There's nowhere quite like the Loire Valley for great food, wonderful wine and stunning scenery says Carole Hamilton
A manageable drive from the Channel Tunnel and you’re in the Loire Valley, an area of outstanding natural beauty, dotted with some of the most opulent estates anywhere in the world. With crenellated towers, soaring cupolas and glittering banquet halls, the region’s châteaux and the picture postcard villages and vineyards that surround them, attest to over a thousand years of artistic creativity.
One of the best things about a road trip to the region is that many of the stunning estates are now hotels and B&B’s where you can spend the night. Château de Saint Paterne is still family owned and you feel as though you are joining a ritzy house party for the evening. Sleep in a four-poster bed, take a stroll in the acres of gardens and enjoy a sumptuous four-course dinner with a bottle of the excellent local wine.
The towns of Amboise, Angers, Chinon, Montsoreau, Nantes, Orléans and Tours should all be on your radar but the pretty town of Saumur is our recommendation as a base for leisurely drives to visit the surrounding vineyards and estates. Stay at Château Bouvet Ladubay and you are guaranteed of a warm welcome. This elegant and very grand B&B is full of faded charm, set in pretty gardens with a swimming pool.
Food plays a big part of any trip to the Loire Valley and you’ll be spoilt for choice of where to eat from roadside cafes to Michelin-star restaurants. A few of our favourites includes La Maison a Cote in Chambord, Les Annees Trente in Chinon, Le Petit Patrimoine in Vieux Tours, L’Aigle d’Or in Azay-le-Rideau and Auberge du Cheval Rouge in Chisseaux.
Alongside the excellent regional food, is the equally excellent regional wine. The whole area is dotted with wineries which welcome you inside for a tasting session and to tour the caves where much of the wine is stored. In Saumur the Langlois-Chateau, the Marc Bredif Vouvray Wine Cave and the Ackerman winery are all worth visiting. The prices are tempting enough to pack a case or two into the car to enjoy at home.
The new Relais de Chambord is a must-stay hotel as part of your visit. The location within the grounds of the spectacular chateau are unrivalled, once the public go home in the evening, the place is yours to enjoy. Dine on the hotel terrace and marvel at the view of ‘your chateau’ as you sample some very good local cooking. Book a spacious junior suite complete with mural of the castle on the wall. During the day we can recommend hiring a boat and viewing the castle at a leisurely pace from the moat.
A tip for anyone driving around France (or Spain and Portugal for that matter), get yourself an automatic toll tag from Sanef Tolling before you go and you will whizz through the many toll booths without queuing – and in the summer months, the queues to pay the traditional way can be very, very long.