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Paradise Found in a Little Corner of French Countryside

SmarterTravel

On a recent road trip in southwest France, I stumbled upon an old farmhouse that turned out to be a vacation paradise. It’s the kind of country residence you read about in novels by Peter Mayle or Francis Mayes. Only this one allows you to spend the night.

La Benjamine, considered a chambre d’hôte de charme (a B&B with an extra je ne sais quoi) has only been up and running since October 2005 but has the authenticity and passion of a centuries-old dream. Conjured from the collective imaginations of owners Cédric and Dawn, the inn invites visitors to immerse themselves in French culture while completely letting go. For me, it is a destination in itself, filled with relaxation, amazing food, and good friends.

My three-day stay included accommodations, most meals, and on-site leisure activities like chasing the house cat Snuggy up a cherry tree and napping by the vineyards. And though there’s no need to leave the property, I did venture off on a couple of day rambles through the surrounding countryside in search of cheap Spanish tapas and some mountain air. Added all up, the total cost made my $500 budget seem excessive, mainly thanks to the affordable luxury at La Benjamine.

Cédric, a Frenchman with a curly mop top and a casual wardrobe of cotton shirts and comfortable shorts, wins guests over as a first-rate chef without any pretense. His equally talented counterpart Dawn, an ex-pat Brit, uses her botany background to grow produce that helps sustain the restaurant side of the inn and to beautify the grounds with daily-tended gardens. Unassuming in every way possible, both are great conversationalists that will have you entertained for hours as they eat with you every night in between prepping and serving courses.

According to Cédric, “We feel we offer a totally different experience in that we share our meals with the guests around our farmhouse table while sharing experiences of our life and this region of France.”

Staying at the inn

Located near the major city of Pau, this Béarnaise farmhouse rests among Jurançon vineyards in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The B&B portion of the structure was once a barn, which is still evident in the triangular windows originally used as breathers for hay and straw. Inside the house, two warm sitting rooms make guests feel welcome, and an inviting kitchen takes center stage as the true reception hall.

Four guest rooms bear names evoking the couple’s duo of passions: Sauge (Sage), Bergamote (Bergamot), Hysope, and Fenouil (Fennel), herbs and aromatics that both use in either cooking or flower arranging. The freshly renovated rooms have an airy country feel with all the conveniences today’s discerning travelers require. For instance, Dawn insisted on rain showerheads and enormous bathtubs as a contrast to the cold, spitting faucets she remembers back in England. L’Occitane toiletries are a constant reminder that you are in France.

Though my room was called Sage, it more closely resembled creamed butter and country bread, with its soft yellow walls and natural-fiber linens colored like barley and white whole wheat. This same image was recreated every morning at breakfast when Cédric laid out baskets of warmed baked goods alongside fresh chilled butter. In addition, the cafe table grew top heavy as he piled on four types of homemade jam, cups of fromage blanc (a nonfat French yogurt), and the larger-than-life “chamber pot of coffee,” as termed by Dawn.

A bit more robust than the typical croissant and coffee you’d expect in France, breakfasts are included in the room price, which starts at just €85 per night (about $117, see XE.com for current exchange rates) for the Sage and Bergamot rooms. Hysope costs €95 and Fennel €110. Though you can come during the summer to lounge or winter to ski, rates remain constant year-round.

Dinners will cost an extra €42 per evening. The four courses stretch over hours filled with laughter while you eat with the hosts and other guests as if you were one big extended French family. I originally signed up for dinner one night with the intent of exploring regional restaurants, but by the first course, my attitude changed to “Why bother? Everything I want is right here.”

Keeping it local and in the family is the bon mot at La Benjamine. Sweet and dry Jurançon white wines, made from nearby vineyards, accompany every meal. As for the food itself, Cédric describes his dishes as “traditional cuisine cooked with time and passion respecting the seasonal ingredients.” He says, “The main aim of the garden is to provide the house with as much fruit, vegetables, and flowers as we can. Anything we do not produce ourselves is sourced locally, keeping food within miles and supporting local suppliers.”

Food presentation will make you wonder why you ever cared about Michelin stars. Dinners are plated on earthenware, crafted one piece at a time, over several years by a French potter. Around the edges, little sayings like “Les copains d’abord”(friends first) peek from under colorful sauces and garnishes, reminding you that you’re considered more than just a guest. Extra attention to detail goes beyond what you’d find at even the fanciest restaurants. For example, on my birthday, Cédric surprised me with a dessert plate decorated by piped chocolate scrollwork, showcasing a molten chocolate cake and candle.

Leaving the inn, if you must

With such great service, one would wonder why I ever left the inn during the day. The short answer is that Cédric and Dawn encouraged me to do it. Because of La Benjamine’s superb location within arm’s reach of Basque Country, the Spanish border, and the Atlantic Ocean, it would be a pity to come this far and not explore the region. To ease planning anxiety, Cédric will draw up mini-itineraries that will have you back in time for an aperitif at 7:00 p.m.

His Basque country loop requires a mid-morning drive along the highway westward past Bayonne and down to the seaside town of Hondarribia, Spain, for tapas. Hopping from bar to bar, I spent €12.50 on small plates of meatballs, Basque ham sandwiches, fried seafood fritters, and a glass of wine. After lunch, the route heads back to France, stopping in Biarritz, the famous beach resort purlieu of the rich and famous.

On the way “home” to La Benjamine, I took the winding roads through the heart of French Basque country, where colorful alpine-styled A-frame homes dot the hillsides. In Espelette, famous chili peppers, Piment d’Espelette (this website is in French only), hang out to dry on strings dangling from houses and shops. I bought a jar of crushed peppers from the butcher for €4.50 to keep as a souvenir.

Finally, an afternoon snack was in order at Saint Jean Pied de Port, a historical town that is almost as fun to say out loud as visit. This stopover on Jacob’s Way, a medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, is the place to find local wares like espadrilles, spices, and charcuterie. The wine bar Cave des États de Navarre (in French only) specializes in a Basque beer called Akerbeltz and Jaxu cider; however, I ordered a glass of red Sangria for €2.50 to drink with a plate of Brebis, a local ewe’s milk cheese typically served with black cherry preserves for about €10.

My second, and much shorter, day excursion took me through the nearest peaks and valleys of the Pyrenees. Within 45 minutes from the inn, my lumbering car competed with brave souls training for the Tour de France, as well as wannabe tourists trying to keep up, as the course twisted uphill. It’s sad to say, but several cyclists beat me to Col de Marie-Blanc, a plateau overtaken by cattle and wild ponies. On the way back, Au Chemin des Crêpes near the village of Rébénacq serves savory and sweet filled pancakes for lunch. For me, €10 just about covered my tomato-and-goat-cheese crepe. Service is slow, so kick back and gaze at the mountains from the outdoor patio.

I recommend enjoying the remainder of your leisure time at La Benjamine. You won’t spend anything extra, and you can indulge in the pleasures of what a vacation is supposed to entail. As Cédric says, “We want our guests to take with them a feeling of complete relaxation, having had the time to wind down and also to leave well fed.” I heeded his advice by resting poolside and strolling through Dawn’s expansive rows of lavender and wildflowers. And by the time I finished my last La Benjamine meal, I could honestly say I was a great deal more than well fed, and I have the waistline to prove it.

Cost breakdown

  • Three nights, shared double room: $176 per person (€127.50)
  • Dinners: $174 (€126)
  • Tapas: $17 (€12.40)
  • Peppers: $6 (€4.50)
  • Sangria: $3.50 (€2.50)
  • Brebis: $14 (€10)
  • Crepes: $14 (€10)

Total: $404.50

Though I drove as part of a larger French road trip, an easy way to reach La Benjamine is to fly to Pau on Ryanair, which offers service to/from London’s Stansted airport. Also, when driving around the countryside, be sure to factor gas into your budget as it could cost around €50 to fill your tank each time.

Come back next month when I’ll tell you about a last-minute trip to Bainbridge Island near Seattle.

If you’d like to comment, please email me at editor@smartertravel.com.

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