The recipe for perfect family holidays? A secluded beach house, endless sand dunes, superlative food and dense pine forests. Lydia Gard revisits the French Atlantic coast and discovers a beautiful bolthole.
Party people, you can keep the Riviera, with its brash beach clubs, villas booked a year ahead and cosmetically-enhanced crowds. We’ll take the wild Atlantic coast near Biscay, a flawless wilderness of dramatic shifting sands knitted by grass and held fast from the west winds by pine forests.
This is where I grew up, in a sense. Every summer my parents (both teachers at the time) would sling their caravan onto the back of the Volvo and we would drive south for the summer, to miles of sandy forest trails sprinkled with fragrant pine needles, to bike rides, horse-rides, campfires and beachcombing. To sticky apricot croissants. My sister and I would bodysurf and bury each other in the sand, carving mermaid tails. There was no glamour, no turn down or satellite TV, and my memories are poignant and powerful.
I wanted to take my own family there, to walk ankle-deep in the hot sand, watch my kids catch the oozing sap of the pines as it trickles down the bark, catch grasshoppers and huddle around a beach fire before crashing out, salty and sandy – albeit not in a caravan, thanks all the same.
And I found a place, less than a mile away from our childhood campsite, where a long forest track leads to a solitary hunting lodge, aloof on the brow of the dunes.
The English Pavilion, built in 1859, oozes colonial charm in its current incarnation as the family beach house of lauded French chef and hotelier Michel Guérard. Along with two bathhouses (former boathouses) and a chapel it comprises the tiny hamlet of Huchet which, for most of the year, is still the Guérard family retreat. But the three properties are available for savvy families looking for a quiet, secluded and extremely chic bolthole.
Being some 100km from the main hotel Les Pres d’Eugenie, only a small proportion of guests combine the two properties. More fool them.
While it may be unassuming from the outside, the decor of the main house is worthy of a World of Interiors centrefold: from the oil paintings and the vast bath to the writing desk, daybed and carefully placed curios, it whispers old-money and good taste. Don’t worry about breaking anything, it’s been well thought out. The antique furniture is solid and sturdy and everything is gently careworn, not opulent.
The properties can be rented individually or, taken together sleeping up to 13, making this the perfect place to quietly relax and regroup, or bring the grandparents, your siblings or family friends for an intimate hideaway, celebration or long-overdue catch up.
If not travelling in a large group, most visitors sleep in one of the two unassuming sun-bleached lodges, which offer extra space and equally grand décor as well as the chance to stalk lizards in the herb borders.
But whichever house you sleep in, it’s such a home-from-home that you quite quickly get accustomed to the incredible service. This is ‘all inclusive’ like you’ve never seen it: food and drink is included and the private chef, housekeeper and hostess are at your beck and call throughout your stay.
Eat breakfast in the main house or sit in the shade of the Pavillion’s wraparound veranda while you pick at the plates of exquisite pastries, chocolates, cakes or canapés that come out of the kitchen in a seemingly endless stream. Chef Vincent has been working under Guérard in the main hotel for five years, and here, he is in full command of the kitchen, while hostesses Claudine and Josephine glide about, discreet yet charming, pro and personable in equal measure. They will set kids on a treasure hunt, produce a picnic from thin air and ensure your every whim is catered for.
While it’s a far cry from my childhood caravan, there’s nothing even remotely resort or hotel-like about it – that does means that the beach is unmonitored and little kids need to be watched closely in the rolling swell, but more importantly, the miles and miles of sand dunes and breezes are all yours.
And yes, you pay for this level of experience, it will leave a dent in the most padded wallet, but for a special celebration, I can’t think of a better bolthole.
The Wifi is patchy and you’ll have a job getting phone signal, but you won’t care. You came to Les Maisons Marines d’Huchet to get lost in the dunes, trek along the forest paths on horseback, collect enormous fir cones to build fairy dens and, with any luck, stretch out in the shade on the boathouse terrace with a good book and a glass of Guérard’s house Champagne, quietly celebrating your decision to come to this awesome place.
Travel Time: Flights to Bordeaux 1hr 20mins, transfer, 1hr 45mins.
Sleeping Arrangements: Rose des Vents sleeps five in one double, a day bed and twin beds on a mezzanine. Allouette de Mer has one double and a daybed, sleeping three. The English Pavilion sleeps a further five in two doubles and one single.
The Skinny: All stays at the Huchet houses include brunch, picnic baskets for the beach, afternoon tea, dinner by the private chef, all drinks (including wine and aperitifs), bicycles and boat trips.
Book it: Michel Guérard (+33 5 58 05 06 07; www.michelguerard.com).Lydia Gard is the editor of Mr Fox and an avid traveller. She has two boys, aged 3 and 6. Follow her on Instagram @mrfoxmag