Get back to nature: Alastair Sawday picks his favourite French getaways
A writer should seize the imagination in the opening sentence. Well, how about "a retired fishing boat that has become a cottage", or "sleep in a sweet-smelling hayloft"? Irresistible. I want to be there immediately. If I still had young children I would haul them there in the full certainty that they would not want to leave. And I, of course, would be in intimate contact with my inner child, the one who once built elaborate dens in a similar hay loft.
These places are the stuff of dreams, from unique spots where an outdoor shower – screened by willows and beside a frothing stream – is the height of luxury, to the magic of a terrace in the treetops. Real luxury, rather than the ersatz, humdrum hotel-y kind, comes in all shapes and sizes.
To slip out of the cabin, straight into the lake for a pre-breakfast swim, and then idle away the day on the lake or in the woods, a book under one's arm and wine in a knapsack – that is the sort of holiday that I remember. Or do I just dream of it?
For decades France has carried away most of the holiday prizes for British travellers. You need look no further than these places to find out why.
These properties can be booked through: Canopy & Stars: canopyandstars.co.uk
Sleeps two, £45 a night. Extra children (with sleeping bags) £10 per night.
Sleep in a sweet-smelling hayloft in a working barn, originally a 14th-century French presbytery. It's a hayloft fit for a discerning guest, with a hand-painted mural on the wall, vases of fresh flowers and, of course, plenty of hay. The hay itself is covered by canvas and then authentic French linen sheets, bedding, blankets, and pillows – and what it lacks in minibars and trouser presses it makes up for in romantic charm. You are welcome to join Anna, who's a wonderful cook, in preparing dinner, and pick up some tips over a glass of wine from her seriously good cellar. Your shower is another marvel: an outdoor willow-screened affair by the river, shared with the other unusual bed, Kingfisher Deck.
Sleeps two, £85 a night with breakfast.
A retired fishing boat that now has a roof of thatch, and looks even more at home on land than at sea. It's been transformed into a gorgeous, nautical-themed space for two, with little touches of the sea everywhere – there's even an old mast standing in the middle. It sits in the garden of a B&B run by Pierre and Patricia, who will give you breakfast in the morning and make sure everything's shipshape. Right on the coast, this is the place to come to fill your lungs with sea air, and there's a stylish shared kitchen good for steaming a kilo of mussels. It's an unusual place to stay in a picturesque region.
Sleeps two, £85 a night
A real first: Anna, the owner, has collaborated with a local artist to create the Kingfisher Deck, a double bed in the outdoors on a deck next to a bubbling stream. In case of raindrops, she's set up a canopy floating overhead, and for privacy there's some discreet willow screening around you, but otherwise you'll feel like the whole of the outdoors is your bedroom. The same craftsman has constructed an outdoor washing space – also screened – so you can shower in the open air, and you can barbecue too if you wish, so you need never go inside at all. Bring your sketchpad and spend some lazy hours exploring Suze.
Three treehouses, sleeping two to six people, from £180 a night.
Rémi is a master craftsman who has built his reputation constructing treehouses throughout France. The noble trio at Châteaux dans les Arbres – Hautefort, Monbazillac and Milandes – show a sophisticated approach to cabins in the trees. All three are constructed in the style of traditional French châteaux, one of which once stood on this very site. They're amazing constructions with old-fashioned interiors and big terraces, with a hot tub in case you fancy a dip under the stars. There's nothing you'll miss from a hotel here – there are coffee machines, a chef on hand, and beautiful bedrooms. The real châteaux of the Dordogne are very close, as are the famous caves of Lascaux with their fascinating prehistoric art.
Roundhouse for two, from £55 a night
A glorious, romantic roundhouse in south-west France – truly a bizarre find, tucked among the curves of a French country garden. The walls of the roundhouse are dotted with recycled bottles of coloured glass, sending shafts of red, blue and green light into its cosy, rustic interior. You have a simple, private kitchen, shower and loo down at the site, and there are stunning views over the hills of the Dordogne to enjoy. Hester, your host, keeps free-range bantams and can point you towards the sights and activities of the area – there are lakes for swimming, lanes for walking, villages to explore – but the estate itself is a relaxed one, a truly romantic escape with peace, quiet and starry skies.
Tower for two, from £60 a night
La Folie is a beautifully furnished tower at the top of an old house which combines the calm and beauty of the surrounding French landscape with the Indian-themed decorations and trinkets inside. Inspired by Pascal and Pascaline's travels and set in beautiful gardens, its hand-carved balcony looks over the rolling hills and forests spreading out below you. This quiet, unusual house festooned with prayer flags makes you feel on the very top of the world. Ask for one of Pascaline's picnics and then take the opportunity to explore the numerous footpaths leading directly from La Serve; alternatively there are plenty of outdoor activities in the area, which is famous for its light red Beaujolais. Make sure you leave space in your car to take home a bottle or two.
Earthship for six, from £70 a night
The Earthship: an extraordinary, extra- terrestrial-looking dwelling made of natural and recycled materials. Strangely beautiful, it's built to an inspirational design and is the perfect living environment. The Earthship quietly collects and conserves energy and water, powering itself and filtering all waste. A jungly garden lines the interior corridor while the exterior showcases fruit trees, a wind turbine and stunning views of Normandy. Three big bedrooms, a bathroom and a large hobbitty kitchen and living area are tucked away under the hill. Castles, lakes, grottoes and wooded cycle paths mean there's plenty to see in the surrounding area.
Treehouse for five (two adults + three children), from £210 a night
Set in the grounds of a château, this red cedar and Douglas fir creation in the trees looks out over the vineyards of Eric's estate, which grow grapes for red Bordeaux. From the enchanting chandelier in the wood and the canopied bed set with fairy lights, to the mezzanine level complete with giant beanbags and a trap door, there's something to dazzle all. Breakfast is served on the terrace with views over rolling hillsides, and dinner can be found in a restaurant nearby – Le Robinson, on the river. Also Eric can stock the fridge with chilled champagne, or anything else (made of grapes) you please.
Yurt for two, from £65 a night
The peaceful, rolling, rural scenes of the Dordogne are the perfect setting for this natural canvas yurt, handmade by Wendy and Matt, who are experts in willow working. A bottle of wine and homemade cake welcome you to this unspoilt spot, perfect for a lazy summer holiday in the outdoors. Stay at Chez Devalon for wide open spaces, huge skies for stargazing, and captivating countryside all around; a cosy yurt to go back to, and incredibly friendly hosts who'll make you feel part of a little community here. La Cabushe is off-grid, and has its own private kitchen, outdoor shower and green compost loo.
Cabin for four, from £70
Sit on the deck with a fishing rod and see if you can bring yourself to catch the tame carp that lark about alongside the Fisherman's Cabin. This gorgeous little shack on the water's edge has everything you need to amuse yourselves; nature guides, art materials, games and books, a private raft to paddle about on the lake and miles of woodland to explore. The hide in the trees will let you get close to wild deer, shy birds, and the odd mushroom forager. There's one double bedroom downstairs, and a snug twin in the attic looks over the water. Nearby markets are overflowing with produce, some little gems of restaurants too. Bring your own canoe.
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