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Far and Away in France

Gilles de Chabaneix

Photo: Gilles de Chabaneix

Where is the end of the earth?Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world?the depths of Antarctica?The frozen islands of Franz Josef Land?

How about France?

Indeed, there's a still-undiscovered place in my own homeland, a country that has been catalogued, listed, and Michelinized to death. On France's Atlantic coast, between Bordeaux and Biarritz, lie 120 miles of untouched beaches—Europe's longest stretch of sand, bordering one of its largest pine forests. And there, far from civilization, is an inn called Huchet (pronounce that t: "oo-shet").

This set of three simple-yet-stylish Maisons Marines, or oceanfront houses, is owned by Michel and Christine Guérard, who also run four hotels at Eugénie-les-Bains, a cosmopolitan meeting ground 55 miles away known for its thermal baths and spa menus. The couple has been famous for 30 years, he as an imaginative chef and a founding member of nouvelle cuisine, she for her decorating skills and discriminating taste.

Together, they have created a new hotel concept that is complex in its very simplicity. Here's the hitch: to gain access to Huchet, you must first have stayed four days at a Guérard hotel in Eugénie-les-Bains. "Huchet is a place you must deserve," Christine says. Guests who like to keep sending a dish back to the kitchen and need four staff members to bring them the morning paper are out. Huchet is for people who like their independence, who don't call for help all day long, and who are content to be by themselves. "It is like a home, where conviviality, good humor, and a lack of pretension are the rule," she says.

EVEN THOUGH I WAS BORN IN THIS PART of southwestern France, and my wife, Françoise, and I were frequent guests at Eugénie, we felt as though we were exploring virgin territory on the way to Huchet. An hour-long drive from Biarritz took us through pine forests into the deep green of the Landes countryside. We turned off onto a series of deserted dirt roads covered with pine needles. At the end of the last road, as narrow as a footpath, we came upon Huchet, set on a grassy, sandy patch between two dunes.

Built by Baron Charles-Eucher Boulart in 1859 as a hunting lodge, Huchet's main building, the Pavillon Anglais, doesn't look like other houses in the area or, for that matter, anywhere else in France. There is something oddly Asian about its bright yellow walls trimmed in red, and its pagoda-shaped roof of pink terra-cotta tiles. (Boulart took his inspiration from trading expeditions in Asia, Louisiana, and the West Indies.) Beyond the pavilion are two grayish-white wood buildings that have taken on the color of sea spray. One is a former boathouse; the other once housed the carpenters who built the baron's lodge. These two large sheds have been faithfully restored, and each can accommodate a couple. They both have a large bedroom with Asian antiques and a fireplace, and a bathroom with a tub made of pearl gray marble.

Huchet's managers, Martine Daubin and Max Fabères, emerged to greet us. Throughout our stay the couple would care for us as if we were guests in a private house, yet do so with a hotelkeeper's grace and know-how, all the while maintaining a courteous distance. They strictly follow the precepts and instructions of Christine and Michel, whose presence is tangible everywhere, from the "oceanic" entrées we were about to eat down to stylish decorative touches such as a row of apples lined up across a windowsill.

It was late in the day, so we strolled down to the beach to enjoy the sunset—although beach isn't really the word. Space is more like it. The entire expanse was ours and ours alone, as the dunes, forest, ponds, and rivers would be in the days to come. Before we'd left for Huchet, a friend had told us: "The first day, you try to take it all in. The second day, you begin to understand and love it. By the third, you start storing it up so you won't forget."

Dinner was exquisite family-style cooking. A light tomato soup contained a mirepoix of finely diced onions, leeks, and carrots; grilled sole in olive oil and lemon sauce was served with grilled leeks and potatoes. But Max assured me that with Michel's health-minded dishes I ran no risk of putting on weight. During the meal, Françoise and I looked around and mused upon Christine's wonderful decorating skills. The two porcelain stoves (it gets cold in the dunes at night) conjured up thoughts of Salzburg. A rug made by the Iranian Ghashghai tribe took us to the Middle East. The 19th-century tables and armchairs from the days of Empress Tz'u-hsi transported us to China. Outside, near a 150-year-old linden tree, were driftwood chairs and benches made by Mimi, a gifted yet little-known artist from the Camargue region.


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