I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to this weekend – I love France, I love wine and I love sexy hotels. How could Bordeaux not be perfect? I had a hunch it was going to be amazing, but let me tell you – it was one of the best weekends I ever had.
Things got to a great start when we landed at Bordeaux Airport (a very early flight from London meant we were in French soil before 10am on a Friday) – it is not every day that one feels tempted to jump on an (unused, for the record) luggage belt just to feel loved. And there was plenty for everyone – apparently.
We got our car and within 20 minutes, made our way to the sleepy town of Bouliac, located 15-20 minutes from Bordeaux city centre, on the other side of the river. Away from the noise and the cars. Just what we wanted.
I was expecting great things from the Saint James Bouliac, a Relais & Chateau hotel, which I knew it was going to be a one of a kind. Formerly a restaurant, the 18th-century farmhouse now housing Le Saint-James was transformed and enlarged in 1989 by Jean Nouvel. The architect designed four pavilions, each connected to the original building, to create the hotel’s guest rooms. The architect even sought to preserve their rusty, chipped, patinated appearance, leaving everything as authentic as possible.
We were blown away from the minute we arrived – and there was also something about it I couldn’t put my finger on. Our room wasn’t ready as we were really early, so we took the time to wander around the hotel. The sun was shining and the views were calling us. Not difficult to understand why.
When we got to our room, we couldn’t quite believe it – I was expecting quirky and unique, with a touch of French je ne sais quois, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Yes, a Harley in our room, adequately named… the Harley Suite, of course.
The room was absolutely fantastic – and the views were amazing. It was also the highest bed ever, and I am not ashamed to say I required some assistance. I am only 1.60m tall!
But we were starving, and it was certainly time for lunch. We were test driving a new gourmand package organised by the hotel, which included most meals too. The hotel has not only its acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant, but it also runs a quirky bistro in the town square, the Cafe de l’Esperance, where we were to have a lunch and a dinner.
We had a great meal at this Bistro, frequented also by locals and regulars. The ambience was quite something – everyone going for the Menu du Jour, having a glass of wine with lunch and just going about their day. We couldn’t have felt more welcome. I couldn’t resist one of my favourites: steak tartare with a glass of Rose.
In the afternoon, we decided to head into town. I had never been to Bordeaux (or indeed seen many pictures of it), and I have to say: it was lovely. It had some grandeur to it – amazing architecture, blending the old and the new very well. It also had some great shopping and I couldn’t resist helping the local economy.
I also made a little stop to continue a tradition: head into a hairdressers the moment I arrive into a French location. There is something about it – they know how to do it unlike the rest of Europe. My hairdresser French is extremely limited and somehow, without many words (this time I made another mistake, I said no to something which turned out to be conditioner, oh well), I always end up with great hair. I visited again another branch of Camille Albane, which is a chain, and I had use it before in Paris and in Cannes. Cost for a blow dry: €23. In Cannes and Paris? €38-50. A winner, indeed.
We came back to our room, where we just relaxed for a few hours before what was one of the most useful hours I have ever spent with someone in my life: a lesson in French geography and wine history with Ricard Bernard, who heads the hotel’s F&B and was also a ‘meilleur sommelier de France’. In other words, a guy who knows a thing or three about wine. And likes to draw things on paper – and spent an hour with us not drinking wine, but telling us all about the French wine regions and all its varietals. We had to drink a glass at the end just to test the knowledge.
As we had a long day (we were up at 3.45am), we chose to have the first dinner back at the Bistro – we wanted something simple and it was just perfect. We were also very lucky that a farmers market and party was in town that day, and everywhere we went it was so busy, and alive. The food stalls smelled amazing and it was just so interesting to see people socialising, starting their weekend. We were totally with them.
We ended our evening walking around the town and slept like babies.
We had a really early start on Saturday – we were at breakfast at 8am, which is certainly not normal for us. Why? I hear you ask. Well, we had organised to spend our day in and around Saint-Émilion, a lovely town which produces some of the best local wines and with the Saint James’ concierge help, we managed to get 2 tastings organised for that day. I thought it would be a matter of turning up to various wineries but that is not how it is done in this part of the world. This is important information and do allow for a few weeks’ notice when you plan your trip.
Saint-Émilion is 40 minutes away from Le Saint James and the drive was very easy. Our first of two stops was the fantastic Chateaux Fontplegade.
We spent over 2 hours at this chateau and were very impressed with its facilities – it was beautifully designed (and I have been to a few wineries around the world) and we were then surprised to find out that this chateau was owned by an American wine-making family. There were some touches (good ones) which really set this place apart. The wines (paired with cheese, and at a cost of €30 per person, for a private visit and tasting), were outstanding. I also fell in love with the grape jelly, which was very unique. We brought 6 bottles one and cannot wait to try them.
When friends asked me how many vineyards I was visiting and my answer was 2, people were very surprised. I love wine, but I don’t want to walk around and drink 5 or 6 glasses of wine for no reason. I believe that less is more, and we had a long day ahead – with plenty of excitement! Wine with me goes with food – and what we wanted was an outstanding lunch. We made our way towards the centre of Saint-Émilion, which was, how can I say it… magnifique.
Saint-Émilion is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux along with the Médoc, Graves and Pomerol. The town is also a UNESCO world heritage site and seriously pretty. We just walked around, having our look around the sights and the (many) wine-related shops.
We were looking forward to lunch – very much so. We had booked a table at L’Envers du Decor, a local institution. We had a table in the outside patio and our meal, which was very simple, was nothing short of perfect. The foie gras and the accompanying Sauternes was the highlight of my day so far, and one I won’t forget for a while. Life is all about the little things, things was one of those moments. Lunch for 2, with 2 glasses of wine was €68 – and outstanding value for money.
From lunch, we headed to Chateau de Ferrand, which was our second and final wine tasting of the day. We indulged in a ‘discovery’ tour, as we couldn’t possibly eat anything else and had a very enjoyable hour with its sommelier, who also showed us around the estate.
A bit of history: this chateau is owned by the heirs of the Bich family. Remove the h and who doesn’t know Bic (yes, pens and lighters!). The chateau’s wine also recently became a Grand Cru Classe, which demonstrates the ambition and investment put on this project. We also purchased 6 bottles of wine (the plane trip was interesting!) and looking forward to reliving some memories. Fab ones.
We made our way back to the Saint James and just chilled for a bit. We felt really at home and was lovely to know we didn’t have to go anywhere else. We just sat in the outdoor area by our room and enjoyed the views.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner – and we were in for a treat! The venue: the fab Saint James restaurant ‘gastronomique‘ and its views of Bordeaux. As part of our Saint James experience, came the 5-course menu, which was delightful. I tried really hard to make it to dessert, and I am so glad I did. Everything was very good but the best thing? The service. Gregoire and his team were outstanding. I mentioned earlier that there was something different about this hotel and I couldn’t put my finger on it – and then there was light. People were smiling at us. In France. All. The. Time. I do not wish to offend a whole nation – I adore France, and there are some things that you take for granted when you go to France. Smiles in a restaurant? Absolutely not. Here? Well, it made this weekend completely different.
And before you say anything, no – it wasn’t just for Mr. and Mrs. O. I saw an Asian couple bring their own bottle of champagne to the garden just to sit down and enjoy. I wasn’t expecting to see a waiter come in with glasses and tell them to enjoy.
We ended our evening at the bar, where we tasted some different Armagnacs. Just a little night cap…. yum!
With our flight departing at 10pm, we had a whole day to enjoy and relax. So we decided to get it started like we never do – but with the little outdoor area and the vineyards view, there was one thing that needed to happen: breakfast in bed. Or in the patio. We needed to eat early(ish) as we had an interesting morning ahead: a cooking lesson.
The Saint James has a cooking school, which is one of the other things it is renowned for. We were joined by another couple, who had recently moved from Paris to Bordeaux and we were to discover the delights of cooking one of France’s staples: le canard. Oui, le duck.
The lesson starts at 11am and ends at 2pm, with lunch included (and a glass of vin, of course). We made 2 of the courses (but you get the dessert prepared by the proper chef!). We made brick pastry (well, we did not make it, but we put things in it), and the best thing in the world: duck and mango tartare. The main course, duck breast with Asian vegetables was cooked by the instructor, but we did all the prep, promise!
And after a great morning (I was seriously blown away), we did something that just needed to happen. We spent the rest of our time by the very inviting pool. The weather was fantastic and I couldn’t care less about my fab French hair.
I don’t know where time went, but before we knew it, it was 6pm, so after a shower and changing, we had one last experience: a bit of fromage, charcuterie and a glass of rose. Because we were hungry, and because we had to end this weekend on a high note.
We had one of the most special weekends I remember in my life. Everything was perfect, and simple – I couldn’t think of anything else I would want or need.
Bordeaux and the surrounding area was much more than I ever expected. And the best thing? It is only a 1h20m flight away. I am so going back for more.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Le Saint James Bouliac, on a trip organised by Kirker Holidays. A two-night break, including British Airways Flights from London Gatwick, private transfers, two nights accommodation, lunch and dinner in the Bistro, dinner in the gastronomic restaurant, wine tasting session and a cookery class costs from £992 per person, based on two sharing. To book call Kirker Holidays on (+44) 20 7593 2283 or visit its website.