These days, it's pretty much compulsory for hotels and holiday rentals to flag up their eco-credentials, be they investing in low-energy technology or merely urging guests to reuse their towels. If such efforts appear feeble in the face of our ailing planet, there are no such concerns at Earthship, a self-sustainable, zero-carbon gîte in rural Normandy.
The first Earthships were built 30 years ago in Taos, New Mexico, by Michael Reynolds, an eco-architect and proponent of sustainable living. Discernible by their sloping glass fronts and roughly finished adobe walls, his semi-underground dwellings resemble something from Mad Max.
The style hasn't changed much. The Normandy Earthship in Ger isn't pretty, but what it lacks in aesthetic appeal it makes up for in intelligent design. It is constructed from recycled materials: the thick exterior is insulated with old tyres crammed with earth, while the interior walls have multicoloured bottles embedded in cement made from mud and straw. It is also entirely off-grid, operating independently of mainstream services thanks to natural resources – sunlight, wind and rainfall.
Of course, sustainable living isn't always easy. Drinking water is harvested from rainfall, so on dry days making a cup of tea can take a while. (Bottled water is provided for impatient guests.) A more pressing problem is the lack of ventilation, which, combined with the abundant indoor foliage (see below), results in an overwhelming damp smell. If you're asthmatic, as I am, the poor air quality is a real problem. I resorted to lighting the wood-burning stove to dry the place out. It worked a treat, though, given the Earthship's no-waste philosophy – and the fact it was high summer – this felt very wrong indeed.
Being half underground, the three bedrooms are inevitably dark but also wonderfully quiet. Magenta and navy fabrics, introduced in a recent make-over by owners Kevan and Gillian, provide a rich and elegant counterpoint to the mud-coloured walls. Four-poster beds and wrought-iron tables, meanwhile, bring a quirky stylishness to the sleeping quarters. The same can't be said for the main living area, where uncomfortable, throw-covered sofas and a tired-looking kitchen let the place down.
The food and drink
While Earthship hasn't yet stretched to growing its own baguettes, its aim is to produce a significant amount of food in the garden, in which a small orchard has been planted, and in interior "botanical cells", containing grape vines, banana plants and orange and lemon trees. Guests may help themselves to whatever looks ripe – we plundered the outdoor blackcurrant and raspberry bushes. For further supplies, Ger has a butcher, boulangerie and a small supermarket, while there are plenty of restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets in nearby Mortain.
There's Wi-Fi access along with a small television and DVD player. Eco-friendly cleaning products are provided, though guests are asked to bring their own biodegradable toiletries so as not to damage the sensitive water filtration system. There are lots of good days out nearby, most of them free. An assortment of trails and cycling routes allows visitors to explore local woodland, and there are some spectacular waterfalls in Mortain. Fosse Arthour, a large lake, is a 10-minute drive away and provides a terrific spot for a picnic.
With all the rooms situated on one floor, Earthship is ideal for wheelchair users. Children and pets are welcome.
Fiona Sturges travelled to France with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittany-ferries.co.uk). A week's self-catering break at Earthship through One-Off Places (01285 750713; oneoffplaces.co.uk) costs from £480 to £599 per week. There are deals for shorter stays available in winter.
Earthship Perrine, 42b Rue de la Sélune, Ger 50850, Normandy, France.