Far and Away in France

Far and Away in France

Gilles de Chabaneix Gilles de Chabaneix
Gilles de Chabaneix
Gilles de Chabaneix
On an undiscovered stretch of French coastline, a master chef and a stylish hotelier have refined the art of escaping from the world. Welcome to Huchet, a tiny retreat where the motto is 'Keep it simple'

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.


WE WERE STAYING IN THE CARPENTERS' LODGE. As we fell asleep we left the windows wide-open so we could listen to the music of the waves. The next morning, daylight did not wake us; neither did the breakfast bell, which Max rang once, twice, three times at 8:30 (as we had requested the night before). We didn't hear a thing. We didn't stir until 10:30, something that had not happened in years. "People always sleep well here," Max said when we arrived at the dining area underneath the pavilion's arcade.

A brunch that had been prepared and re-prepared, because we were so late, awaited us. No lunches are served at Huchet, all the more reason to do justice to brunch. A variety of products were brought over from Eugénie during the night and set out on a lovely blue and white tablecloth. There were stewed apples, the very best yogurt, fresh orange juice and eggs, thin slices of serrano ham, and Ossau-Iraty, ewe's-milk cheese from the Pyrenees. There simply was no restraining my appetite.

The sun was shining and the day was beginning to turn hot, so we went to salute the ocean with a walk (this was to become a morning ritual for the duration of our stay). At Huchet, the ocean is beyond taming—though at your peril, you could try to ride the monumental rolling waves. Cut off from everything, we had slipped into such a state of easy osmosis with nature that all our worries of the previous weeks were washed from our minds. It was in this state of peace and relaxation that we turned away from the shore and headed for the dunes. As we passed by the Pavillon Anglais, we were surprised to see Christine and Michel sitting underneath the awning on the sundeck.

The Guérards are so taken with their Maisons Marines that they now and then sneak away from their smart clientele at Eugénie and drive for an hour to drop in on their favorite haunt, the pavilion that Christine never stops decorating—the place that is her private folly, her dream come true. "Vive le rêve," or "Long live the dream," as one visitor wrote in her guest book. Today, Christine and Michel had come to bring supplies to Huchet, including bunches of fresh verbena in a large shrimp basket, as well as the first sample of Christine's new perfume, Eau de Jardin, which she spent two years creating. (It was to join her many other spa products in the bathroom.)

THE DUNES—OR LETTES, AS THEY ARE CALLED in the local dialect—are deceptive. From afar, I had somehow assumed that they would be fairly monotonous; yet when we wandered into them, we found that hundreds of species of coastal flora make for a wide and unexpected variety of fragrances and colors. Their flowers are white, yellow, blue, violet, and in some instances even red, and they rotate with the seasons.

Atop one of the dunes by Huchet's pavilion is a metal tower, some 100 feet high. Its triangular shape is of abstract simplicity and makes it look more like a Calder sculpture than a sailors' beacon. It was built 136 years ago by Gustave Eiffel, commissioned by the French Ministry of the Navy as a landmark for ships. I felt that there was a certain poetry in finding shades of Mr. Eiffel way out here in the Landes. What's more, a straight line drawn across the ocean leads to the Statue of Liberty, built on the opposite shore by another Frenchman, Bartholdi.


Baron Boulart did not build his hunting lodge by the Forêt Domaniale de Vielle-St.-Girons for nothing: over these woods fly larks, ortolans, wood pigeons, cranes, gray herons, wild geese, and ducks, but the only grace I got to taste was in their description. A three-day stay at Huchet is not long enough to see it all, and in the course of a year Max, Martine, Michel, and Christine are the only people to have caught glimpses of these wild birds that no hunter will ever disturb, since this area is a protected nature reserve.

The Courant d'Huchet, a fairly large stream that runs toward the ocean, may well be the most striking feature of the whole place. Boulart, who clearly had an exotic streak, planted bald cypresses, royal ferns, hibiscuses, and white water lilies along its banks. Small boats steered by guides will take you on a trip over its waters and let you revel in the banks' various fragrances—which we did not do, as I felt I had absorbed enough nature and wanted to return to the inn for a hot bath, a log fire, and a meal.

THAT NIGHT, WE WERE SERVED GRILLED TURBOT bathed in olive oil and lemon, and endives caramelized in butter, lemon juice, and cream. Dessert was irresistible: pithiviers, almond pastry with apricot sauce. The Guérards call their guests adventurers, but no adventurer that I know of ends his meals with pithiviers. From my childhood, I remembered Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, who made do with a tin of monkey meat or grilled snake.

Back in our little cottage, Martine had seen to it that tall yellow candles had been lit in every corner of the sitting room and bedroom. Oak logs were burning in the fireplace. A huge vase held about a hundred oranges. We stretched out on the Indonesian wickerwork sofa and let the flames slowly melt the ocean's raw chill from our bodies.

The next morning we slept so deeply that we again missed the breakfast bell. This time, however, a critical thought crossed my mind for the very first time—there were no shutters. Daylight was pouring in through the embroidered curtains. I later spoke with Christine about it. "It's a question of fidelity," she said. "When we bought the pavilion, the boat shed, and the lodge, we swore that we would be true to what Huchet had been in the past." There are shutters on the main house because Baron Boulart put them there. The carpenters woke when the sun rose.

We were faithful, too. Faithful to the brunch that came this time with the regional newspapers Martine had brought. (Newspapers, did you say?I had forgotten all about them—and, large-scale consumer of papers that I am, I realized I had not missed them.) Faithful, also, to our ritual stroll into the dunes and forest, picking herbs and flowers for bouquets to put in our cupboards back in Paris.

We did, however, break our vow not to set foot in our car, for at the Guérards' suggestion we took a 20-minute ride to Lévignacq, a virtually deserted village. The architecture of its 14th-century chapel, L'Église de St.-Martin de Lévignacq, is characteristic of the Landes region, with its classical façade and sharp steeple. The interior is stunning: the walls of the nave and choir are adorned with carved cherubs and frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ and various saints—in a somewhat naïf, 18th-century Baroque style. They are the work of local as well as Italian craftsmen who, at the behest of the devout and mystical villagers, put much emotional intensity into their artwork. We immediately understood the reason for the Guérards' recommendation that we visit this church, for it contains the very lines that sum up Huchet. The abbot Rousselet, one of the main figures responsible for the church's restoration, had the following inscribed on one of its walls:

LE CIEL SOURIT (Heaven smiles)
L'ENFER GRONDE (Hell growls)
ET L'HOMME DORT (And man sleeps)

At Huchet, the heavens had smiled upon us. Hell's growls had of course been the eternal ocean's, and as for man—that is to say, us—we sure did sleep. Slept so well, enjoyed superb food, and forgot all about time.

Huchet, 33-5/58-05-05-05, fax 33-5/58-51-10-10; doubles from $5,950, including four nights at Les Prés d'Eugénie and three nights at Huchet. The rate covers some spa treatments at Les Prés d'Eugénie, meals, and activities.

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