During the Renaissance, the Loire Valley became the most fashionable leisure retreat of the French aristocracy. From the end of the 15th to the beginning of the 17th century, the nobility commissioned the magnificent châteaux for which the region is renowned. Two hours south of Paris by car, the Loire Valley begins in Orléans and ends 155 miles downstream in Angers. It has long been a classic itinerary, which explains why there are so many good hotels, many of which seek to offer an approximation of the experience of spending a night at a château, with formal service and traditional French décor. Just before the pandemic, however, a spate of new hotel openings showed that the Loire was evolving. A restaurant boom and the increasing excellence of the local wines have also enhanced the area’s already impressive gastronomic credentials. On our recent visit, there were several days when we didn’t tour a single château but instead lingered over lunch, enjoyed wine tastings, went for long walks or bike rides, and relaxed in the spa.
Relais de Chambord
After leaving Paris, our first stop was the village of Montlivault, outside Blois, where we had lunch at La Maison d’à Côté. There, chef Christophe Hay has won two Michelin stars for his light contemporary cooking. A native of the region, Hay is the grandchild of dairy farmers and the son of a butcher, so he had intimate knowledge of local produce long before he launched his career (which included many years in the kitchen of the late Paul Bocuse).
A 15-minute drive from Montlivault, the 55-room Relais de Chambord was created originally from 17th-century kennels, which once housed the hunting hounds of King Francis I. Located directly opposite the vast 426-room limestone Château de Chambord, it has an unparalleled location. At reception, we were surprised by the contemporary décor of the small lobby. Here, as in the bar and other public spaces, there is a sharp break from the traditional pomp that has dominated Loire Valley hotels for decades. Paris architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte was responsible for the makeover of the hotel, and its décor now combines antique drawings, prints, historical maps and early black-and-white photographs with an intriguing selection of contemporary art chosen by Marie-Laure Jousset, for 20 years the head curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The design conveys a respect for the past, as well as a desire for the Loire Valley to reinvent itself for the 21st century.