Courtesy of Loire Valley Lodges
Photo by Melinda Nagy/Shutterstock
Just three hours fom Paris you’ll find the famous white cliffs of Étretat.
Whether it’s a riverside mansion you seek or an escape into nature, these are our top picks for a quick Paris break.
As an adopted Parisian, I spent much of the pandemic confined to the capital like the rest of its 2.2 million people. (More specifically, in a 320-square-foot apartment with a freezer the size of a shoebox.) While the view from the sixth floor is inspiring, and my neighbors are lovely, I couldn’t wait to escape when restrictions began to lift. Not wanting to go too far, too soon, I was delighted to explore spots closer to chez moi. I was even more delighted to discover that a fresh crop of effortlessly chic destination hotels had recently opened in some of the regions surrounding Paris.
From sharing breakfast with a friend on the deck of a tree house in the middle of a forest and watching Marie Antoinette with my mom while snacking on Ladurée macarons inside the “Marquis de Fouquet Suite” at Versailles, to solo journeys where I hiked along steep coastal cliffs and dipped in a cedar plunge pool, it took all I had to return to reality. Here’s how to get a dose of le rêve yourself.
Rent a car or head to one of the city’s regional train stations and not long after crossing over the city’s outer limits, Paris’s typical Haussmanian buildings will begin to fade and reveal wheat fields, farmhouses, and eventually the sea along the horizon. Whether you are seeking the countryside, châteaux, or the coast, these destinations make it easy to experience both Paris and a relaxing counterpoint during a single journey to France.
While the region itself is known for its châteaux, at Loire Valley Lodges you’ll stay in a manor of a more natural kind: a luxurious tree house. Opened a few months into the pandemic in 2020 by a Parisian art dealer, each of the property’s 18 tree houses were designed by a different artist resulting in various themes such as the Nordic-inspired “Ekologic” and the feather-forward “O’Plumes” (with light fixtures made of quills). All allow guests to wake among a canopy of chestnut, fir, and oak trees thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows opposite the plush king-sized beds. Each of the raised tree houses also has a deck (complete with tables, chairs, and a hot tub) and the property features unique wellness touches such as charcoal-infused water to further purification. Use one of the hotel’s bikes to get to and from the forest before relaxing in the pool and dining at the on-site restaurant where wood-fired lamb chops and stuffed chicken are among the offerings for lunch or dinner.
If you’re going to leave your stilted throne, you’ll need a car to check out the nearby Château de Chenonceau, where the checkered-floor Grand Gallery juts across the Cher River. (You can also rent an electric bumper-like boat to float under it, which is quite spectacular and fun during spring, summer, and fall.) King Henri II originally gave this all-white, turreted property to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, and it feels straight out of a (slightly scandalous) fairy tale. Continue following Henri’s sordid affairs by heading to Château de Chaumont, which, while a bit further toward the city of Blois, is worth the journey if not to see where Diane de Poitiers was banished once Catherine de Medici took back Chenonceau, but for its annual International Gardens and Art Festival.
Most of the châteaux are located between the cities of Tours and Blois along either side of the Loire River, about 148 miles southwest of Paris. For a short weekend, your best bet is to take the TGV high-speed train to Tours (1 hour and 20 minutes from Gare du Montparnasse; rates vary) and either take a 20-minute taxi to Loire Valley Lodges (if that’s your sole destination) or rent a car from the station if you want to bop around.
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At actress Catherine Deneuve’s former estate, Domaine de Primard, the idea is to relax in nature, to listen to the sound of the wind whipping against the giant oak trees, or to take a walk through the property’s potager where strawberries and apples grow in summer and fall. You’ll spend your day moving from one well-placed lounge chair by the pool, to an Adirondack chair by the Leure River, to a cushioned deck chair on the terrace for an apéro. The 39 varied-size rooms are spread among three separate buildings; each has its own design personality and dreamy tableau. In the main house, Maison sur Leure, your accommodation might face the river, while in Maison du Luc you may have your own outdoor garden. The Barn also has three rooms, not to mention France’s first spa from popular Austrian beauty brand Susanne Kaufmann, complete with Japanese dipping tubs and a cedar sauna. The on-site restaurants feature both hearty bistro fare and, on weekends, a multi-course gastronomic dinner experience from Michelin-starred chef Eric Frechon.
Bursting with lily pads and wisteria vines, Claude Monet’s former home and gardens in Giverny are a veritable wonderland worth visiting—and only 47 miles from Paris, or 30 minutes north of Domaine de Primard by car. Whether you go for the outdoor fauna and flora, much of which the French impressionist and gardener captured in his famous canvases, or the indoor rooms where he lived with his family for 43 years, prepare to be swept away to another time and place where art truly imitated life among scenic nature. Context Travel offers a customizable day tour to the property led by an art historian.
To reach the Domaine, take the one-hour TER train (€9/one way) from Gare St. Lazare to Bueil. It’s a 10-minute car ride to the property and the hotel will arrange transfers. If you’re headed straight to Monet’s gardens, take the train to Vernon (also from Gare St. Lazare) or if booking with Context, meet your guide at the station.
For history buffs and theater lovers, there is no better experience than Le Grand Contrôle on the grounds of the world-renowned Château de Versailles. That’s right—on the actual grounds of the château. From the time you wake up—literally, if you order the “Queens Wakeup,” someone will come to your door and say “Good morning my queens!” before drawing open your brocade curtains—until the time you go to bed at night where a lavender mist is sprayed on your feather pillow, you will feel like royalty. Each of the 14 rooms and suites features 18th-century antiques and decor, including canopies over the four-poster beds and mahogany desks with feather quills. But it’s not all throwbacks. While rooms don’t have TVs, they’re outfitted with tablets, smartphones, and Marshall speakers for all your tech needs. Luxurious additions include modern Japanese toilets (the ones with built-in bidets and seat warmers), lemongrass scented toiletries, and Alain Ducasse chocolates upon check-in. Staff is dressed in period costumes and each room comes with its own butler who is there 24/7 should you want to, say, have your silk skirt ironed or can’t seem to start your mini golf cart to drive out of the L’Orangerie (I can personally attest to the golf cart assistance).
While staying at Le Grand Contrôle, you’ll be able to visit Versailles on private guided tours before and after it opens to the public. That’s right—go ahead and twirl around the Hall of Mirrors with no one in it or roam on the lawns of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at the Petit Trianon without another tourist in sight. You can also DIY with the aforementioned golf cart, driving around the palace gardens at your own pace, stopping for a picnic along the Grand Canal. (If organized with the hotel, expect a setup that includes rosé wine—drunk from crystal, naturally—a trio of mini sandwiches, salads, and even fresh flowers in a small vase.) Meals at the property’s Alain Ducasse restaurant are a formal affair and can be booked even if you’re not a guest. Dinner is an especially theatrical experience with servers acting out a small play in between serving dishes such as creamy egg foam with caviar and blue lobster with aspic. And when you’ve eaten too much—and you will!—rest and revive yourself at the underground Valmont spa and pool.
Sadly, there’s no horse and carriage option, but the RER C is the cheapest, fastest way to reach Versailles, which is about 23 miles from Paris. Depending on where in the city you pick it up, it’s about 35 minutes to the Château Rive Gauche station. From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the château.
High-class comfort? Yes. Hipster refuge? Also yes. Les Tilleuls, a five-room, 18th-century villa behind an unassuming facade in the center of town, was opened in 2019 by the daughter of a Michelin-starred chef and hotelier from Belgium. Staying here will feel like staying at a (well-heeled) friend’s home—complete with Tilia the golden retriever nipping at your heels or napping in the entryway. Homemade chouquette pastries are left out to enjoy, and each of the stately sitting areas suggests another era, while also being totally hip thanks to touches like Monocole magazines at hand and trés cool dried flower arrangements as decor. The spacious and sunlit rooms are very Martha’s Vineyard-meets-Montauk, with floral drapes, wooden armoires, and, in one, a claw-foot bathtub. Some have balconies that overlook the overgrown garden where breakfast is served on sunny mornings. There’s also an attic for yoga and a basement screening room for when the weather isn’t cooperating or you just feel like lounging about.
This coastal town in Normandy became famous thanks to local artists such as Monet who gave its iconic failese, or cliffs, the dreamy, impressionist treatment on canvas. Ever since, it’s become a destination for those wanting to see the natural wonders with their own eyes—and, if adventurous, hike them. Three massive chalk bluffs flank the white, rocky beach, and while the sea-level view is nothing to snub, the more striking sights are above. Those after a heftier hike should head south to climb up the Porte Aval cliff and along the dirt trail, through wild fields and cow pastures, toward the lighthouse. If you’d rather stretch your legs without going as far, walk along the beach’s northern cliff, Porte Amont, where after peering out over the edge you can also visit the Monument Nungesser & Coli, which honors the French pilots who attempted (but did not make) the world’s first transatlantic flight in 1927. Nearby, Les Jardins d’Étretat are also worth a stop for the manicured bushes and the modern sculptures thoughtfully arranged among them.
It’s slightly tricky to reach Étretat, about 140 miles from Paris, by public transport but parking can be difficult. Unless you’re heading elsewhere in Normandy, best to follow the schedules and save a few euros: First, take a regional train to Bréaute-Beuzeville from Gare St. Lazare where you’ll then transfer to bus line 17 to Étretat. The trip should take about three hours: two on the train, a 15-minute wait for the bus, and a half-hour to town. While there are only about three departures a day in the off-season, you can’t beat a commute that costs as little as 40 euros (US$46) roundtrip.
Since September 9, all vaccinated Americans are able to travel to France for leisure purposes barring they have proof of vaccination (unvaccinated U.S. travelers are no longer allowed to travel to France unless they have a pressing or compelling reason, such as being an EU citizen or resident or traveling for an essential work purpose or for studies).
While the so-named “pass sanitaire,” a digital certificate used widely throughout France and other parts of Europe, is what French residents are required to present upon entering any indoor establishment—from restaurants and museums to trains and planes—Americans can show their CDC-issued vaccination card without a problem. (It is possible to have your vaccination certificate digitized at a number of Parisian pharmacies for a fee, but it’s not necessary or required.)
Each of the hotels featured above checks guests’ proof of vaccination upon check-in, and most also require masks to be worn indoors and/or in communal areas. Hand sanitizer stations were scattered about the properties as well as signs reminding guests to wear their masks and/or stay three feet apart.
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