Le Barn Hotel review: horsing around in Île-de-France

Just 30 minutes from downtown Paris, this unique luxury spa hotel and stable was carved out of an old mill


I hear the clip-clop of hooves from the stables, followed by the satisfying sound of oats being munched, punctuated by snorts and whinnies. Such sounds are synonymous with agrarian life.

I’m at Le Barn in Bonnelles, Île-de-France. This country-house hotel is a first for France. The 500-acre estate and 19th-century watermill is the latest project of architect Antoine Ricardou and the owners, energy magnate William Kriegel, and hotelier Edouard Daehn, who have created a charming countryside house spread over converted barns, a farm and a mill transformed into a spa. It’s only thirty minutes on the train from Montparnasse station, or a 35-minute taxi ride from Orly airport.

There is something about the countryside that puts us in a slower mode and resets our psyche. Guests can enjoy the rural lifestyle here and cultivate simple pleasures. The gentle ambiance is as if staying at a friend’s country pad. Lounge on the sofa and read the paper, or wander along the River Gloriette, and disappear for the best part of the day, map and picnic in hand. Borrow a bicycle and tootle along the fields, set up croquet on the lawn, sit out on the sunny terrace, or take a drink at the hotel reception which doubles as the bar.

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For the more active, there are outdoor activities for horse riders, cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, runners, hikers, as well as seasonal cookery classes, floristry, Ayurvedic massages and hot tub fun under the starry night sky. You would never believe Paris is only 27 miles away. There are no metropolitan diversions here.

The meadows, woods and river, are for playing, walking and fishing. Badminton, football, Frisbee, croquet – simple activities that celebrate the great outdoors. Wellies are on hand for scouting the scenery and cans and bait are offered to fishing enthusiasts, with the only recommendation being to release the fish. Backed by the Haras de la Cense horse riding centre, Le Barn celebrates the concept of natural horsemanship and introductions to horse whispering, a science that focuses on understanding the horse.

Everywhere I look I see horses. An equine gallery of statuesque heads over their stable doors, hoping for a pat or a carrot. Clusters of farm barns in a patchwork-quilt of fields. Mares grazing. Beyond the fences, the 77 square miles of forest, pretty villages and a church complete the picture-perfect scene.

I spend the morning watching a horse whisper at work. The horse is called Fauvette. Her elegant light-footed, high-stepping gait and bowed head is therapeutic, the communication and respect between the two of them, a harmonious thing to behold. “The main signal is ears locking in on your voice. She is seven years old now, and I’ve been working with her, developing her, for four years through body language, consistency, encouragement, trust and minimal frustration.”

I am now itching to get in the saddle. Even though I used to ride in my teens, I haven’t sat on a horse for twelve years, so the fact I am heading out on a hack has me filled with a childlike glee. You can go in any direction here and not encounter any roads, just fields and forests, and you never know what you might find around the next bend. You go at your own pace – a bobbing trot or full out gallop if you fancy it. We pick our way through trees, wade through streams. It’s amazing how hypnotic it is atop a mount, the sound of your horse’s hooves, the rhythmic strides, the bobbing of their head.

Having worked up a thirst and an appetite, a delicious lunch spread awaits us back at Le Barn. Cherry tomatoes dipped in treacle and sprinkled with nuts, olives, hunks of bread, seasonal chicken salad, pitchers of rose mixed with grapefruit juice, is all laid out on the large communal wooden table under the glass roof of the sunny conservatory.

Farm to table is the food philosophy. Recipes and traditional dishes are made with local products from the vegetable garden, local markets and producers depending on the season: strawberries, black radish, mushrooms, chestnuts, plums and fennel. Think strawberry gâteau in summer, tarte tatin in winter.

Edouard and William join. We eat and talk. Le Barn opened only in May. Edouard went to the hotel school of Lausanne in 2000 and his grandfather was a hotel developer. His architect behind Le Barn is the founder of be-poles; a branding studio based in Paris who has overseen the visual branding for hospitality design ventures such as Les Rouges on the Cote d’Azure and Four Seasons Surf Club in Miami.

There is rusticity to the understated bedrooms that consist of Barbour curtains, wool carpets and a clean aesthetic. Much of the furniture and art displayed throughout the hotel was collected over two years and comes from French flea markets. “The aim of Le Barn was to create something really new. I had this concept in mind for a long time,” says Edouard.

“It’s important not to be formal here. It’s a place where loved ones enjoy time together. In France, families have country cottages; we go to the countryside every weekend. People come to us for the weekend if their family homes are too far away - or they don’t want to see family and they just want to get away from everyday life and see greenery - but not stay in a ‘normal’ hotel or a chateau. The French are changing how they view luxury; people are open to exploring new holidays. This is the way luxury should be - embracing simple things, like relaxation. Luxury as we used to know it doesn’t mean much now - it’s now about being different”.

Edouard’s three young sons Augustine, Ferdinand and Joseph are playing nearby with their Basset Griffon Vendeen. Floret their pony is grazing close by. The President of Lebanon lives over to my left and the kind of folk visiting at the weekend are chic hoteliers and restaurateurs in search of respite. Weekdays, creatives from Paris hug their MacBook Pros and use the open-plan living space and pebbled patio as an office.

Born in France, William immigrated to the United States in 1984 and founded Sithe Energies, Inc, one of the largest independent power producers in the United States. “Horses have always been a part of my life. I started riding when I was eight and later discovered horsemanship in America in the early 90s. I was curious and wanted to transfer this knowledge and skill to others. Animals and humans are our driving force. This concept has not existed in France before,” says William.

They are refreshing the codes of hotel hospitality here. The aim is to not interfere with the intimacy of the guest. The ‘late check out’ on Sunday night means guests can have their room until they are ready to depart. “The majority of hotel rooms are empty on Sundays. It’s just a nice touch that guests appreciate and remember,” says Edouard.

Mariani Philippe, owner and founder of Fourchette & Manivelle, a private cycling tour guide, who has teamed up with Le Barn, has arrived to collect me for our afternoon bike ride. Standing in front of me, dressed head to toe in bright Lycra, he looks ready to compete in the Tour de France. “Cycling is a magnificent way to explore unknown surroundings,” he says as we saddle up and set off on a two-wheeled 20km adventure.

Mariani used to work in IT and after years of sitting behind a desk, decided to turn his hobby into his career. “Cycling makes me happy. Now I can be out on the open road every day with nature, introducing visitors to experience the joys of the region through a different perspective that you can only get from a bike.”

He offers bespoke group and individual rides. Whatever your preference he will map out the best routes to suit every need. “I accompany serious bikers that don’t know the area but want to get the most out of it, to hotel guests who fancy a leisurely cruise, be it muddy trails or paved roads.”

Le Barn organises a group cycle every Friday night from Porte Maillot, the valley of Chevreuse and the town of Bonnelles which is crossed by the bike path leading from Notre-Dame to Mont Saint-Michel. Between stays, you can leave your own bike in the locker room.

It’s been years since I rode a bike. Not wobbling, staying upright, figuring out the multiple gears, and trying to ignore the uncompromising and solid seat, is not as easy as I remembered. Maintaining a seamless stream of serious power to make it up the deceptively long, slow climbing hills is tough – but whizzing down the other side at serious speed is an exhilarating reward.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. Riding through the sun-dappled forest, the only humans we see are a couple of cyclists. I soak up the glorious, scenic ride, gentle breeze, ever-changing scenery, registering its gradual changes, the feeling of being immersed in the peaceful rhythms of rural life and panorama of the land. It’s relaxing and offers surprising clarity of mind.

As we ride the quiet farm lanes through the lovely little villages of La Bate, Longvilliers, Rochefort-en-Yvelines and Saint-Cyr-sous-Dourdan, I notice things that I would likely have missed if travelling by car: The ruins of a 16th-century château; a beautiful fifteenth-century church; vestiges of a Cistercian abbey from the twelfth century; a roadside flower cart selling homemade bouquets of wild flowers, alongside a monetary honesty box. I am also witness to odd vignettes of local life: locals enjoying a morning cup of coffee outside a cafe; the sound of church bells and a choir practice; a man pruning his garden blooms; a lady sitting on her porch reading a newspaper.

After a day of exercise, chill time calls at the sauna, Hamman and Nordic alfresco baths. Make an appointment with the magic hands of Sreejan, an Ayurvedic masseur whose blissed-out scalp massage and full body massage transport me to Cloud 9. Hungry? This is Le Barn, so there’s veal blanquette, hen with pot, leg of lamb, local fish, homemade soup, pizza over a wood fire, barbecues on the vast patio and free-flowing rosé and champagne.

Take the entire place and fill it with friends and kiddies who will run, roll, play and experience the freedom of the French countryside. Next time you’re thinking of hitting up Paris, consider this little gem that’s oh-so close by.

So, fancy horsing around?

From £125 on a B&B basis based on two people sharing a classic double room. For more information contact +33 1 86 380000 or visit LeBarnHotel.com

All photos courtesy of Nomades.

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