In the 18th and 19th centuries, the reputation of Bordeaux wine blossomed and the wealth of the vineyard owners, winemakers and merchants grew in equal measure. In the humid heat of a Bordeaux summer you can imagine the wooden carriages making their way up the hill-side to the bucolic village of Bouliac laden with well-heeled families eager to escape the city in search of fresher air and a pleasant repas en famille in a local restaurant. And the tradition carried on – after the Second World War, the village became a popular destination for Sunday lunches and dancing.
Today is no different. If you can’t afford a home in this highly desirable commuter village just 20 minutes from the centre of Bordeaux, at least you can still make the short pilgrimage to spend some time at Le Saint James, an unusual and unique luxury hotel which sits atop the hill of Bouliac with uninterrupted views across its own vineyards, down to the river Garonne and across to the spires and quays of Bordeaux.
It is labelled “Hotel d’Architecte”, and with good reason. In 1989 an old longère-style village farmhouse was converted into a hotel and restaurant under the architectural direction of the acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel. With the typical radical flair that has marked out his stellar career, Nouvel expanded the original building, adding four new wings, each clad in rusty industrial steel slats and grilles which take their inspiration from old tobacco drying barns. This must have been highly controversial in 1989 but over the decades since then we have become more used to the modern architectural aesthetic and the buildings themselves have weathered pleasingly – in fact they have since been listed as part of France’s 20th century architectural heritage.
The hotel interiors also bear the hallmark of the avant-garde architect allowed free rein, with dramatic airy corridors, pure white walls, floor to ceiling glazing, polished stone and concrete, adorned simply here and there with colourful contemporary artworks. No detail has been missed – even the armchairs in the lounges were designed by Nouvel and the restaurant kitchen is open to view thanks to an enormous plate glass window.
It’s a testimony to the original design and also to the owners, the Borgel family, that neither the architecture nor the hotel facilities have dated. There are 18 rooms and suites with fine views over the vineyards. In summer guests can enjoy a charming open air dining terrace, illuminated with pretty tree-lights in the evenings, as well as the swimming pool, with its black liner creating a unique colour contrast against the sky and the vineyards below.
For a more memorable stay you can book the Harley suite, which comes complete with a genuine Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorbike, so you can recreate classic movie scenes à la California Highway Patrol!
If you can’t stay at Le Saint James then you should at least treat yourself to a special dinner at the stunning restaurant. Here, the open spaces of Nouvel’s design have created a spacious room on multiple levels, like terraces, so that everyone can have a view down to the city through the enormous glass windows. In fact the view is a part of the performance – at 11pm they turn out the lights so diners can pause their conversation to quietly appreciate the beauty of the twinkling lights of Bordeaux. But the real stars are in the kitchen, where Michelin-starred chef Nicolas Magie loves to serve the finest ingredients of his native land of Aquitaine, prepared and cooked with great culinary finesse and invention. Fish such as turbot, sea bass and sole are on the menu, as is Angus beef, veal and sweetbreads and pigeon. Yet these classic ingredients are transformed with the addition of intriguing purées, juices, frosts and sauces which transform and take the dishes onto another level of artistry. Roasted thick sliced sea-bass served with baby squids in a “pil pil” sauce was a standout, as was the “melt in the mouth” warm soft goat’s cheese blancmange with sweet red pepper sorbet.
Having tasted the highlights from the kitchen, guests can book into the new Côté Cours cookery school to learn a few tips and tricks and discover some of the secrets of the chef’s recipe. Beginners and students of all ages are welcomed.
Although blessed with uber cool contemporary design and a rare architectural pedigree, this hotel still offers that same quintessential sense of repose and serenity that those earlier inhabitants of Bordeaux would have sought in times gone by. It’s not just the design and ambiance of the hotel, it’s the friendliness and warmth of the staff that help create the harmonious vibe – from the concierge to the reception desk, from the sommelier to the restaurant manager – everyone is relaxed and happy and pleased to help you as if they were part of one big family. I’ve yet to encounter a more charming and welcoming team.
This place is super stylish – if you love contemporary architecture and innovative design this destination should be on your list. If you also seek out fine gourmet food, then it should be at the top of your list. For the ultimate experience why not spend a day at the wonderful new Cité du Vin in Bordeaux and then head out to the calm of Bouliac for a taste of the true art de vivre at Le Saint James?
Le Saint James Bouliac, 3 Place Camille Hostein, 33270 Bouliac. Tel: +33 (0)5-57-97-06-00. Classic rooms from 195 Euros. Suites from 395 Euros. Menus from 75 Euros per person