The Loire Valley is synonymous with grandeur, so densely packed with resplendent Renaissance châteaux that you have to wonder if it violates some kind of zoning ordinance. The whole region is a testament to France’s glory or, looked at from a slightly different angle, vainglory. French schoolchildren are bused in to stoke their national pride. A bumper sticker on the royal coach might have read: He Who Dies with the Most Turrets Wins.
This is not the spirit of modern times, nor is it, thankfully, the spirit at two new Loire Valley hotels that offer an oasis of low-key luxury amid the surrounding spectacle. The lack of pomp is a welcome surprise at Les Sources de Cheverny (rooms from $270), which opened last September just down the road from the historic winery Château de Cheverny. Les Sources has a modest castle of its own, the Château de Breuil, which houses a spa and 13 of its 49 rooms. But the old building is off to one side of the 110-acre property, and almost an afterthought. Instead, the heart of the hotel is in the humbler outbuildings, now renovated, and a series of new cabins. The architect Yves Collet has tied them all together into a bucolic hamlet with a series of promenades that wind past little ponds and through meadows. The landscaping here owes nothing to the kind of manicured gardens of the great Loire châteaux. There isn’t a topiary hedge in sight.
“The rooms in the château had been a hotel before, and they were a little oldf-ashioned,” the owner, Alice Tourbier, told me. “The new rooms are more modern and stylish, and there’s a less dusty feeling.”
She is right. Interior designer Antoine Ricardou has given the new rooms an agreeably lived-in air by mixing old and new. Modern photographs line the chalk-colored walls, but much of the traditional country furniture comes from local auctions and dealers. The terrace outside my cabin looked out over a colorful prairie, or at least that’s what it will be in spring when the wildflowers come up.
The hotel’s back-to-nature vibe comes through most in its signature suite, Le Baron Perché, or “the Baron in the Trees” (the name comes from the title of an Italo Calvino novel about a young boy who climbs into the trees and never comes back down). The 540-square-foot room is perched 13 feet high and overlooks a pond below and the whole domaine.
Tourbier comes from a family of go-getters: Her parents are Florence and Daniel Cathiard, former ski champions who married, got rich, and bought Château Smith Haut Lafitte, which makes an awesome Bordeaux. Her older sister Mathilde created Caudalie, a line of skincare products using ingredients from the family vineyard. In 1999, it was Alice’s turn: She and her husband, Jérôme Tourbier, built Les Sources de Caudalie on the grounds of Smith Haut Lafitte. The idea was to bring together her parents’ wine, her sister’s cosmetics, and exceptional cuisine (via a Michelin two-star restaurant) in a plush yet unfussy setting.
The same formula applies to Les Sources de Cheverny.
While any potential Michelin stars will have to wait until its gastronomic restaurant, Le Favori, opens next spring, the L’Auberge bistro is nothing to sneeze at. The spa is up and kneading. And as for the wine, the vineyards of Romorantin grapes all around produce a lovely Loire white.
About an hour’s drive west lies another antidote to the local Château Syndrome. The Loire Valley Lodges (rooms from $335) takes the idea behind the Baron Perché suite to its logical conclusion: Almost all the cabins are perched 13 feet high on pylons. There are 18 wooden lodges on 750 acres of forest, which is more than enough room to provide leafy isolation for each of them.
Everything here is built for solitude. None of the rooms have Wi-Fi, and cellular service is spotty. Kids under 12 and dogs are not welcome. The main lodge has a very good restaurant, and there’s a swimming pool where you can mingle with other guests, but the beauty of the place is best appreciated alone or with someone you know extremely well.
Solitary need not mean spartan: The cabins are huge—over 550 square feet—and comfortably furnished. They all have floor-to-ceiling windows that beckon the outdoors inside, and every balcony has its own spacious hot tub. That’s not something you find in your standard tree house.
Owner Anne-Caroline Frey grew up a “city mouse” in Paris, she says. In her professional life as an art dealer, she hosted lavish dinner parties that brought artists and collectors together over foie gras, champagne, and hopefully a few art purchases. Everything shifted when she met her “country mouse” second husband. Together, they bought the big forest. Before long, Frey was studying “sylvotherapy,” a Japanese practice involving wellbeing and trees. What, she wondered, would happen if you put all those passions—art, food, trees—together? “I said to my husband, ‘Maybe we can make a hotel like no other,’ ” she recalls.
It’s safe to say the Loire Valley Lodges is that. I stayed in a cabin called Les Ailes du Désir—the wings of desire—named for some white angels created by the sculptor Michel Audiard. Frey commissioned a different artist to decorate each of the cabins, and she has also planted monumental sculptures by some of them all around the grounds. In the afternoon, a sylvotherapist named Céline guided me through a forest bath—a kind of meditative arboreal immersion that involved, among other things, actual tree hugging. I’m not even embarrassed to admit it feels pretty good to embrace a tree trunk.
Dinnertime arrived, but I was in no mood to see any other human beings, so I opted to have my meal carried up the long stairway to my tree house. An elaborate box arrived, filled with salmon and trout, fish rillettes, smoked eel, cheese, salad, and chocolate fondant. I ate in silence on the cabin’s terrace as the sun sank behind the oak tree. All was still, barring the occasional plunk of an acorn falling on the deck.
I was reminded of something Frey had shared with me earlier: “In France, the richer you are, the more space there is between the house and garden outside,” she said. “In Japan, the richer you are, the closer you are to the outside. The garden becomes a room in the house. I tried to inscribe that idea here. You slow down and live in nature’s rhythm.”
Francis I, the king who built some of the Loire Valley’s most spectacular châteaux, would probably disagree. But right then, I wouldn’t have traded places with him for anything.