One mom recalls her family's favorite vacation chateaux, manor houses and villas in Europe and shares exclusive B&B sources.
Charles-Henry de Valbray, one of France’s youngest chateau owners, greeted us in charmingly accented English at the door of his home, St.-Paterne near AlenÃ§on in Normandy. Leading the way, he showed us upstairs through antique-filled hallways to the room where we were to spend the next two nights. Our room was large and beautifully decorated, as were all ten rooms in this delightful country property.
Adjoining was a small room with a wood-frame bed for our son, then 8-years old. Charles-Henry explained that this had been his room when he came to visit his grandfather as a child. We looked out at the expanse of lawn and gardens from our windows and smiled. This was just what we’d been looking for in the gray, short days of late November in France.
If your imagination has ever turned to thoughts of country life at home with the Europeans, this is your chance to live it. These welcoming and often English-speaking owners will share their knowledge and love of their region and will direct you better than any guide toward sights and experiences you and your children will remember for a long time. You may well be invited to share a glass of wine before a dinner of regional specialties, hear the history of the family home and meet adventurous travelers from around the world. Your children will play with other young guests and family relatives, transcending language barriers.
Our many stays at these country homes have yielded a rich bank of memories: a walk in the orchard to collect apples for that evening’s tarte tatin, playing catch with a friendly Doberman, an Easter egg hunt in the hills of Umbria and exploration by horseback of Roman ruins. Best of all are the friends we have made and the doors that have opened. At some properties, the owners will sit down at tables with you (with advance reservation), a rare opportunity to experience European country life at its best! Here are my favorite resources—-I give you my key.
Chateau Country includes over 900 chateaux properties in all regions of France. Some of our favorites for families include Manoir de Blosseville in Normandy, the Chateaux des Briottieres, du Plessis-Anjou and du Bourg in the Loire Valley, le Chateau de Varennes in Burgundy, and Chateau Domaine du Val in Brittany. There are many more. Breakfast often included; apartment rentals also available.
Reservations: DMI Tours, Houston, TX,800/553-5090, fax: 281/596-8785.
DMI Tours also books properties for another group, Chateau Hotels de France. Ferme de la Ranconniere, in the Bayeux area of Normandy, is a medieval farmhouse which serves fresh food from the countryside. Junior suites are 180-190€ for this property, which includes breakfast. Chateau de Sully (250-420€/N) is another notable property in Normandy.
Gite de France’s annual multi-lingual guide, “Chambres d’HÃ´tes de Charme,” is available outside France at specialty travel and French bookstores, and offers 950+ of their best B&Bs and more than 50 country homes for rent by the week or weekend, ranging from chateaux, to meticulously restored manor houses, to farms.
Reservations: Contact owners directly; phone, fax and languages spoken are listed in the book.
Rates: from 60€/N, prices vary widely for family rooms sleeping 3-4 (adjoining rooms frequently available). Breakfast included.
Solemar began as a small collection of country estates of friends and family. Its tempting catalog now includes hundreds of rentals, B&Bs and residenze (most in Tuscany and Umbria), carefully rated by tranquility, dÃ©cor and setting and described in great detail in words and photographs.
Some of our favorites for families include Il Lebbio in Tuscany, with its 17th century mansion, Podere Moricci in the countryside around Montaione, and Villa Gigliola with its fine wine and olive oil. The memories of meals we have enjoyed in dreamlike surroundings still make our mouths water and our eyes sparkle: fresh artichokes from the fields surrounding the farm, a knot of mozzarella in the center of the table, Umbrian holiday specialties at Easter, and an autumn meal of nothing but porcini mushrooms brought to our castle door by a village woman carrying an immense basket.
Reservations: Vacanza Bella, CA; 415/554-0234; e-mail; email@example.com; Villas of Distinction, CA; 800/289-0900. Rates: from 90€/DBL/N, including breakfast. Family apartments, extra beds, cribs, suites and discounts for young children often available; minimum stay and half-board may apply during the summer.
Bed and Breakfast in Italy is an Italian based internet search service that provides descriptions, contact information, and booking for B&Bs all over the country. Many descriptions include links to individual property websites, which is also very helpful.
Solares de Portugal and TURIHAB offer up to 100 rural palaces, manors, and country home B&Bs, most located in northern Portugal, as well as rustic cottages and farms. Many have been in their owners’ families for generations and often date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Reservations: SdP and Turihab, Portugal; 351/258741672, fax: 351/258741444 Rates: 65-125€//N/DBL; 130-140€//N apartment sleeping four, all including breakfast.
Key Tip: In Portugal, families are advised to take a private apartment within a castle or manor house for added space and comfort.
The Friendly Homes of Ireland offers a large selection of properties, including private country homes, country inns, B&B’s, and family run hotels, welcoming children warmly and often offering cots (cribs), children’s meals and babysitting. Particularly attractive to families are the many gardens, farms, lakes and castle ruins nearby. Rental apartments and outbuildings are also available in gate lodges and converted stables.
Reservations: Friendly Homes of Ireland, Ireland; phone: (+353) 28893557 975; fax:(+353) 288 9282. Advance booking recommended: 4-6 weeks for Easter, 3-4 weeks for summer; 8 weeks Christmas, though last minute reservations are sometimes possible!
Rates: Average 45€/N per person.
Key Tip: The agency recommends you stay at least two nights at a property and make daytrips to appreciate the region, and will provide car rentals and suggested itineraries. Kids are welcome in country Irish pubs during both the day or evening (day only in the cities), making family outings easier.
Wolsey Lodges offers over 200 family-owned manor houses and elegant country homes in Scotland, England and Wales, plus special locations in France, Italy, and Spain. Many feature heirloom antiques and furnishings; age restrictions are indicated in the catalog. My family visited one in southeastern England near Christmas time, where we attended a caroling concert and heard the owners sing and play the organ. It was a treat.
Reservations: Wolsey Lodges, England; 44/1473/822058; fax 44/1473/827444
Rates: from 55-68€/N pp including breakfast.
Key Tip: From our experience, it’s best to save Wolsey properties for children over 8, although there are those that welcome babies and will provide crib, bottle warming, and price reductions. Brochure request is available from the web site, for a small fee.
Another idea: Call this toll-free hotline, a central reservation agency which arranges bookings at hundreds of B&Bs throughout the UK. The agency can make suggestions and provides confirmations within 24hrs. Rates include tax, service and full English breakfast. 15-20% off-peak reductions apply as well as reduced ‘family-four room’ rates all year round. Children under 7 years old are accommodated free. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or book online www.bedbreak.com.
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