by Fiona Duncan, The Telegraph. May 20, 2019
There’s magic here. I know there is, because the word is written, in great looping letters, on my otherwise snow-white, zillion thread-count duvet cover. If I’d stayed in one of the six other suites and bedrooms in the château – Vénus perhaps, with its vast bathroom, or Saturne, in the tower, with a glass ceiling, or gold-hued Lune – I might have found the word Amour, Harmonie or Rêve, but here in Jupiter it’s Magie and it suits very well.
Even the taxi driver who transported us from Limoges airport announced that he was taking us to paradise. As we approached through the undulating Charente countryside, a sense of peace descended – and remained for the duration of our stay. Once on the entirely organic estate, with its seven enchanting silver lakes, its meadows and woods, its herons, geese, ducks, otters, deer, foxes and herds of golden red Limousin cows, the world outside was forgotten.
If ever a hotel had un âme, or soul as we say in English, it’s the Domaine des Etangs – rare enough in these days of brands, groups and corporate identity, but even more so in a hotel that is new. Incorporating its beautiful 11th- century château, adjacent longère and other farm buildings on the estate, it emits a palpable sense of wellbeing, gentleness and connection to the land, and it is no surprise to find that it’s essentially the creation of two women. One is owner Garence Primat, whose father, Didier Primat (heir to the Schlumberger oil and gas fortune) bought the 2,500-acre estate in the 1980s; the other is the château’s noted modernist architect and designer Isabelle Stanislas. While Didier Primat restored the seven métairies (small farmhouses), each with guest bedrooms, kitchen and sitting room, it was only after his death in 2008 that his daughter decided to convert the château into a hotel. And what a hotel.
And what a hotel. It reminded me of Alan-Fournier’s 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes, set in the Sologne, a similar region of lakes and woods. As at the château of Les Sablonnières in the novel, it feels like stepping into a secret world, one that is full of delights.
There’s a hammam and indoor hydrotherapy pool, the latter open 24 hours, an outdoor heated pool, a floating tennis court, a spiral-shaped potager bursting with produce for the Michelin-starred restaurant, unconventional ornamental gardens designed by Camille Muller that are interspersed with sculptures by the likes of Richard Long, heavenly treatments in an old walnut oil mill, an all wood children’s adventure playground, an art gallery for exhibitions, paintings by Picasso and Matisse in the salons, pianos to play and telescopes and maps for studying the night sky. We could have joined the famous costume party in Le Grand Meaulnes, for in the huge attic playroom for grown ups and children we found trunks full of fancy dress costumes, as well as billiards, table football, board games and more.
The medieval château itself, fief of the knights of Chasteigner de la Roche-Posay, is a charmer, softened by graceful windows, round instead of square towers and neo-Gothic limestone embellishments dating from 1860. Step inside, and the interior comes as another of the Domaine’s surprises. Filled with Garence Primat’s private art collection and lighting that looks like art, it strikes the right balance between venerable and new, imposing and homely, aesthetic and comfortable. There are delightful touches, like the set of kid-sized Empire-style sofas and armchairs and the family kitchen where you help yourself to breakfast.
Amongst the hotel’s complementary extras (yoga, pilates, wine tasting, cycling), you can learn about the history of the château and tour the estate spotting wildlife with keeper Jean-François Magnan. He is charming too, and he passionately loves this place. As boys from Massignac, the local village, he and his friends would sneak on to the then run-down estate to fish, stopping at the window of what is now the library but was then the kitchen, where the complicit cook would hand them pastries. Like our taxi driver, Jean-François is thrilled with the resurgence of the Domaine that has brought employment and utilized local artisans and producers. He’s pretty keen on the English too. “They make up nearly 25% of our local population and without them, houses would be empty and schools closed”.
We walked with him in the forest, learning much the nature there. “And here is the wellness centre”, he announced, as we reached a shallow clay pit in the oak and chestnut woods. He pointed out the clear indentations recently left by a large female wild boar where she had joyously rolled in the mud, the bare tree trunk where she had then rubbed herself and the wooden spike that she and her compatriots used at their woodland spa for a good scratch.
It was time this large female boar’s own bespoke treatment in the mill, and it was bliss. Everyone is so friendly here, and though it’s a seriously expensive hotel, it has great gentleness and no pretension, and the denim-clad staff are delightful.
Les Dyades is the hotel’s restaurant, occupying, along with its reception, boutique and bar, the stone-built longère. The chef is Loïc Lecoin, of whom Jean-François approves: “he is a forager, like me; we have mushroom hunting competitions in my woods but I always win”. For lunch, you can ask for a picnic: little Kilner jars filled with delicious salads, baguettes, fruit and sweet pastries. We ate ours one day while rowing on the lake.
If you decide to stay at the Domaine des Etangs, you’ll choose between rooms in the métairies, if you are a party of between two and ten (and you’ll have an electric car at your disposal), or the seven rooms in the château and four in the longère. If you choose the château or longère, you are unlikely to share the serene public rooms of the château with many others. On our visit, they were hardly populated, which only added to the sense of other-worldliness.
On our last morning, we woke early and opened our shutters. At first the view was obscured, but as we watched, the sun rose through the morning mist and the sky turned a perfect blue, revealing a scene that the taxi driver had correctly described as paradise.
Doubles from £300, including breakfast. 16310 Massignac, Charente, France (00 33 5 45 61 85 00; domaindeesetangs.com )
• Read the full review: Domaine des Etangs