© Tim Clinch
Spa Life: Elegant Domain
September 19, 2010
Les Prés d'Eugénie, Michel and Christine Guérard's four-hotel, three-restaurant, two-spa domain set in a beautifully landscaped 40-acre park in Eugénie-les-Bains, is unique and totally enchanting.
Eugénie-les-Bains, in the Landes countryside north of Pau, has been a fashionable watering hole since the mid 19th century, when Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie (for whom the local spring and town are named), patronized the resort. Its renaissance began in 1972 with a love story, when Michel, chef-owner of the hot two-star bistrot Le Pot au Feu in the Parisian suburb of Asnières, met Christine, "confirmed bachelorette" and owner/director of Eugénie's Relais et Châteaux hotel and classic spa, part of her father's thermal Soleil chain. They married in 1974 and were vacationing at Eugénie while waiting to find new Parisian premises for Le Pot au Feu. "I had devised the concept of cuisine minceur (delectable lean cuisine for dieters) and wanted to put it in place in Eugénie as a gift to Christine," he recalls. "It was a gesture of love."
Instead of returning to Paris, they decided to stay and develop the original 19th-century hotel and restaurant. "I knew being in the middle of nowhere would be an advantage," Michel says. "Now people need to be in the middle of nowhere, to relax, take a break. To make a grand classic hotel and restaurant takes time, but afterwards, it lasts."
In fact, progress came quickly: one Michelin star in 1974, two in 1975, three in 1977—in an ongoing 30-year accolade for his gourmande cuisine. In the decades since, Les Prés d'Eugénie has expanded into a bewitching oasis with three additional inns, a country-style restaurant, two swimming pools, a tennis court, a nine-hole golf course and—in addition to the original, medical thermal baths—a luxury beauty spa. The newest attraction as part of the Eugénie experience is a beach escape to the Maisons Marines, a 19th-century baron's former hunting lodge in what might be described as Anglo-Hindu-Chinese style, along with two rustic buildings revamped into suites, on an empty sweep of Atlantic Ocean dunes north of Biarritz, an hour's drive from Eugénie.
In 1965, when a new spring was discovered in Eugénie, it was named for the spa's current empress, Christine. An incomparable mistress of the decorative arts, she creates an atmosphere as seductive as her husband's gourmet dishes. Ravishing rooms captivate the eye at every turn. "Beauty is a therapy," Christine declares. "I try to make everything serene, tranquil and harmonious with soft colors, objects chosen with simplicity—and not too many, so the eye can circulate—a décor that is not completely perfect because that is like a corset that stifles. A house should have a certain nonchalance. Then people already feel less unhappy, more relaxed and able to rethink themselves, their lives, their philosophy."
The first time I stayed at Eugénie—at Les Prés, the main building that houses the original renovated 35-room hotel and gourmet restaurant—I was surprised, then entranced by my cheerful room overlooking the pool. In this light-streamed universe surrounded by garden, interiors are decorated with French Colonial flourishes in Christine's signature mid-19th-century mix of country furniture, the walls hung with large portraits, still lifes and landscapes that the Guérards search out at antique fairs.
The second time I stayed at Eugénie—at both Le Couvent des Herbes and La Ferme aux Grives—I was dazzled.
The Couvent, a former girls' school in a 1761 convent just a five-minute walk from the main building, has been transformed into the most romantic of retreats, with eight rooms and suites. My room, Le Temps des Cerises (Cherry Blossom Time), seems to have sprung from a childhood fairy tale. A cream-colored canopy bed is decorated with red-and-white-checked bows, their pattern echoed on two 18th-century bergères and the comfortable sofa in front of a crackling fire. A pitcher of voluptuous lilies and a green leaf dish of delicious strawberries graced a marble-topped commode under the benevolent gaze of an 18th-century aristocrat in the oil portrait above. Woven raffia slippers, an oversize terry peignoir (scented with herbs from the Curé's Garden outside) and an equally oversize tub awaited in the bathroom. Brilliant bedside lamps for reading, silky smooth linen sheets and floors of mellow terra-cotta tiles ... yes, beauty does make you feel better.
Several minutes' walk on the opposite side of the realm, La Ferme aux Grives—an 18th-century maison de maître with four spacious suites, a salon and breakfast room—is Christine's sophisticated version of a country idyll. The spacious Bleu Palombe suite has a lovely crown canopy bed in the exquisite ringdove blue-gray it's named for, with an inviting cashmere throw to ward off any chills while snoozing or reading. The fireplace glows with a warming blaze, a small desk invites literary inspiration (or at least postcard writing), while in the dining area, a marble-topped sideboard holds a basket of rosy apples and a line of perfect pears. The suite is larger than many New York apartments; the idea of permanent residence comes to mind.
Next door, La Maison Rose, formerly a notary's country manor with 26 rooms, four suites and one vast apartment, is the lowest-priced guest residence in the complex. Charmingly decorated with sunny colors and white wicker furniture, the pink house is favored by many of the medical clients at the classic spa (exclusively for those with a doctor's prescription) but is also open to regular guests.
Whether cuisine gourmande, minceur or "country," Michel Guérard's culinary creations are always exceptional. My favorite section of the gourmet restaurant Les Prés is the veranda, where a portrait of Empress Eugénie is set off by a crystal chandelier and potted bay trees. Just a few examples of the unforgettable dishes here: the oreiller moelleux de mousserons et de morilles aux asperges, an ambrosial pasta pillow filled with duxelles of five varieties of mushrooms and a truffle purée; an amazing floating island of truffled iced pea soup; and a warm strawberry tart with a feather-light lemon mousse. A recent discovery: just-opened oysters à la perle, with a ginger, coriander and green coffee-laced foam magnifying the ocean-fresh flavor of the best oysters I've ever tasted.
Michel's long-renowned lean cuisine has been refined into cuisine minceur active. Working with Nestlé scientists since 1996, he discovered that introducing grains and dried vegetables into dishes staves off hunger.
"I start with a scientific recipe. You need so much protein, so many lipids," he explains. "After that I compose the dish. It's like I have tubes of paint—blue, green, red, pink—and with that I make the painting. For example, if I don't put grain in the main dish, you will find it in the starter or in the dessert, like a rice pudding. Each day's meals come to about 1100 calories, including breakfast." And a glass of wine.
Dishes as delectable as they are dietetic—such as a low-calorie version of his famous soft-boiled egg garnished with caviar, a beef pot au feu with barley or a tuna blanquette—are served in the Maison Rose dining room and can also be ordered from a special minceur menu in the gourmet restaurant.
Christine describes La Ferme aux Grives, the third restaurant, as "like going from the Left Bank to the Right, taking a trip without leaving Eugénie." Served in the rustique chic of a converted stone-walled barn, the menu of delicious country food was inspired by the old-fashioned cooking of Michel's grandmother ("her marvelous daubes, and perfect fruit tarts we ate right out of the oven"). Milk-fed pigs and plump chickens are spit roasted over an open-hearth fireplace; fresh farm vegetables make a Technicolor display on a long trestle table; hams hang from the hayloft. It's not the slightest bit slimming.
Wines range from the splendors of Bordeaux to the local southwest wines, including the Guérards' own Château de Bachen, and they are also offered by the glass to curistes along with herbal teas.
Perchance to dream...
Eugénie's douceur de vivre continues right into the sumptuous Ferme Thermale Spa, located in a half-timbered Landais farmhouse. No five a.m. hikes here, but rather a private bath of creamy celadon kaolin and thermal water to keep you weightlessly afloat while toxins are leached from your body and rheumatism assuaged. Floaters emerge looking like pale bisque statues. (Michel's scientific experimentation is responsible for the pasteurization process that purifies the kaolin between clients.)
The tranquilizing bains fleuris (baths scented with rosebuds, lavender, camomile and aubépine) take place in the Imperial Salon, furnished with Napoleon III chairs and a wood-burning fireplace. Between treatments, clients repair to the skylit Airial salon to sip tisanes in front the fire. There are massages on heated marble slabs and soft thermal showers scented with lavender, cloves or pine resin. Even the penetrating power-hose water jet, meant to break down cellulite, is aimed by such a charming young woman that it becomes a pleasure. The finale is the Jardin des Quatre Saisons, an après-spa space where you can wind down, wrapped in a cashmere shawl on a chestnut-wood sleigh bed and lulled by strains of classical music.
The third time I went to Eugénie was to catch a glimpse of the Maisons Marines, the whimsical four-room beach house at Huchet, where Michel plies his passion for bringing out the best in freshly caught seafood. Guests can opt for a three-day break here—a perfect place for walks along the coast and through the pine forest, picnics on the dunes and candlelight dinners in the lodge's dining room—as part of a package stay in Eugénie itself.
Christine's latest project is the revamp of the Vieil Hôtel de l'Impératrice, the west wing of the Hôtel Les Prés. The ground floor will offer three salons—a Boudoir Bar, a library and a music room with a piano‚ and there will be three grand Imperial suites on the floor above .
The entire Guérard complex closes annually in winter, reopening in February or March. Exact dates can change, so it's best to check.
Les Prés d'Eugénie Place de l'Impératrice, Eugénie-les-Bains, 05.58.05.06.07. website
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