France Off The Grid: Exploring Different Corners of the Country

Palais Gallien’s rooftop terrace overlooks the pool and landscaped courtyard garden.

There’s a reason Paris continues to hit record tourism numbers. La mode, la gastronomie, la culture… A capital so universally alluring appeals to travelers who frequently return to get their fix. But die-hard francophiles will tell you there are abundant charms beyond the périphérique. Here, we share recommendations in different corners of la belle France.

Bordeaux is buzzing. A new high-speed train route — inaugurated in 2017 — brought the famous wine capital to within a two-hour ride from Paris. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the historic city center is meant for strolling. New museums are making waves; the Musée Mer Marine debuted in autumn 2018 following the wildly successful launch of La Cité du Vin, an ambitious wine-themed attraction, in mid-2016. Plus, a highly anticipated luxury hotel opening could be reason enough to immerse yourself in la culture Bordelaise on a weekend trip.  

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Of the city’s five-star hotels, the December 2018 opening of Le Palais Gallien brought the tally to five. A melange of ancient and modern design elements, the boutique hotel is housed inside an illustrious 19th-century shipowner’s house. The outdoor space is glorious: A rooftop terrace overlooks the pool and landscaped courtyard garden. Set in a prime location, the hotel’s just a few minutes’ walk from its namesake: The ruins of a second-century Roman amphitheater called the Palais Gallien. 

This is the latest property in the Boutique Hotels Collection, a portfolio of intimate luxury hotels including Palm Beach Villa in St. Barth’s, La Villa Mauresque on the French Riviera, and Villa Les Délices in Cap-Ferret.

Anchored to its local setting, the Palais Gallien comprises three buildings named for “the three Ms,” Bordeaux’s famous figures: Montaigne, Montesquieu and Mauriac. Following this theme, the 27 rooms each carry the name of a celebrated poet, writer or philosopher. Some rooms come with heated terraces and jacuzzis where you can soak while admiring the garden views. By April 2019, there will be a total of five suites. The best room in the house is the Suite Montaigne on the top floor. From this vantage point, guests can appreciate the panoramic views over the Bordeaux rooftops (et oui, you’ll find a jacuzzi-equipped terrace). Note that it’s possible to arrange in-room spa treatments, like Ayurvedic massage and foot reflexology. For VIP bookings, luxury travel advisors may contact Sacha Zerbib ([email protected]; 011-330-557-080-127) in reception.

The spa at 5 Terres Hôtel and Spa is housed beneath vaulted ceilings carved from Vosges sandstone. // Photography: Serge Lohner

The Palais Gallien’s location can’t be beat, but let’s talk about the food. In a city that’s no stranger to la bonne cuisine, the new hotel is luring locals for fine fare prepared by chef Younesse Bouakkaoui at La Table de Montaigne. Hailing from the Médoc wine region, Bouakkaoui is a veteran of the legendary Château Cordeillan-Bages, where he worked alongside chefs Thierry Marx and Jean-Luc Rocha, and Château Raba in Talence. Don’t miss the chef’s signature dish: A caramelized wagyu beef steak, served with beef marrow, truffles and béarnaise sauce. Concerned about overindulging in the restaurant? The hotel’s personal trainer can design a work-out for you.

In Alsace in the east of France, the 105-mile Route des Vins (Wine Route) threads past vineyard-cloaked hills, ancient castles and pretty villages of half-timbered houses and geranium window boxes. Not only is this region picturesque, but it’s also known to produce some serious wines; Alsace’s Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris wines are renowned around the world. (In the Middles Ages, the Imperial Courts poured these reputable wines to impress their A-list guests.) Alsace’s wine capital is the town of Barr, famous for its October grape harvest festival. And it’s here where the 5 Terres Hôtel and Spa opened in November 2016 in a magnificently restored Renaissance building — a perfect home base for exploring the Wine Route. 

Dating from the 16th century, the Bürgerstube is an emblematic landmark right on the City Hall square. Jean-Daniel Seltz purchased the building in 2012 with the aim of creating a luxurious boutique hotel. The restoration revealed original stone and woodwork, which is today showcased next to contemporary design elements (like metal and a glass roof atrium covering the wine bar). A prime example of the attention to detail: 5 Terres worked with Tanneries Haas, renowned for creating fine leather products for luxury maisons like Hermès and Dior. (Since 2018, the Chanel Group has been heavily investing in Tanneries Haas, which first launched in 1842.) At 5 Terres Hotel, you can find this bespoke leather on the door handles and headboards in the 27 light-filled guestrooms. 

One of the 27 rooms in the hotel. The rooms have exposed wood, beams and traditional stone walls. // Photography: Serge Lohner

Booking Tips: The Signature Suite is la crème de la crème. Encompassing more than 650 square feet, it’s equipped with a King Size bed, a soaking tub and separate Italian shower in the bathroom, plus a terrace overlooking the vineyards. Note that this Suite is a good family option, since there’s also a sofa bed for two additional guests.

The subterranean spa is a soothing retreat, housed beneath vaulted ceilings carved from Vosges sandstone. In the three treatment rooms, the Gemology brand rules the roost; Chrystelle Lannoy created this cosmetics line with precious and semi-precious stones. This bijou spa has extensive wet facilities and an indoor pool — complete with cascading waterfall — filled with water sourced from Goose Springs.

The staff can arrange a number of activities in the area: Biking through the vineyards, helicopter tours, wine classes, visits to local wine cellars, classic car rentals for exploring the Wine Route. Cap off your day at the Wine Bar, where the sommelier can arrange a tasting of Grand Cru wines showcasing organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers. The hotel’s bistronomique restaurant, La Table du 5, is open for lunch and dinner. The young chefs, Axelle Gillig and Mathias Stelter, honed their skills at Michelin-starred restaurants like Louis XV Alain Ducasse and Le Blue Bay in Monte Carlo. Available in three-, four- and five-courses, the signature menu features dishes like foie gras with chutney, scallops atop a parsnip mousse, and duck breast served with citrus-scented sweet potatoes and polenta. In warmer weather, dine on the terrace overlooking the historic City Hall.

The Wine Bar, where the sommelier can arrange a tasting of Grand Cru wines. // Photography: Serge Lohner

5 Terres Hotel is part of the MGallery by Sofitel brand and is managed by Catherine Haffen. For bookings, luxury travel advisors may contact the reception team ([email protected]; 011-330-388-082-844).

In the south of France, the sunny Languedoc (now part of the Occitanie region) is a less crowded alternative to the popular Côte d’Azur (not that we have anything against Saint-Tropez!). With a vibrant restaurant scene, abundant attractions and more than 300 days of sunshine a year, the gateway city of Nîmes has a great vibe. It’s here where you’ll find some of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings in the country, including the Arènes, a miniature of the Colosseum in Rome, where events and blockbuster concerts still take place today. In 2018, the city inaugurated the stunning Musée de la Romanité, a $65 million museum dedicated to the civilization of ancient Rome. 

In big news for hotel-ophiles, the legendary Imperator will reopen in early June after a top-to-bottom renovation as one of the most buzzed-about hotel openings of the year. First launched in 1929 as a grand hotel serving passengers on the newly inaugurated Paris-Lyon-Marseille train line, the Imperator was a favorite hideaway for the likes of Ava Gardner and Ernest Hemingway, and bien sûr, Hemingway’s bar will be preserved in the hotel’s new incarnation. The 54 rooms and six villas will show off an Art Deco style, and you can also expect a spa, pool and one of the city’s largest private gardens. Star chef Pierre Gagnaire will oversee the restaurants. The five-star hotel is part of the Maison Albar group — which also includes a property in the former Céline headquarters in Paris and the new Monumental Palace in Porto — and will thereby go by the name Maison Albar Hotel Nîmes Imperator. For VIP bookings, reach out to Anne-Catherine Raymond ([email protected]), sales manager for Maison Albar Hotels.  

Imperator will reopen in early June as Maison Albar Hotel Nîmes Imperator. A rendering of the restaurant.

Happening in France in 2019

Time your trip to France to coincide with some of the exciting events on the calendar in 2019. The Loire Valley will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance, as 1519 marked the death of Leonardo da Vinci at the Chateau du Clos Lucé in Amboise, the birth of Catherine de Medici, and the first foundations laid for the Chateau de Chambord. Speaking of the Renaissance king’s lavish chateau: Now you can sleep on the grounds, since the Relais de Chambord, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, opened in 2018. Meanwhile in the north, the region of Normandy will be commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings with much fanfare and celebration.

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