The French Connection – inside Chateau Capitoul, a luxury Irish getaway in the south of France
I had dreamed of the French countryside for over a year.
At the start of 2020, I was preparing a long break in France, with nothing but warm croissants and cold rosé for company. But, of course, Covid quickly put an end to that. And everything else, for that matter.
So, after months of dreaming, the moment I arrived at Château Capitoul seemed to me a fantasy made flesh. The sun was just starting to weaken, casting a rosy glow on the creamy walls of the 19th century castle. On the terrace, guests gathered for the sunsets, watching the sun set over the vineyard (which was actually planted in Roman times). The vines turned dark pink to match the cocktail in my hand, a blushing mix of vodka, lavender and champagne with a little sprig of soft, velvety lavender hanging from the glass.
Sometimes the reality does not live up to the dream, but in this case it absolutely is.
There are eight rooms inside this particular chateau, located near Narbonne in the Languedoc region of southern France, and mine could have been taken directly from my French fantasies. A deep roll-up tub sitting by the giant window (with a bouquet of garden herbs to soak in). The bed was as soft as a puppy’s belly.
In addition to the castle rooms, there are 44 villas, a stunning infinity pool, and two restaurants – the gourmet Mediterraneo and the laid-back Asado, where food is cooked over wood-fired grills and eaten with the family (even bread charred that I ate, brushed with spicy olive oil and baked over steaming vines, was to die for). The Asado, which includes the main terrace, is where most people gather each evening, whether for a cocktail or a glass of the excellent wine made on site (you can do a tasting in the cellars ).
There is also a nifty spa, where I received what was perhaps the best massage of my life – and I can say it with conviction, as a former massage therapist.
The castle itself has been painstakingly restored by Karl O’Hanlon and his wife Anita Forte, a couple from Dublin who started their business in 2008, just as the recession hit. Over the past 13 years they have converted two other properties – Chateau Les Carrasses and Chateau St Pierre de Serjac – with Chateau Capitoul being their third and final. Both have a passion for interiors, design, and antiques, which is clear to see with the rooms dotted around. On my floor of the castle, there was an antique chandelier designed by Hector Guimard, who also created the immediately recognizable entrance gates of the Paris metro. During the lockdown, O’Hanlon’s daughter (a design student from Central Saint Martins) restored this chandelier and all other chandeliers as she returned home with the family. There are 15,000 works of art throughout the property, some with pages from rare nature books, framed by a local man who is a former rugby player.
While they had to face a global financial crisis for their first property, Château Les Carrasses, it was the Covid that caused the headache with Capitoul. The property was purchased in 2011 and development started in 2014 so it took a long time.
“We were supposed to open in March of this year, but Covid has taken over that last stretch,” O’Hanlon tells me. “But it’s like that. For us, it’s not all about making money. Our goal was to create something that allows us to live exactly the life we want to live. It’s about the life it gives us, but also our entire team.
The key to their whole philosophy was timing – when they started their business their kids were very young and they saw a gap in the market. “When you go on vacation for the first time with your kids, you realize that everything has changed,” he says. “You try hotels, or villa rentals, or family resorts, but nothing works. Our idea was to buy a winery and include the best elements of a hotel, the best elements of self-catering, the best elements of a resort, and to wrap it all in the feeling of a five stars. It’s attentive, but relaxed and laid back. And that’s what we still do to this day.
This is where the villas are the key. While the chateau rooms are perfect for couples, the spacious villas offer the best of both worlds: a dreamy and romantic setting with all the facilities of a boutique hotel, but privacy and space to relax. with family. Each has a slightly unique charm, but with the same perks, such as pretty pools, stunning outdoor dining areas, and fully-equipped kitchens. Some have dedicated office spaces, so people can come in for longer breaks on a “job.” But it’s not just families – the week I was there a group of old friends took over one of the villas for a girls’ getaway, to make up for all the lost birthdays Covid had stolen.
From the very beginning, the goal was clear. “When we came up with the idea for the business, we said we wanted the properties to be seamlessly integrated with their environment – physical, natural, economic, cultural and social. It was our line when we started the business in 2008, and we have never changed it.
One of my scarecrows is a hotel that claims to champion sustainability while ignoring the social elements of the concept. In other words, a hotel with a recycling bin in the room but a total absence of social policy. This is not the case here, where there is a huge emphasis on their people and their community. In addition to finding specialized roles for people with mental health problems, who may have difficulty finding employment elsewhere (Anita is a psychologist by training and is passionate about this field), they champion community projects chosen by their staff. .
“Environmental integration is not just about the natural environment; it’s about how you fit into the social community. I wanted this to be the kind of business I would be proud of, ”says O’Hanlon.
This corner of the south of France, Languedoc, ticks all the boxes when it comes to a heavenly French destination. Château Capitoul is close to the pretty town of Narbonne, which is home to a fairytale cathedral and an epic market. Even closer is the village of Gruissan, a ramshackle combination of crumbling medieval buildings and a wide expanse of beach. You can access either place from the castle by a wide, traffic-free cycle path. Take one of the chateau’s free bikes and you can cycle past rolling vineyards and tall, rolling grasses, along the banks of the Sainte-Marie Canal.
A 30-minute fast bike will take you to Gruissan Beach, where the sands are shared by volleyball players and bodysurfers, jumping into the hot, choppy waves. Oddly, there is something akin to Miami Beach, especially on approach, as you pass wooden beach houses built on stilts.
But the real joy is in the Big Sun (legrandsoleil.com), a beachfront restaurant overlooking the waves, where families dig into giant vats of mussels and chips. They even have their own take on mussels in the sea, with chunks of local sausage and tomato.
After a quick return in the other direction, you will find Le Salin de Gruissan – wide salt plains whitened by the sun, where the waters are a curious shade of pink. The color is the result of the algae that live in the water, but the illusion is captivating. Seated at one of the tables in the lively restaurant of La Cambuse du Saunier (lesalindegruissan.fr) the water went perfectly with my glass of rosé.
Giant cast-iron pans were brought to the table and placed on trivets, the slippery knives sizzling and charred, the flesh sticking to the bottom of the pan in a sticky, beautiful heap. I don’t know what made me happier – dipping fresh bread in the butter juice at the bottom of the pan or then sliding into a perfect globe of their famous salted caramel ice cream.
There was something infinitely alluring about those calm, rosy waters. Maybe it was the rosé, maybe it was the distant sight of the flamingos, maybe it was the joy of being somewhere other than my apartment in Dublin. But suddenly life just seemed a little more rosy.
Details: Rooms from € 196 per night, B&B; two-bedroom villas from € 345;
see chateaucapitoul.com. Fly to Carcassonne (less than an hour away) with Ryanair (ryanair.com).
When normal flights resume, you can also fly to Perpignan or Montpellier. View Covid travel restrictions on reopen.europa.eu. Nicola was the guest of Château Capitoul.
Take three: stays in French chateaux
The Moulin sur Célé
The former owners of Harvey’s Point in Donegal, Deirdre McGlone and Marc Gysling, are now setting their sights on the Lot Valley, where they operate their own rental chateau. From 550 € (three nights minimum). lemoulinsurcele.com
Domaine des Etangs
This 13th-century chateau was a family home before it became a five-star hotel, and is surrounded by dreamy lakes and forests. There are seven bedrooms, each with beautiful period features. Rooms from € 400, B&B. domainedesetangs.com
Chateau Troplong Mondot
Fresh out of a vast restoration, this wine estate has just launched accommodation in a charming hotel, in addition to its state-of-the-art wine estate. There are incredible views all the way to Saint-Émilion. Rooms from € 250, B&B. troplong-mondot.com