Formerly the residence of the king’s hunting hounds, today the Relais de Chambord is a distinctly more elegant affair. The erstwhile kennels have swapped dog beds for parquet floors, velvet headboards and historical maps. From a wisely chosen room, you’ll be able to watch long-haired Renaissance types jousting along the parapets of the elaborate chateau across the river (spoiler alert: it’s just a re-enactment society). The lovingly landscaped grounds form part of a domaine that’s as big as Paris – (helpfully electric-powered) bicycles are lined up for guests to borrow, so you can roam the parkland in style.
All ages welcome. Cots can be added if booked in advance for no extra cost; extra beds can be added to the Junior Suite and Junior Suite Chambord categories (€33 for under-12s; €62 for over-12s). Some rooms interconnect.
Snag a spot on the front row of the terrace to make acquaintance with the chateau’s many and varied turrets.
King and queen for a day.
An elaborate spread of pastries, cheese and fruit is laid out for guests in Grand Saint Michel every morning, where design flourishes include Patricia Urquiola chairs and a Marcel Wanders chandelier. The chef uses seasonal ingredients which can be enjoyed in one of the restaurant’s two grand dining rooms, if the views of the – let’s face it – even grander castle next door haven’t lured you outside onto the terrace. As for the food, the star of the show is the pairing of rhubarb with foie gras.
The Bar du Relais, connected to the restaurant, has a cosy club vibe going on (leather chairs, brassy accents, fireplace). You can also take your drinks out into the chateau-facing terrace in summer, or settle for a round of pool or some board games in winter.
Breakfast is served from 7.30am until 10.30am (11am at weekends). Lunch is between 12.30pm and 2.30pm. Dinner service is from 7.30pm until 10pm. Drinks are served in the bar between 7.30pm and 10pm.
Salads, sandwiches, pastas and burgers are available until 10.30pm.
Relais de Chambord is in the northern French countryside, two hours south of Paris in the heart of the Loire Valley.
You’ll probably touch down in Paris: the drive from Orly should take an hour and 50 minutes, and the hotel can arrange transfers.
The Eurostar connects London and other European cities with Paris, after which you’ll need to pick up your own wheels and head south to Chambord, or continue on a two-hour rail journey to Mer, which is the closest station to the hotel.
The nearest town is Blois, 20 minutes away by car. The hotel has a car park. Within the estate, you’ll be able to roam around by bicycle or on a game drive, so won’t necessarily need your own wagon.
Worth getting out of bed for
After you’ve drunk your weight in Chambord and kicked back at the spa, it’s time to get exploring the rolling grounds. Feeling energetic but not too energetic? Hop on one of the hotel’s electric bikes. Step out Louis XIV-style to explore the Chambord forest, or hire a boat and set off down the Loire Canal. The key local attraction is pretty obvious, even if you’re not looking very hard – the multi-turreted, French fairy-tale fantasy castle,Le Château de Chambord, is looming before you. The hotel reception can arrange guided tours – don’t miss its double spiral staircase and ornamental moat.
Outside the parkland, there are are plenty of classic boulangeries from which to source the requisite baguettes and croissants to pop into the basket of your borrowed bicycle. Within the grounds of the park, you’ll find a food truck fancily called the Camionnette de Restauration (this is France, where even roadside restaurants are fabulous). Next to the hotel, La Cave des Rois is a fit-for-a-king retreat, with a suitably well-stocked wine list.
’I thought we agreed we weren’t Euro Disney people’, my beloved chauffeur (aka Mr Smith) says suspiciously, as I give up all pretence at navigation to gawp shamelessly at Sleeping Beauty’s castle through the trees. ‘Don’t tell me that’s where we’re actually staying?’ Oh no, I say reassuringly – don’t worry, we’re next door.
Next door to one of the most famous buildings in France is, to my mind, even better than staying in the Chateau de Chambord itself, and not only because the latter, with its 426 rooms and mere 282 fireplaces, looks a wee bit draughty. The Relais, by contrast, a 19th-century coaching inn, has just received a makeover from a celebrated Parisian architect and boasts far better views of the castle than the castle itself – in fact, it’s so well positioned that the dog, in a high state of excitement after four hours in the car, almost leaps into the moat while we’re busy checking in.
Like its larger neighbour, however (as we discover when we finally go in after two days of photographing it from every conceivable angle) the Relais’ interior aesthetic is decidedly minimalist. Instead of the chintz and hunting trophies one might expect, it’s a clean modern space, the double height lobby decorated with rows of twigs formed into antler shapes, an homage to the hundreds of red deer in the surrounding forests.
Its true age is given away by a slightly idiosyncratic layout – I get lost on the way back from the bar one night (which may or may not have something to do with the large glass of Chambord liqueur I’ve just consumed) – but the payoff is well worth it. Our junior suite is a clean, vaulted space the size of a London flat without a scatter cushion or tasseled throw in sight, much to the little dog’s disappointment (he’s a demon for soft furnishings), though they have thoughtfully provided him with a bed large enough for a Great Dane.
Still, with the largest enclosed park in Europe to explore, he’s not immediately keen to use it and, wandering by the moat in the moonlight as he rampages noisily through the immaculate topiary, it feels like we’ve got the place entirely to ourselves. This, it turns out, is because everyone else is in the stylishly monochrome restaurant, dining like they’re Louis XIV.
Sadly, after a 5am start, neither of us can quite muster the enthusiasm for the seven-course tasting menu, but with all the amuse bouche and petit fours on offer, we still manage five apiece of beautifully seasonal food, a symphony of Jerusalem artichoke in three states (which I order simply for the joy of saying ‘le topinambour s’il vous plait’) a beautifully cooked fillet of pike perch from the Loire, and to finish, the kind of cheese trolley that trundles through my wildest dreams. Fighting the temptation to demand a large piece of everything, I ask instead for anything local, and end up with four delicious chevre, and a hunk of Mimolette too, because the lovely waitress is worried I haven’t got enough on my plate. Like most of the staff, she’s a fluent English speaker who’s sweetly patient with our GCSE French, persevering smilingly despite my increasingly incomprehensible cheese-related chatter.
Breakfast is a buffet of freshly baked patisserie, fruit, homemade jam, ham and yet more cheese, which means I feel compelled to try everything I didn’t get to taste last night, and possibly some cheese that I did, and then chase the dog around a 4km circuit of the moat, looking hopefully into the trees in case we catch a glimpse of any wildlife. Boar have clearly been busy rooting up earth overnight but there’s no sign of them in daylight, much to Wilf’s disappointment.
It feels too nice a day to be indoors, so instead of heading into the chateau (we’ll do it tomorrow, we say to each other), we spend the afternoon cycling a well-marked bike route along the Loire to the fabulously pretty town of Blois, one-time home of the French court, which left a rich architectural legacy…and, equally importantly, lots of places to sit contemplating it over a cold beer. The benefit of being in a river valley, of course, is that the terrain is very flat, but nevertheless, after taking turns carrying a 10kg terrier almost 50km, we feel justified in immediately jumping into the outdoor hot tub on our return to the Relais… and let me tell you, there’s little more satisfying than basking in an old wine barrel looking at a historic house that’s closed for the evening.
The only downside of the Relais’ fabulous location is, of course, is that there’s not a huge number of dining options in the vicinity. I’m all for a third crack at the cheese trolley, but fortunately for our arteries the hotel serves a more casual menu in the bar, and the staff don’t even seem to mind us playing Top Trumps over our steak tartare and chips – or enjoying an overly-competitive game of pool afterwards, which ends abruptly with me storming off in a huff.
No one mentions this the next morning as we slink into breakfast, but I think I see the ghost of a very polite smile on the face of the receptionist as we check out and join the hoi polloi in the chateau ticket office. Though I might fancy us Duke and Duchess material, perhaps we are more the Disney type after all.