A boutique bed and breakfast with just seven elegant rooms, Maison Ila offers the warmest welcome in the heart of the Aude. A vintage maison de maître on the edge of Sonnac-sur-l’Hers, the little hotel has been turned into a restful wellness retreat by Denise Leicester, the aromatherapist behind spa brand Ila's all-natural lotions and potions. There are beautiful terrace gardens to while away hammock-swaying afternoons, and home-from-home comforts in one of France’s most unspoilt wine regions.
Get this when you book through us:
A glass of sparkling Blanquette de Limoux wine for each guest
11am, but guests can linger longer in the house itself if they wish. Check-in is 3pm.
Double rooms from £138.15 (€155), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates for all rooms (except for self-catered cottage La Petit Maison) include Continental breakfast. You can rent the whole house on a self-catering basis.
Spend some time getting to know the garden, rose bushes and lavender plants perfume it, there are day-beds to meditate on and an impressive array of herbs have been planted, including calendula, marjoram, camomile, wild bergamot and more – some are used in the tea sachets you'll find in your room.
January–March (but you can book the whole house during this period).
At the hotel
Spa; yoga, meditation and sound-healing studio; sitting room; free WiFi in the central area (rooms 1–3); laundry. In rooms: Egyptian cotton linens, herbal teas, Ila bath products. A TV can be added to rooms on request.
Our favourite rooms
Chambre Un has a bath tub placed romantically by the pencil-post bed and views over the garden. We also like Chambre Quatre for its bright colours and Indian furnishings. The two-bedroom Petit Maison is suitable for small families.
The clue's in the name – Ila is a beloved organic spa brand, whose products star in soothing treatments – alongside garden-grown lavender, rosemary and thyme. Massages use heating and cooling with herb-packed poultices and scented soaks will make you feel truly tranquil. In the meantime, there's a space dedicated to yoga, sound healing and meditation, plus instinctive movement therapy and Nordic walking.
Bring your skiing gear if you’re visiting in winter – the slopes of the Pyrenees are just half an hour away.
This serene stay is best suited to couples; up to two little Smiths can stay in the Petit Maison cottage.
Food is locally sourced and largely organic. Everything that can be is recycled and the hotel composts plant matter where possible.
Breakfast alfresco at one of the bistro tables in Maison Ila’s lush and leafy terraced gardens.
Loose and leisurely.
In keeping with the hotel's wellness ethos, food is wholesome and healthy, sugar and gluten free, and delicious to boot – be sure to book in advance for lunch or dinner. Locally sourced cheeses and eggs, herbs from the garden and local wine all play their part in the menus, as well as basketfuls of seasonal vegetables. You might dine on green and white asparagus and nettle soup, aubergine gratin, fig compôte with homemade ice cream, pizza with local mushrooms and goat's cheese or house dahl in the chandelier-lit dining room. There'll be teas, tinctures and cordials to wash it down with too. For breakfast, try scrambled tofu with truffle oil or yoghurt with honey from the mountains – or ask for a hamper to be delivered to your room.
The honesty bar in the lounge is packed with local vintages, soft drinks and spirits. There’s plenty of books and magazines to leaf through, and a pool table on hand too.
Breakfast is served from 8am to 10am, lunch from noon to 2pm and dinner from 7.30pm till late.
The closest airport is Carcassonne, 50 minutes from the hotel; Toulouse is an hour and 15 minutes away.
The closest train stations are Limoux (25 minutes) and Carcassonne (50 minutes). For information on trains in France, SNCF (www.sncf.com) has times and ticket prices.
The hotel is in the village of Sonnac-sur-l’Hers. From Montpellier or Toulouse, take the A61 (from Montpellier, you’ll start on the A9), exiting at Bram onto the D4. At Pruille, take the D119 4km to Fanjeaux, where you will need to take the Chemin du Moulin, continuing south for almost 30km before you reach the D16 (head east), which will take you to Sonnac-sur-l’Hers after 1.5km. There’s free parking.
Worth getting out of bed for
Try the healing Ila spa treatments, or try a spot of wild training (swinging from trees, jumping, running, vaulting and such). Rest up on the garden's hammocks and day-beds when you're tuckered out. Gong baths, yoga and meditation are some of the more laidback pursuits. The mediaeval city of Carcassonne is about 50 minutes away and a day exploring its fortified walls and pointed towers can be eye-opening. Also mediaeval, but much smaller in scale, the beautiful village of Camon is just 10 minutes from Sonnac-sur-l-Hers, and its Celtic neighbour, Mirepoix, is well worth an afternoon wander. An English couple own the vineyard at Domaine Begude, which produces some fine whites and rosés. Tastings can be arranged. The owners can help you arrange white water rafting, canoeing, canyoning – even sky-diving– in the nearby area, and there are two freshwater lakes less than 10 minutes' walk away that are great wild-swimming spots. And take a soak in the soothing thermal waters of nearby Rennes-les-Bains. Each Monday, Mirepoix Market's stalls are laden with local produce and tempting street eats.
Sonnac-sur-l'Hers is a tiny place, so gourmets are best taking the trip to Limoux, Mirepoix, or Carcassonne for restaurant dining. 12th-century Mirepoix is laden with birstros serving local specialities such as duck confit and cassoulet, and the Relais Royalehotel on rue Maréchasl Clauzel offers particularly scrumptious French inventions. In Limoux, you can sample the world's first sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux at the Hotel de Moderne et Pigeononplace du Général Leclerc, which also does divine south-eastern French cuisine in what was once a Carmelite monastery. Michelin-starred Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassone is an ever-reliable lunch spot. At Domaine Gayda, near Limoux, you can hire your own hut and have a barbecue for you in the middle of a vineyard.
The roads are deserted: no evidence of a soul – not a single car or face behind twitching shutter. We’re ambling through parasol tree-lined roads, precarious winding mountain bends and deafeningly silent hamlets toward Maison Ila in Sonnac-sur-l’Hers, Languedoc-Roussillon. The sun beats through the roof and, for a few moments, we are Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, the song is ‘On Days Like These’ and the car a convertible Mercedes Pagoda.
Sonnac-sur-l’Hers is a spellbinding village with just 128 residents. Hidden from the prying eyes of passing cars is a bijou church square. As we cross this charming stone timewarp to the hotel, a green-shuttered maître de maison spanning a row of houses that comprises one side of the thoroughfare, an old man who is possibly the last living member of the Resistance stares out at us from behind an antique doorframe.
Classic, enormous and very smart, Maison Ila is a luxury boutique B&B that’s imbued with traditional French character: all white walls, polished dark wood and faithful antique pieces. A tall, cheery thirtysomething Englishman strides round the corner and shakes my hand. ‘Hullo I’m Will,’ he says. ‘My wife Tilly is in the kitchen feeding our son.’ The pair moved from London to pursue the Gallic dream in 2005 and their Year in Provence became a lifetime.
Will shows us up to our suite – the largest of Maison Ila’s four guest dwellings – where the living room alone is bigger than our London apartment. ‘The ceilings are so high that they probably have to change the light bulbs from the floor above!’ Mrs Smith remarks. We walk past the living room with its ethereal Florence Broadhurst-style floral prints and original marble fireplace, into the second bedroom-cum-dressing room with its old-school desk overlooking the square and through a third set of double doors to the largest space of all – the master bedroom, where the light casts a halo onto the room’s centrepiece: a giant freestanding bath in all its glory. Mrs Smith squeals and runs around the walk-in-wardrobe giggling, clearly trying to figure out where to put all two pairs of shoes. It’s a crisp, clean vision of rustic elegance with views extending over the village to the hills.
After a well-deserved siesta (when in the South of France, eh), Will shows us the dining room and the comely honesty bar. You just have to remember to jot down how many bottles of native Languedoc Rose you have consumed. Easier said than done…
We are offered dinner in the garden. Manicured and experimental with a fresh herb garden and a young vine weaving through the fairy lights, overgrown trees shadow the sun loungers and a hammock swings under ancient branches shielding the mountain horizon. Everything feels magically old. A lone table is set in this private nirvana for a mesmeric four-course organic dinner courtesy of domestic goddess Tilly, rich with the heady flavours of L’Occitan and infused with herbs from Maison Ila’s garden.
Mountain walks in the surrounding Pyrenees lie just half an hour’s drive away (during winter you can ski right into the square) and each July the Tour de France whistles by the house. The next morning’s breakfast is pitch perfect. We feast on valley-fresh figs and sliced peaches, yoghurt, honey, pressed apple juice, baskets of croissants and granite-strong black coffee. If that doesn’t wake you up, the chiming of the church bells should.
We drive to Chalabre, a picturesque village with a castle and obligatory Provençals in blue, who drink pastis and carry long baguettes. It holds a dolls’ house-like market whose mainstay seems to be the local tablecloth. Round another precarious bend we see the stretching blue calm of Lake Montbel. Locals sun themselves and children splash in the waters. We sit at a café to shield ourselves from the blistering sun, and realise that if we were cleverer, or indeed even more romantic, we would have purchased a picnic at the village and one of those blessed tablecloths, and spent the afternoon lolling by the lake.
Instead we head for nearby Mirepoix. Driving has never been more glorious: the only other vehicle a huge combine harvester that refuses to notice us, sending us swerving into the sunflower field. Thankfully, staring into the faces of a thousand ochre blooms reaching for the scorching sun is a fun detour.
Arriving at Mirepoix, we turn the corner into the square and can’t believe our eyes. All the buildings, wooden and mediaeval; rows of stalls selling marionettes colour the paths and the place is heaving with sunblushed hippies smoking roll-ups. We have, as Mrs Smith proclaims, ‘the best moules-frites ever’ as we watch this enchanting world go by.
That night, Mrs Smith sleepily announces that the bed is too small and in a room this size it should be much bigger. It should, in fact, be large enough for 10 people. Sweet dreams ensue.
And then, all too soon, the morning sun peeks through the aged shutters and we realise it is time to leave for the fairytale castle town of nearby Carcassonne. The breakfast slows us down and we revel in the Sunday morning stillness.
Will and Tilly join us to say goodbye and it seems as if we have been here for a week. Before we set off, Mrs Smith asks, ‘Why Maison Ila?’ There is a local myth, Will says, of a treasure hidden during World War II somewhere in the house. Indeed, much like this entrepreneurial pair, we feel that in finding Maison Ila we have struck gold.
This review refers to the hotel's former owners, Will and Tilly.