Why Atlantic France Is Set to Take Off

Port de Plaisance Rochefort is where the frigate Hermione was rebuilt.

Port de Plaisance Rochefort is where the frigate Hermione was rebuilt.

Poitou-Charentes played a key role in securing the United States’ independence from England. Now the re-creation of a key event in the Revolutionary War is calling attention to this sunny Atlantic coastal region of France, beckoning Americans to rub shoulders with British travelers and expatriates who discovered its charms decades ago. It’s well worth visiting in its own right, and with the Loire Valley on its northern border and quick, convenient connections available to Paris, Poitou-Charentes can also be part of a diverse, extended French vacation experience, especially for your more affluent clients.

This spring will see a long-time dream become reality as the Hermione sets sail from France to America. Seventeen years in the making, the ambitious project rebuilt the 18th-century frigate that carried the young Marquis de Lafayette to support George Washington’s troops in their fight for independence. The challenge was to recreate the tall ship — the largest replica ever constructed in France — using the same techniques and materials (like oak wood and linen sails) available in the 18th century. Overseen by Navy veteran Yann Cariou, the crew of 60 volunteers and 18 professional sailors will pilot the ship across the Atlantic for a June 5 arrival in Yorktown, where the final battle of the Revolutionary War was fought. From there, the Hermione will sail the Eastern seaboard, stopping in Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Greenport, Newport, Boston, and Castine — with festive events in each port.

The Hermione project, symbolic of Franco-American friendship, has been a boon for tourism.
The Hermione project, symbolic of Franco-American friendship, has been a boon for tourism.   

Not only does the Hermione project symbolically affirm the Franco-American friendship, but it’s also been a boon for tourism, training the spotlight on the port of Rochefort, where the Hermione was rebuilt, and the region of Poitou-Charentes.

Long adored by the British but relatively unknown to American travelers, the region is capitalizing on the media attention to promote its touristic riches. Boasting some of the finest sandy beaches in France, Poitou-Charentes is also home to the town of Cognac, where maisons like Camus welcome visitors for cognac tastings and master blending workshops. On the occasion of the Hermione’s first sea trials in September 2014, Travel Agent hopped on a train from Paris to explore the Atlantic coast and, bien sûr, fete the Hermione’s maiden voyage.

Île de Ré and the Atlantic islands

There’s something about the light on the Île de Ré. Accessed via a three-mile bridge near the pretty port of La Rochelle, the island resembles a finger jutting out into the Atlantic. Basking in the sunshine for almost 300 days out of the year, Ré offers a dreamy island escape that many Parisians equate to the Hamptons in New York. The island’s de facto capital of St. Martin is a pretty village surrounded by walled fortifications created by Vauban, the Sun King’s military engineer. In the lanes planted with flowering hollyhocks, you’ll find chic boutiques and restaurants. Take a seat on a café’s sun-soaked terrace for oysters paired with a glass of Pineau de Charentes, the local aperitif, followed by freshly caught fish.

Le Clos St. Martin Hotel & Spa has 33 guest rooms and a six-bedroom villa (pictured).
Le Clos St. Martin Hotel & Spa has 33 guest rooms and a six-bedroom villa (pictured).

Cycling paths ring the island, and you’ll pass vineyards, white-washed houses with green shutters and fields where the donkeys wear traditional “trousers” to protect their legs. You’ll also see the famous salt marshes, where sea salt has been harvested by hand for centuries. The artisanal craft of a saunier (salt worker) has been safeguarded for centuries, and there’s even a school in Nantes to pass on this savoir-faire. Be sure to stop by the La Coopérative des Sauniers de L’île de Ré to pick up some sachets of fleur de sel, the salt crystals that are highly prized by chefs around the globe. Next head to lunch at Le Grenier à Sel in Ars-en-Ré, classified as one of “the most beautiful villages” in France. You’ll find delicious, terroir-driven cuisine at a good price, and the shaded terrace is verdant with olive trees. In the afternoon, climb the Phare des Baleines, a lighthouse that’s a listed historic monument, for impressive views.

Book a stay at the Le Clos St. Martin Hotel & Spa, a lovely four-star hotel that’s firmly anchored in its setting. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, the hotel occupies a traditional white building with pastel blue shutters and a red-tiled roof. The 33 guest rooms are designed in a natural palette (think white and beachy beige), and the suites come with Nespresso machines and tablets loaded with e-books. We highly recommend the garden suites with outdoor terraces.

One of the hotel’s best assets is the Spa by Clarins, housed in a spacious, light-filled building in the garden. The team of therapists have all had extensive training at Clarins in Paris, and the spa menu includes two signature treatments, “Bord de Mer” and “Chemin des Dunes,” made exclusively for the Île de Ré spa. After your treatment, head to the star-lit hammam or relax in the lounge with a Kusmi tea and handful of goji berries. In addition, the hotel has two heated outdoor pools: one exclusively for adults and the other for families.

Le Clos St. Martin has a devoted following of guests who come back every summer season. The magnificent six-bedroom villa, which opened in 2010 adjacent to the hotel, has been a big hit among clients. It’s available to rent by the week in July and August, and comes with a large garden with a barbeque and a private pool.

For VIP requests, reach out to General Manager Mélanie Lefevre ([email protected]).

Of the collection of islands offshore from Poitou-Charentes, Île d’Aix is one of our favorite destinations in France. This tiny, croissant-shaped island is completely free of car traffic, so it feels like a lost paradise, limited to bikers, pedestrians, and even a few horse carriages. Today there are only 213 residents, though the population swells in the summer. This was the place from where Napoléon departed for exile on Saint Helena, and there is a fascinating Napoléon museum filled with art and artifacts. Indeed the island’s one hotel takes its name from the exiled emperor. Overlooking the main street, the charming Hotel Napoleon only has 18 rooms and one elegantly decorated suite. Chez Josephine, the hotel’s excellent restaurant, fills up quickly on weekends, so reserve ahead. Ferries regularly depart Fouras-les-Bains on the mainland for the 20-minute ride to Aix.

The Renaissance of Rochefort

The Hermione project has been a boon for the port of Rochefort. It was here in 1666 that the Sun King decided to build a royal shipyard, protected from the Atlantic coast by the meandering bends of the Charente river. Some 550 ships would be built at this maritime arsenal, so large it would be nicknamed “the Versailles of the sea,” before the naval dockyards were closed in the 20th century. To fill the economic void, the town has looked to tourism for growth, as culturally rich sites have been transformed into tourist attractions showcasing French maritime heritage.

There is now a fascinating museum in the Corderie Royale, where the ropes were made for the French Navy’s tallships. Since the launch of the Hermione project, the ship has attracted more than four million tourists to Rochefort. Visitors can watch live demos by artisans, listen to stories by candlelight and sign up for tours guided by actors in period costume. When the Hermione returns after her transatlantic adventure, she will continue to attract the crowds.

Created in 1670, Place Colbert is the historic heart of the charming town of Rochefort.

Created in 1670, Place Colbert is the historic heart of the charming town of Rochefort.

Just outside Rochefort, Les Jardins du Lac is one of the best gourmet addresses in the region. Locals pack the restaurant for creative cuisine highlighting the region’s natural bounty. Recognized by Michelin as a “Bib Gourmand” — meaning excellent value for money — the dining room overlooks a small lake nestled in beautifully landscaped gardens. After a memorable meal, you can sleep off your food coma in one of the hotel’s guest rooms, which all come with free Wi-Fi and lake-facing balconies.

Access to Poitou-Charentes

High-speed trains connect Paris with La Rochelle in three hours. The city’s small airport is served by low-cost airlines like EasyJet, Hop! and RyanAir. Alternatively, take a high-speed train from Paris to Poitiers (1 hour, 30 minutes), which is the region’s capital and the former stomping grounds of Eleanor of Aquitaine. The historic city is rich with cultural sites, like the Église Notre-Dame la Grande, an 11th-century church with an intricately carved Romanesque façade where light shows are projected in the summer.

Chez Josephine at Hotel Napoleon is a very popular restaurant on Ile d’Aix.

Chez Josephine at Hotel Napoleon is a very popular restaurant on Ile d’Aix.

In Poitiers, we were pleased to discover a beautiful Mercure hotel, housed in an old Jesuit chapel. Just a few minutes from the train station, the Mercure Poitiers Centre Hotel has 58 rooms with unique architectural details like soaring stone columns and ornamental sculptures. The restaurant, Les Archives, is a memorable setting for a meal inside the former church nave, flooded with natural light from large arched windows. Room rates start from 120 euros/night ($136) and free Wi-Fi is included. Travel agents can reach out to Hotel Manager Corine Rouzière ([email protected], 011-33-549-509-572).

Fontevraud Royal Abbey: A Loire Valley Getaway

Before hopping back to Paris from Poitou-Charentes, your clients may wish to visit France’s storied Loire Valley wine region. Of particular interest to repeat visitors to the region is a sublime new hotel that opened last summer inside a historic landmark destination: the Fontevraud Royal Abbey.

First established in 1101 as one of the era’s largest monastic communities, Fontevraud is where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart were buried and where their recumbent statues remain. Later converted into a prison under Napoleon, the Abbey is a UNESCO-protected site and an important tourist attraction near Saumur (a two-hour train ride from Paris).

For this 16 million euro ($18.5 million) project, the Pays de la Loire region enlisted the star design team of Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku to dream up the hotel interiors. The result — as Travel Agent discovered on a recent stay — is a special place that’s steeped in history, yet groundbreaking in its deft use of technology. Everything about the guest experience has been carefully choreographed to create a sensory journey: from the unique fragrance perfuming the lobby to the bathroom soap handcrafted by a local artisan. And with a focus on sustainability, Fontevraud is paving the way for the future of hospitality.

The Paris-based design duo explained that they wanted to give life to a contemporary vision that would respect the spirit of the building. The visionaries behind projects like Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée Paris and the flagship store for Van Cleef & Arpels in New York, Jouin Manku sought to capture the building’s essence, from its monastic simplicity to its prison austerity. Every piece of décor was custom-designed for the hotel. Special attention was given to the lighting and acoustics for perfect comfort.

The 54 rooms echo the past with their pared-down look. They are furnished simply with the basic essentials, but the décor is covetable in its smart design — solid oak doors, a stool that tucks into a table, the cloth headboards angled perfectly for comfortable reading, and the oak coat hook on the wall. Even the mattresses were specially made for the hotel by the Nantes-based company Biosense. (They’re 100 percent natural, and available for purchase.) In the bathrooms, bespoke glass bottles are filled with spring water that’s sourced onsite.

Fontevraud Royal Abbey’s iBar is housed in the former chapel.
Fontevraud Royal Abbey’s iBar is housed in the former chapel.

In our room (#206), we admired the wood floors and the large window opening directly onto a garden. Suites come with sitting areas and espresso machines. Families will want to opt for one of the six duplex suites with the separate adult sleeping area situated upstairs. In fact, Fontevraud has focused on creating a number of family-friendly activities, with children invited into the kitchen to help prepare dessert. For group reservations, contact Roselyse Bastin ([email protected], 011-332-4646-1010), guest relations manager.

You’ll also appreciate the in-room technology. At check-in, you’re handed an iPad loaded with videos and helpful apps (it also doubles as your telephone, with free calls). Your media hub has its own Fontevraud original programming. This smart technology continues in the iBar, which is housed in the former chapel. Beneath soaring vaulted ceilings, the iBar is a glorious setting for a glass of Loire Valley sparkling wine before dinner at the restaurant. The centerpiece is a long, “altar-like” bar, fashioned from centuries-old wood beams. Leather seating areas are tucked into this pièce de résistance, and the tabletops are actually touchscreens where you can explore the Fontevraud story through digital maps.

Don’t miss a meal at the restaurant helmed by Chef Thibaut Ruggeri, winner of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or 2013. The experience starts with an amuse-bouche that pays homage to the Abbey’s history. Ruggeri sought to find a dish that was shared by all Fontevraud residents over time; hence it’s a riff on the simple soup served with dry bread (eaten by both nuns and prisoners). Local vegetables — such as mushrooms cultivated in local caves — take pride of place on the menu. A real highlight is the cheese tray stacked with dozens of different fromages. Private dinners can be arranged in the former refectory, where an enormous table illuminated by candle-like lights calls to mind the feasts of the Middle Ages next to a crackling fire.

The breakfast area is installed in the former cloister, with tables facing the interior courtyard, planted with an herb garden for the chef’s kitchen. When the sun’s shining, you can choose an outdoor table and soak up the Abbey’s peaceful atmosphere while eating croissants and drinking café au lait from ceramic cups created by a Franco-American artist who lives a few miles from Fontevraud.

Biking Along the River

The Loire Valley was a favorite playground of the kings and queens of France and Fontevraud is well-placed to enjoy excursions to the famous chateaux and vineyards. A good way to explore the region is by bike, and the new La Loire à Vélo connects 500 miles of cycling paths along the banks of the Loire River. But the best part of staying at Fontevraud is the unique opportunity of exploring the Abbey grounds at night when all the visitors have gone home. Nothing quite compares to strolling the gardens by moonlight.

More than a hotel concept, Fontevraud has been developed — much as its medieval-era founders dreamed — as “la Cité idéale” (ideal city). There are conference rooms to welcome business seminars and exhibit spaces for contemporary art shows.

It’s quickly become a favorite place for businesses hosting conferences, wedding parties and chic Parisians looking for a weekend getaway. The project demonstrates a masterful approach to preserving France’s rich cultural heritage, transforming Fontevraud into a lively 21st-century destination. 

Paris: The Culture Capital Adds to Its Heritage

Wherever else your clients are visiting in France, be it Poitou-Charentes, the Loire Valley or any other region, chances are their first stop will be Paris — and they’re sure to want to spend some time in the City of Light. In addition to its many well-established attributes that make this world capital a tourist magnet, a host of new cultural venues awaits.

Beyond the Louvre and the traditional art scene, Paris has unveiled exciting new museums and arty destinations. Leading the charge is the Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by star architect Frank Gehry at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. This museum alone is worth a trip to Paris — but don’t forget Picasso (more on that later).

The Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton is reminiscent of the star architect’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton is reminiscent of the star architect’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

More than a decade in the making at an estimated cost exceeding 100 million euros ($116 million), the Fondation Louis Vuitton opened to much fanfare in October 2014. The giant ship-like structure, all glass and wood, changes like a kaleidoscope as it reflects the sky, the passing clouds, the swooping birds and the water that flows beneath. As you stroll from the metro stop (Les Sablons) toward the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the children’s “amusement park” created by Napoleon III, the museum slowly emerges into view, perched at the edge of the woods, appearing to “sail” toward Paris.

Imagine Gehry’s Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and you’ll conjure something equally awe-inspiring in Paris. It was the long-time dream of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH, who described it as a great “gift” to the city of Paris, which will assume ownership in 50 years.

Inside the museum, there’s a 400-seat auditorium for concerts, a bookstore and a soaring restaurant called Frank that’s helmed by Michelin-starred Chef Jean-Louis Nomicos. Open to the elements, the museum’s terraces afford views over the treetops to the Eiffel Tower in the distance. On days when the museum is closed, it’s possible to host private events and arrange private guided tours. For more information, e-mail [email protected].

In other big news in the contemporary art world, Monnaie de Paris (the Paris Mint, www.monnaiedeparis.fr) has undergone a major restoration as it morphs into a cultural destination on the Seine. Founded in 864 by Charles the Bald, Monnaie de Paris is the oldest institution in France. The current structure dates from the 18th century and continues to create currency coins, medallions and metal jewelry. This monumental landmark recently opened some of its salons as exhibition space for contemporary art shows.

The new Philharmonie de Paris is fronted by the Parc de la Villette.
The new Philharmonie de Paris is fronted by the Parc de la Villette.

A highlight of the Monnaie’s “MétaLmorphoses” (as the project has been named) will be the new restaurant by Michelin three-star Chef Guy Savoy, which will open this spring. The chef will move his acclaimed eatery from rue Troyon to the gilded halls of the Monnaie, in a space restored by interior architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Large windows will afford views of the passing boats on the Seine.

Tip: Don’t miss a stop at Monnaie de Paris’s boutique, where unique treasures are made onsite. To arrange private guided tours of Monnaie de Paris, contact Solène Tiberghien ([email protected]).

Another highly anticipated debut was the Musée Picasso, which finally reopened, after many construction delays over a five-year period, on the artist’s birthday (October 25). Housed in the Hôtel Salé, a magnificent townhouse in the Marais district, the museum is the largest in the world devoted to Pablo Picasso’s works. The restoration has tripled the exhibition space, and the collection includes some 5,000 works by Picasso, 200,000 personal artifacts and 150 paintings from the artist’s personal collection featuring painters like Renoir, Matisse and Cézanne. The building alone is worth a visit; the architectural details (like the grand marble staircase) provide a glimpse of how the 17th-century aristocracy lived in Paris. The top-floor rooms, under ancient timber beams, overlook the rooftops of the Marais district.

The Picasso Museum is understandably quite popular; the first days of its opening witnessed a record number of visitors, and we recommend buying tickets online prior to your visit. Public group tours (in English) take place on Thursdays at 3 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. (1 hour, 15 minutes; 18 euros or about $21.) The museum also offers space for private events. For more information, reach out to Anne Cornet ([email protected], 011-331-8556-0036).

Also, now open after several delays is the new Philharmonie de Paris, designed by starchitect Jean Nouvel. The idea was to create a “new kind of concert hall” in the Parc de la Villette in the northeast corner of the city with the aim of attracting a new audience, hence democratizing classical music to a younger, less affluent audience. The previous home for the Orchestre de Paris was the Salle Pleyel near the Arc de Triomphe. Designed with a movable stage and flexible seating (2,400 seats), the building is innovative from both an architectural and acoustic standpoint.

Air France Premiers La Première Suites

Air France’s new four-suite La Première cabins are now flying regularly on flights AF010 and AF011 between New York-JFK and Paris Charles de Gaulle. This is the first U.S. route to feature the new 32-square-foot private spaces for first-class passengers. Air France has dressed each suite in suede, tweed and leather, and provided fully customizable privacy options that allow the passenger to create their own personalized space. The seat transforms into a fully flat bed over six and a half feet long and with retractable armrests that can adapt to create a space more than 30 inches wide. A 24-inch-wide table — along with an ottoman that doubles as a guest seat — invites the opportunity to share a glass of wine or a gourmet meal (five new main courses have been created for La Première passengers) with a fellow passenger. Tableware is from JM Massaud, porcelain by Bernardaud and cutlery signed by Christofle.