During my last pre-pandemic trip to the Loire Valley, in 2018, I found myself in a familiar place.
Ten years after my first road trip on the route of the region’s castles, I was back at the 500-year-old Château de Chambord, joining a small group of European and American tourists on a guided tour. Seconds after gathering in the inner courtyard, we craned our necks to marvel at the structure’s ornamental spiers as our guide narrated facts and dates about King Francis I and his former hunting lodge. When she led us up to the towers, scolding us for not listening, a feeling of deja vu washed over me.
This was my third visit to the Loire Valley from my home in Paris and the whole fairy tale experience felt weary. Little beyond a nearby converted hotel had changed. Not the exasperated guide going through the motions, nor the throngs of tourists dropped off by the bus and herded into each room at a rapid pace. The stunning beauty that stretches along the Loire was the same too which ultimately saved the trip.
The lack of change doesn’t have to be a bad thing: the UNESCO-protected region, which attracted 9 million visitors a year to its cultural sites and 1 million cyclists before the pandemic, has been loved for decades for its castles and the rolling vineyards that produce what oenophiles consider to be the most diverse selection of wines in France. But he arguably leaned too heavily on that past, depending on what seemed like an endless stream of travelers interested only in castle tours and cycling. With all the dramatic scenery of the Loire and its rising culinary stars, was this the best it could offer?
It’s a question that local chefs, hoteliers, entrepreneurs and regional leaders were asking themselves even before the coronavirus hit, aiming to reinvent the territory. By the time I returned in October 2021 to meet some of them, the changing identity of the region was palpable.
“Our cycle path and our castles have always been popular but the fairy tale needed updating,” said François Bonneau, president of Centre-Val de Loire, the regional council responsible for the Loire Valley. “The French traveler has long associated it with the school trips he took as a schoolboy, while the foreign traveler has a plethora of other destinations to choose from in the country. The identity of the region as a whole.
The pandemic, he continued, has only heightened the need to promote the region differently as visits to key sites in the Valley have fallen by 43% in 2020 and 32% in 2021 – worrying figures for a region where tourism accounts for 5% of local GDP, or about 3.4 billion euros. Rethinking what Loire Valley travel should be for the future has meant shifting the focus from fairytale castle explorations to experiences more grounded in nature, food and the arts, while continuing to celebrate the region’s unique terroir.
This was evident from one of my first stops, at the 15th century Chateau de Rivau. Patricia Laigneau, co-owner, has been actively working to attract a wider audience for the storybook castle and sought-after wedding venue through food, devoting the last few years to locally grown and cooked produce.
His two organic vegetable gardens were half-moon shaped and overflowed with forgotten or nearly extinct varieties of regional vegetables such as Berry lettuce, purple celery and more than 43 varieties of colorful squash. It is considered an official repository of Loire Valley products by the Pôle BioDom’Centre, a regional center for the preservation of local biodiversity.
Local produce, plus a host of edible herbs and flowers, has been used in Rivau’s no-frills cafe for years. But now they are the basis of the menu at Le Jardin Secret, Ms. Laigneau’s new 20-seat gourmet restaurant, set under a glass roof and surrounded by rosebushes. She called on chef Nicolas Gaulandeau, a native of the region, to showcase the local richness through dishes ranging from squash served with pickles and smoked paprika to roast rack of lamb with garden vegetables.
“Not only were our guests asking for something more, but I saw the restaurant as an opportunity to show that the Loire Valley chateaux can be the champions of French gastronomy,” Ms. Laigneau said.
Celebrating the land and its food is central to other new properties in the area.
In July 2020, Anne-Caroline Frey opened the Loire Valley Lodges on 300 hectares of private forest in Touraine.
“Things were very slow to change here, so of course the idea seemed crazy,” said the former art dealer. “But we were sold out almost instantly.”
A believer in the therapeutic benefits of trees and an avid collector of modern art, Ms. Frey developed the property to provide guests with a forest bathing experience – or shinrin-yoku, a Japanese wellness ritual of spending time in nature as a way to slow down and reduce stress. The 18 tree houses – on stilts – are spread throughout the forest and each, decorated by a different artist, has floor-to-ceiling windows, a private terrace with jacuzzi and with a noticeable absence of Wi-Fi, a silence from their surroundings. As I perched with a book on my patio one afternoon, the only thing I heard was the faint sound of a pair of wild boars ruffling the fallen leaves.
A unique attraction is the guided forest bathing walk, led by a local nature specialist. Guests can also see outdoor sculptures and paintings that appear throughout the property (useful markers, I discovered, as I walked back to my lodge in nearly complete darkness after dinner); cycle through the park or to the nearby village of Esvres; dive into the pool surrounded by larger-than-life art installations; picnic in a bento box in solitude or dine out – if and when they’re ready to join the company of others.
The treehouse concept isn’t the only change from the tradition of sleeping in a castle.
“There have always been plenty of bed and breakfasts, but the limited hotel offer has only added to the outdated image of the region,” said Alice Tourbier, co-owner of the Les Sources hotel-spa. de Cheverny, opened in September 2020.
The estate, which she owns with her husband, includes a restored 18th century mansion and outbuildings spanning 110 acres of farmland, fields and vineyards. Some rooms are located in stone houses surrounding an orchard, others are in a converted barn. Suites are available in a hamlet of wooden cabins overlooking a lake.
Ms Tourbier, who also co-runs Les Sources de Caudalie, a hotel-spa in the Bordeaux countryside, said she hoped to entice travelers to the Loire Valley to do more than just stop over. Traditionally, the instinct has been to run to see as many castles as possible, a narrow approach to travel that I’ve been guilty of adopting in the past.
“People will always want to see the castles and we are close – 10 minutes by bike from Chateau de Cheverny and 45 minutes from Chateau de Chambord,” Ms Tourbier said. “But these visits can be extended and associated with gastronomy and well-being too.”
Activities are plentiful, from yoga and horseback riding to kayaking and wine-infused spa treatments, but the Tourbiers also intended to turn the property into a culinary destination. Les Sources de Cheverny is home to two restaurants: L’Auberge, a country bistro serving hearty traditional dishes, and Le Favori, the property’s gourmet restaurant, which earned its first Michelin star in March for chef Frédéric Calmels’ modern cuisine .
For those looking for a more informal — but unique — hostel experience, Chateau de la Haute Borde is a small two-year-old guest house that doubles as an artists’ residence.
As Céline Barrère, co-founder and photographer, explains, she and the two other owners wanted to create a secluded and creative environment where artists and travelers could interact: Four of the nine guest rooms are reserved for artists in residence, who stay n anywhere from a week to a month.
Travel trends that will define 2022
Looking forward. As governments around the world ease coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry is hoping this will be the year travel comes back strong. Here’s what to expect:
“We see it as a retreat that brings nature and contemporary art together,” Ms. Barrère said.
Visitors can explore the property’s 27 acres covered in century-old oak trees, linger in the heated pool, or participate in foraging workshops, but they’ll also share communal meals with artists-in-residence and admire works by Hiroshi. Harada, Danh Võ and other artists. Conveniently, art lovers can discover more in a five-minute drive down the road at Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-Loire, renowned for its garden festival and its center of contemporary art.
But perhaps the biggest addition to the area is the one locals have been waiting for the most. Fleur de Loire, the new five-star hotel by two-star chef Christophe Hay, opens in Blois in mid-June. Occupying a former 17th century hospice, the building overlooking the Loire will house two restaurants, a pastry bar, a shop, a spa and 44 rooms and suites. But for the chef, known for his revival of cuisine using local river fish, the real ambition is to go beyond culinary experiences and high-end accommodation to preserve the region’s greatest gift. : its soil.
“I want people to see how much we can grow here and how important it is to cooking and eating well,” Mr Hay said, adding that his 2.5-acre vegetable garden using permaculture techniques , a self-sufficient farming system, and a large greenhouse will be open to the public. “That’s a big part of what makes the Loire Valley so special.”