Guardian review - Feb 2012
This article appeared in the Guardian on Feb 9, 2012
Baby-friendly hotel in Normandy | Travel | guardian.co.uk
Article written by Peter Walker who stayed at Le Castel for a week in September 2011 with his wife and 11 month old son .
Walk into Le Castel, a country house in the rural west of Normandy, and the first impression is of opulence. Chandeliers hang from the double-height ceiling, with doors leading out on to a terrace and a blindingly green expanse of lawn. The period furniture is dotted with vases of flowers and candelabras. There is even a baby grand piano. Then smaller details come into focus – a half-full pack of wet wipes on a window sill; an infant seat pushed next to the dining table, the rug below decorated with a scattering of jettisoned peas.
Le Castel is an attempt to answer the question posed by countless new parents as the dust settles on the immediate upheaval of their former lives: is it realistic to expect any form of luxury, let alone glamour, when holidaying with young children?
It's not so much the days that are problematic. Given suitable planning, infants can be carted or wheeled around the sights then set to doze in the shade on a beach or in a cafe. The difficulty comes with what was, in child-free days, often the set-piece event: an evening meal out, with or without a few drinks.
When your dining companion, as with Ralph, our 11-month-old son, has a bedtime somewhere around dusk and a distinctly personal approach to table manners, the usual recourse is to rent somewhere. That's all very well, but not everyone views shopping for food, cooking or washing up as leisure. Also, unless you can plan your trip with fellow parents (or child-tolerant friends) your post-7pm social life is, inevitably, on the quiet side.
Le Castel, a scaled-down chateau built in the 1870s as a Parisian family's weekend retreat, was bought seven years ago by a British former journalist, Jon Barnsley, who initially ran it as an upmarket but non-specialist hotel-cum-table d'hôte, the French version of B&B, also offering an evening meal.
But gradually, Barnsley realised, his main business was families with toddlers or young children.
Now, throughout the summer, Le Castel is turned into a cross between a kindergarten and a private party hosted by your imaginary rich friends. Children play in the toy-strewn grounds before eating communally some time around 6pm. Once they are safely coaxed to bed the adults return to the same dining room (or terrace) for their own leisurely meal, baby monitors jostling for table space alongside wine glasses.
Families in the main house – there are three large suites, each with two bedrooms – stay on an all-inclusive basis, paying a single, if hefty, price covering accommodation, seven breakfasts, six evening meals (every day except Thursday) plus the run of various fridges, cupboards and shelves stocked with wine, beer, soft drinks, bread, cheese and the like. There are three self-catering cottages in the grounds, from which you can join the communal dining as you choose, with babysitting available.
The accommodation continues the theme. Ralph's room, like ours, was accessorised with antique pictures and objects, but also featured a crate of toys and a giant cuddly giraffe nestled by the fireplace. The small room next to ours was adapted as a makeshift kitchen.
"Think of it like staying at your own home," Jon told us as we arrived on the Saturday evening, delayed by missed turnings along the tiny Normandy lanes. "Yes – if our home was much, much bigger and more luxurious," was the inevitable, mental response.
Our week came immediately after the school holidays ended, meaning the house and cottages were relatively quiet, with only three families and five infants, counting us, scattered about. In peak summer, a dozen or more children at once can roam the grounds in a (hopefully) idyllic version of Lord of the Flies, entertaining themselves with trampolines, a small pool and a huge, soft-play marquee on the lawn, filled with assorted toys, bats, rackets and balls.
Be warned, though: when other distractions are sought you'll need a car. Le Castel is in a beautiful but distinctly rural corner, 15 minutes' drive from the town of Coutances and double that to any beach. That said, there is plenty within day-trip distance, including Mont Saint-Michel, Bayeux, and the wartime Normandy coastline.
It's worth stressing, too, that such a holiday is not for everyone. You will spend a lot of time surrounded by other families and their children, whose habits and foibles could prove more exasperating than endearing.
And anyone expecting the formality and clear boundaries of a hotel will be in for a surprise. The evening meal – several courses of high-quality French cuisine – is theoretically scheduled for 8pm but tends to start when the last small child can be persuaded to shut his or her eyes. We were lucky to be sharing with sociable and considerate families but a personality clash on night one could mean a week of awkward meals.
And while Jon oversees the cooking, before and after he will generally take a seat with the families, pour himself a large glass of wine from the nearest carafe and regale the table with tales of Fleet Street past, or guests past. He is a host, not a maître d'.
But if it all gets too much there is always a comfortable suite awaiting upstairs – you could even pretend to hear something on the baby monitor.
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