This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
Dead of night in the tiny village of Williers, a few kilometres from the Belgian border, and the mercury reads minus six. It feels as if we’re entering a land that time forgot: winding, snow-covered roads, forested either side for miles. We strain to make out a handful of turn-of-the-century cottages. A clearing finally reveals two charming farmhouses, emanating warm, inviting light from both sides of the road. Ah, Chez Odette!
The supremely affable Jorge comes running out of nowhere to greet us on this breathtakingly cold night. Ushered into the seductive, candlelit entrance, we pad across a black furry rug and up some tiny stairs to room No 9. The lack of formality is refreshing. A brief explanation reveals we are residing in the newly renovated nine-roomed farmhouse on the opposite side to Odette’s original bistro. We’ve arrived at our very own private bolthole in the countryside.
Being the metrosexual man I am, I’ve allowed Mrs Smith to whisk me away for a pre-Valentine’s winter break in this unique enclave on the eastern edge of France. Since I’ve broken my foot on a recent trip to Thailand, doing anything energetic is not an option. (Hopping, incidentally, really does nothing for one’s masculine prowess.) So I am relieved to see that this looks the kind of place I can kick back – well, without actually kicking – relax and savour the simplicity of life.
A log-filled fireplace in our room is beckoning to be lit with the smart faux-leather fire igniter – the kind of bizarrely expensive item you might seek in Asprey for the man who has everything. This extraordinarily designed room is most unexpected in this rural part of the Ardennes. It’s pure luxury, unadulterated yet understated.
United by the chocolate theme throughout, there’s a multiplicity of mahogany hues; a sumptuous fur bedspread enhances the air of decadence. Logs are piled from floor to ceiling in one corner, and individual tables and lamps designed by the notable Marcel Wanders add modernist precision. As for the enormous bath tub, it is so deep that when it’s filled Mrs Smith is immersed neck-deep in water. When I hit the walk-in tiled shower, it’s like standing under Niagara Falls. Your average guesthouse this isn’t.
Downstairs, a small, deliciously cosy living room and library is decked out with classic coffee-table books and board games. Mrs Smith challenges me to a game of chess by another fireplace glowing merrily away. Next door, we find a miniscule but well-stocked honesty bar. Depending on your thirst, being honest can be expensive. Luckily, I learned to make cocktails in Ibiza, and you know how generous those Spanish barmen are with their measures...
Across the way is the lovingly restored bistro, where the hotel’s namesake Odette originally held court. She died in 1999, but left the village’s main hub as her legacy. Soft candlelight, open fireplaces, a small bar and huge leather Chesterfield sofas offer the perfect segue between aperitif and supper. Old Odette-era photographs adorn the walls; a flatscreen TV shows Charlie Chaplin films; unobtrusive downbeat tunes play in the background – it is old and new blended perfectly. We sink into the deep leather sofa to try out the much-revered local ale, brewed by the Trappist monks at the Orval monastery.
‘It’s just 5km away,’ Jorge informs us, trying to convince us we should take a brisk walk there in the morning. Hmm... snow, aforementioned injury – perhaps not. But a quick drive is an option, as it’s indeed a trip worth making. Built in the 1100s, the monastery, with its cheese factory and brewery, is steeped in history. Had I been able, a hike through the dense forest would have been my choice of travel; it’d be the perfect walk for a balmy day. Perhaps when I’m feeling more bipedal. One can only imagine how this sleepy spot must spring to life in the full glory of summer. Kayaking, horse riding, hiking through forests; and the fairy-tale city of Luxembourg is just a short hop on the train from the small town of Florenville – there’s so much to partake in.
Sipping our rich, deep golden brew from the traditional goblet-style glass, we make our menu selections before being seated in the neatly arranged, original-beamed restaurant. Here, Miguel Giltaire presides over beautifully presented food. Gastronomic? Yes. Overtly elaborate or pretentious? No. Plumping for the pan-roasted steak, I decide not to insult the French too much, and I order it à point, as opposed to my usual (incinerated). Although tempted by the monkfish, shellfish and lobster spaghetti, Mrs Smith has succulent braised pigeon accompanied by puréed sweet potato. A triumvirate of crème brûlées (brown-sugar baked apple, hazelnut praline and tangy-tart citrus) rounds off our meal perfectly. Wanting for nothing, we trot off to bed in our very private residence, just across the way.
The overriding feeling you get here is that the presence and character of Odette lives on. She has been lovingly immortalised by the hotel’s new owner, a close friend of hers. He has painstakingly maintained original features and balanced them with contemporary design to rival that of any boutique hotel. Odette herself never left the village in her entire life. Hearing of future plans to open an Odette by the sea, and maybe one in London, I for one look forward to greeting her wherever she may appear.