By Anita Draycott (September 2014)
If ever a nation has mastered the art of living well, it’s the French. Think Champagne, foie gras, haute couture, fairy-tale castles, Cognac and more. Sprinkled liberally with magnificent châteaux and famous vineyards and blessed with gastronomy second to none, the Loire Valley is a Francophile’s dream. Add some outstanding golf to the mix and you’ve got a swinger’s getaway with a delicious French accent.
Warning: If you’re looking to play 36 holes a day and are happy to hang out in a no-frills motel with a Big Mac for dinner, STOP reading now. This is not for you.
Rule #1: Eat, drink & sleep in a château
Our hedonistic romp began at the Château D’Artigny, a Relais & Châteaux property in Montbazon. Inspired by Versailles, French parfumer Francois Coty built D’Artigny with the royal treatment in mind. A spa occupies the former chapel. Two minutes down the road at Chef Olivier Arlot’s La Chanceliere, we savoured every morsel of his eight-course surprise menu. Back at the Château, we selected a nightcap from a staggering collection of vintage Cognacs.
Chateau du Pray five minutes from the Royal town of Amboise, is a cozy fifteen-room gem. The dining room overlooks a veggie garden tiered down to the River Loire. Sometimes I find that Michelin-starred restaurants can be a bit staid but here they combine flawless friendly service with fabulous food. Go ahead and have the duck in wine sauce, but save room for Chef Brisset’s signature dessert, an ethereal blackberry soufflé.
At first sighting the Château des Sept Tours seems like a mirage. The 15th century architecture, set in the middle of nowhere, includes a fairytale roofline with seven towers and turrets. As we drove up the lane, a white swan positioned itself postcard-perfectly on the pond in front of the 18th green. At Sept Tours you get your golf, bed and dinner all in one spot. Reserve a table in the conservatory dining room for yet another gastronomic feast. Who has the willpower to resist the fois gras presented with an onion poached in local red Chinon wine, or the filet of beef served with truffle-studded mashed potatoes and a rich mushroom sauce?
Rule # 2: Walk don’t ride
French golfers walk. Perhaps that’s how they stay so trim after multi-course meals and buckets of wine. Don’t expect to rent a cart.
You know you’ve arrived at Golf de Touraine when you see the sign for the foie gras farm. Guests are welcomed at this undulating parkland track with mature forests and meandering streams. The château clubhouse, overlooking the 9th green, is a lovely place for poached salmon and chilled Sancerre.
Opened in 1991, Golf du Château de Cheverny meanders around the ancient hunting grounds of the region. It’s most unique hole, the par-three 17th, requires a drive from a pathway that bisects a large pond.
Sept Tours golf is flat but challenging due to the narrow forest-lined fairways and water everywhere.
Rated one of France’s most beautiful courses, Orléans Limère snakes through the dense Sologne forest. Designer, Cabel Robinson’s signature 18th is a short par-four with an almost-island green. After your round, go for a soak at Les Balneades Spa.
At Les Aisses, rated in the world’s top 100, I thought I’d made a wrong turn and had arrived in Scotland. Russell Talley has sculpted the 27-hole heathland-style course with fescue, heather and gorse. Bunkers are craggy, deep and deadly.
Rule #3: Drink the wine
Stop at wineries all over the Loire and sample Sancerres, Chinons and more to your heart’s content. Most don’t charge.
Rule #4: Don’t overdose on châteaux
With over 70 diversified displays of grandiose architecture, the Loire Valley is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Where to start?
Villandry, has a lovely château but its six Renaissance gardens (complete with a maze) are amazing. Marvel at the four themed love gardens (tender, passionate, flighty and tragic). The decorative vegetable gardens are truly works of edible art.
At the invitation of King Francois I, Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life at the Château Clos Lucé in Amboise where he orchestrated lavish festivities for the court. The lower level is full of models of his inventions from catapults to clocks.
If it’s feeding time, you might hear the howls of the hounds kenneled in the park near Château Cheverny, owned and still inhabited (in the right wing) by the Marquis de Vibraye who maintains the stag hunting tradition. His château is the most exquisitely furnished of them all.
See the largest château in the Loire with a private guide who will unlock secret doors and lead you down hidden staircases. Built by King Francois I, Chambord is a palace of paradoxes. With 400 rooms and 77 staircases, the place has been occupied a mere twelve years over five centuries. Francois I never intended it to be home sweet home, instead he wanted to flaunt his wealth and power.
Known as “the ladies castle” Chenonceau was dominated by a series of femmes fatales including Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who was eventually ousted by his wife, Catherine de Medici. It sits prettily over the River Cher.
I flew Air France to Paris. At the airport I hopped a TGV train to Tours where I rented a car from Avis.