Secret Hotels of the Loire Valley
Just a two-hour detour from Paris, the Loire was once a playground to Renaissance royals. Now its vaunted châteaux are attracting enterprising young couples and artists who have remade them into captivating—and surprisingly affordable—inns.
Le Clos d'Amboise
Surrounded by 10-foot-high limestone walls, in the heart of the old market center of Amboise, this 17-room mansion inn offers an unexpected sanctuary from the town's bustling, narrow streets. The bedrooms come equipped with decorative elements such as mahogany four-poster beds and original fireplaces, while the common room features wood floors modeled after those at the Palace of Versailles. Most of the rooms overlook the hotel's private park, landscaped with 100-year-old magnolias and a pine tree that survived the French Revolution. A pool by the rose garden is perfect for a cool dip after relaxing in the wood sauna, housed in a former stable. Just a 10-minute stroll from the hotel stands the riverside castle that belonged to King François I—part medieval fortress, part Renaissance royal house. The king became famously enthralled by Leonardo da Vinci during a 1515 excursion to Italy, and he set up the painter in a gabled redbrick château (now a museum), just down the road from his castle. 27 rue Rabelais, 011-33/2-47-30-10-20, leclosamboise.com, closed Dec.–Jan., rooms from $98.
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Auberge de Launay
Between the two of them, François and Hélène Thévard have honed their hospitality skills at some of the world's most well-respected hotels, including Le Meurice in Paris and the Savoy in London. After years helping manage other people's properties, the couple—with their two small kids, Emma and Alexandre—packed up their Paris apartment and bought an unassuming farmhouse in the secluded hamlet of Limeray to convert to a 15-room inn. "I grew up in the region, so when we made the decision to open our own place, I knew that I had to come back to the Loire," says François. In keeping with the spare design of the house, the decor at the Auberge is simple—bedrooms are outfitted with neutral suede sofas, blond-wood floors, and minimalist photographs of daisies and landscapes. The duo oversees the daily lunch and dinner service at the on-site restaurant, which serves local specialties such as butter-poached Loire eel, and chicken with mustard cream. The house dessert, a salted-caramel fruit tart, is baked with apples picked in the hotel's orchard. Le Haut Chantier, 011-33/2-47-30-16-82, aubergedelaunay.com, closed Dec. 15–Jan. 15, rooms from $72, two-course dinner from $26.
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Château des Tertres
This mansion in the heart of the Loire once belonged to the mother of novelist Marguerite Duras (who mentions the château in her famous work The Lover). Later, in the 1960s, its marble hallways were filled with students from a nearby engineering school, which used the building as a dorm. In 1992, another curious owner took over management of the 14-room château: Bernard Valois, an artist who kept the mansion's 19th-century detailing (high ceilings, gilded mirrors) but added contemporary design flourishes, such as a photograph of a mysterious pair of eyes in the foyer. Last year, Valois and his wife, Christine, redecorated a former gatekeeper's house as a contemporary four-room cottage with knockoff Jackson Pollock paintings and sculptures that resemble enormous eggs. "My husband likes to turn things that seem ordinary into the extraordinary," Christine says. "He designed a 'Sputnik' bidet that has Japanese robots stationed around the tank." Valois also tends a 12-acre garden of roses and clematises, where guests can find a shed stocked with complimentary bikes for exploring the area's 186 miles of riding paths. 11 rue de Meuves, 011-33/2-54-20-83-88, chateau-tertres.com, closed Oct. 19–Apr. 1, rooms from $94.
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Auberge du Centre
When Gilles Martinet's grandmother found herself widowed at the end of World War I, she started selling milk and eggs to make ends meet. One thing led to another, and her home eventually became a guesthouse and restaurant specializing in French country fare, like chicken sautéed in fresh cider. Three generations later, Martinet is now proprietor and chef of this inn, which has 26 brightly decorated rooms in shades of sage and rose, as well as a flower-filled garden terrace out back. He has kept the breakfast area much the way his grandmother designed it, with rustic stone walls, an ample fireplace, and simple country furnishings. There are bicycles available to rent ($14.50 per day) for excursions to the Château de Cheverny, about five miles away. 34 Grande Rue, 011-33/2-54-70-42-11, auberge-du-centre.com, closed Feb., rooms from $78, entrées from $17.
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A two-hour drive southwest of Paris, the Loire Valley is known for its earthy cabernet francs and hundreds of majestic castles. It's impossible to see them all (a visit to one château can take half a day), so it's wise to focus on the worthy ones: Chenonceau, the graceful riverine palace that once belonged to Henri II (chenonceau.com, $13); Chambord, which has a double-helix staircase inspired by the designs of Leonardo da Vinci (chambord.org, $12.50); and Cheverny, renowned for its flamboyant, gilded interiors (chateau-cheverny.com, $9.75).