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Travel Tip: Loire Valley Lodging and Dining

Where to stay and what to eat on Chenin's trail

Robert Camuto
Posted: January 25, 2010

Of the world's great river valleys, one is especially associated with living well. The Loire River runs for hundreds of miles through a region known as Le Jardin de la France (France's Garden), a rolling countryside of deep woods, farms, vineyards and historic châteaus. The climate of the valley changes with each bend in the river. Temperate areas are often blanketed with morning fog that yields to bright sunlight in the afternoon.

Over the centuries, the Loire, France's longest river, has sculpted sandbanks and small islets with its currents. On the shore, fig trees grow wild near stands of oak, chestnut, willow and poplar. Homes of weathered stone with moss-covered slate roofs make up the villages of the countryside. And every so often an antique windmill or a château comes into view. Some châteaus are in ruins, but others have been restored, bringing to life a range of architectural styles, from the medieval fortress at Angers to the Renaissance ornamentation of Azay-le-Rideau.

The hardest part of planning a trip to the Loire is deciding what to see and taste in the span of a mere week or two. There's just too much to do, so focus is required. From a wine lover's standpoint, one ideal itinerary centers around the region's most versatile white varietal.

Chenin Blanc, too often associated with bland bulk wines, has long produced a wonderful array of styles in the Loire—from pétillant to sparkling, and from dry to off-dry to lusciously sweet. It provides the perfect focus for an adventure in the heart of the Loire Valley because the wines change so dramatically with each new town or group of hills, from south of Angers to the vineyards that range east of Tours.

When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 = 0.67 euros) and rounded to the nearest dollar.


86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon
Telephone (33) 247-52-88-88
Web site: www.leshautesroches.com
Rooms 15
Rates $210-$400

Sleeping in a cave is not most people's idea of R & R. But then most haven't been to Les Hautes Roches in the heart of the Vouvray vineyards just east of Tours. In this Relais & Châteaux hotel, all but three rooms were part of a monastery that was carved into the tuffeau cliffs above the Loire. Other rooms are in an adjacent 18th-century mansion with the hotel's restaurant and dining terrace. The spacious rooms with unmatched views of the river are decorated with modern fabrics and classic-style furniture, and have large marble-adorned bathrooms.

26 Route du Moulin, Briollay
Telephone (33) 241-42-50-05
Web site: www.chateaudenoirieux.com
Rooms 18
Suites 1
Rates $260-$550

This Relais & Châteaux hotel, set on 16 acres of parkland and complete with chapel overlooking the smaller Loir River, is located about 20 minutes north of Angers and 30 minutes from the Savennières vineyards. The best rooms are the spacious doubles in the main building, a 17th-century château; each is decorated in a period style (from Louis XV to art deco) and features tall ceilings, high windows that look out over the river valley and bathrooms decorated with marble and hand-painted ceilings. The Noirieux's Michelin-starred restaurant has an extensive wine list emphasizing the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Burgundy and including nine vintages of Savennières Coulée de Serrant, the oldest of which is the 1989.

53 Rue d'Alsace, Saumur
Telephone (33) 241-38-05-15
Web site: www.chateau-verrieres.com
Rooms 7
Suites 1
Rates $200-$430

This sumptuous 19th-century château was built as a retirement home for a general of Napoléon III on the edge of Saumur (ideally located halfway between Angers and Tours), and overlooks the base of the French Cavalry and its national riding school. Recently renovated, the hotel is set in a 4-acre park, and features massive oak-carved sitting rooms and bedrooms with large windows. It's all decorated with a mix of antiques, reproductions and period fabrics. The large bathrooms are fitted with footed bathtubs. The best thing about it is that the place doesn't feel like a hotel: There are no room keys, but the owners—who greet guests on a first-name basis—keep a watchful eye over the premises. There is no on-site restaurant, but it's just a short walk to town.

Note: All prices include tax and service. Tipping for good service is at the customer's discretion, but leaving 5 to 10 euros is customary.

RN 152, Vallières
Telephone (33) 247-42-24-04
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, Thursday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $28-$39; prix-fixe menus $40-$67
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

Just as the urban sprawl of Tours gives way to verdant countryside (about 5 miles out of town), this homey inn on the banks of the Loire appears. The setting is simple and unpretentious, with country antiques and crafts and colorful hand-painted walls. But the cuisine is anything but bumpkin: sophisticated versions of traditional recipes such as saddle of rabbit roasted with hazelnuts, lobster stew, and preparations of sandre (pike perch) fished from the Loire. A dessert of figs with orange cake is served with a foam of Japanese matcha tea.

12 Rue Gambetta, Saumur
Telephone (33) 241-67-66-66
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $37-$43; prix-fixe menu $39; tasting menu $110
Credit cards All major

Dining at Gambetta is like dining at your really eclectic foodie-friend's house. A short walk from Château de Verrières (see above), the restaurant is located in the ground floor of an old townhouse. In this modest setting with Zen-like touches, chef Mickaël Pihours creates what could be called Loire-world fusion: Tandoori-roasted langoustines and Cajun-spiced red mullet share the menu with his trilogie of foie gras, smoked eel and Granny Smith apple. The fresh-market cuisine is well prepared, fun and, despite some of the bold descriptions, subtly seasoned.

86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon
Telephone (33) 247-52-88-88
Web site: www.leshautesroches.com
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $33-$48; prix-fixe $71; tasting menu $97
Credit cards All major

After a few hours touring the cave cellars of Vouvray, this is the place to take in some air, sunlight and memorable cuisine. The Michelin-starred restaurant of this hotel (see page 84) is in an 18th-century mansion built into the side of the tuffeau stone cliffs. The dining room is done in light-painted woods and looks out through bay windows to the Loire. In warm weather, meals are served out on the terrace under the large linden trees. Specialties include langoustines with rillons, foie gras nougat and local fish in beurre blanc. All is cooked with a light hand and perfectly presented for savoring every bite.

Telephone (33) 241-72-21-50
Open Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; dinner Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $37-$67; prix-fixe menu $67; tasting menu $97
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

Les Tonnelles is perhaps the best restaurant in Chenin wine country—provided you like intimate restaurants in the middle of nowhere, as well as simple interpretations of regional classic cuisine freshly prepared with a fine hand. Les Tonnelles is located on a little pedestrian street on the tiny island of Béhuard, between Savennières and Coteaux du Layon. For about $22, you get a choice of three glasses of regional wines from quality producers. Specialties include an appetizer of smoked Loire eel garnished with a salad of radishes and apples wrapped in cucumber, a river fish such as brochet (pike) in light beurre blanc, and veal sweetbreads braised in Savennières wine.

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