This 13th-century French château in the Cognac countryside could be Europe’s best off-the-beaten-track destination
Guests can pick vegetables for their dinner from the working farm at the château, bike through the countryside, row boats on the property’s ponds and get treatments at what used to be the working mill
When luxury hospitality group Auberge Resorts Collection was looking for its first property in France, the company didn’t pick a grand dame Parisian property or a chic villa in the Provençal lavender fields.
Auberge wanted something off the beaten track, and headed southwest, to the Cognac countryside and found Domaine des Etangs, a 13th-century château set on 2,500 forested acres. The hotel itself looks straight out of a fairytale storybook, with towers, turrets and rolling meadows. And it’s intimate: there are just 17 rooms and suites.
The property officially joined the 26 hotels and resorts in the Auberge collection in April, which got its start in California’s wine country. In the 1980s, Auberge du Soleil originally brought fine dining to the Napa Valley.
Most recently, Auberge last year introduced Wildflower Farms, which quickly became a playground for New York City dwellers to explore the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley for $1,000 (€937) a night. CEO Craig Reid says the company has wanted to expand in Europe for quite a while, but prioritised its East Coast establishments, such as the Vanderbilt in Newport, Rhode Island.
“When people come to France, they go to Paris or Normandy or Provence,” Red says, adding that in those locations, tourists no longer need to bring their French phrasebook along with them now that many in the industry speak English. That’s not necessarily the case outside Domaine des Etangs, he says.
He’s betting that his customers, especially experience-seeking millennials, will make the three-hour train journey from Paris (or two-hour drive from the Bordeaux airport) to experience life at a slower pace.
The 13th-century property was once the fiefdom of the knights of Chasteignier de la Roche-Posay — a stronghold on a road that connected the cities of Limoges and Angoulême. King Richard the Lionheart passed the small moat bridge on the property many times.
French billionaire Didier Primat purchased the property in the 1980s and diligently restored the castle for use as a vacation home. After his 2008 death, his daughter Garance opened the château as a hotel in 2015. Domaine des Etangs has been maanged as an Auberge property since April.
Auberge is overhauling some of the hotel’s offerings, too. The restaurant menu will switch from fine dining and move toward authentic, local food. Little things, like including universal chargers, need to be taken care of. Farm tours and chef-led mushroom picking outings will be added to help guests acquaint themselves with the French countryside.
Cognac country is great for those who love the namesake beverage. Remy Martin and Hennessy are made locally, and the hotel offers day trips to the city to sip and explore. Bordeaux’s famous vineyards are a 90-minute drive south for those who prefer sampling the region’s remarkable red wines instead.
Guests can pick vegetables for their dinner from the working farm at the château, bike through the countryside, row boats on the property’s ponds and get treatments at what used to be the working mill. The couple’s treatment room is in the mill’s wheelhouse, with wooden ceiling beams that wouldn’t look out of place in Beauty and the Beast.
It’s a perfect destination for Francophiles who want to escape the crowds of tourists in the summers in France. In 2019, 90 million international tourists came to France, making it the most-visited country in the world. Reid still thinks tourists will come to Paris in big numbers — and add on a different experience after they visit the city of light.
Rooms had been priced at about €625 per night, but Reid says this is too low compared with similar properties in the region. Prices will be increased to more than €1,000 a night in high season.
Reid says he’s proven the company can create a new, sought-after destination. Just look at the success of Wildflower Farms, which opened in September on the relatively industrial west side of the Hudson Valley, he says.
“People thought we’d be by the east side like Rhinebeck or Hudson, but Wildflower was sincere and authentic,” Reid says. “We’ve made it a destination.”