What do you see now in the Loire Valley in France?

I found myself in a familiar place on my pre-pandemic trip to the Loire Valley in 2018.

Ten years after my first road trip on the castle road in the area, I returned to the 500-year-old Château de Chambord, joining a small group of European and American tourists on a guided tour. Within seconds of meeting in the inner courtyard, we would raise our necks to marvel at the temple’s ornate bell towers while our guide discussed facts and dates about King Francis I and his former hunting lodge. When she dropped us off at the constellations, and scolded us for not listening, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of deja vu.

This was my third visit to the Loire Valley from my home in Paris and the whole fairy tale experience felt tired. A little beyond a converted hotel next door has changed. Not the grumpy guide running through the suggestions, nor the throngs of tourists who get off the bus and walk around each room with a quick clip. The stunning beauty that runs along the Loire River was also the same, which ultimately saved the trip.

The lack of change doesn’t have to be a bad thing: the UNESCO-protected area, which attracted 9 million visitors a year to its cultural sites and a million cyclists before the pandemic, was beloved for decades for its castles and fortresses. Rolling vineyards that produce what wine lovers consider the most diverse range of wines in France. But she arguably drew heavily on that past, relying on what seemed to be an endless stream of travelers interested only in palace commuting and cycling. With all the dramatic landscapes of the Loire and rising culinary stars, was this the best you could offer?

It’s a question local chefs, hoteliers, businessmen and regional leaders were asking themselves even before the coronavirus spread, and set their sights on reinventing the region. By the time I returned in October 2021 to meet some of them, the evolving identity of the area was evident.

“Our bike path and palace have always been great, but the fairy tale needed an update,” said François Bonnot, president of the Val-de-Loire Centre, the regional council that oversees the Loire Valley. “The French traveler has always associated this with the field trips they took when they were kids in school, while the foreign traveler has a plethora of other destinations in the country to choose from. We needed to better express the identity of the whole region.”

He went on to say that the pandemic only reinforced the need to promote the region differently as visits to key sites in the valley fell by 43 percent in 2020 and 32 percent in 2021 – alarming figures for a region where tourism accounts for 5 percent of domestic GDP, Or about 3.4 billion euros. Rethinking what it should be like to travel in the Loire Valley for the future means shifting the focus from fairy-tale castle-crawls to more strongly rooted experiences in nature, food, and the arts, all while continuing to celebrate the region’s unique terrain.

This was evident from one of my first stops, in the fifteenth century Château de Rivau. Co-owner Patricia Ligno, has been actively working to appeal to a wider audience for this storybook castle and coveted wedding venue through food, and has dedicated the past few years to produce grown and cooked on site.

The two organic kitchen gardens were half-moon shaped and overflowing with forgotten or near-extinct varieties of regional vegetables such as berry sucrine and violet celery, and more than 43 types of colorful squash. It is an official conservatory of Loire Valley produce by Pôle BioDom’Centre, a regional center for the conservation of local biodiversity.

Local produce, as well as an array of edible herbs and flowers, have been used for years in this no-frills Café Rivu. But it’s now the basis of the menu at Jardin Secret, Mrs. Laigneau’s new 20-seat restaurant set under a glass canopy and surrounded by rose bushes. I brought in Chef Nicolas Golando, a native of the area, to highlight the local bounty with dishes ranging from squash served with pickles and smoked paprika to roasted lamb with vegetables from the garden.

“Not only did our guests ask for something more, but I saw the restaurant as an opportunity to show that the Loire palaces can be heroes of French gastronomy,” Ms Linneau said.

Celebrating the land and its food is central to other new estates in the area.

In July 2020, Anne-Caroline Frey Loire Valley Lodges opened on 750 acres of private woodland in Turin.

“Things here have been very slow to change, so of course the idea seemed wild,” said the former art dealer. “But we were fully booked almost immediately.”

A believer in the healing benefits of trees and an ardent collector of modern art, Ms. Fry developed the property to offer guests the experience of forest bathing – or shinrin-yoko, a Japanese health ritual that involves spending time in nature as a way to slow down and reduce stress. The 18 tree houses – on stilts – are scattered throughout the forest and each, decorated by a different artist, has floor-to-ceiling windows, a private deck with jacuzzi and a noticeable absence of Wi-Fi, and the serenity of their surroundings. As I sat with a book on the deck one afternoon, the only thing I heard was the faint sound of a pair of wild boars rumbling among the fallen leaves.

A one-of-a-kind draw is the forest bathing walk led by a local naturalist. Guests can also see the outdoor sculptures and paintings that appear throughout the property (I discovered helpful signs, when I returned to my dorm in almost complete darkness after dinner); a course in the lands or to the nearby village of Esvres; plunge into the pool surrounded by larger-than-life art installations; Have a bento box picnic in solitude, or dine at the restaurant – if and when they’re ready to join others’ company.

The treehouse concept isn’t the only departure from the castle sleeping tradition.

Alice Torbier, co-owner of Les Sources de Cheverny Hotel & Resort, which opened in September 2020.

The estate, which she owns with her husband, includes a restored 18th-century manor house as well as outbuildings spanning 110 acres of farmland, fields, and vineyards. Some rooms are located in stone houses surrounding an orchard, others are in a converted barn. Suites are available in a hamlet of log cabins overlooking the lake.

Torbier, who also co-manages Hôtel Les Sources de Caudalie, a spa in the Bordeaux countryside, said she hopes to instigate travelers in the Loire Valley to make more than a quick layover. Traditionally, the instinct has been to race to see as many castles as possible, a narrow approach to travel I’ve been guilty of taking in the past.

“People will still want to see the castles and we’re close – 10 minutes by bike from Château de Cheverny and 45 minutes from Château de Chambord,” said Ms. Torbier. “But these visits can be extended and paired with gastronomy and wellness, too.”

Activities abound, from yoga and horseback riding to kayaking and wine-infused spa treatments, but the Tourbiers were also intent on turning the property into a culinary destination. Les Sources de Cheverny has two restaurants: L’Auberge, a rustic bistro serving traditional hearty dishes, and Le Favori, the property’s fine-dining restaurant, which won its first Michelin star in March for Chef Frédéric Calmels’ modern cooking.

For those looking for a more casual – yet unique – lodge experience, the Château de la Haute Borde is a small two-year-old guesthouse that doubles as an artsy residence.

As explained by Céline Barrier, co-founder and photographer, she and the two other owners wanted to create a secluded, creative environment where artists and travelers could interact: Four of the nine guest rooms are dedicated to artist-in-residence anywhere from week to month.

“We consider it a haven that combines nature and contemporary art,” said Ms. Barriere.

Visitors can explore the property’s 27 acres covered in 100-year-old oak trees, stay in the heated pool, or take part in foraging workshops, but they’ll also share communal meals with the resident artists and showcase works by Hiroshi Harada, Danh Võ and others. of artists. Conveniently, art lovers can find more within a five-minute drive down the road at the Domaine de Chaumont-Sur-LoireAnd It is famous for its Garden Festival and Contemporary Art Center.

But perhaps the biggest addition to the area is the one that the locals have been waiting for. The new five-star Fleur de Loire from Chef Christophe Hay, a double Michelin star, opened in Blois in mid-June. The former 17th-century residence, overlooking the Loire River, occupies two restaurants, a pastry bar, shop, spa, and 44 rooms and suites. But for the chef, known for his revival of cooking with local river fish, the real ambition goes beyond fine culinary and lodging experiences to preserve the region’s greatest gift: its land.

“I want people to see how much we can grow ourselves here and how important it is to cooking and eating well,” said Mr. Hay, adding that his 2.5-acre kitchen garden using permaculture techniques, a self-sustaining farming system, and a large greenhouse will be open to the public. “That’s a big part of what makes the Loire Valley so special.”

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