muscular and joint recovery, cryotherapy is now more widely used for its numerous benefits. Apparently you sit in a freezing cold room, enveloped by a hydrogen mist. Results include reduced muscular and joint pain, increased energy levels and accelerated metabolic rates. Perhaps on another visit…
Enjoying drinks in the cool refinement of The Green Bar before supper, I love the clubby Tartan theme which is welcoming and sophisticated. My first taste of Calvados (the range is mind boggling) with great views of the golf course beyond the 180-degree panoramic terrace. Our evening meal at the hotel’s Restaurant Le Lassay is superb: Helmed by Chef Tommy George, his creative output includes regional meats and local fish served alongside locally grown vegetables. A cavernous dining area somehow manages to be intimate and also has vistas of the golf course. We indulged in a succulent seafood plate starter, followed by sea bass and French crepe stuffed with caramelised apples. Normandy is the home to Calvados, cider and all things apple.
As you’d expect, golf is the main attraction at Hôtel Barrière l’Hôtel du Golf. A 27-hole playground among 70 hectares of magnificent landscaping. Opened in 1929 on the heights of Mont-Canisy a few minutes from the town centre, the course is renowned as one of the most beautiful in France. Architects Tom Simpson and Henry Cotton designed three 9-hole courses (the red course, white course and blue course), giving players of all abilities a shot at the birdy. Sessions and lessons can be booked online and there’s a pro shop.
Our golf lesson began early the next morning with the female resident golf pro who somehow coaxes nascent Tiger Woods out of us. The pros make it look so easy. It takes me nearly 10 attempts before my club actually hits the ball. But what a feeling when metal makes contact and I watch my white orb ascend in the air towards the 100m mark. Result!
Best Deauville restaurants
Drop in for a bite to eat or drink at the Golf Clubhouse and restaurant. Or head into town and the boardwalk delights of La Folie Douce Barrière. For a grander evening and special celebrations, the Belle Epoque charm of the Côté Royal at the Hotel Royal Deauville is a must. Crystal chandeliers and decadent fabrics are the backdrop for Chef Eric Provost’s gourmet cuisine. We had a truly exquisite lunch at Le Ciro’s – the only restaurant on the Planches boardwalk that’s open in the evenings. Service was superb.
Our lunch of an extraordinary seafood platter for starters (big enough for a main meal) followed by a fabulous Royal Bouillabaisse (sea bass, salmon, red mullet, cod, lobster and langoustine, saffron potatoes, rouille and garlic croutons) was outstanding. As was the Sancerre wine to accompany. The finale a divine apple tart with decadent Calvados on the side.
A walk along the 634m boardwalk is essential after such a feast… windswept and beguiling in its winter costume, both the Planche and beach are almost empty. Built in 1923, the boardwalk is a Deauville icon and the scene of many film festival photoshoots. The beach cabins are even named after famous actors and directors. I imagine the crowds here in spring and summer create an altogether different vista.
Should you tire of the sea and beach, Deauville has many attractions for visitors. Golf reigns supreme with nine courses in or near the city. Add to the mix La Touques and Clairefontaine racetracks, a vibrant yachting community, polo fields and an abundance of tennis courts and there’s much for outdoors lovers. Culturally the city has regular festivals and exhibitions. And shopping is a popular distraction. Many luxury labels have stores along the rue Eugène-Colas and around Place Mornay and Place du Casino. Coco Chanel opened her first shop in Deauville in 1913 when she moved to the city to be with her lover, Boy Capel. Clearly she was sartorially inspired by the clothing she saw on the racecourses, beach and golf courses.
Foodie vans will enjoy the local fish market, and the covered market – as well as the many street stalls. Deauville’s mayor is a keen supporter of the arts and has invested in local exhibitions and festivals. You’ll find information at the Tourist Information office on Quai de l’impératrice Eugenie. The famous half-timbered houses in Deauville with Norman turrets and spires are an attraction in their own right. And the city loves its flowers.
Hotel Barrière Le Normandy, Deauville
The second of Barrière’s Deauville bastions, the iconic Le Normandy was built in 1912 in the typical Anglo-Normandy style of the region. This grande dame of Normandy luxury hotels faces the beach and is only a few minutes’ walk from the shops. The green-timbered façade, with complimentary red-brick highlights and classic ornamental finials against almost Gothic gables seems ageless. The definitive Sixties movie ‘A Man and A Woman’ was shot here and the hotel has provided a backdrop for many others. Today the Toile de Jouy-filled suites and rooms have, like the Golf, been refreshed by designer Nathalie Ryan. The Presidential Suite – all 100m2 of space is extraordinary and boasts its own lofty terrace above the courtyard.
We have coffee in the plush lounge area, before a yoga session next to the indoor pool. A great workout, we relax in the sauna and indoor pool, before exploring the town.
Dinner later here at La Belle Epoque is beautifully presented and well cooked , with a choice of local Normandy favourites and fabulous seafood. The dining room a mahogany and velvet affair with views out to the expansive Normandy Courtyard which welcomes diners in the summer months. Le Normandy is a popular brunch spot, and the quality of the food at our meal was superb. I recommend relaxing over an apéro before your meal in the snazzy Normandy Bar – favourite haunt of many celebrities during the film festival.
Located between the Hôtel Barrière Le Royal, Deauville and the Hotel Normandy, Deauville Casino was our first port of call after dinner. Owned by the Barrière Group, the Casino is perfectly situated and can be reached by an underground interior corridor from Le Normandy. We head for one of the roulette tables and cash in our chips. My first-ever play at the game and I’m drawn in by the tangible tension. A gentleman next to us spreads his bets across black and reds. And promptly loses around 2,000 Euros before heading to another table for a rendezvous with lady luck.
Next time you find yourself in Paris – escape for a long weekend or midweek break to Deauville. The sea air is life-restoring, the locals are welcoming, the hotels are luxurious and you’ll have the best seafood of your life. Especially if you dine at Le Ciro’s.
Where & How
Where: Le Mont Canisy, Deauville, 14803 Saint-Arnoult, France
How: Visit hotelsbarriere.com or phone +33 2 31 14 24 00 to make a booking.
Cliveden House and Spa – just 45 minutes west of London – is the perfect luxury hotel for a weekend birthday getaway
Power, politics and parties: three words that define the louche legacy of Cliveden. This grand Grade I Italianate mansion has provided a stately backdrop to Sixties Government scandals and Beatles movies; and entertained royalty and aristos, writers and movie stars, politicians and rock stars.
Both the original Cliveden, built in 1666 for the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and its replacement, built in 1824, were sadly destroyed by fire. The present mansion was built in 1851 by the architect Charles Barry and later bought by the Duke of Westminster. His decision to sell Cliveden to the American billionaire Astor family in 1893 famously displeased Queen Victoria.
In 1942, the family bequeathed Cliveden to the National Trust who leases the property to the current owners, the billionaire Livingstone brothers. The property developers have turned the fortunes of Cliveden, spending millions on a successful refurbishment programme, coupled with a post-Downton marketing drive to attract a larger American clientele. They also own the rather gorgeous Chewton Glen Hotel and Spa in the New Forest.
Commandeering an elevated position on chalk cliffs above the River Thames in Berkshire, Cliveden is the jewel in the crown of a stunning 376-acre estate, now managed by the National Trust and a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group. I’m in celebratory mood as my taxi crunches along the long gravel drive towards the entrance, passing by the beautiful Fountain of Love, while either side I catch glimpses of the beguiling formal gardens and woodlands.
On arrival, – greeted warmly and professionally by everyone at front of house – the massive Great Hall takes my breath away. It is, quite simply, the most impressive and awe-inspiring ‘reception area’ of any hotel I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Originally two rooms, it is now a cavernous yet richly warm and inviting lounge area replete with velvet sofas – perfect for afternoon tea and pre-dinner cocktails.
A triptych of medieval tapestries hang royally above shiny suits of armour. Ancestral portraits peer down from the grand staircase and medieval fireplace, most notably that of Lady Astor – the American-born socialite and first woman MP to enter Parliament in 1919.
“It’s the Astors of course who are most associated with Cliveden,” General Manager Sue Williams tells later. “They owned the house from the early 1900s. William Waldorf Astor, America’s richest citizen, then gave the house to his son and daughter in-law, Nancy Astor, in 1906, and Cliveden became a vibrant social hub.
“Guests have included every British monarch since George I as well as Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, President Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Profumo, and of course Christine Keeler.”
Keeler’s double involvement with John Profumo the Secretary of State for War in the Sixties – and a Russian agent – arguably brought down the Conservative Government and the scandal became known as the Profumo Affair.
Pondering that fateful summer in 1961, I head out to explore the beautiful grounds and find some poolside excitement for myself.
Owned, managed and lovingly cared for by the National Trust, the gardens feature the celebrated Parterre, season-long floral displays, distinctive topiary and a collection of exceptional sculptures. The ground floor of the house and all the grounds are open to the public twice a week, so you don’t have to stay at Cliveden to enjoy its beauty.
I walk back along the tree-lined driveway to the maze and the Water Garden, returning to the house via the Long Garden with its beautiful plantings, the exquisite rose garden and stop for a while in the peaceful War Memorial Garden. There is nothing as beautiful as resting in an English garden on a warm spring afternoon.
Deciding to check out the spa and pool area next morning, I head to my room – the impressive oak-panelled Buckingham Suite – named after the Duke who built the original house in 1666. Both this house and its 1824 replacement were destroyed by fire, and the present house was built in 1851 by architect Charles Barry.
The south-facing views across the 19th century Parterre towards the Thames and Berkshire are incredible – I can see for miles across the manicured lawns to the mature tress bordering the Thames and can even make out the speck that is Maidenhead in the far distance.
This suite is twice the size of my London apartment with an interior design that stays faithful to the original flavour, yet offers luxurious modern comforts – including an interactive Sony tablet and music dock. The colours are a bold grey and red palette with exquisite furnishings and the most heavenly bed ever. Antiques, brocade, heavy drapes complement a portrait of Buckingham and his brother as children above the writing desk. Carara marble flooring and screens behind a free-standing sexy red bath tub are the highlight of the capacious bathroom with its superb rainforest shower.
It was a wrench to leave for dinner, but when the culinary expertise of Executive Chef André Garrett (Galvin at Windows now his eponymous residency at Cliveden) is waiting, you don’t dilly dally.
Over a splendid Cliveden 1666 Taittinger cocktail, I explore the evening’s menu from charming restaurant manager Pierre Rizet Mosser. British ingredients take centre stage and I choose from the à la carte over great conversation in this most sophisticated of dining rooms, its generous windows affording beautiful sunset views across the Parterre. A wonderful location for a birthday meal.
I begin with a Parmesan cheese and avocado pate amuse bouche, followed by Seared Orkney Scallops, a Musquée de Provence pumpkin risotto and tamari-glazed pork belly as starter. Deliciously flavoured and seared, these succulent beauties are large and sexy with incredible flavours. And, tasting my first pork belly, I’m amazed at how much I like it, especially since I’m mostly a non-meat eater. The salty flavours are delicately balanced – what a creation!
Wine expertly chosen for me is a crisp, fruity New Zealand 2015 Gisborne Albarino and a perfect match with seafood. A divine line-caught sea bass adorned with Cornish mussels, enoki mushrooms, fregola (Sardinian pasta) and samphire is served next. When this fish reaches my palate I’m in heaven. Such a delicate touch… and more rounded flavours than some Michelin star establishments I’ve eaten in.
To my regret I didn’t have room for dessert but had coffee and bonbons as a sweet finale. This was one of the best meals and the most gorgeous dining rooms I have ever had the pleasure to eat in. André and team – thank you!
My suite was adjacent to a wonderful roof terrace where stargazing provided a gentle digestif that evening. The moon was full. Life felt good and I welcomed the beginning of another exciting birth year of adventure.
Needing a long walk before breakfast and a good swim, I found the outdoor pool and spa area behind the stone wall. A secret garden the pool was deliciously cool, the perfect starter to a long walk around the grounds as I found the delightful Chapel next to the Parterre.
After a superb swim in the outdoor pool the next morning, (the spa area and treatment rooms will be the focus of a refurbishment programme later this year) General Manager Sue Williams shows me around the stunning Lady Ascot and Prince of Wales suites – accommodation that has housed royals and presidents. She’s an incredible source of knowledge about Cliveden and its former owners, the Astors, and will hopefully find time to begin her book on Lord Astor. “If I can find the time I’ll start it,” she smiles. Sue has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Astors that deserves sharing with a wider audience.
Duty Manager Oliver Crittenden was also a wonderful host, taking me down to the Thames to visit delightful Spring Cottage. A most private location with its own mooring, this three-bedroomed cottage is available to hire and was once the home to osteopath Stephen Ward who was also embroiled in the Profumo scandal.
Extending my stay by half a day, I wandered in the beautiful grounds before an excellent lunch at the Astor Grill across the courtyard from the main house. The former stable block has been beautifully transformed into a cosy equestrian-themed brasserie with tables in the former stalls where Lord Astor once kept his prized fillies – perfect for a late brunch, early lunch or a relaxed supper.
My half lobster followed by the most divine rice pudding and Seville orange soufflé served with 12-year-old malt whisky ice cream. My glass of Chapel Down 2010 Blanc de Blanc sparkling English wine was better than some Champagne I’ve tasted. If you come for the food alone, you will leave a raving fan, as I did.
A stay at Cliveden House Hotel will recharge you like no other. Run impeccably by MD Andrew Stembridge and his team, I received superb service from all the genuinely warm and friendly staff, who went out of their way to make me feel welcome and share their love of this beautiful historic home.
The luxurious suites and public rooms, and of course the excellent cuisine from André Garrett make Cliveden a very special retreat, whatever your reason for staying. The perfect venue for a romantic weekend, unforgettable nuptials, birthday celebrations, and even business meetings and conferences, Cliveden is country house living at its very finest and just 45 minutes from London – I can’t wait to go back.
Where & How
How: Visit www.clivedenhouse.co.uk, phone 01628 668 561 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a booking.
Where: Cliveden House, Taplow, Berkshire, SL6 0JF UK
Cost: Rooms start from £450 to £1800 per night.
Château de Fonscolombe is just 20 minutes’ drive from vibrant Aix en Provence, but the 12th-century château and its 30-acre park feel like another world
Imagine a luxuriously restored Provençal château just south of the Luberon; its 18th-century Quattrocentro magnificence brought back to life surrounded by a beautiful estate. More than 180 rare and mature trees breathe life – and tranquillity – into the sumptuous park, formerly the home of the de Saporta and Fonscolombe French noble families.
Three centuries of history are imbued in these walls and grounds – even Britain’s Queen Mother once stayed here and planted an Atlas cedar tree whose canopied branches continue to provide shade for guests. Her historic former bedroom – replete with canopied four-poster – is available for guests and enjoys stunning views over the surrounding parkland.
The 18-month restoration was carried out by the late and much-missed Hélène Martel-Massignac – the Château’s owner and former Caravelle Group CEO – together with a team that included architects Corrado de Giuli Morghen, alongside Arnaud Behzadi and Vincent Bastie from Artefak. The refined interiors are the work of talented Cathy Crinon.
The team has faithfully preserved the heritage of the château, while adding modern comforts such as air conditioning – in the new wing – and a dedicated spa on the lower ground floor where I enjoyed a sublime massage from Nicole.
There are 13 historical rooms and suites in the main house, with a further 37 rooms and suites in the newer wing with a classic yet modern design. My suite is beautifully appointed with windows looking out onto the gardens, two bathrooms and an elegant lounge area. The bed is divine. Extra special touches are the exquisite bouquet of flowers waiting for me, alongside a chilled bottle of Château de Fonscolombe’s own rosé. Each day there’s a thoughtful gift of chocolates and fruit.
I’m given a tour of the historic salons on Château de Fonscolombe’s ground floor: exquisite wallpaper, centrepiece chandeliers, artfully crafted doorframes and mirrors just some of the decor highlights among cosy seating areas. The furniture is partly original 18th century and adds a subtle sophistication to these grand, light-filled rooms.
There’s even a full-size billiard table – and a baby grand for ivory tinklers – while double-height impressive French doors open out onto a terrace with 180-degree views of the surrounding estate. The vistas are magical: Magnificent centuries-old cypress, oak, Lebanese cedars and plane trees stand sentinel among the extensive grounds, providing welcome respite from the Provençal sun for reading and dozing. To my left the al fresco tables for the l’Orangerie restaurant which has 120 covers (inside and out) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
All my meals here are superb – a creative amalgamation of Provencal and international cuisine – and an inventive menu using local provenance where possible. Choose from succulent delights such as langoustines and fine tarte for starters, followed by a range of mains including lamb and mullet. The cheeseboard is delicious and includes local varieties such as Banon, Tomme de Provence, and Brousse du Rove, while desserts comprising flavours of chocolate, honey and ice cream are not to be missed. There are also various tasting menus that combine the best the Château has to offer.
I can confirm the breakfasts are Château de Fonscolombe are to die for: a generous smorgasbord buffet of charcuterie, breads, cheeses, yoghurts, juices, cereals, fruit and a variety of hot options including fabulous omelettes.
The Orangerie’s outdoor seating area continues next to a large ornamental pool that’s home to sunbathing frogs, a few fish and a splendid central fountain. You can enjoy lunch and pre-dinner apéros under the shade of a centuries-old cypress tree. I devour a tasty tapas menu here on my last evening. And in fact spend much of my stay under this beautiful tree, journaling and day dreaming. If only trees could talk…
I’m delighted to discover that these wonderful beings are also home to hundreds of bats. Don’t worry, you’ll never see them as the lights are purposefully dimmed in the park at night so as not to disturb these beautiful creatures. What you will see however, are their colourful yellow nesting boxes thoughtfully provided by the Fonscolombe gardeners.
Château de Fonscolombe is blessed to have its own vineyards producing red, white and rosé. The red, in particular is better than some St Emilion classics I’ve tasted. The Merlot, Chardonnay and Cab Sav plots are cultivated without the use of pesticides giving the Fonscolombe label ‘Organic Wine’ status. These Bouches du Rhône IGP varieties are available to purchase online at: fonscolombe.fr/en/winery.html.
I recommend taking a tour of the estate’s wine cellar located in the main house.
If you feel the need to work off the fabulous food and wine, dive into the pool for a few laps or borrow the Château’s bike for a spin around the local vineyards. You can also visit neighbouring Château de Paradis and enjoy – as I did – a tour of the cellars and a superb wine tasting.
Perhaps your beloved will be inspired by the romance of the setting at Château de Fonscolombe and pop the question. If so, there’s a chapel here in the park – a truly incredible setting for a marriage – just off the path to the swimming pool which is set well away from the main house. Sun loungers are plentiful and there’s a snack bar here to keep you fed and watered the whole day, manned by very helpful staff. Indeed, the wonderful people who work at Château de Fonscolombe are one of the main reasons for the hotel’s success: I have rarely met such a welcoming and friendly team. Nothing is too much trouble and they all ensured I had a wonderful stay. The Château is also a great place for children, who are well catered for – there’s even a children’s menu.
Although many guests choose to stay at the Château for the duration of their stay, such is the magical allure of this tranquil luxury hotel and park, a short drive south and you’re in beautiful Aix en Provence. And just north of Fonscolombe you can take a slow drive around the Luberon visiting the hilltop villages of Bonnieux, Gordes and Roussillon. Then head west to Avignon and Isle Sur La Sorgue and enigmatic Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The Côte d’Azur is also within easy reach from Château de Fonscolombe – just take the A58 south then head east on the A8 all the way to Cannes and beyond.
“Château de Fonscolombe was going to be a family home,” General Manager Cedric Cauvelier tells me over cocktails in the Orangerie. “But Mme Martel decided to open it to the public and so it became a 5-star hotel just last year.”
Thanks to its luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, an incomparable setting and world-class service, Château de Fonscolombe has become a media darling and popular with international guests, as well as weekenders from across Provence and farther. The Château is also a popular wedding and seminar location.
“We have 60% occupancy, which is unusual for a new opening,” Cedric reveals. “Most of our guest are from France, the United States, the UK, the rest of Europe, South America and many Asian countries.”
Originally intending to stay for just two nights, I extended my sojourn at Château de Fonscolombe by a further two days, willingly held captive by the hotel’s beauty and tranquillity – and its superb cuisine. I left recharged, happy and vowing to return. And I’m sure you will too.
Where & How
Cost: Prices from €325 for a Classic Room including breakfast. Every first Sunday of the month Brunch menu at €65.
Where: Route de Saint-Canadet, 13610 Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, France
How: Please email email@example.com, phone+33 (0) 442 211 313 or visit fonscolombe.fr to make a booking.